Series of the Sacraments: Baptism
Welcome to the first of Team Orthodoxy’s new series on the sacraments! This series of articles is to explain the origins, the importance, and the meaning of the sacraments of the Church. Sacraments in general are the surest channels of saving grace, and are absolutely necessary for salvation, having been instituted by Jesus Christ for this purpose.
Baptism, in particular, is the one sacrament that is in all cases necessary for saving grace to exist in the soul. This is taught clearly by Christ, and through the Church fathers and councils, until the present day. I will give more detail on this later on, but for now we can take the word of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1213:
“Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission.”
Institution of the Sacrament
Baptism, like all the sacraments, was instituted by Christ himself. We see this very clearly in the gospels. In the great commission, at the close of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives his apostles the form of the sacrament and commands them to perform it:
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”
He also explicitly declares the necessity of baptism in John chapter 3:
“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’”
As for the exact moment when the sacrament was instituted, there is still debate between theologians. Often it is considered to be at the moment of the Great Commission, but there is also much support for the institution occurring at Jesus’ own baptism, when the waters of baptism were sanctified by their contact with the God-man. Others, including St. Augustine, reason that since Jesus conferred other sacraments upon the Apostles (Holy Communion and Holy Orders), and since baptism is necessary for reception of all other sacraments, He must have baptised the apostles before the last supper, though it is not recorded in the gospels.
The Necessity of Baptism for Salvation
As quoted above (John 3), Jesus’ firm teaching in the gospels is that no person can be saved without baptism. This is the position of the Church from the earliest Fathers. St. Irenaeus says: “Christ came to save all who are reborn through Him to God — infants, children, and youths.” St. Ambrose has the following to say on the subject of baptism’s necessity: “No one is excepted, not the infant, not the one hindered by any necessity.”
Baptism is considered essential for salvation in a unique way, which other sacraments are not. It is what philosophers call a necessity of means. This means that if it is lacking, salvation cannot be obtained even if the person is not responsible for lacking it. In contrast when Christ commands that all should participate in the Eucharist, this is a necessity of precept, which means that it must be obtained since failing to do so through one’s own fault would be grave sin.
Other Forms of Baptism
There are actually three kinds of baptism. These are the baptism of water, blood, and desire. In cases where baptism of water is impossible salvation can be attained through baptism of desire, or baptism of blood. These are not sacraments, but are related to baptism in that they provide the primary effect of baptism (saving grace).
Baptism of desire is defined as a perfect contrition of the heart, or perfect act of charity, which contains (at least implicitly) the desire for baptism. Christ himself preached this, in John 14: “If any one loves me, he will keep my word. And my Father will love him and we will come to him and will make our abode with him.” And in John 3, just after speaking of the necessity of baptism: “For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son: that whosoever believes in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.”
The fathers also speak of the baptism of desire. At the funeral of Emperor Valentinian II, who was a catechumen who was never baptised, St Ambrose famously stated: “Did he not obtain the grace which he desired? Did he not obtain what he asked for? Certainly he obtained it because he asked for it.”
Similarly, St. Augustine declared: “I find that not only suffering for the sake of Christ [a reference to baptism of blood] can replace that which is lacking in Baptism, but also faith and conversion of the heart, if perhaps the shortness of the time does not permit the celebration of the mystery of Baptism.”
The baptism of blood is simply the effect of martyrdom for Christ. This form is even more widely supported by the Church fathers than baptism of desire. St. Augustine states quite plainly: “When any die for the confession of Christ without having received the washing of regeneration, it avails as much for the remission of their sins as if they had been washed in the sacred font of baptism.”
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says: “Every one therefore that shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven,” and: “He that shall lose his life for me shall find it.”
Form and Matter
All sacraments have Matter and Form, that is, the physical stuff which is necessary, and the rites which must be performed for a valid sacrament.
The matter of baptism is water, which must move or flow in such a way that there is cleansing, such as immersion in water, or pouring water over the head.
The form is quite simply the words given by Jesus himself: “I baptize you (or This person is baptized) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
As long as a person is baptised with the above Matter and Form, and with the intent to “do as the Church does” in conferring baptism, the sacrament is valid, even if performed by a non-Catholic or a heretic. It can also be performed validly by a layperson in extreme circumstances, generally meaning when there is imminent danger of death.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve been able to learn a few things about Baptism!
The Bible 🙂
Against Heresies – St Irenaeus
City of God, On the Soul, Epistles – St. Augustine