Baptism and Regeneration

Some of those who argue in support of Catholic teachings on baptismal regeneration assure me that all the Church Fathers affirmed that in this sacrament our sins are forgiven and our souls regenerated. I recentry encountered a Romanist who assured me that the Bible makes this very clear! He charged me to “Look up John 3:5, for starters!”

The Question: Did all the Church Fathers affirm that in the sacrament of Baptism our sins are forgiven and our souls regenerated?

The Response: It would appear that this person who so vigorously waves the Catholic banner of doctrinal purity was declaring that, without exception, every one of the church fathers supported the fantasy of baptismal regeneration. Could it be he was correct in making this declaration? After all, even a blind hog occasionally roots up an acorn. Before examining the proof text he offered, I first sought to determine whether every Early Church Father indeed did support this doctrine so beloved of Rome and those who speak for her.

As it turned out, my abbreviated search of the early church fathers failed to turn up anyone whose writings disagreed with the Catholic apologist's claim. This is not to say the Fathers had a right understanding of the doctrine, as may be seen in this paragraph from the Catechism:

1213. Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua),[Cf. Council Of Florence: DS 1314: vitae spiritualis ianua.] and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: 'Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.'[Roman Catechism II, 2, 5; Cf. Council Of Florence: DS 1314; CIC, cann.]--Catechism of the Catholic Church, © 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc.

Is the above teaching in line with Scripture? No. In the New Testament, baptism is the believer's public profession of his inner faith, his testimony that he had come to Christ.

The Scriptures teach that through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of repentance and faith, a person is united to Christ, forgiven for all sin, accepted by God, adopted into the family of God and given the gift of eternal life. Baptism is the outward sign of the inward reality of these spiritual truths and a seal to the believer of their reality.--William Webster, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, © 1996 Banner of Truth Trust, p. 96

The error in the Catholic understanding that one is admitted to the Church by the ritual of baptism parallels the Old Testament Jewish belief that one is admitted into a covenant relationship with God as a consequence of the rite of circumcision. Paul addressed this concept of sacramental regeneration in Chapters 2, 3 and 4 of his letter to the Romans. In this passage, he showed the differences between the outward act of circumcision and the inner spiritual circumcision of the heart. Why not read these three chapters and then look again at the above citation from the Catholic Catechism?

When the apostolic age had ended, things changed and the Church began to look to baptism as the means of spiritual regeneration. But it did not immediately break the link between baptism and repentance and faith.

Although the post-apostolic Church lost the New Testament pattern for baptism, it never separated the sacrament from the exercise of repentance and faith. So while the Church came to teach baptismal regeneration, true conversion was still safeguarded by a biblical emphasis on repentance as turning from sin and the world, and faith as the giving of oneself to Christ in self-surrender and trust.--William Webster, Op. cit., p. 97

A reliable Catholic source informs that John Chrysostom, Theophylactus and Terutullian did not believe the baptisms conducted by disciples and recounted in John 3 and 4 were anything but the ritual baptisms for repentance required of all Jews. In order that they can then go forward to support the concept of baptismal regeneration later on, they offer the argument that the Holy Ghost had not been given until after the Resurrection.

The more probable opinion seems to be that baptism, as a sacrament, had its origin when Christ commissioned His Apostles to baptize, as narrated in John, iii and iv. There is nothing directly in the text as to the institution, but as the Disciples acted evidently under the instruction of Christ, He must have taught them at the very outset the matter and form of the sacrament which they were to dispense. It is true that St. John Chrysostom (Hom., xxviii in Joan.), Theophylactus (in cap. iii, Joan.), and Tertullian (De Bapt., c. ii) declare that the baptism given by the Disciples of Christ as narrated in these chapters of St. John was a baptism of water only and not of the Holy Ghost; but their reason is that the Holy Ghost was not given until after the Resurrection. As theologians have pointed out, this is a confusion between the visible and the invisible manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The authority of St. Leo (Ep. xvi ad Episc. Sicil.) is also invoked for the same opinion, inasmuch as he seems to hold that Christ instituted the sacrament when, after His rising from the dead, He gave the command (Matthew 28): "Go and teach . . . baptizing"; but St. Leo's words can easily be explained otherwise, and in another part of the same epistle he refers to the sanction of regeneration given by Christ when the water of baptism flowed from His side on the Cross; consequently, before the Resurrection. All authorities agree that Matt., xxviii, contains the solemn promulgation of this sacrament, and St. Leo does not seem to intend more than this.--Catholic Encyclopedia, © 1913 Encyclopedia Press, Inc.; Electronic version copyright © 1996 by New Advent, Inc.

Tertullian offers some expectedly convoluted arguments to explain how Old Testament saints might have been saved without being baptized. How simple it is to start with an idea and then work backward to force history and revelation into submission to that idea.

Here, then, those miscreants provoke questions. And so they say, “Baptism is not necessary for them to whom faith is sufficient; for withal, Abraham pleased God by a sacrament of no water, but of faith.” But in all cases it is the later things which have a conclusive force, and the subsequent which prevail over the antecedent. Grant that, in days gone by, there WAS SALVATION BY MEANS OF BARE FAITH [my emphasis], before the passion and resurrection of the Lord. But now that faith has been enlarged, and is become a faith which believes in His nativity, passion, and resurrection, there has been an amplification added to the sacrament, viz., the sealing act of baptism; the clothing, in some sense, of the faith which before was bare, and which cannot exist now without its proper law. For the law of baptizing has been imposed, and the formula prescribed: “Go,” He saith, “teach the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The comparison with this law of that definition, “Unless a man have been reborn of water and Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of the heavens,” has tied faith to the necessity of baptism. Accordingly, all thereafter who became believers used to be baptized. Then it was, too, that Paul, when he believed, was baptized; and this is the meaning of the precept which the Lord had given him when smitten with the plague of loss of sight, saying, “Arise, and enter Damascus; there shall be demonstrated to thee what thou oughtest to do,” to wit — be baptized, which was the only thing lacking to him. That point excepted, he had sufficiently learnt and believed “the Nazarene” to be “the Lord, the Son of God.”--A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, Edd., The Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol 3, B o o k s F o r T h e A g e s, AGES Software, Version 2.0 © 1997, p. 1225

Tertullian had plenty of answers for all those sticky questions, such as “What about the original Apostles, none of whom we are told received that saving baptism?” Once again, starting from a favored position, he works backward to bend what we do know to suit his purpose – a practice still well beloved of the Roman Teaching Authority. He explains away this apparent “oversight” on the part of Jesus in this clever way:

And now, as far as I shall be able, I will reply to them who affirm “that the apostles were unbaptized.” For if they had undergone the human baptism of John, and were longing for that of the Lord, then since the Lord Himself had defined baptism to be one; (saying to Peter, who was desirous of being thoroughly bathed, “He who hath once bathed hath no necessity to wash a second time;” which, of course, He would not have said at all to one not baptized;) even here we have a conspicuous proof against those who, in order to destroy the sacrament of water, deprive the apostles even of John's baptism. Can it seem credible that “the way of the Lord,” that is, the baptism of John, had not then been “prepared” in those persons who were being destined to open the way of the Lord throughout the whole world?--A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, Op. cit., p. 1223

The apologist pointed to a proof text in the book of John, Chapter 3 Verse 5, as did the Catholic Encyclopedia writer. What does it say? As always, let us examine the text in a bit of context:

1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?
5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?
10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
—John 3:1-11

This is a wonderful account of great import. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and member of the powerful Sanhedrin. [Note: It was he and Joseph of Arimathaea who provided the required two votes for acquittal when the Sanhedrin tried our Savior.] For such a man to approach Jesus is evidence of his intense earnestness. We also see clear evidence of Jesus' divine character in this passage. He was not at all depressed that the authorities resisted Him or by the weak faith of the masses. Nor was He excited at the possibility of making a convert of such a powerful man. We see no excitement. No undue deference. No compromise. No accommodation. No attempt to persuade. At the same time, divine Jesus displays no superiority, no irony, no dogmatism. He does not even mention the miracles He had done and which, quite likely, first attracted the attention of His visitor. Indeed, the scene is one of dignity and serenity. A seeker has come to be taught.

Jesus was a Jew speaking to a Jew. Both knew well the meaning of ritual immersion for purification of Levitical defilement and the removal of moral defilement that proselytes were required to undergo before admittance to the full privileges of Israel. These images must have been in the forefront of Nicodemus' mind. Jesus cut right to the chase, as it were, when He declared, “Except a man be born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Wow! This must have exploded in the Pharisee's brain like a 4th of July rocket. After all, as a Pharisee and ruler of the Temple, Nicodemus surely was convinced that he one day would walk the streets in the Kingdom of God.

The reference to being born again was a common one among Jews. Proselytes to Judaism, for example, were often referred to as being 'new-born.” The term was applied to people in a variety of situations: a bridegroom on his marriage, the Chief of the Academy on his promotion, a king upon his enthronement. This common expression then, was also a fluid one. It is important to understand both it and what it implies. Of course, it was but a metaphor and never intended to convey a real regeneration. For the proselytes, it meant they had entered into a new relationship to man, just as if they had actually been reborn. All the old kinship ties had been changed, for he was a new man, another man. Being reborn implied a new state, when all a man's past was past and all the sins of that past forgiven.

Poor, confused Nicodemus. How in the world could he, bound up in legalism and submitted to the Law, understand this teaching? Even if he could have imagined that Jesus was pointing to repentance – which would have given him the status of 'new-born' – it would not have helped. Remember, this second birth was only a metaphor and, in Jewish eyes, a consequence of his having taken upon himself 'the Kingdom.” He would not have understood it to be a cause and condition for it. The proselyte had taken upon himself 'the Kingdom' and therefore was 'born' anew. This in no way coincided with Jesus' teaching that one must be born again in order to see the Kingdom of God.

In this conflict of views, do we not see in microcosm what separates Catholicism and true Christianity? Like the proselytes of Nicodemus' time, the Catholic Church teaches that in baptism, the individual 'puts on the Kingdom' and thus is reborn. The Christian, however, seeks first the Kingdom of God and by faith is born again. The Roman church wrongfully boasts of 2000 years of existence, yet in all that time they have failed to grasp the true meaning of what Jesus said to Nicodemus.

That Nicodemus was befuddled can be seen by his response to the words of our Lord:

“How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?”

Nicodemus was being offered a full doctorate in soteriology, had only he known how to receive the teaching. There is only one gate through which a man might enter the Kingdom of God, but in his fleshly perspective, he could not see it. In the world of Nicodemus, a man might strive by outward conformity to the rules to become a new creature, but he never would attain to being one. That the true Kingdom of God is spiritual, where a man must first be reborn in order to become a new creature, was a concept utterly alien to his thinking. How could he become that new man?

John the Baptist had pointed to the new gate with his water baptism for repentance, with its call to put away the old things. By repentance, one turned away from his sinful ways and passed through the gate of being and all that was lacking was the rebirth from above. I wonder, did Nicodemus hear the sound of the wind rushing past? Surely he had heard its voice, but had no idea from where it came or to where it was going – just like all who are born of the Spirit. Those who are saved heard the voice of the Spirit Who originated the new being, but the origination of that being or the further development into all that it might and would become are beyond the range of man's observation. Nicodemus had heard the voice of the Wind, but he did not believe, because he could not understand how such things could be.

But surely Nicodemus the Pharisee and a ruler of the Temple knew about Moses and how Moses had proclaimed that all who would lift their eyes to the uplifted bronze serpent would be saved. Clearly he must have understood the Jewish tradition that those who were spared death by serpent sting had lifted their eyes not just to the bronze serpent but on up to God Himself and received His mercy. In this lies the true interpretation of what Jesus taught. If the uplifted serpent, as a symbol, brought life to those who believed and looked and looked to the giving, pardoning love of God, then, in the truest sense, shall the uplifted Son of God give true life to everyone that believes, looking up in Him to the giving and forgiving love of God.

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.--John 3:14-15

In this final and highest teaching, which contains all that Nicodemus, or indeed the whole Church, could require or be able to know, Jesus explained to him and to us the how of the new birth. All that is necessary is to believe, to have that saving faith which is an unmerited gift of God, and to look to the Son of Man in His perfected work to perceive and to receive the gift of God's love and our healing.

With this, the record of Christ's meeting with the Pharisee ends. In it, we are told all, but no more than the Church needs to know. The glorious syllables of that profound teaching echo down through the centuries, proclaiming the Gospel message:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.--John 3:16

Hopefully, the reader has seen that Rome's understanding of the new birth is every bit as confused as was that of Nicodemus. The truth is to be found in the Word of God, not the word of Rome.

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