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The Biblical Pattern of Baptism

Question: I believe that I have received the grace of regeneration at my baptism. The Scriptures teach that purification is firmly linked to the rite of baptism.

Answer: According to the Catholic Catechism, “By baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins... [baptism] purifies from all sins” (paragraphs 1263 and 1265). This implies that a person who believes in Jesus Christ is not yet born again and forgiven until he is baptized with water. Moreover, an infant is regenerated and purified from original sin by baptism even though a baby cannot believe in Christ.

On the other hand, many Christians consider baptism as a sign of salvation received by faith in Christ in response to the Gospel.

I suggest we study Cornelius’ conversion experience to verify which position is correct. Is salvation preceded and caused by baptism, or is it received by faith, and followed by baptism? Cornelius’ story is emphasized in the book of Acts because he and his relatives were the first Gentile converts admitted into the church. (Please read Acts chapter 10; 11:1-18 and 15:7-11).

An angel told Cornelius in a vision to send for Simon Peter, “who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved” (Acts 11:14). When Peter and his Jewish companions entered the house, Cornelius’ family and friends were gathered together, eager to hear what he had to say.

Peter preached the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, promising that “through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). As he spoke, the Holy Spirit came upon the group. Peter and the Jewish Christians were amazed because they realized that God had welcomed the Gentiles into the church.

At this point we must stop and ask an important question. Did they receive the Spirit by baptism? Clearly, they received the Holy Spirit before they were baptized with water. Furthermore, we must ask about the significance of the Spirit's baptism. Could it be that the Spirit was given to show that they had believed the Gospel and that their hearts were cleansed from sin through faith? The answer is a definite yes! Let me show you.

After visiting Cornelius, the apostle Peter had to defend himself before the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem to explain why he had entered a Gentile’s house and received Gentiles into the church:

And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God? (Acts 11:15-17).

According to Peter, the Holy Spirit proved that Cornelius and the other Gentiles had believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, just as the apostles and the early disciples had done before. On another occasion, Peter explained further:

Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith (Acts 15:7-9).

Do not miss this important conclusion: While hearing the Gospel, Cornelius and the Gentiles believed in Christ, and God purified their hearts by faith. This agrees perfectly with the promise that “whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).

What should Peter have done in that situation? He reasoned: “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). So Peter commanded the new converts to be baptized in the name of the Lord.

Please note that they were baptized after hearing the Gospel. They were baptized after believing in Christ. They were baptized after receiving the Spirit. They were baptized after their hearts were purified by faith.

Finally, lest you be tempted to dismiss this clear example as an exceptional case, please listen again to the apostle Peter. He declared before the Jerusalem council: “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we (Jews) shall be saved in the same manner as they (Cornelius and the other Gentiles)” (Acts 15:11). Salvation by faith in Christ (followed by baptism) is the pattern for all people, whether Jews or Gentiles.

Though I take no pleasure in contradicting your beliefs, I must gently and yet firmly point out that baptism is not the means by which we receive salvation. We are forgiven and purified by faith in Christ, followed by baptism to signify this amazing truth.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi