Just for Catholics

Refutation of Baptismal Regeneration

Question: Jesus Christ, St. Peter, St. Luke, and St. Paul all agree that we are saved and born again in the waters of baptism with the Holy Spirit! (John 3:5; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3, 4; Colossians 2:12).

Answer: I hope that by studying these scriptures, you will become convinced that none of them actually proves “baptismal regeneration.” But first, let us define the official Catholic position and what is required to prove this doctrine.

What is baptismal regeneration?

The Catholic Church teaches that:

  1. Baptism is necessary for salvation (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1277).

  2. Baptism causes regeneration. (In theological jargon, baptism is said to be the instrumental cause of regeneration). Baptism is not only a sign; it actually brings about the new birth. “Through baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1213).

As the other sacraments, baptism acts “ex opere operato” - literally, by the very fact of the action being performed. The right application of the outward sign is always followed by the gift of internal grace if the sacrament is received with the right dispositions.

In the case of infants, baptism removes original sin and regenerates even though the infant does not personally believe in Christ. “It may not be doubted that in Baptism infants receive the mysterious gift of faith. Not that they believe with the assent of the mind, but they are established in the faith of their parents” (Catechism of Trent).

In the case of adults, faith is necessary, but it is not sufficient for forgiveness or eternal life. Faith is considered as one of the factors constituting the “right disposition” for baptism. “Besides a wish to be baptized, in order to obtain the grace of the Sacrament, faith is also necessary” (Catechism of Trent). Yet the believer does not receive grace (forgiveness or regeneration) until and unless he is baptized with water.

What is required to prove baptismal regeneration?

To prove that “baptismal regeneration” is a true biblical doctrine, it is not enough to quote some scriptures that somehow link baptism to forgiveness or the new birth. Baptism must be shown to be the instrumental cause of regeneration.

Faith, repentance, baptism, confessing Christ, holiness and good works are all aspects of the human response to God's grace; all are somehow related to salvation. That does not mean that faith, repentance, confession, works, baptism, etc, are all related to salvation in the same manner. The distinction between the different roles of faith and good works is clearly seen in Ephesians 2:8-10 - "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them."

Salvation is "through faith" and "not of works." The apostle Paul is adamant that good works are not the means of salvation. Yet, in the same breath, the apostle is equally insistent that works are the fruit of salvation - "for good works". So then, whoever "believes" and tries to do good works to merit salvation does not understand the Gospel. Nor does the man who "believes" and continues to live in sin, devoid of good works. Only he who believes in Christ, and forfeits any reliance on the merits of personal works, and whose life is overflowing with good works, can be confident that he is truly saved by grace.

So, while it is true that both faith and works are related to salvation, yet it is fatal to attribute to works the role which the Word of God attributes to faith. Faith is the instrumental cause; works are the necessary fruit.

We should also ask about the specific relationships of faith and baptism to salvation. Is faith insufficient to save? Is baptism the actual cause of salvation? Or is faith sufficient and baptism the sign of salvation? Think of Paul's argument in Romans 3 and 4. He uses Abraham as an example of justification by faith. At least for Abraham, faith was sufficient to justify him (Abraham was never baptised, and he was justified by faith before he received the sign of circumcision). Moreover, since Paul uses Abraham as a model for all of us (in New Testament times), it is impossible to deny the saving efficacy of faith even before it is accompanied by good works and rituals. Not, of course, that we disregard the commandments and ordinances of our Lord; for every believer seeks to fulfill them (as Paul argues later on in his letter); nor that circumcision was meaningless, or that baptism is optional (for he later reminds the believers about their baptism and the implications to the Christian life).

Therefore it is not enough to show from Scripture that “faith and baptism” or “repentance and baptism” saves. Evangelical Christians also believe that “faith and baptism” saves, without accepting the idea of baptismal regeneration. Evangelicals say that a person is saved by faith (instrumental cause) and baptism (as the sign of salvation). Whereas Catholics say that faith is a predisposition (which is not sufficient to save by itself); cleansing is actually brought about by baptism (instrumental cause).

So to prove baptismal regeneration, it must be shown that:

  1. Baptism without personal faith saves (as in the case of infant baptism).

  2. Without baptism, faith does not save (as in the case of catechumens who are not yet saved because they are not yet baptised, even though they have repented and believed in Christ).

Let us look at the most important “proof texts” to see whether they actually prove baptismal regeneration or not.

“Proof texts” examined

John 3:5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

There is evidence that “water” is not primarily referring to baptism (see “Baptism: Born of Water”), but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it is. “Water” and “Spirit” refer to different aspects of the work of regeneration. In Catholicism, the Spirit is the agent; water baptism is the instrument. In biblical Christianity, the Spirit is the agent; baptism is the sign of salvation. Why can’t we understand water as the reality signified by the external rite (namely spiritual cleansing and new life) that is brought about by the Spirit? Is there any compelling reason why “water” must be understood as the instrumental cause?

Mark 16:16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.

Catholics and Evangelicals agree that faith and baptism saves. We disagree on their separate roles. Can we understand baptism as the sign rather than the instrument of salvation? Certainly! Why do we have to see personal faith as a mere “predisposition” or indeed as unnecessary in the case of infants? Jesus emphasizes the primacy and necessity of faith by warning that “he who does not believe will be condemned.” We know, at least, that one can be baptized and still be lost if he does not believe. Matthew 16:16 says nothing about the unusual case of someone who believes and is not yet baptized. Therefore, this verse cannot be used to prove something ("faith is insufficient") that it is not talking about.

Acts 2:38 Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter powerfully persuaded the Jews that the man they had crucified as a blasphemer is the Lord and Messiah. They were pierced to the heart and asked what they should do. Peter replied that they must repent, i.e. change their mind about Jesus - they who previously disbelieved Jesus must now believe in Him. Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ served as a courageous public testimony of their repentance and faith in Him, knowing full well that it meant persecution from the Jewish leaders and the rest of the Jews.

There is nothing in the text that compels us to see baptism as the instrumental cause. Why not take repentance as the means of receiving forgiveness, and baptism as the sign of true repentance and forgiveness? Indeed, a short time later the apostle Peter promised forgiveness on the basis of repentance without even mentioning baptism (Acts 3:19 – Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out). Faith in the Messiah (implied in genuine repentance), rather than baptism, receives God's gracious pardon.

Acts 22:16 And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.

The outward act, “arise and be baptized,” is linked to the heart appeal to Christ, “calling on the name of the Lord.” The result is spiritual cleansing - “wash away your sins.” We see immediately that this verse says nothing about forgiveness apart from personal faith. Nor does it necessarily prove that “calling upon the Lord” is insufficient for cleansing. For baptism can be considered as an external sign (washing the body) of the inner reality (washing the heart from sin) brought about by faith (calling on the Lord). Grammatically, “wash away your sins” is linked to “calling on the name of the Lord” and not to “be baptized.” Elsewhere Scripture is clear that the instrument of salvation is calling upon the name of the Lord by faith. God “is rich to all who call upon Him. For whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him whom they have not believed?” (Romans 10:12-14). In other words, their faith (manifest in their call for mercy) results in salvation. Baptism does not repeat what is already achieved through faith (salvation, cleansing); baptism signifies this great truth.

Romans 6:3, 4 Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

This passage, especially the phrase “buried with Him through baptism,” seems to support the idea that baptism is the instrumental cause of justification. However, even here baptism could be understood as the sign of justification. It is not unusual in Scripture to call the reality by the name of its sign. Thus, for example, Paul says that all Christians are circumcised (even though one may not be physically circumcised!) - meaning that they possess what circumcision signifies (Philippians 3:3). Using this kind of language, Paul can speak of the great reality of the believers’ spiritual union with Christ, and the benefits which flow from that union, in terms of baptism, its sign.

We are forced to give this interpretation by the context. Before mentioning baptism in chapter 6, Paul had repeatedly emphasized that faith alone is the instrumental cause of justification (Romans 1:16, 17; 3:22, 25, 26, 28, 30; 4:5, 13; 5:1, 2). Righteousness is “imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised up because of our justification” (Romans 4:24,25). Since they received the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection (justification), and that through faith, believers must be spiritually united to Him (delivered and raised up with Him). If baptism is taken as the instrumental cause, then Paul contradicts what he had established before, namely that justification is by faith.

Elsewhere, the apostle Paul clearly teaches that what is signified in baptism (buried and raised with Christ) actually occurs “through faith.” Christians are “buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12). Justification on account of union in Christ's death, burial and resurrection is brought about “through faith” - and is properly symbolized by dipping the new believer in and out of the water.

1 Peter 3:21 There is also an antitype which now saves us - baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Peter was speaking about Noah and his family who were saved through the floodwater. He makes a comparison between that water and baptism. One corresponds to the other (that’s what antitype means). The flood symbolized baptism. Further, Peter says that baptism now saves us.

Conscious that his statement is liable to be misunderstood, Peter explains himself. Negatively, baptism does not save because water is applied to the body: “not the removal of the filth of the flesh.” Water can only cleanse the flesh outwardly; it does not cleanse the heart from sin. Positively, baptism saves because it follows a personal response to God as indicated by the phrase “the answer of a good conscience toward God.” The Bible usually uses such terms as “believe,” “repent,” and “call upon” to describe this personal response to God. It is that aspect of baptism (what is signified, “the answer of a good conscience toward God”) rather than the external rite (the sign, the application of water) that saves. In this sense, we affirm that baptism saves.

Consider the following conversation:

Q. Are you married?
A. Yes, I am married; see, I’m wearing this ring.
Q. What does the ring signify?
A. It means that I gave my consent to my wife and, therefore, I am united to her.

Strictly speaking, the husband is united to his wife because of the marriage vows rather than the ring. Yet since the latter is the sign of their union, it is natural to speak of the ring to mean the reality it represents. He is married because he wears a marriage ring. Compare this to a similar conversation about salvation:

Q. Are you saved?
A. Yes I am saved, because I am baptized.
Q. What does baptism signify?
A. It signifies that I believe in Christ and, therefore, I am united to Him.

So, when we say that baptism saves us, we do not mean that the sacrament saves us apart from faith in Christ; we mean that baptism signifies our salvation by faith in Christ. Contrast this to the position of the Roman Catholic Church. Infants are said to be saved by baptism even though by reason of his age a baby cannot make such a personal appeal to God, as the Bible requires. 1 Peter 3:21 actually denies baptismal regeneration ex opere operato!

Conclusion

We have seen that there are a few scriptures that relate baptism to salvation. All these scriptures also associate baptism with faith and repentance. Therefore, baptism can be understood as the sign of salvation received by faith in Christ. None of these verses prove that baptism, rather than faith, brings about justification, nor that infant baptism is efficacious since personal faith is absent in infants. Therefore, baptismal regeneration is not a proven biblical doctrine.

What are the practical implications? Be careful not to be deceived, thinking that you are right with God simply because you have been baptized. You could be baptized and still be lost. On the other hand, if you truly believe in Christ - relying on Him alone for salvation, while showing your faith in holiness and love - then baptism is God’s sign to you of your saving union with Christ.

Copyright Dr Joe Mizzi. Permission to copy and distribute this article without textual changes. < BACK TO Q&A