Baptismal Regeneration

By James M. Rochford

For more resources on this subject, see our earlier article “Catholicism.”

Roman Catholics—and some Protestant denominations—teach the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. The Catholic Catechism states, “The whole organism of the Christian’s supernatural life has its roots in Baptism.”[1] It states:

Christian initiation is accomplished by three sacraments together: Baptism which is the beginning of new life; Confirmation which is its strengthening; and the Eucharist which nourishes the disciple with Christ’s Body and Blood for his transformation in Christ.[2]

Through the Holy Spirit, Baptism is a bath that purifies, justifies, and sanctifies.[3]

According to the Catholic Catechism, baptism does away with original sin:

By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin. In those who have been reborn nothing remains that would impede their entry into the Kingdom of God, neither Adam’s sin, nor personal sin, nor the consequences of sin, the gravest of which is separation from God.[4]

Infant Baptism

The Catholic Catechism states that babies should be baptized to remove original sin:

Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.[5]

The practice of infant Baptism is an immemorial tradition of the Church. There is explicit testimony to this practice from the second century on, and it is quite possible that, from the beginning of the apostolic preaching, when whole “households” received baptism, infants may also have been baptized.[6]

Baptism is the source of that new life in Christ from which the entire Christian life springs forth.[7]

They base infant baptism on passages which describe entire households being baptized (Acts 16:15, 33; 18; 11:14; 1 Cor. 1:16). Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong writes, “Paul in Colossians 2:11-13 makes a connection between Baptism and circumcision. Israel was the church before Christ [Acts 7:38; Rom. 9:4]. Circumcision, given to eight-day-old boys, was the seal of the covenant God made with Abraham, which applies to us also [Gal. 3:14, 29]. It was a sign of repentance and future faith [Rom. 4:11]… Likewise, Baptism is the seal of the New Covenant in Christ.’”[8]

What about those who are never baptized?

The Catholic Catechism goes on to say that those who die before being baptized are saved, because they experience the “baptism of blood” and this “brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament. For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.”[9] This applies to children who were never baptized as well,[10] though we are to “pray for their salvation.”[11]

Passages in Favor of Baptismal Regeneration

(Jn. 3:5) Does this passage refer to water baptism?

(1 Pet. 3:21) Can baptism save us?

(Acts 2:38) Is baptism necessary for salvation?

(Rom. 6:3-4) Is this passage describing water baptism?—or something else?

A Biblical Response to Baptismal Regeneration

The Greek word for baptism is “baptizo” (pronounced bap-TEASE-oh), which literally means “to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk).” This word describes immersion into Jesus himself (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27), fire (Mt. 3:11), suffering (Mt. 10:38-40), judgment (Lk. 12:50), and Moses (1 Cor. 10:2). Because baptism can refer to any number of substances, we need to look to the context to understand its meaning. Surely baptism into Christ is essential for salvation (1 Cor. 12:13), but is water baptism necessary? We do not believe so for a number of reasons:

First, there is not a single passage in the NT that states that we will be damned without being baptized. The Bible universally teaches that salvation is by faith alone (Jn. 1:12; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9). Moreover, when the Philippian jailor asked Paul what he should do to be saved, he simply said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). That is, Paul didn’t add the condition of baptism. If baptism was necessary for salvation, then the thief on the cross would not really be saved, because he was never baptized. And yet, Jesus affirmed that he would be in heaven (Lk. 23:43).

Second, Paul’s main ministry was not baptism—but preaching the gospel. If baptism was necessary for salvation, then why would Paul write this?

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. 16 Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor. 1:14-17).

Baptism was so unimportant to Paul that he couldn’t even remember who he baptized there. Paul writes that he is thankful that he didn’t baptize many in Corinth, but how would this fit with the notion that baptism is essential for salvation?

Third, the Bible teaches that we can receive the Holy Spirit apart from baptism. Peter states, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” (Acts 10:47) Here, the spiritual baptism clearly occurred before the water baptism. Spiritual baptism is the clearest sign of salvation that we could have (Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; 1 Cor. 12:13).

While the NT does command us to be baptized as a sign of our conversion and commitment to Christ (Mt. 28:19), nowhere does it teach that baptism is necessary for salvation.

A Biblical Response to Infant Baptism

The Bible no doubt teaches that infants are saved. Isaiah writes that there is an age before a child is able to “know to refuse the evil and choose the good” (Is. 7:16). The children of Israel were not held responsible for the sins of their parents during the Wandering, because they had “no knowledge of good or evil” (Deut. 1:39). They inherited the land—the blessing of God—because they were ignorant to the sins of their parents. Therefore, God didn’t punish them for what they could not have known. In this passage, David said he would go to be with his infant baby, who had died (2 Sam. 12:23). David believed in an afterlife, and he thought that he was going to be with God after death (Ps. 16:10-11), and the NT authors claim that he is in heaven, too (Rom. 4:6-8). This demonstrates that his infant must also be in heaven. In addition, Jesus implies that little children will be in heaven (Mk. 10:14; Mt. 18:3; 19:14), and he claimed that there were those who were “blind” to sin (Jn. 9:41).

However, while infants are forgiven by the mercy of God, we disagree with the practice of infant baptism, because of the implications that it gives regarding salvation. As we have argued above, we do not believe that baptism performs anything for our salvation. Rather, it is a sign of our salvation. Since infants are not able to make a clear profession of faith yet (because they are below the age of accountability), we disagree with the practice of baptizing an infant.

Of course, we aren’t against celebrating the birth of babies into our community. We should have celebrations like this when believers have children. This is healthy. However, we worry that infant baptism could have two negative effects in a Christian fellowship:

REASON #1: It could have negative effects on the child. The Bible is clear that we gain salvation by accepting it. John writes, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:12-13). Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Since babies aren’t able to do either of these things, we think it is wrong to baptize an infant as though they have. If baptism is a sign of our profession of faith and trust in Christ, then it would be wrong to baptize an infant who can’t possibly make such a profession. Could it be possible that millions of people today think that they are forgiven because of their baptism as an infant—even though they actually aren’t? We shutter at such a thought and hope to avoid it for our children.

REASON #2: It could have negative effects on non-Christian observers. As believers, we might baptize our baby as a purely superfluous ceremony or ritual. But, what will a non-Christian observer think about this practice? It is likely that this could have a negative effect on non-Christian guests, who would gain the wrong view of Christian salvation.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1266.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1275.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1227.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1263.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1250.

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1252.

[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1254.

[8] Armstrong, Dave. A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute, 2003. 5.

[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1258-59.

[10] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1261.

[11] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1283.