This post is post 9 in a series entitled Letting God Lead: My Journey Through Protestant and Catholic Beliefs. While you certainly can read this post by itself, I highly encourage you to check out the rest of the series as well. Find more about this series and a list of all of posts here. *This post contains affiliate links.
When my oldest son was born, my husband and I had a decision to make: Would we baptize him as an infant or wait? My husband was baptized as an infant in the Catholic Church we still attend today. I was baptized in 4th grade at the church my family happened to be attending at that time. Which one was correct?
Both Catholics and Protestants see baptism as very important, and yet the two groups (and various subsets within the groups) differ on details such as when a person should be baptized, how a person should be baptized and what baptism does, exactly. Hopefully this post will shed some light on the various positions.
“Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” — John 3:5
A Brief History of Baptism in the Church
B.C: Baptism was around before the beginnings of Christianity. It is not a Christian invention.
A.D: (Some?) Jewish communities began baptizing converts around the time Christianity began. The converts were first interrogated to make sure they believed in Jewish teachings. Then they were circumcised and baptized naked in order to become fully accepted into the community. (On a side note: Thank goodness we don’t usually baptize naked today!)
Bible Times: There is some question about whether or not the Bible mentions infant baptism. It does say “households” were baptized, but there is disagreement as to whether or not this would include infants.
220 A.D: The oldest explicit account of infant baptism we have today is by Tertullian around 220 A.D.
Early Church – First Few Centuries: At first, adult baptism was the norm, as Christianity was so new that most people converted into it, rather than were born into it. Adults were required to convert before they could be baptized. However, both infant and adult baptisms were practiced, and everyone pretty much got along and didn’t worry about it too much. Both methods were acceptable and people were pretty much free to choose.
**Interesting Fact: In the earliest years, new believers were baptized immediately upon conversion. But by the second century, the church began delaying baptisms until after the new convert had completed a “training period” where they would learn the church’s beliefs.
Early Church Fathers: Not a single church father found infant baptism unlawful, though of course, everyone had their own opinion on when the “optimal” time to be baptized would be. There was never any serious controversy surrounding it until the 16th century.
253 A.D: The Council of Carthage condemned the practice of withholding baptism from infants until the eighth day, and infant baptism became the new norm. It was practiced nearly universally until the 16th century.
**Interesting Fact: At one point, many people began putting off baptism until they were on their deathbed. This was because the church believed (and the Catholic church still does believe) that baptism washes away all mortal (serious) sin, and people didn’t want to risk getting baptized, committing a mortal sin, and then having to do penance afterwards. So they would wait. (We’ll get into penance and purgatory, etc next week.)
416 A.D: Infant baptism was made compulsory by Roman Law. If a person was re-baptized later, both the person and the person who baptized him/her could be put to death.
16th Century: During the Protestant Reformation, some Protestant groups (most notably the Anabaptists) began to question whether infant baptism was actually Biblical. They began “re-baptizing” (hence the name “Anabaptist–which means “baptize again”). Not all Protestants switched sides however. Some Protestant groups (including Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists) maintained the practice of infant baptism.
**Interesting Fact: Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, believed that baptism was more than a symbol. He believed that it offers forgiveness from sins and grants eternal salvation.
Today: Some churches baptize infants, while some churches wait, but not everyone gets along like they did in the early church. (When researching for this post, I found a TON of very heated, opinionated and hateful arguments. It was very annoying.)
What (Some) Protestants Believe About Baptism
Now, understand that opinions vary greatly; there is no “official” Protestant belief. This is not meant to address every single denomination. But since I grew up in the Baptist church, this series is about my journey, and Baptists and Catholics are nearly polar opposites when it comes to Baptism, that’s the perspective I’m sharing. Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments section! I’d love to hear them!
Requirements for a “Believer’s Baptism” — (Baptist Church)
- People should be baptized of their own free will.
- They must be old enough to understand what baptism is and what it means.
- They must make a confession of faith.
- Classes may or may not be required.
What Baptists Believe About Baptism
- Baptism is important because the Bible commands it. (“repent and be baptized”–Acts 2:38)
- Baptism does not forgive original sin. (That happens prior, when a person repents and makes the conscious decision to follow Christ, or as we like to call it “accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.”)
- The purpose of baptism is to make a public profession of faith (though it doesn’t really have to be public).
- Baptism is a rich symbol, but it’s just a symbol. It doesn’t necessarily “do” anything.
Typical Baptism in a Baptist Church
Who: Anyone who believes and is old enough to want to (see requirements above). Baptisms are typically done by the pastor.
Where: Many churches have a baptismal font right behind the stage, which is accessed from behind. People also have the option of getting baptized in a river, pond, lake, etc., which usually happens during special church camps or events.
When: Some churches keep the water warm to baptize anyone who wants to come forward and “accept Jesus” at the end of the service on any given Sunday. Others will wait and have a baptismal service where they baptize several people at a time.
- People are baptized by full immersion to symbolize Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection.
- They typically wear a robe with normal clothes underneath (and bring clothes to change into for afterwards!)
- The pastor will generally give a short introduction and the person will probably share their testimony.
- The pastor will ask the person some “Do you believe” type questions to make sure the person is a believing Christian.
- The pastor will dunk the person while saying “I now baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
- Much applause and rejoicing from everyone watching!
- And yes, you can hold your nose! (I know; you were curious.)
For infants: In denominations that don’t baptize infants, they often have a baby dedication ceremony instead. Basically, the mother and father bring the baby (up to age 2 or so) in front of the church, they promise to raise the baby in the faith, the church promises to do everything in their power to help, and the pastor says a prayer that the baby will grow up to know God.
What Catholics Believe About Baptism
- Baptism is important because it removes the stain of original sin (and because the Bible commands it).
- Infants should be baptized as soon as possible, as their salvation depends on it.
- While baptism guarantees salvation for infants, once the person reaches the age of reason, they must then consciously choose to follow Jesus. Otherwise, they can lose their salvation. (Baptism removes original sin, not personal sin)
- You are never too old or too young to be baptized.
- Similarly to how Protestants added baby dedications, Catholics added confirmation, in which a Catholic young person makes their official profession of faith.
- Baptisms done in other Christian churches are still considered valid (as long as they meet the requirements below). You don’t have to be re-baptized if you convert to Catholicism from another denomination.
Catholics also believe:
- Martyrs are considered “baptized in blood” and have all their sins wiped clean at the moment they die.
- If a person dies before they could be baptized, but they truly desired to be baptized, that’s good enough.
- While infants are usually baptized by a priest or deacon, anyone–even a non-Christian–could baptize a person, especially in an emergency situation, and it would still be considered valid as long as they followed the guidelines below.
Catholic Baptism Requirements for Infants
In order for a baptism to be valid, you must have three things:
- The words ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (or some version thereof, naming all three)
- The intention of baptizing.
Also, in most cases, you will also need at least one consenting parent or legal guardian, reasonable assurance that the child will be raised Catholic. Catholic godparents, special clothes, candles and oil are all customary as well, though not required.
Typical Infant Baptism in the Catholic Church
Who: Anyone. Babies born into Catholic families are generally baptized as infants (from birth to 3-7 mo). Children over 7 years and adults are baptized upon conversion and completion of a training class (RCIA).
Where: In front of the church.
When: Typically on Sundays. Either during mass or after mass as part of a private, family-only ceremony.
- The parents and godparents state their intentions/promises for the child (to baptize them and raise them in the Catholic faith)
- The priest, parents and godparents make the sign of the cross on the baby.
- One or two Scripture passages are read.
- Prayers are said.
- The baby is baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by immersion, pouring or sprinkling (Any method is fine. Immersion is rare, but it isn’t unheard of!).
- Candles are lit.
- The baby is anointed with oil.
- The priest blesses the parents.
- The baptismal certificate is filled out and filed.
Unlike the Protestant practice, which is pretty informal and doesn’t take more than 5 min at most, the Catholic practice is generally quite long and formal.
You can find a detailed description here: Rite for the Baptism of One Child. Information about the symbolism of the various parts here: The Symbols of Baptism: How Do They Work? And a personal account of one baby’s Catholic baptism here: Blessings Abounded at Our Baby’s Baptism.
Thanks to those of you who were up late with me on Facebook last night filling me in on all the details!! 🙂
Why Do Catholics Baptize Infants?
Catholics believe that baptism washes away the effects of original sin. By washing away original sin and since babies are too young to commit personal sin, a baby would be guaranteed salvation were he or she to die young. The Church sees no good reason to withhold the graces or to wait.
Protestants will say that baptism should be a personal choice, but Catholics counter that with a couple arguments. The best one is probably: Say your baby was sick and dying and you had a vaccine that would cure him. Would you wait until your baby was old enough to choose? Or would you, as the parent, make the best choice for the child, considering the grave consequences?
Babies can still grow up to be nonbelievers. You aren’t forcing them to become Christians. Simply taking away their Original Sin–which most people wouldn’t have a problem with. (They can grow up to sin all they want if they like.)
Why Do Catholics Believe Baptism Removes Original Sin?
Catholics believe that baptism removes original sin because of the following verses:
“Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” –Acts 2:38-39
“to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” –1 Peter 3:20-21
“he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” –Titus 3:5
“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” –Romans 6:4
“Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” –John 3:5
The concept is also expressed in the Nicene creed, which states, “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins” (I believe some translations say “for the forgiveness of sins”).
But the Bible Says People Have to Become Christian First!
Where? The Bible gives several accounts of people who gave a profession of faith and then were baptized, but the Bible gives accounts of a lot of different things (David committing adultery and murder, for example). There is a difference between telling what some people did and giving direction about what we are supposed to do.
Also, you must remember, Christianity was a brand new religion when the Bible was written so more people were converting in than being born in. AND the Bible isn’t an all-inclusive manual to Christianity. Just because it doesn’t include something doesn’t mean that it did or didn’t happen. That’s why we have to turn to church history to fill in the blanks.
So What Did We Ultimately Decide?
Like I mentioned in the introduction, when our first son was born, my husband and I had a choice to make: Would we baptize him in the Catholic Church or not? Here’s what we decided.
First, we met with a priest to learn more about Catholic baptism. (I believe this was a requirement?) It was during this meeting that I first learned that the Catholic Church believes that baptism washes away sin. This was news to me! After about an hour in the church basement, they sent us home with a pamphlet.
Over the next few days, I poured over the pamphlet and the Scriptures. At first, I found plenty of verses that seemed to support my (Baptist) position. Then, I found quite a few verses that seemed to support my husband’s (Catholic) position. I wasn’t completely and utterly opposed, but I definitely wasn’t convinced.
I told my husband that I had some reservations about baptizing our son in the Catholic Church since I didn’t wholeheartedly agree with everything the Catholic Church teaches that that meant, BUT that I would let him make the decision as the spiritual leader of our family. Whatever he chose, I would support.
We didn’t end up baptizing our son in the Catholic Church. Instead, one night my husband decided he couldn’t put it off any longer, we woke our son up, and my husband baptized him right there on a towel on our living room floor! (Yes, you can do that!)
This was the absolute perfect solution for us. My husband and I were (and still are) in complete agreement about our decision, and so far none of the priests we’ve mentioned it to have had any problems with it (though the paperwork thing is going to become tricky later on, as we don’t have any). We baptized our second son the same way, and we plan to do the same with our third, whenever he or she gets here! (That’s right–for those of you who haven’t heard–I am expecting 🙂 )
Personally, I think if the early Christian church can get along–we should be able to too. While I don’t see anything wrong with being baptized as an adult, I also don’t see any good reason to wait either. I’d love to hear your thoughts though! Leave them in the comments section below!
Enjoyed this post? Don’t miss the rest of the posts in the series!
Resources and Further Reading
I’m not asking you to believe because I say so. Please DON’T take my word for it! The purpose of this series is only to share what I’ve learned on my journey in order to inspire you to begin a journey of your own. Here are a few helpful resources to get you started.
Christian History Made Easy by Timothy Paul Jones, PhD