Why do Catholics think Baptism saves?
Why do Catholics baptise babies?
Why only a sprinkle of water?

Zwingli was the leader of the reformation in Switzerland.

His defense of infant baptism was based on inferences from statements of the early Church Fathers that it was practiced in the early church and that it took the place of circumcision. (source: Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists)

Martin Luther was also a strong advocate of infant Baptism, to this day Lutherans baptise babies, as do many of the older Protestant denominations. This article is really for the newer denomination or "non-denominational" folks, who don't like infant Baptism.

How can infant Baptism be effective if children can't make a personal decision for Christ?

Most Evangelicals think that Baptism is simply an outward sign of a profession of faith. They don't think anything supernatural occurs during Baptism. So, given their beliefs, it makes sense that Evangelicals think that only adults, who consciously proclaim Christ should be baptized. They consider it simply a public witness to their "born again" decision and since babies can't make that decision, they feel there is no reason for the "sign" of Baptism until they can make such a decision.

Catholics don't believe Baptism is only a sign. We believe something very profound and tangible happens during Baptism. We believe the Bible when it says that Baptism washes away sin. (Acts 22:16) So for us, it is not as much about what we give during Baptism (i.e., a profession of faith) but it is about what we get, which is salvation. We believe this salvation is for babies too. Jesus said "let the little children come to me." (Lk 18:16)

We didn't choose to be born into humanity but we nevertheless received the grace of human life. Similarly, Catholics don't think babies have to consciously choose Baptism in order to receive its grace. 

We didn't choose to be born into the sin of Adam, (caused by his disobedience), yet nevertheless we were born into it (original sin). In the same way, Catholics believe that as infants, we can receive the saving grace of Baptism that was won by Jesus' obedience, without consciously choosing it.

We don't ask a baby if it wants to eat. We just feed him or her. We don't ask a baby if it wants its diaper changed, we simply change the diaper. We don't ask a baby if it needs a bath, we simply give the baby a bath when it is dirty. We take these simple and logical actions to physically clean up a baby. Catholics think it is even more important to do the same thing spiritually, through Baptism. We need to let our Lord wash away the "original sin" from the baby.

And Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him." (Acts 2:38-39)

Here we see that Baptism applies to children. Perhaps some Evangelicals might look at this text and say the kids in this passage are saved by the parent's Baptism, but then the sentence would not say that the promise is for "all who are far off." Surely, the adult Baptism does not save "all who are far off" also.

Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God’ (Luke 18:15–16).

Here we see children being brought to Jesus before they were able to make a personal decision for Christ. In Greek it is Prosepheron de auto kai ta brepha. The Greek word brepha means "infants." The Lord did not require these infants to make a personal decision for Christ.

Infant circumcision was the sign of Old Covenant.
Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant.
It makes sense that Baptism includes infants.

Under Jewish law, the 8 day old child didn't have to make a profession of faith. He was part of a household of faith and was thus called by God, and therefore circumcised. Thank God for that! We shudder at the thought of being circumcised as an adult ... OUCHHH!!!

The famous Evangelical theologian Frances A. Schaeffer also maintained that an infant should be baptised because of Baptism's correspondence with circumcision.

Jesus was 30 years old when he was baptized, so why do Catholics baptize babies?

We got an email that said:

If Jesus was baptised by John the baptist when he was thirty years and the Holy Spirit came then why is it that Catholics don't do the same.

Mary and Joseph followed Jewish law (Lk 2:22). They were still under the Old Covenant, and infant circumcision was its sign. So that's what they did. Mary wouldn't do something that would be bizarre in Jewish Law. She was a devout Jew. The New Covenant was not instituted until Jesus' ministry. So it was natural that Mary did not follow the New Covenant when performing the ritual on the infant Jesus. Jesus instituted Baptism during his ministry 30 years later.

Before John's ministry, Baptism was not practiced by Jews as such. Baptism was foreshadowed in Jewish law, (i.e., ritual washing when Gentiles became Jews and blood sprinklings to clean the altar). But John the Baptist was the first guy to actually make Baptism a specific practice. That's where he got his name. John's role was that he was "preparing the way of the Lord." Naturally, that preparation would include a prefiguration of the way that Jesus would save souls, which Catholics believe is through Baptism. (Acts 2:38, 22:16, 1 Pt. 3:21, Mk 16:15-16 Acts 2:38) After Jesus was Baptised, He made Baptism the doorway to salvation and He sent his disciples to "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" (Mark 28:19). We presume from Scripture and early Christian writings that that included infants.

It is quite logical that most of the Baptisms in the Bible were on adults since Jesus had just instituted Baptism.

Infant Baptisms predate the 2nd century

Infant Baptisms predate the 2nd century and it is quite possible that from the beginning of the apostolic preaching, when whole "households" received Baptism, infants may also have been baptized. (Acts 16:15).

I recently visited the Catacombs just outside Rome. The early Christians left of a great legacy of their beliefs in pictures. In the photo below there is a picture of an adult baptising a child.

infant baptism

Photo: Chapel of Sacraments "Area 3 " of the Catacomb of St. Callisto,
Copyright Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Cristiana, Roma (Used with Permission)

Infant Baptism is recorded in the works of Origen (185-254 A.D.):

"Every soul that is born into flesh is soiled by the filth of wickedness and sin... In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants. If there were nothing in infants which required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous."

Thus, from the 3rd century until the 16th century, infant Baptism was the nearly universal practise of Christian churches. The controversy surrounding infant Baptism didn't begin until the 16th century, when the Anabaptists challenged the biblical warrant for this practice. And every denomination including Lutherans, Catholics etc... were against that idea.

Can the faith of the parents save the kids without Baptism?

Some Evangelicals believe that the children are covered by the faith of the parents and therefore don't need Baptism. We got an email from an Evangelical that said:

The bible teaches that a child is covered by God when parents are christians, and when that child is old enough to understand can then make that decision on their own.

She believes that the faith of the (Evangelical) parents cover the child, but at the same time she has a problem with the idea that Catholic parents, godparents and the community can stand in the gap for the children in Baptism. This seems counter intuitive.

Be that as it may, she was talking about this passage:

"The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife; and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the believing husband; otherwise your children should be unclean; but now they are holy." (1 Cor 7)

The surrounding text clearly shows that it is not speaking of regenerating or sanctifying grace, but answering questions by the Corinthians concerning the validity of marriages between heathens and believers. It is saying the validity of such marriages is proved from the fact that children born of them are legitimate, not illegitimate. The term "sanctified" in this context means To give social or moral sanction to (www.thefreedictionary.com/sanctified) We don't think any Evangelical denomination would say that a husband is saved by the faith of the wife.

So we don't believe that the faith of the parents saves the kids. However, we do not underestimate the contribution that a solid Christian home makes to the life of a baptised infant. In fact, we require it for Baptism. The Catechism says:

1255 For the grace of Baptism to unfold, the parents' help is important. So too is the role of the godfather and godmother, who must be firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized - child or adult on the road of Christian life.55 Their task is a truly ecclesial function (officium).56 The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism.

In a child Baptism, the parents and the Church intercede for the child (Evangelicals might call it "standing in the Gap"). The parents who are interceding for the Child promise to bring the child up in the faith so as to prepare the child for this future mature decision for Christ, to the  best of their abilities. Catholics feel that Jesus' generosity and the parents/Church's intercession along with the expectation that the child will make a personal decision for Christ when they are capable of doing so (1st Communion or Confirmation), combined with God's Grace and love of children, make the Baptism valid and wins salvation for the child.

We do believe that God is a merciful God. The Catechism says:

"As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them," allows us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism."

We don't believe this mercy would necessarily be contingent on the faith of the parents, but rather on the Lord's great mercy for, and love of children.

Personal sin vs. original sin

Some Evangelical denominations (thankfully not too many) think "Separation from God" is a result of personal sin and therefore they believe that before the age of reason everyone is bound for heaven. Catholics believe that humanity's "Separation from God" is the result of "original sin" from Adam and Eve, our first parents. Catholics believe we are born into "original sin," we inherit it. If original sin is the source of our damnation then we are born with it. We don't think children should be without the grace of Jesus. That is why Catholics baptise babies "in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost." The Bible says:

Surely I was born sinful, a sinner when my mother conceived me. (Psm 51:5)

We see many Evangelical parents seem to intuitively understand that we are born into sin, and teach their children to surrender to Jesus, even before the children understand what that means. Catholics think the best way to protect the child spiritually is to baptise them.

If we go onto a kindergarten playground and ask children the difference between a "good boy" and a "bad boy", they will tell us "a good boy is nice, he doesn't steal, and a bad boy takes things and is mean." We are born with a propensity to sin and it shows up long before the age of reason. We think this is original sin.

Why do Catholics just pour water on the head instead of a full dunk?

The official Catholic teaching is a full dunk is the best way:

...Baptism is performed in the most expressive way by triple immersion in the baptismal water. However, from ancient times it has also been able to be conferred by pouring the water three times over the candidate's head. (Catechism 1339)

Most new churches today have a large baptismal fountain for a full dunk.

large bqptism font

Ascension Roman Catholic Parish, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

We got an email that said:

Check out the scriptures in the new testament. It teaches that the full immersion is a significant doing before God, when one reaches a mature age to accept Christ, then baptism follows, because the old life has gone and a new one in Christ ...In the new testament there is no scripture to support the Catholic sprinkling.

Actually, There is biblical precedence. Paul says "with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." (Heb 10:22) Leading up to that section he talks about the Jewish people sprinkling blood on the scroll, and on the tent, and vessels of worship to cleanse them. (Heb 9:19)

The early Christian Didache says:

And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before. (Didache 7, 140 A.D.)

There is nowhere in Scripture that it forbids pouring water on the head as a valid Baptism. On the other hand there numerous mention's of sprinkling with respect to Jewish cleansing rituals, which are precursors to Baptism.

What baffles us is that Evangelicals claim that Baptism is only a symbolic act, yet try to be literal when it comes to Baptism being a full dunk. This seems to be symbolic about the wrong thing and literal about the wrong thing. To take this to its logical conclusion, even the tank of water is inadequate. Only a river would be adequate because that's probably the way it happened in the Bible. To those who do the full river, we would say, perhaps only certain rivers are ok, (i.e., the Jordan). To those who travel to the Jordan, perhaps only a certain 4 foot square section where Jesus was baptised should be ok.

Catholics think the important thing is that they are baptized with water and Spirit (Jn 3:5). Below (left) is Leonardo's pouring of Jesus' Baptism. In the picture from in the Catacomb (right) from the first centuries, they are doing a sprinkling of water, not a full dunk. This practice of pouring water goes back a long way.

Jesus Baptism __ infant baptism

If you have changed to a denomination that requires full immersion and they want to re-baptize you because you have been previously baptised in a denomination by pouring water on the head (in the name of the Father Son and the Holy Ghost), the most you will get out of the full immersion is a nice bath and lots of congratulations from the congregation. The Holy Spirit already showed up the first time around.

Having said that, I'm really glad the fundamentalists are out there doing Baptisms because the Lord requires it for salvation. What we Catholics do take literally is that Baptism is necessary to Salvation. That is something that is clearly stated in Scripture. (Acts 2:38-39)

What about the necessity of being born again to be saved?

In the article "Are Catholics born again?" we explain that the Catholic Church teaches the necessity of a personal surrender to Jesus, once someone is capable of understanding what it means to make that commitment. We doubt if someone can keep the grace of Baptism if they are not engaged in an ongoing relationship with Christ. More about that below. If you haven't made a personal surrender to Jesus you can do that here. However, we believe the critical moment of salvation is Baptism. In his #1 selling Evangelical book, The Purpose Driven Life, Pastor Rick Warren said:

For years I wondered why Jesus' Great Commission gives the same prominence to baptism as it does to the great tasks of Evangelism and edification...(The Purpose Driven Life, pg 120)

Catholics feel they have Biblical answers to that. We think the Lord is saying that Baptism is the critical moment of salvation. In the New Testament we see a connection between salvation and Baptism. (Acts 2:38, 22:16, 1 Pt. 3:21, Mk 16:15-16 Acts 2:38). We think Scripture points to that, and we see no restriction to adults only.

"Be baptized, and wash away thy sins." (Acts 22:16)

Christ loved the Church, and delivered Himself up for it: that he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the washing of water in the word of life: that he might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." (Eph 5:25)

"Baptism . . . now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 3:21)

The prophecy of Ezekiel has also been understood to speak about Baptism:

"I will pour upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness" (inquinamentis) (Ezekiel 36:25)

The prophet is unquestionably speaking of moral defilements.

"In that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity" (Zechariah 13:1).

"Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin"  (Psalms 51:2).

Catholics look at the journey of water through the Old Testament including the great flood that cleansed the world. They feel that these were foreshadowings of Baptism in the New Testament.(Gen.1:1-2, 6:5, 8:23, 9:9, Ex 3:4, Is12:2-3,1 Pt 3:20,1 Cor. 10:2) Particularly, Peter makes the connection between the great flood and Baptism in 1 Peter 3:20-21. 

...who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, ...

Here we see the express relationship of water Baptism to salvation and also the foundation of the required appeal and "heart" behind the Baptism. When we baptise in the name of the "Father Son and the Holy Ghost" we are making this appeal. Baptism requires not only water, but the words "Father Son and the Holy Ghost" and the intention of baptising. Catholics don't believe we are save by water alone. In Catholic theology all three of these things are necessary for a valid Baptism (water, words and intention). We think this passage outlines the necessity of water and of the appeal. When the eunuchs were traveling along the road and Philip evangelized them, one of them said

"Wait look, there is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?' ...when they came up out of the water the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. The eunuch saw him no more and went on his way rejoicing" (Acts 8:36-40)

The eunuch was hit with the Holy Spirit. For the Eunuch the born again experience included a water Baptism.

15 And he said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. 16 The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.

It is a fundamental principle in mathematics and logic that the word "and" is a joining word. If we require a credit card and an email account to make an online payment, both are necessary. If either is missing we will not be able to complete the transaction. In this case, Catholics believe Peter uses the word "and" to join belief and Baptism as the necessary elements of salvation. The line after that "the one who does not believe will be condemned" in no way diminishes that association. If either of them is missing there is no salvation. In this case belief is missing and the person is condemned. It's like saying "the one who has a credit card and an email address will be accepted for this online transaction but the one who does not have an email address will be denied." Martin Luther, indicates Baptism to be more than a symbolic gesture. He said that  Baptism...

"...works the forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation...."

Baptism doesn't means every "card carrying" Catholic with a Baptismal Certificate is saved. Not at all. Catholics believe that the saving grace of Baptism can be easily lost through rebellion, complacency, sin, and disbelief (for instance in nominal or cultural Catholics). One problem of being a 2000 year old church is that some people are born into the faith but have very little actual connection to it. The saving and redemptive powers imparted by the Holy Spirit during Baptism bring with them the expectation that the Baptised person will make an adult choice for Jesus as soon as they reach the age of reason. In theory, this should happen at confirmation (about 10 years old) but in reality it usually happens later during a personal crisis of some sort. My (Hugh) surrender to Jesus happened when I was 27 years old. That's when I really encountered him. Many faithful "practicing Catholics", have had a "conversion of heart" experience which akin to the Evangelical "born again" experience. The Church expects this to happen and also requires it.

Conversion to Christ, the new birth of Baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Body and Blood of Christ received as food have made us "holy and without blemish," just as the Church herself, the Bride of Christ, is "holy and without blemish." Nevertheless the new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, which remains in the baptized such that with the help of the grace of Christ they may prove themselves in the struggle of Christian life. This is the struggle of conversiondirected toward holiness and eternal life to which the Lord never ceases to call us. (Catechism 1426)

We got an email that said:

Cornelius was saved before he was baptized. Acts 10:47 states that he "received" the Holy Spirit...Also Cornelius spoke in tongues before he was baptized (Acts 10:44-48). This New Testament gift is given to those "in the church" (1 Corinthians 12:28)

This is a good point. It shows that Cornelius received the gifts of the Spirit, but Scripture tells us that having the gift of the Holy Spirit, does not necessarily mean someone is saved. Mathew 7:22 says:

On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evil doers.' "

The New Testament Christians that Jesus talks about in this passage declared Jesus to be Lord. They received gifts of the Holy Spirit. They could not have cast out demons if they were not filled with the Holy Spirit. Yet they were not saved. It appears that there was another critical event that needed to occur for them to receive salvation. We Catholics suggest that event is Baptism.

Can the Grace of Baptism be Lost?

Baptism does not guarantee salvation. Catholics don't think salvation is guaranteed until the day we die (more about that in the "Born Again" section). Baptism brings with it an expectation that we will truly surrender our lives to Jesus as we mature, so in a sense Catholics agree with Evangelicals that it is necessary for each individual to make their own "personal" decision for Christ once they become emotionally and intellectually capable of understanding what that commitment is. Theoretically, that point is at Confirmation, but for many Catholics, it comes much later, usually during a personal crisis where we really have a "conversion of heart" and surrender to Jesus (Catechism 1428,1430), similar to what an Evangelical would call being "Born Again".

After being baptized as an infant, and as the child grows and matures, they will be faced with a choice.

(1) Maintaining that Grace through conscious contact with God (conversion of heart-which is roughly equivalent to being "born again") or:

(2) Reject the Grace of Baptism by choosing to sin, through complacency, or rebellion.

If they reject it, they lose the grace that they were granted at Baptism and will lose salvation. (That's what's happened to a bunch of 'Cultural Catholics' who don't know the Lord and never pray or go to Church.) Unless they reconcile, they will be lost. The "conversion of heart" experience that sustains a personal relationship with Jesus is very similar to what an Evangelical would call "born again." If you have never made a personal commitment to Christ. If you have never asked him into your heart and to be Lord of your life, I encourage you to do that now.

Catholics feel we "must endure to the end" (2 Titus 2:12) rather than the "once saved, always saved" theory. But Catholics believe God never forgets the indelible seal that is imparted at Baptism and is always calling and waiting for us to turn to Him.

In my testimony, I explain that I didn't surrender my life to Jesus until I was 28 years old. Looking back on my life I see the many times God saved me from dangerous circumstances. Recently, I was at a party talking about this and a Catholic girl said "were you baptized as a baby?" I said "yes, my parents were Presbyterians." She said "God never forgets the Baptism of his children, even if you don't remember. He protects, waits and hopes for his baptized children to turn back to him." I got shivers when she said that. It felt so true. If you have young children I urge you to baptize them. Instructions are at the end of this article. You don't have to be Catholic to do and if you belong to a denomination where the pastor doesn't do it you can do it yourself. The next time the children are in the tub just take some water, pray to Jesus and say, "(Name) I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." It might be the best 10 seconds of quality time you'll ever spend with your kids :-)

What is a valid Baptism? Sacramental validity requires these things:

  1. proper form,
  2. matter,
  3. intent,
  4. and a minister.

Proper Form: The proper form for Baptism is the Trinitarian formula (Matt. 28:19), i.e. the minister of the sacrament says "(name), I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit/Ghost" or "the servant of God, (name), is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit/Ghost" (c.f. Catechism #1240).

Matter: The proper matter for Baptism is water. The recipient may be completely immersed, partially dunked, or have the water poured over him by the minister (c.f. Catechism #1239) while the proper formula is spoken.

Intention: The minister's intention must be to do what the Church does, i.e. to baptize (c.f. Catechism #1256). Orthodox belief about the sacrament and faith in its efficacy are not required for the intention to be valid (c.f. 1993 Directory on Ecumenism 95b).

Minister: The ordinary minister for Baptism is a priest or deacon, but Baptism may be validly administered by any person, even a non-Christian (c.f. Catechism #1256). "Any person" does not include the recipient. A person cannot baptize himself or herself. (The recipient of Baptism, just for the record, may be any living person who is not already baptized. c.f. Catechism #1247.)

Let's pray together:

Oh Father, please let us love one another, let us work together to build Your Kingdom, let us build a new hope that will forge relationships that cut across denominations and heal the pain of our division. Let us be one in You as You are One in us.

Jesus, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, we praise Your Mighty Name and embrace one another in Your Love. Amen!


Related articles

  1. Flowchart of Catholic Doctrine
  2. Born again Catholics?
  3. Are non-Christians saved?