A Proper Understanding of Baptism

Catholic Apologetics #65

May you have a blessed Easter!

Easter has always been a time when Holy Mother Church places a special emphasis upon the Sacrament of Baptism. In antiquity, catechumens were baptized at the Easter Vigil. The Mass on Holy Saturday is replete with powerful imagery for baptism, from the lighting of the Paschal Candle, to the various Old Testament lessons, to the blessing of the holy water at the baptismal font. Thus, during this Eastertide, it is eminently appropriate to refresh our knowledge of the basic catechism on Baptism.

Baptism Is Explicitly Mentioned in Scripture

Baptism is the means by which we are made children of God and have original sin removed from our souls. While all of the Sacraments were instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ, Baptism itself is explicitly mentioned several times in Sacred Scripture: John 3:3-5, Matthew 28:19, and Acts 2:38-39 are but three examples.

Proper Matter and Form of Baptism

Our Lord Jesus Christ told His disciples the exact formula that must be used for a valid Baptism when He said:

“All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matthew 8:18-20).

It is vitally important that each and every baptized person be baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. To be baptized only in the name of Jesus does not constitute an authentic baptism because it does not follow the formula established by Jesus Himself. All Sacraments must have two proper parts – form and matter. These are solemnly defined by Holy Mother Church and no prelate or priest may change them on his own authority.[1]

In Baptism, for example, we must be baptized with water. Secondly, baptism must have the proper form, meaning that water must be poured over the individual’s head three times while the priest says the words: “Ego te baptízo in nómine Patris, et Fílii, et Spíritus Sancti.”[2]

Christ Instituted the Sacrament of Baptism

All seven Sacraments were instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ. While some may incorrectly think that St. John the Baptist instituted the Sacrament of Baptism or that the Apostles instituted the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, the Church’s clear teaching is that the Lord Jesus Christ alone instituted all the Sacraments, as stated in the Catechism of the Council of Trent:

“Since human justification comes from God, and since the Sacraments are the wonderful instruments of justification, it is evident that one and the same God in Christ, must be acknowledged to be the author of justification and of the Sacraments.” 

St. John the Baptist preached a “baptism of repentance” which called for those who received it to repent. It was not the Sacrament of Baptism which Our Lord instituted. It was more of what we would consider a Sacramental. For that reason, the Apostles baptized those who had received the Sacramental given by St. John the Baptist with the actual Sacrament of Baptism.

St. Jerome writes, “Those who were baptized with John’s baptism needed to be baptized with the baptism of our Lord.” Likewise, St. Augustine says, “Our sacraments are signs of present grace, whereas the sacraments of the Old Law were signs of future grace.” In Acts 19:1-5, St. Paul baptizes several people that were previously baptized in repentance by John. Why? They were baptized not only because they did not know of the Holy Ghost but also because they had not received the baptism of Christ.

How Does Baptism Work?

In Sacramental Theology, the Church teaches that the Sacraments work ex opere operato (Latin, meaning “from the work performed”), which was defined by the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent dogmatically defined that grace is always conferred by a Sacrament, “in virtue of the rite performed and not as a mere sign that grace has already been given, or that the sacrament stimulates the faith of the recipient and thus occasions the obtaining of grace, or that what determines the grace is the virtue of either the minister or recipient of a sacrament.” 

Thus, provided there is no obstacle placed in the way (e.g., improper matter used, the wrong words said, the minister not having the proper intention), every Baptism properly administered confers the grace intended by the Sacrament.[3] The reception of Baptism does not depend on the sanctity, or faith, of the individual priest conferring it since it is ultimately Christ acting through all the Sacraments in the conferring of grace. 

What Are the Effects of Baptism?

Baptism, first and foremost, clears all sin from our soul. This is why we are baptized – we want the sin of Adam (original sin) washed away. Every human person aside from the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived with original sin.[4]

Through Baptism original sin is washed away, and at the same time, if we are baptized after having committed sins ourselves (actual sin) those sins are washed away as well, along with all eternal and temporal punishment due to them. If we were to die immediately after Baptism, our soul would go straight to Heaven.

Most Protestants view Baptism as the covering up of our sins. That is not correct. Baptism completely washes the soul clean. We receive sanctifying grace, which raises us up to a supernatural level; Baptism regenerates and saves the person. In this respect, an indelible mark is placed on the soul that initiates him into the life of the Church and allows him to receive the other Sacraments. Even if a baptized person goes to hell, this mark will remain for all eternity on the soul.

Through Baptism we become sharers in the Divine Nature of the Blessed Trinity. We become sons of God and tabernacles of the Most Holy. We become temples for the Holy Spirit. In Baptism we are born again, as St. Peter writes of the divine sonship in Baptism as “…Being born again not of corruptible seed, but incorruptible, by the word of God who liveth and remaineth forever” (1 Peter 1:23). In Baptism we are buried in Christ so that we might rise with Him (cf. Romans 6:3-4). 

The Catechism of the Council of Trent states: “…it should be taught that by virtue of this Sacrament we are not only delivered from what are justly deemed the greatest of all evils, but [we] are also enriched with invaluable goods and blessings. Our souls are replenished with divine grace, by which we are rendered just and children of God and are made heirs to eternal salvation.”


In the continuation of this article we will examine, among other topics, Infant Baptism and Non-Catholic Baptism.

(Read Part 2: A Proper Understanding of Baptism)

[1] If either improper matter or improper form is used in the administration of a sacrament, the Church teaches that this sacrament is “invalid.” This is a precise theological term meaning the sacrament never actually took place. Some years ago, for example, there was a priest in Australia who has baptizing with an incorrect formula. On February 29, 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Pope Benedict XVI, ruled that these baptisms were invalid and all those people were in fact not baptized. Thus, they had to go through the baptismal ritual again so as to be correctly and truly baptized.

[2] In the Roman Rite, these words were normally pronounced in Latin. Following the promulgation of the new rite, it became commonplace to use the vernacular. The Church does accept this as a valid and proper form.

[3] The Council of Trent teaches: “If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify; or, that they do not confer that grace on those who do not place an obstacle thereunto; as though they were merely outward signs of grace or justice received through faith, and certain marks of the Christian profession, whereby believers are distinguished amongst men from unbelievers; let him be anathema.” (Session VII. On The Sacraments In General. Canon 6.)

[4] Do note, that Our Lord was also conceived without original sin, but He is a divine Person, not a human person. And St. John the Baptist was born without original sin, but he was conceived with original sin. He was cleansed from original sin when he leapt in his mother’s womb, a miracle we remember as part of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.
“Then was accomplished the prophetic utterance of the angel that the child should ‘be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb’. Now as the presence of any sin whatever is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from the stain of original sin.” – Catholic Encyclopedia