What is Baptism?

Baptism is the sacrament in which believers are “reborn as sons of God” (CCC 1213) by “water and Spirit” (John 3:5). It incorporates us into the Mystical Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13) and makes us sharers in the mission of the Church (CCC 1213). “Just as the gestation of our first birth took place in water,” the Catechism adds, “so the water of baptism truly signifies that our birth into the divine life is given to us in the Holy Spirit” (694). This divine life in the Spirit, also known as sanctifying grace, is the reason why St. Peter can say in 2 Peter 1:4 that in Christ we become “partakers of the divine nature.”

“New birth in the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1262) is not the only effect of baptism. There is also purification from sins. In baptism, all our sins are forgiven, along with all temporal punishment due for sin. The purification that takes place in baptism is so complete that in those who have just received it, “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” (1263).

These two principal effects of baptism—new birth in the Spirit and purification from sins—is brought about within the soul by the gift of sanctifying grace, also called “the grace of justification” (1266), that the Holy Spirit infuses in baptism (2024). Sanctifying grace is the healing gift of God’s life that makes us holy and pleasing to him. In the words of St. Paul, sanctifying grace makes us “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Now, this doesn’t mean that baptism reverses the temporal consequences of original sin, such as suffering, illness, death, and the frailties inherent in life, along with the weakness of character and the inclination to sin (called concupiscence) to which all human beings on earth are prone. In God’s wisdom, we’re left to “wrestle with” these consequences knowing that “an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (CCC 1264; cf. 2 Tim. 2:5).

There are other spiritual gifts that baptism brings about within the soul. One is called “the indelible spiritual mark” (CCC 1273). Also known as the baptismal seal, this mark configures the baptized to Christ as a member of his Mystical Body and constitutes the believer as belonging to Christ (1272). It is indelible in that no sin can ever remove it, even if sin does impede baptism from producing the fruits of salvation. This is why baptism cannot be repeated.

If we remain faithful to what this seal demands of us—being a faithful witness to Christ—then we will depart this life “marked with the sign of faith” and receive the inheritance of eternal life that is ours in virtue of this seal. As Paul writes, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). St. Irenaeus accordingly called baptism “the seal of eternal life.”

Baptism also gives the soul supernatural powers that enable it to live and act on a supernatural level. One set of powers is called the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. Faith enables the Christian to believe in God and everything revealed by God (CCC 1814). Hope enables the believer to trust in God’s promises (1817). And love, or charity, enables the believer to love God above all things and our neighbor out of love for God (1822).

Another set is the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which enable the believer to “live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit” (1266). There are seven: wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord (1831; cf. Isa. 11:2).

There are various names for baptism, each of which is rooted in some aspect of the sacrament. For example, it is called baptism after the ritual of immersing the person, or part of the person (e.g., top of the head), in water. The Greek word for “baptize,”baptize in, means to “plunge” or “immerse.” The immersion under water signifies “burial into Christ’s death, from which we rise up by resurrection with him” (CCC 1214; cf. Rom. 6:3-4).

The sacrament is also called the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. It is so named because of the new birth of water and Spirit that the sacrament actually brings about, without which no one “can enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

Another name for the sacrament is enlightenment, for those who receive it “are enlightened in their understanding.” Having received in baptism the Word—Jesus Christ, “the true light that enlightens every man,” the person baptized becomes a “son of light”; indeed, he becomes “light” himself (CCC 1216).

The newness that baptism brings for the believer makes it “the gateway to life in the Spirit” (CCC 1213). It gives the soul a newl ife. It gives the soul a new state—a sanctified state. It gives the soul new powers. It gives the soul a new identity as a child of God. No wonder the Church has identified baptism as “the basis of the whole Christian life.” The whole of our supernatural life as Christians, therefore, has its roots in the sacrament of baptism.

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Mar 3rd 2024

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