Answering the Evangelicals: A biblical response to objections

By John Pacheco

For the Evangelical, the instrumental cause of justification, that is, the means by which they are saved, is their faith alone. Before one can really understand why Evangelicals reject water baptism as the instrumental cause of justification, one must understand their abhorrence of ceremonies and traditions. In support of this view, they cite passages in which Jesus or the Apostles condemn tradition, such as Matthew 15:3-9, Mark 7:6-13, Colossians 2:22, and Titus 1:14. However, there are other passages which support tradition (Cf. Matthew 23:2, 1 Corinthians 11:2, 23, 1 Corinthians 15:3, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 2 Thessalonians 2:15).

This apparent contradiction can be easily resolved when one recognizes that none of the passages that the Evangelicals cite condemn human tradition at all. Jesus does not blindly and universally condemn all tradition or even human tradition at that. In actuality, He condemns humans tradition when and only when it invalidates the Word of God (Cf. Mark 7:13). In fact, the passages that Evangelicals cite to rebuke tradition are easily dismissed once the context of the teaching is properly understood. Catholic Tradition, which is the Tradition of the Apostles, does not invalidate the Word of God - it illuminates it and has protected it against error from the very beginning of the Church.

Still, the fact that Evangelicals have this view necessarily influences their prejudice against baptism since it is, for them, merely a religious ceremony. The water baptism which Fundamentalists undergo, therefore, is simply a symbol - there are no supernatural effects. The difficulty that Fundamentalists have with baptism is a matter of a 'material allergy'; that is, they do not accept that God can or would use material objects to communicate graces and miracles to people. Yet, Scripture is quite explicit in opposing this belief. In addition to the miracles brought upon God's people through water (as discussed above), there are other passages which show God's grace and miracles being more clearly manifested in a very Catholic way. There are two instances in the New Testament of people touching Jesus' garments and being healed (Cf. Matthew 14:36, Mark 5:30). The Protestant might then ignore the issue and claim that such miracles only occurred because it was Jesus' garments, and not a mere human's garments.

Even if this argument addressed the issue, which it does not, it falls quickly on closer examination of the lives of Moses, the Prophet Elisha, and the Apostle Paul. In the Old Testament, Moses' bronze serpent was used to communicate God's power to Pharaoh (Cf. Exodus 7:9, Numbers 21:8-9). A dead man was buried in the sepulchre of the Prophet Elisha, and his life was restored at the moment his body "touched the bones of Elisha" (2 Kings 13:21). And then there is Saint Paul's very curious handkerchief: "And God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out." (Acts 19:11-12). Now if 'evil spirits' can leave the sick through a handkerchief, why is it so difficult to believe that Satan's claim on a person cannot be cancelled through water? And let us not forget the man born blind. "And as He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. [Jesus] spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and applied the clay to his eyes, and said to him, 'Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.' And so he went away and washed, and came back seeing" (John 9:1-7). Now, the question is: why did not Jesus simply cure the man instead of going through all of this rigamarol? Who knows? Maybe He was trying to send a message to those who do not believe that God does indeed use and communicate through the material world.

Are these examples surprising? They should not be. Even in Genesis, we see the unmistakable connection between humanity and the material world. God creates Adam from the dust (Cf. Genesis 2:7), and then when Adam sins, God returns him to the dust (Cf. Genesis 3:19). Now it follows that if we came from the dust, and we have returned to it through that first sin, what is necessary to revive the dead if not water! Water gives life. It is therefore from this perspective of God's sovereignty in determining how to save us, material or otherwise, that the decisive discourse in John 3 about being 'born of the water and the spirit' must be read.

"And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water. And John bore witness saying, 'I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him, and I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, 'He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit'" (John 1:31-33). The first thing to note is that the Messiah, Himself, is baptized even before He begins His ministry (Cf. John 1:31-34, Matthew 3:16). Saint John the Baptist admits that Jesus has no need of baptism, but Jesus insists on it. The inevitable question is why? Why would the Son of Man, who had no need of repentance, allow Himself to be baptized? The only possible explanation was that He wanted to show us the way to salvation (Cf. Luke 1:77), and to show us what happens at baptism: "the heavens open … and the Spirit of God descends" (Matthew 3:16) on us. Jesus' baptism (Cf. Luke 3:21-22) points clearly to the necessity of the 'holy sign' which He would institute later in His ministry (Cf. John 3:5).

Being 'Born Again' … The Biblical Way

"Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Him by night, and said to Him, 'Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.' Jesus answered and said to him, 'Truly, truly, I say to you unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' Nicomedus said to Him, 'How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?' Jesus answered, 'Truly, truly, say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, "You must be born again." The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.' Nicomedus answered and said to Him, 'How can these things be?' Jesus answered and said to him, 'Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you not receive our witness. If I told you earthly things and you not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things? And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man'" (John 3:1-13).

When Jesus uses the words 'water' and the 'spirit', He means what the rest of Holy Writ clearly points to: water baptism. The Evangelical often interprets the phrase 'born of water and the spirit' to mean two separate events - water (physical birth) and spirit (spiritual birth). This interpretation, however, is not the Lord's intent since the birth that Jesus is speaking about is not two births but one. He does not say that we must be born of 'water and then the spirit.' Furthermore, all people are already physically born so why didn't Jesus just say 'born of the Spirit' alone. Another point that must be stressed is the choice of Jesus' words 'born again'.

One may ask: Why did Jesus use these particular words? The answer lies in the loss of holiness after the Fall. In our previous physical birth, we were born into a state that Adam and Eve passed down. That is why we must be 'born again.' 'Born again' implies a complete transformation from the statethat we currently exist in. Therefore, to transform the state, we must return to a condition before our first birth when we were clean. Hence, when Jesus speaks of 'being born again,' or 'being born from above', He is trying to take us back to the beginning of creation when we were born in a state of original justice and holiness before the original sin which prevented anyone from entering heaven. That is the significance of Jesus saying that no one can enter the kingdom of Heaven without being born again.

In the Old Testament, the prefigurement of the purifying waters of baptism is demonstrated in the book of Numbers. "Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Take the Levites from among the sons of Israel and cleanse them. And thus you shall do to them, for their cleansing: sprinkle purifying water on them, and let them use a razor over their whole body, and wash their clothes and they shall be clean" (Numbers 8:5-7).

In the language of the Pentateuch, only the priests were 'consecrated', that is, made sacred or set aside for the Lord, in an elaborate ceremony described in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8. The Levites were purified and cleansed to be made ritually clean for their special work. Here, the water is used as a purifying agent for the remission of sin. This is later reinforced (Cf. Numbers 19:9-13). In the New Covenant, all the baptized are incorporated into the 'royal priesthood' (Cf. 1 Peter 2:9). The use of water and its effects were therefore well understood as a purifying instrument in Israel's history. This is perhaps the reason Jesus expresses His 'astonishment' at Nicodemus' question, 'How can these things be?' (Cf. John 3:9). Jesus is expressing His 'surprise' at Nicodemus when He asks, 'You are a teacher of Israel and do not understand?'

Jesus was not chiding Nicodemus for not understanding something novel - far from it. By asking the question, Our Lord was pointing out what Nicodemus should have known very well, namely, the instrumentality of water in purifying. Our Lord also uses the simple example of wind to remind us that there are things in this world which, even though tangible to us and universally accepted, are still not understood completely. The wind is a mystery, but it still 'is'. If then we accept the reality of the wind which we cannot understand completely but we nonetheless universally acknowledge, then why is it so difficult to accept that of being born again through the 'water and spirit'?

Our separated brethren sometimes note that the baptism that Jesus is talking about in John 3:5 is the 'baptism of the Holy Spirit' not the 'baptism of water.' This view, however, does not recognize the context of the Scriptures that precede it. First of all, the Catholic doctrine on baptism asserts that the Holy Spirit infuses His very life into the soul, and therefore it is a 'baptism in or with the Holy Spirit' (Cf. Mark 1:8, Acts 1:5) but through water. It is, therefore, not a choice between water and the Holy Spirit. This is confirmed when it is remembered that Saint John's baptism was merely a baptism of water only, whereas Jesus came to baptize with the Holy Spirit (Cf. John 1:33) but still with and through water (Cf. John 3:5). There is no evidence that one can separate the Spirit from water in baptism. There is only one baptism that Jesus gives us, not two (Cf. Ephesians 4:4-6). There is no need to separate water and the Spirit when the water and the blood, which are symbols for baptism and the Eucharist, all witness with the Spirit (Cf. 1 John 5:8). The Evangelical must force this interpretation of two baptisms on to the passage in order to deny the Catholic view of baptism, which if accepted, would completely invalidate his view of justification. This Eucharistic-Baptismal connection is again reinforced with the crucifixion of Our Lord when "one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water" (John 19:34).

The theme of water baptism is again alluded to in the second chapter of John, where Jesus used the 'water of purification' to create wine (Cf. John 2:6). Again, God uses water to communicate His miracles. Even after His discourse with Nicodemus in John 3:5, Jesus and the disciples engage in water baptism (Cf. John 3:22, 4:1-2). How then can the Protestant conclude that the context of John 3:5 supports any type of baptism other than what the passage clearly says, and which the passages before in Chapters 1 and 2 and later in Chapters 3 and 4 clearly demonstrate, namely, water baptism? And if water does not purify, then why did John's disciples enter into a discussion with a Jew about 'purification' (Cf. John 3:25) when the context clearly points to the purifying effects of water?

According to the Catholic teaching, then, while faith is a necessary act of disposition for adults, it is not the instrumental cause of justification which baptism is. The Catholic view of justification does not depend on man's reliance on an experience, but rather simply on God. Certainly, the person must live a life of faith worthy of his inheritance, but the initial movement to justify is from God and His grace alone, independent of man's faith. Catholics understand this initial action by God to come tangibly through baptism. Water baptism, therefore, is necessary for salvation, but this must not be understood as an exceptionless case. Water baptism is necessary only for those who have had the opportunity to hear the Gospel and ask for it. [Obviously, God is not going to hold someone accountable for not being baptized if he has not had the opportunity to hear the Gospel. After all, God is Justice itself, and to make baptism an exceptionless instrument would not harmonize with His divine justice.] Therefore, those persons who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ but nonetheless do God's will to the best of their ability, have an unspoken desire for baptism.

In case of emergency, baptism by water can therefore be replaced by baptism 'by desire.' This type of baptism can be either implicit or explicit. An implicit desire for baptism occurs when a person does not have the opportunity to hear the Gospel, but nonetheless does God's will by following his conscience. An explicit desire for baptism would occur when a person has heard the Gospel and wants to fulfill Our Lord's command to be baptized, but he is otherwise unable to receive the sacrament (i.e. he is forcefully impeded from being baptized). The other type of baptism, 'baptism by blood', is effected when a person accepts martyrdom for Christ, and does not have the opportunity for water baptism. (Cf. Matthew 10:32, Luke 7:47, John 12:25, John 14:21). In these extreme cases, it is the desire for baptism, either implicit or explicit, which is necessary for justification, even though the baptismal character is not imprinted in these baptisms. Therefore, faith and baptism (by water in normal conditions, by blood or desire in extreme conditions) are necessary for salvation for those who have reached the age of reason.

There may appear to be a difficulty with this teaching when one considers that babies cannot have a desire for baptism (or faith for that matter), and therefore, it would appear, at this point, that they would be excluded from heaven. While it is an article of faith that anyone who dies in the state of original sin is excluded from heaven and the Beatific Vision of God, the Catholic Church has never officially taught that the souls of infants who die without baptism do not see God. Actually, there may be another way for children to be infused with God's life without baptism but He has not revealed it, so the Church cannot not teach definitively what their status is. Catholic theologians, in order to propose a possible solution (not an article of faith), suggest that the souls of unbaptized infants enjoy a high degree of natural happiness in a place they call 'limbo', but not the supernatural happiness of seeing God. Of course from a scriptural perspective, there is no difficulty with a third place between heaven and hell. (Again this is a point of contention between Catholics and Protestants.) Holy Writ clearly reveals the existence of a third place in a number of passages including, but not limited to, Matthew 27:52, Luke 16:22, 1 Peter 3:18-20, 1

Before the Fall:Why We Need Baptism
Infusion vs. Imputation: Two views of justification
Water in the Old Testament: A sign of God's presence
Baptism in the New Testament: Baptism now saves you!
Infant Baptism: A family affair
A Visual Image and Some Closing Thoughts
Return toApologetics of Baptism

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