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Alexandre Gonalves

Prof. Russell Haitch


M241 Ministry Across Generations
March 09, 2016

What happens in baptism?

Baptism can be briefly defined as a rite that uses water as a symbol of religious purification. In the
New Testament it appears practiced first by John the Baptist (Mark 1:4-5; Mat 3:1-5; Luke 3:1-3),
and by the disciples of Jesus (John 3:22, 26; 4:1-2), and later became a foundational Christian
practice after the day of Pentecost as a form of initiation into the Christian community. Christians
from the most diverse origins and denominations consider baptism one of the most important
elements of their faith. However, they diverge significantly on how to interpret its meaning, status,
effects to Christian life, as well as its form of administration. While to some denominations baptism
is one of the sacraments of initiation in the church, which forgives sin and integrates the baptized as
a new member of the visible Church, others state that this practice represents the public expression
of an act of faith and commitment to Christian discipleship. That is, while for some baptism is the
means by which the Christian Church officially admits its new members, others believe that this
practice symbolizes the beginning of a lifelong process of growth, both spiritual and intellectual,
moral and ethical, inner and outer, personal and communitarian towards a new way of being in the
world. In any case, the practice of baptism is deeply related to a particular narrative of salvation
history, once it conveys the idea of integration into the community of faith and the beginning of a
new life in Christ. The main debate, therefore, remains on the question if it should be considered a
sacrament or an ordinance (or memorial).
Understood as sacrament, baptism is part of the mystery of saltvation of the Church. In the pagan
world, the Greek term (mysterion) referred to something awesome, transcendent, sacred,
not fully describable but accepted by faith and expressed through ritual celebrations, in particular by
rites of initiation. The early Christian apologist Tertullian, in order to avoid misunderstandings with
the pagan mysteries, used the equivalent Latin word sacramentum to refer to the particular truths of
Christian faith revealed through the life and work of Christ (Martos 1983, 28). According to this
view, sacraments convey truths once obscure, but now experienced through the rites and ceremonies
administered by the church on behalf of Christ. In the words of the Catholic theologian Edward
Schillebeeckx, a sacrament is primarily and fundamentally a personal act of Christ himself, which
reaches and involves us in the form of an institutional act performed by a person in the Church who,
in virtue of a sacramental character, is empowered to do so by Christ himself (Schillebeeckx 1963,
53). Indeed, the Catholic Church has taught throughout time that, more than being signs or symbols,
the sacraments have an objective value themselves, for they are means of grace and sustain the faith
of the believer in his or her journey.
Concerning baptism, Catholics state that through this practice a) the original sin is forgiven, as any
other sins, mortal and venial, including the penalties owed by them, because baptism is itself an
implicit act of repentance and confession, even when the candidate does not explicitly repent or
confess, as it is the case of infants1; b) the Holy Trinity takes possession of the soul of the baptized

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. The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) states categorilly that, It may not be doubted that in Baptism
infants receive the mysterious gifts of faith. Not that they believe with the assent of the mind, but they are
established in the faith of their parents, if the parents profess the true faith; if not then in that of the universal
society of the saints.

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and give him or her a sanctifying grace; c) supernatural virtues and the gifts of the Spirit are
infused; and d) the sacramental character that makes the Christian as such is imprinted on the soul
of the baptized. Through baptism, the one who was just a creature, enslaved by the original sin, is
forgiven and becomes a child of God and a member of the body of Christ (Catechism of the
Catholic Church, 1213). Hence the practice of infant baptism (also called pedobaptism) is crucial,
because as any other person, a child is also born in sin and in need of salvation. For the Catholic
Church infant baptism would than be an act of grace, by which the baptized is adopted as child into
God's family (Eph 1:5). According to this view, the act of baptism is, therefore, much more than a
symbol, it is itself a real intervention of God that purifies, justifies, and sanctifies (Catechism,
1227), incorporating the baptized into the Church. Such description exemplifies the sacramental
view of baptism, in which the sacramental act is effective itself. It means that, although it preserves
the elements of the symbol by pointing out to a broader meaning (new birth and new life in Christ),
it is a reality itself that produces life-giving effects (Ibid., 1228). However, although Catholics
believe that baptism forgives the original sin once and for all, this sacrament is not effective for the
remission of actual sins. For the sins eventually committed after baptism, the Sacrament of Penance
or Reconciliation was instituted.
All Christian traditions that hold a sacramental doctrine, as Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and
Reformed (Calvinists), agree that the sacraments convey grace and have an objective value or
reality of their own. It means that the physical reality of washing with water in baptism points out to
the spiritual reality of God offering cleansing of one's soul. The main difference, however, resides in
the fact that while Catholics and Anglicans believe that sacraments act ex opere operato, that is,
since a sacrament was validity celebrate the effectiveness of the act was guaranteed, and
consequently the grace was conferred (regardless of the moral qualities of the celebrant or the merit
of the recipient), Lutherans and Reformed affirm that faith is necessary as the means of
appropriating the grace of the sacrament (McFarland, 2011). According to them, sacraments do not
work automatically and independently of the faith of the recipient. It means that, if baptism is a
visible mean of grace that communicates and confirms God's promise of forgiveness, restoration,
and salvation, the reception of such gifts demand some level of participation of the baptized. In
other words, Lutherans and Reformed stress the relational character of the sacrament, rather than
objectivity and effectiveness of the rite itself, as Catholic do. While the former affirm that faith is
the instrumental cause of salvation and baptism it the sign of salvation, the former, based on the
Catechism of Trent (1566), claim that, although faith is necessary, it is not sufficient for forgiveness
or regeneration of the baptized. That is, that grace is not conferred to the believer only because of
his or her disposition and faith, but until and unless that person receives the sacrament of baptism,
which is the real instrumental cause of salvation, without which no one can be justified (Catholic
Dictionary of Theology, 2008). Yet, according to Reformed tradition, the idea that baptism was
essential for salvation also contradicts and limits Gods free choice in predestination.
Nevertheless, when it comes to infant baptism, practiced by both Catholics and Anglicans,
Lutherans and Reformed, one can ask how is possible for a child to demonstrate the required faith
to receive the grace conveyed through the sacrament of baptism. The answer is fourfold: 1) The
validity of baptism, said Martin Luther, lies not in the recipient, but in the Word, for everything
depends upon the Word and command of God... even though faith be wanting (Luther 1959, 87).
Baptism, as any other sacrament, are fundamentally Gods work and are rooted in Gods promise to
the Church to be present and active in them (McFarland, 2011). Moreover, when defending the
validity of infant baptism against the Anabaptists, Luther argued that if baptism is dependent on the
faith of the baptized, it would always raise suspicions on about any particular baptism, for the simple
fact that no one can be absolutely sure whether the candidate for baptism really believes, not even
when someone voluntarily asks for baptism and confesses his or her faith (Althaus 1966, 370). 2)
Baptism is the New Testament practice equivalent to the Old Testament practice of circumcision. As

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the circumcision was the mark of the old covenant, baptism is the symbol of a new covenant of
grace (Col 2:10-13). Thus, this continuity of the covenant of grace was another important reason to
include children in the practice of baptism2. 3) Baptism is not only an individual experience, but
also an event that involves the entire community of faith, both the parents or the community
respond to the covenant God is offering on behalf of the child, as mentioned above. The faith of the
whole community expressed in the infant baptism is the required response to God's promise. 4) The
baptism of entire households is the Scriptural evidence that children, and consequently infants, were
baptized in apostolic times (Acts 2:39; 16:15, 33; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:16).
Therefore, as the Catholic rationale, Lutherans and Reformed in general sustain that infant baptism
represents God's utter graciousness towards the ones who are not yet able to respond for
themselves, because baptism is not our work, but God's work (Luther, 85). This way, they also
stresses that the practice of baptism refers to both an outward sign of an inward grace and the seal
of God's covenant that indicates one's entry into the life of the church and the kingdom of God, and
a life of witness to Christ that all believers need to constantly demonstrate for having being reached
by God's grace.
Concerning the effects of baptism, both Lutherans and Reformed agree that through this sacrament
the believer is gratuitously clothed by the nature of Christ (Gal 3:27). That is, the baptized does not
only receives Christ's gifts, but Christ himself, and consequently, a new nature. It refers to a real
union and a covenant with Christ, both in death and life (Rom 6:3-5; Col 2:12). According to this
view, it can be said that baptism is a lifelong sacrament that nurtures and strengthens the Christian
life. That is, by remembering their true identities as citizens of the kingdom of heavens and
members of God's family, all the baptized have their faith and commitment renewed and reaffirmed.

Another important contribution to the theology of baptism was given by the Radical Reformers.
Although the Radical Reformation refers to distinct Christian groups and movements of the
sixteenth century and beyond who opposed to both Catholic and Protestant tradition, they had a
cohesive view on baptism, except when it comes to its method of application. Their very
designation as Anabaptists, which was a pejorative term use by their detractors to refer to the
practice of rebaptism, points out to their dissonant understanding on that practice.
First, the Anabaptist movement understood the practice of baptism as an ordinance, a rite accepted
in faith, rather than a sacrament. Because of that understanding, they rejected infant baptism and
rebaptized the adults who received baptism as children, under the allegation that baptism should be
administered only to those who, demonstrating enough maturity, were able to make authentic
confession of his or her faith. Such a stance became known as believer's baptism (also called
credobaptism), that is, that Christians should not be baptized to be saved, as the rite itself could
produce such result, but as an attitude of obedience and faith to God's ordinance. For the
Anabaptists, baptism means that a person is dead to sin... and must walk in newness of life and
spirit, and that he shall certainly be saved, if according to this meaning by inner baptism he lives his
faith (Williams, ed. 1957, 80).
Consequently, according to that view, the validity of baptism does not consist in the correct
administration of the rite, not even in the celebrant's moral status, nor in the merits of the recipient,
but depends on the personal conversion of the believer and his or her disposition to follow Christ. In
1524, when writing to the radical reformer Thomas Mntzer, the founders of the Swiss Brethren

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. Such understanding implies a status of equality between children and adults, for before God's eyes there is no
distinctions of age, worth, dignity, place, role, or power. Unfortunately, this aspect of infant baptism has not been
taken seriously throughout church history.

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movement, Conrad Grebel and his friends, affirmed that even an adult is not to be baptized without
Christ's rule [Mat 18:15-18]... for baptism for us... signifies that, by faith and the blood of Christ,
sins have been washed away for him who is baptized, changes his mind, and believes before and
after [my emphasis] (Ibid., 80). This statement demonstrates that there was both a previous and a
continuous process of discipleship required for the candidate to baptism, so that this person could
understand what really means to be Christian and then witness the transformation God has worked
in him or her. In practice, it means that if someone comes to faith in Christ, that person should be
baptized, for baptism is the first step towards an identification with Jesus in his death and
resurrection, but also towards a public commitment to be or remain his follower. It presupposes a
conversion experience, through which the believer puts his or her trust in Christ. Therefore, the
believer's baptism means that a person is not baptized to be in union with God, as stressed by the
sacramental view, simply because such union already exists. In fact, the rite is a sign, a reference to
an existing relationship, not the cause of it.3
Another important element present in the Anabaptist rationale for rejecting infant baptism is the
concept of freedom of conscience, belief, and religion. Although Anabaptists were known for they
strong emphasis on the community aspects of faith, due to their advocacy for the principles of
universality of freedom of conscience, they also reiterate the importance of individual conscience
and responsibility before God, the community of faith, and society as a whole. And only those with
a certain level of maturity and understanding could develop such conscience and commitment.
Grebel and his fellows also used expressions such as fruits of faith, baptism of trial and
probation, and right Christian practices (Williams, 74) to stress not only the necessity of
awareness on the part of the baptized concerning the act of baptism, but also the consistency of faith
and works throughout life, rather than justification by faith alone, the doctrine shared both by
Lutherans and Reformed.
Concerning the effects of baptism, the Radical Reformers criticized what they called ritualistic and
anti-Christian customs of baptism, arguing the water does not confirm or increase faith, and [does
not] give very great comfort [nor] it is the final refuge on the deathbed. Also, baptism does not
save, once this teaching dishonors the faith and the suffering of Christ (Ibid., 80-81). Unlike
Catholic theology, the advocates of believer's baptism hold that the effectual action of forgiveness
and sanctification does not rely on the rite itself, but only on the work of the Holy Spirit, who will
prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8, NRSV). Their
argument is not that baptism itself saves, but that those who experienced true conversion are saved.
In other words, for the Anabaptists, the transformative power of baptism is undeniable, and through
it the believer commits publicly to renounce the power of evil and keeps embracing the gift of God's
calling upon his or her life.

What happens in baptism?


Many aspects can be stressed through the practice of baptism, such as union with Christ (Col 2:12,
20, Rom 6:3-5), reception of the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:16; Acts 2:38; 19:1-7), incorporation to the
Church, the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13), and new birth (John 3:5; Titus 3:5).
Firstly, I do not believe that the water washes our sins away, as if the ritual bath itself had a

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. However, apparently the tradition of the believer's baptism seems to not cover very well the situation of those who
were born and raised up in a family of faith. For their entire lives, such people were nurtured and instructed to live
out that faith and, therefore, never gone from not believing to believing. Since that not everyone comes to faith
through a conversion experience, the believer's baptism tradition should clarify, what conversion actually means to
those who were born in a Christian family and were raised through Christians values.

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supernatural power able to erase the sins of the baptized, as Acts 2:38 apparently indicates. Such
an association between the practice of baptism with forgiveness of sins does not necessarily mean
that the rite itself has a distinctive power to forgive sins or plays an indispensable function in
salvation. It has been argued that syntactically it is not possible to connect the expression so that
your sins may be forgiven (v. 38b) with the command to baptize, for the personal pronoun
(you) is second person plural, whereas the command is third person singular (Mclntyre
1996, 54-59). Because of this, a possible reconstruction of this verse could be:
Repent, so that your sins may be forgiven,
and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ;
and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
I agree with that the understanding of the believer's baptism does not abolish the
symbolism of baptism (death to sin and the beginning of a new life in Christ), but
only its sacramental view and consequences, as the presence of the
regenerational element. This way, the connection between baptism and forgiveness of sin is
not established by the supposed direct effects of a cleansing ritual, but through the powerful
symbolic dimension of an event by which we express the concrete reality of forgiveness, acceptance
into the body of Christ, and commitment with a life of discipleship. According to my understanding
and belief, baptism, as a symbol, is a reality that, without ceasing to be what it is (a cleansing
ritual), evokes another reality full of significance and value (forgiveness, acceptance, and
commitment). It is similar to the reality of the church, that is at the same time, a group of committed
persons who share one same ideal and purpose, but also the body of Christ, the bride of Christ,
God's flock. In the words of the Brazilian Catholic theologian Leonardo Boff, a symbol is an
archetype of values we have in high esteem and that communicates a reality that transcends the
symbolic object itself (Boff 1987, 11). Therefore baptism for me is both a symbolic ritual and an
ordinance that, although does not forgive the sin nor save the sinner, expresses God's willing
towards forgiveness and salvation.
Nevertheless, the ideas of repentance and baptism are inseparable. It was precisely this relation that
led the Anabaptist movement to advocate for only adult baptism, or when the candidate to baptism
has an appropriate understanding of such compromise. If repentance is connected to baptism, they
argued, it can be achieved only after from a profound self-examination, followed by a public
confession, which is not possible for a baby or a young child to do. According to my perspective,
there is a clear relation between baptism and repentance, but not necessarily between baptism and
ritual forgiveness of sin. Before baptism we must hear, understand, and believe in the Gospel, so
that we can repent of our sins.
As an Anabaptists, I believe that the act of baptism is a public declaration of faith in Jesus Christ
and the confirmation of one's commitment to the kingdom of God. Baptism signals the covenant
between God and the believer, who can professes publicly his or her faith before the congregation,
and before the world as well. This way, the very decision for baptism is a decision based on faith.
This is why for the Anabaptists, baptism is the believer's baptism; it is an act that symbolizes a
committed response to God's mercy, love, salvation, and calling. It also emphasizes the acceptance
of the gift of God's grace and a serious and everlasting loyalty to Christ.
According to my perspective, baptism is also a sign of God's promise for a new beginning (1 Pe
1:3). This new life comes from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to which we participate
by following his path of self-surrender. What binds us to the life and resurrection of Christ is our
decision by faith to be his disciples and follow his path, which invariably will lead us to the death of
our old nature and to the emergence of a new life in Christ. As with Jesus, we will resurrect and
testify the glory of God (Rom 6:4). On the other hand, such an experience of death and
resurrection, or new life, is not just a metaphor, or an analogy for a new beginning; it is real, as

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visible and tangible as everything else our senses can perceive, know, and feel. As Paul says,
through Christ we have a new nature, which is driven by the mind of Christ on behalf of others (1
Co 5:17; 2 Co 2:16). Still according to Paul, we are no longer natural, but spiritual (1 Cor
2:14-16). Therefore, the solution of our problems now must be subject to an attitude of humble
commitment to God and to others. It means that we are no longer the center of the universe or
even of our own will. This is why baptism is a powerful decentralizing experience; it reminds us
that renunciation of sins and injustice is the only way we becomes true followers of Christ. Even
when our obedience to Christ will inevitably lead us to death, we still trust in resurrection, God's
final word to those who endure to the end (Mat 10:22).
I personally do not believe that the act of baptism itself, as in the sacramental view, enacts the death
of our old nature and the birth of a new one. Rather, I believe that baptism represents a process that
has already begun to those who answered yes to the way of the cross, because faith precedes the rite
and is presupposed by it. In this case, baptism is both the public expression and seal of an existing
faith that should be nurtured to mature.
It is not possible, therefore, to comprehend the baptism without considering its relation to the
resurrection of Christ. As a sign of commitment to the way of the cross, baptism can be also seen as
the human response to God's grace through a symbolic representation of the binding of the believer
with God, even unto death. Baptism marks the commitment through which we surrender our
freedom to Christ, as the only way, paradoxically, of being freed from sin (Rom 6:3-4, 22-23). It is
par excellence an attitude of self-surrender, the visible act of our conscious and deliberate struggle
towards kenosis, the self-emptying of our being, the gradual replacement of a spirit of
self-sufficiency for a spirit of self-sacrifice (Phil 2:5-11). There is no progress in Christian life
without at least a fraction of this attitude of self-surrender. However, kenosis is a demand for life,
not a temporary and limited experience. It requires an attitude of commitment, faith, and hope, for it
implies not only self-surrender to Christ, no matter what the circumstances might be, but also trust
in God's love. Baptism cannot guarantee a life free of temptations and vices, nor it generates a
shield to protect us against doubts, failures, and the constant dangers of selfishness, pride, and
arrogance. However, by surrender our minds to the mind of Christ we entrust ourselves to his
criteria to deal with all these challenges.
Finally, no matter how we understand the practice of baptism, it implies a great responsibility not
only to those who received or are candidates to receive it, but for the entire community of faith. In
the light of the Gospel all the baptized in Christ, whether adults or children, must be encouraged
and supported by their respective communities of faith, so that they can grow in faith and love, as
well as offer support to others who, like them, are in the same journey towards a redeemed and
transformed life. That is, the journey of faith that begins in individual baptism continues in the
church community. Baptism, therefore, is essentially a communitarian event with implications for
the life of the whole church. As members of the Church, the baptized participate in its life and
contribute to its continuity and vitality.

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