Does baptism regenerate, or is it only a symbolic washing?

When it comes to baptism by water, I always have to ask myself, what did Jesus do?  Aren’t we supposed to live our lives as Jesus did?  I want to do all I can to pick up my cross and follow Jesus.  Jesus was baptized, why wouldn’t I do the same?

I had a Protestants ask me one time the following:  How did the “good thief” get into heaven without being baptized?  I said since you belong to a Bible based church, can you tell me where in the Bible does it read that the “good thief” was NOT baptized?  He shut up and never did show me that Sacred Scripture.  Most Fundamentalists believe that baptism is only a symbolic washing-an ordinance, not a sacrament.  Catholics believe that baptism is a sacrament of the NT instituted by Christ.  Catholics believe that through baptism all sin, original and actual, is wiped away.  The life of God, called sanctifying grace, is infused into the soul, and a person is born again of water and the Holy Spirit (Jn 3:5).  Jesus made baptism a condition for entering heaven Jn 3:5; Mk 16:16).  In Acts 2:38, St. Peter says that through baptism our sins are forgiven and we receive the Holy Spirit.  St. Paul says that we are given new life (regeneration) through baptism.  Titus 3:5 tells us that we are saved “by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit,” which refers to baptism.  1 Peter 3:20-21 says that “baptism…saves you now.”

In essence, Fundamentalists confuse the baptism of Jesus with the baptism of John the Baptist.  John’s baptism was only a symbolic washing.  However, John says that Jesus’ baptism would give the Holy Spirit, whereas his own did not.  At the time of the Reformation, many Protestants rejected baptism as a sacrament of regeneration because it did not fit with their new and unorthodox notion of justification by faith alone.

Jesus would not have made baptism a condition for entering heaven if it were only symbolic.  The writings of the early Church Fathers show that they all taught that water baptism regenerates.  The idea that baptism is only a symbolic washing arose centuries later with the Reformation.


What are your thoughts on baptism?



4 thoughts on “Only a symbolic Washing?

  1. Can you tell me why Catholics don’t view the word “baptize” to mean what the original Greek word “baptizo” meant, which is an immersion, or an overwhelming. Why is the word treated as if it meant to have water poured on someone, or sprinkled on someone, instead of the literal meaning of being immersed in water? After all, the bible does say in Romans 6:4, that baptism is a “burial”.

    1. Thanks so much Jim for your comment. I want to also thank you again for coming to a Catholic to get your answers about a Catholic question. I always hear from people that went to a non-Catholic to get their answers about Catholic questions. It’s like the blind leading the blind. I, as Catholic would seek out another Catholic and expect them to honestly answer my Protestant question. So I am happy and glad you have turned to a Catholic. So let’s begin.

      You have inquired about the Catholic view on baptism and the correct method of performing this Sacrament. Jim, you have come to the right place, let’s clear this up right now.

      In the Catholic Church, there are three forms of baptism that are considered valid: immersion, pouring, and sprinkling, the last of which is commonly referred to as baptism by aspersion. Among the three valid forms, aspersion is NOT permitted in the Church today, but it is considered valid. Put another way, Jim, we could say baptism by aspersion is valid but not permitted. Immersion and pouring are both valid and permitted.
      Now let’s take a look at your point about baptism by immersion.

      There are at least three reasons why your “immersion-only” argument is unbiblical.

      1. The Greek word, baptizo, does not only mean “to immerse”
      Barclay M. Newman’s A Concise Dictionary of the New Testament defines baptismos, which possesses the same root as the verb, baptizo, but in the form of a noun: “ritual washing, ablution, baptism; washing (of hands).” This definition would certainly include full immersion. But the “ritual washing” and “washing (of hands)” part of the definition would also include the kinds of washing we see in the Bible. In Deuteronomy 21:6 where the elders of a city were commanded to wash their hands over a heifer as part of a ritual to purge their land of guilt over a slain person whose killer was undiscovered. This kind of ritual “washing” would be considered just as much a “baptism” as would a “baptism” where someone is entirely immersed.
      Also consider Romans 6:3-4:
      Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
      From a SYMBOLIC perspective, immersion better portrays being “buried” with Christ. And that is at least one reason why the Catholic Church teaches immersion to be a valid form of baptism. But baptizo is not limited to immersion in the New Testament. It can also mean, as Newman points out: “to wash,” as in, the “washing” of hands. In fact, according to Luke 11:37-38, a “ritual washing” and “the washing of hands” can be joined as one:
      While [Jesus] was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him; so he went in and sat at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash (Gr. ebaptisthe, aorist, third person singular form of baptizo) before dinner.
      This was obviously not immersion. There were “baptisms” the Pharisees did that would involve full immersion, but this was not one of them. Mark 7:3-4 gives us an even more complete picture of the nature of the “baptism” being referred to here: “For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands. . .” The Greek word used here for wash is ebaptisthe, or “baptize.”
      Moreover, Jesus prophesied that with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the apostles would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5), and yet its fulfillment in Acts 2:4 is described in two distinct ways, neither of which indicating “immersion.” In Luke 24:49, for example, we find this same “baptism in the Holy Spirit” referred to as being “clothed” upon:
      And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.
      To be “clothed” does not indicate an immersion; rather, a partial covering. And yet, this is clearly baptism in the Holy Spirit.
      Jim, as an aside here, would not pouring be a better symbol for “baptism” in this instance than immersion would be? Just sayin’. . .
      We should also look at Acts 2:16-17 where we read:
      But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”
      Could the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” of which Jesus speaks also be understood as being “immersed” in the Holy Spirit? Yes, it could, but as Catholics we are bound by God’s word. This biblical text describes the Holy Spirit being “poured out” upon the recipients of this great gift. Thus, it would be UNBIBLICAL to claim that “baptism” can only refer to immersion.
      We also have a very telling prophecy from the Old Testament that must be brought to bear in any discussion of baptism:
      I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
      This text, it is certain, is speaking of the coming of the New Covenant and the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit that would come with its advent. Reminiscent of Ananias’s call to St. Paul, “[A]rise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16) or Jesus’ proclamation, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.” Jim, how could one not see a fulfillment in baptism here? And, at the same time, how could someone not see the possibility of baptism by something other than immersion as well?

      2. How did Jesus and the New Testament ministers baptize?
      What about the claim that “Jesus was immersed,” as was “the Ethiopian Eunuch” in Acts 8? Actually, Jim, these arguments represent two very common missteps among Protestants.
      Let’s examine Jesus’ baptism first:
      Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:13-17).
      Many assume that when the text says that “he went up immediately from the water,” it means that he was first under the water and then came up from under the water, and that this constituted his baptism. But that is NOT what the text says: it says Jesus was baptized and then he came up from, or out of the water. The text is silent as to the mode of baptism St. John the Baptist used.
      As a practical matter, it would seem St. John did not immerse Jesus. Anyone who has been to the Holy Land and has been to “Bethany beyond the Jordan” (John 1:28) where Jesus is believed to have been baptized (I have not been myself, Jim but I do know several who have been, perhaps you have been there) knows that the water there would have been about knee-high. This is likely why the ancient works of art depicting this sacred event present St. John as pouring water on our Lord’s head.
      Similarly, when it comes to St. Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch, we find:
      And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing (Acts 8:36-39).
      Just as the case of our Lord’s baptism, the text itself is unclear. Philip and the eunuch “went down into the water.” Philip baptized him. And then they came up from the water. It simply does not tell us the manner in which the eunuch was baptized.

      3. History confirms the Catholic practice.
      The Didache, dated to the first century by most modern scholars is of enormous value because in it we see a first-century catechism for catechumens which was most likely penned before all of the books of the New Testament were even written. And what do we find concerning baptism?
      Concerning baptism, baptize in this manner: . . . baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living water. If there is no living [“running”] water, baptize in other water; and, if you are not able to use cold water, use warm. If you have neither, pour water three times upon the head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (7:1).
      St. Hippolytus (A.D. 215) is unclear as to which manner of baptism he prefers. He appears to recommend immersion but makes it clear that immersion is not essential to the sacrament when he says:
      If water is scarce, whether as a constant condition or on occasion, then use whatever water is available (The Apostolic Tradition).
      Pope Cornelius (A.D. 251) writes in very plain terms, in his Letter to Fabius of Antioch:
      As [Novatian] seemed about to die, he received Baptism in the bed where he lay, by pouring.”
      Tertullian (A.D. 205), mentions “sprinkling” as a valid form for baptism, even though he evidently (from his writing) preferred immersion:
      There is absolutely nothing which makes men’s minds more obdurate than the simplicity of the divine works which are visible in the act, when compared with the grandeur which is promised thereto in the effect; so that from the very fact, that with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, finally, without expense, a man is dipped in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner, the consequent attainment of eternity is esteemed the more incredible (On Baptism).
      St. Cyprian (A.D. 255) responding to a man who was asking him the specific question of whether or not the pouring of water in baptism would be valid:
      You have asked also, dearest son, what I thought about those who obtain the grace of God while they are weakened by illness – whether or not they are to be reckoned as legitimate Christians who have not been bathed with the saving water, but have had it poured over them.
      In the saving sacraments, when necessity compels and when God bestows His pardon, divine benefits are bestowed fully upon believers; nor ought anyone be disturbed because the sick are poured upon or sprinkled when they receive the Lord’s grace.
      Whether we want to speak of the biblical texts involved in the discussion, the historical first-century context of biblical baptisms, or the era of the Fathers of the Church, it is very clear. Do you dunk? Do you pour? Do you sprinkle? The answer is: all of the above.

      Thanks again Jim, I hope this help you understand the Catholic Church teachings on the procedure of one of our Sacraments, Baptism.
      God Bess,

  2. Hi Bob. Thanks for your input concerning the Catholic stance on baptism. There are various forms of the word “baptizo”. And some of those word forms do refer to simply washing your hands, or face. But the word forms that are used when speaking about baptism are different from those others. The bible is very clear as to what baptism for the forgiveness of sins is. It’s a burial and nothing else. Romans 6:4 is crystal clear on that. The bible doesn’t give us any choices on how to be baptized for the remission of our sins. If we’re not “buried with Him in baptism”, then our sins will not be forgiven. Not only that, but the same verse tells us why we have to be buried. Verse 3 tells us that we’re baptized into Jesus’ death, and so the next logical step is to be buried as He was. So that’s part of the reason why baptism is a burial. And here’s the other reason. Let’s read it from verse 4; “Therefore, we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” The reason is so that we can be raised from the dead! If we’re not buried, we can NOT be raised. That’s pretty straightforward and simple. Verse 5 says; “For IF we have been united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection.” IF we have been BURIED with Him, THEN we shall also be resurrected with Him. Now, what of we haven’t been buried with Him? The answer is obvious.. We won’t be resurrected either. Pretty sobering thoughts!

    1. Thanks again Jim the continuous of this post.
      It appears that this boils down to the definition of a word. So, Jim, according to you, “baptizo” absolutely, and without exception, has to mean “immersed.” It cannot, according to the infallible(we can talk about infallible at another time) Jim, mean anything other than “immersed.”
      As I have said before and this is still one of my favorite sayings “The Catholic Faith is like a lion in a cage, you don’t need to defend it, you simply need to open the cage door.” Let me explain this issue and let the lion out of the cage.
      First of all Jim, let’s go take a look at the Old Testament to see what it can teach us and how it can instruct us and train us in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16) and how it provides a shadow of the good things to come (Heb 10:1). Ezekiel 36:25:27, “I will SPRINKLE clean water upon you and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses [sins]…And I will put My Spirit [Holy Spirit] within you.” Jim, What does Baptism do? Through Baptism we receive the Holy Spirit and have our sins forgiven – “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you shall receive the Holy Spirit,” (Acts 2:38). So, in the OT, we are told of a future process by which clean water is SPRINKLED on people and those people are cleansed of their sins and they receive the Holy Spirit. Jim, let’s turn to the NT, we see that through the water of Baptism, we have our sins forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit. So, the Bible is pretty clear that the “sprinkling” of water is an acceptable means, to God, of having your sins forgiven and receiving the Holy Spirit. Jim, is there some process or means, other than Baptism, that you know of, by which clean water is sprinkled on people for the forgiveness of their sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit?
      Furthermore, Jim, Baptism is a sanctification – one is cleansed of their sins. How did they sanctify things in the Old Testament? We see an example in 2 Chronicles 30:15-17, “And they killed the Passover lamb [parallel to Jesus as the Passover Lamb]…And the priests and the Levites were put to shame so that they sanctified themselves…the priests sprinkled the blood which they received from the hand of the Levites. For there were many in the assembly who had not sanctified themselves.” New Testament: Hebrews 9:13, “For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls…sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself…purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” 1 Peter 1:2, “…chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with His blood.”
      Jim, how is it that the blood of Jesus Christ was sprinkled upon Peter? And what do you call the process of sanctification through this sprinkling of Jesus’ blood? Wouldn’t Baptism – by which one is sanctified – and particularly Baptism by sprinkling fit perfectly with this description by Peter? I would say yes, fit’s perfectly.
      Now, let’s look at pouring. First we see in Matthew 26:12, that pouring is associated with Jesus’ burial: “In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial.” So, your claim that pouring can in no way be symbolic of Jesus’ death and burial I would say is a false claim. The pouring of ointment prepared Jesus for burial.
      Secondly, let’s look at what happened on Pentecost. In Acts 1:5, Jesus tells the Apostles to go to Jerusalem and wait to be baptized – “baptizo” in the Greek – by the Holy Spirit. According to you, “baptizo” absolutely, and without exception, has to mean “immersed.” Yet, how does Scripture describe this baptism of the Holy Spirit? Does it say that the disciples were “immersed” in the Spirit? Does it say they were “dunked” in the Spirit? No. It says the Holy Spirit was “poured” out upon them and it uses the word “poured” three times (Acts 2:17, 18, 23)! So, to describe the “baptizo” of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God used the word “poured.” The disciples received the baptism of the Holy Spirit by having the Holy Spirit poured out upon them. Didn’t Luke know any better? Didn’t Luke know that “baptizo” can only mean “immersion”? Why is he describing the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a “pouring” out of the Holy Spirit? Didn’t God know that “baptizo” only means “immersion”? Jim, was the Word of God wrong to describe it that way?
      Also, if the direct words of Jesus Christ are not good enough for you, we see elsewhere that the Greek word “baptizo” is not always referring to immersion. As I have used before in an example, Luke 11:38 states: “The Pharisee was astonished to see that He [Jesus] did not first wash [baptizo] before dinner.” Was the Pharisee expecting Jesus to be totally immersed in water before eating dinner? Nope. We also see from Mark 7:3-4, that the Pharisees had, as did all the Jews, a tradition of washing their hands before eating. Mark 7:3-4, “For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash [nipto] their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they wash [baptizo] themselves.” So, the Pharisees usually washed their hands before eating and, if they were particularly dirty, as they would be after coming from the market, they would “baptizo” themselves. And what did this consist of? Well, we see in Luke 7:44-46 that this included not just the washing of hands, but also the washing of feet and the anointing [by pouring] with oil. Nowhere do we find mention of the Jews totally immersing themselves or their dinner guests in water before eating a meal. In other words, we see that “baptizo” did not always mean “IMMERSION,” it also meant simply “to wash.”
      In other words, Jim, your claim about Baptism by immersion being the only scriptural mode of Baptism rings hollow. It is without merit. And, it is in direct contrast to the words of Scripture and therefore NOT what the Catholic Church teaches.

      Jim, thanks again for the comment. Please come back anytime to leave additional comments.
      God Bless you

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