The Sacrament of Baptism

The Sacrament of BaptismThe Sacrament of Baptism erases original sin, gives us faith and divine life, and makes us children of God. The Holy Trinity takes possession of the soul and begins to sanctify. In this section the Catholic doctrine of baptism, and the objections that the ancient heresies and Protestant denominations have done throughout history is analyzed.

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Talking with my evangelical friends about baptism of young children

By José Miguel Arráiz

You can read it in Spanish, English and Portuguese.

DiálogoWe reproduce excerpts of conversations between Catholics and Evangelicals from the book "Talking with my evangelical friends", very useful in helping our fellow Christians understand the Catholic faith.

Martha: One of the characteristics of the real Church was that it was ONE WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT. The Bible says: “And when the days of the Pentecost were accomplished, they were all together in one place: And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, … and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost… They therefore that received his word were baptized: and there were added in that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2, 1-4, 41).

The Jerusalem Church depended on the Holy Spirit to prepare the people to be members of it. The same thing happens with the Baptist Church. In the Baptist Church, there must be an experience of religion in the heart, through the work of the Holy Spirit. In the Catholic Church, the members are admitted in infancy and they are confirmed when they reach the age of responsibility.

Joseph: Do you believe that the children can’t receive the Holy Spirit, nor be admitted into the Church until they reach what you call “the age of responsibility”?

Martha: No, note that the Bible says that they first believed, and then they received the Holy Spirit.

Joseph: But if you look at other passages of the same Bible, you’ll see that the children can receive the Holy Spirit. This was prophesied since ancient times: “It shall come to pass after this, that I will pour out my spirit upon ALL FLESH: and yourSONS and your DAUGHTERS shall prophesy: your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2,28), a promise that was fulfilled precisely on the day of Pentecost that you mention.

Do you remember how John the Baptist, when he was already in the womb of his mother, jumped with joy when he heard the voice of Mary and when he was close to his Lord? (Luke 1,41) Don’t you think that in that moment he was already anointed by the Holy Spirit? You should also remember what Jesus responds to the Pharisees when they see that the children praise him: “And the chief priests and scribes, seeing the wonderful things that he did and the children crying in the temple and saying: Hosanna to the son of David, were moved with indignation, And said to him: Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus said to them: Yea, have you never read: Out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings thou hast perfected praise?” (Matt 21,15-16)                                                                               

And if it’s true that a child can receive the Holy Spirit, I don’t see any reason why they can’t receive the baptism. St. Peter made this principle clear when he said: “Then Peter answered: Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Ghost, as well as we?” (Acts 10,47)

Martha: Peter was talking about adults.

Joseph: Yes, but the reason why we can’t deny them the baptism is because they received the Holy Spirit. If the children can do this too, I see no reason to deny it.

Martha: But the Bible is very clear —and here is another characteristic that allows us to identify the real Church— when it says that the Church is formed ONLY BY BELIEVERS and only them should be BAPTIZED[1]. Remember “They therefore that received his word were baptized” (Acts 2,41).  There is no record here, or anywhere else in the Bible, that ensures that the baptism was administered to someone who wasn’t a believer. Philip said to the eunuch, “See, here is water: What doth hinder me from being baptized?” and he answered “If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest”. When Jesus commands to baptize he says: “And he said to them: Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall he condemned.” (Mark 16,15-16). Do you see it? Believe and THEN be baptized, which means that we must first receive the right teaching.

And there are other biblical texts that confirm this idea, for example in Acts 2,38,the apostle Peter said: “But Peter said to them: Do penance: and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins. And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Do you get it?, he says TURN, How is a baby going to turn if they don’t have the age of reason? In addition, a baby doesn’t ask to be baptized, the other people baptize him, and this is not the same thing.

This also occurs with the Baptist Church. The Catholic Church is constituted by all those who were baptized in their infancy, but there is no scriptural basis in their practice.

Joseph: I’ll explain to you my opinion about these passages, but first I think we have to review other texts that also speak about baptism and that will give us a better understanding of the context.

Martha: Go on…

Joseph: Let’s see, for example, Matthew 28,19-20 where Jesus commands to the apostles: “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.” See that in this text, another order is mentioned, baptism FIRST, and THEN the teaching.

Martha: Do you mean that you believe that the Bible contradicts itself?

Joseph: Of course not, but these texts refer to different moments of the preaching. The former text explains the beginning of the Christianity and at this point, it’s logical that it had to be started by the adults. 

Let’s put ourselves in the place of the apostles: let’s imagine that we come to preach in a pagan town where the people have never heard the good news, to whom do we preach? Adults or children?

Martha: To adults.

Joseph: And would you baptize someone who doesn’t believe? Let’s put it this way. Do you think that an adult who doesn’t believe and who doesn’t know anything about baptism will agree to be baptized?

Martha: Of course not.

Joseph: That is the case of the first texts that you mentioned, the first preaching directed to the pagan adults, and what is the condition for an adult to be baptized? He has to believe, he has to ask for the baptism, like the Ethiopian did. But now comes the question. What was happening with the children of the adults who believed and were baptized?

Martha: Logically, they’ll wait to believe so they can decide for themselves if they want to be baptized.

Joseph: But that is not what the Bible says. Let’s read: “But they said: believe in the Lord Jesus: and THOU SHALT BE SAVED, AND THY HOUSE. And they preached the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house. And he, taking them the same hour of the night, washed their stripes: and HIMSELF WAS BAPTIZED, AND ALL HIS HOUSE immediately.” (Acts 16,31-33).  When Crispus, the head of a synagogue, turns, he and his family becomes baptized: “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, WITH ALL HIS HOUSE. And many of the Corinthians hearing, believed and were baptized.” (Acts 18,8). This is also the case of Lydia: “And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, one that worshipped God, did hear: whose heart the Lord opened to attend to those things which were said by Paul. And when SHE WAS BAPTIZED, AND HER HOUSEHOLD (Acts 16,14-15)[2]. St Paul remembers that he baptized the Stephen’s family (1 Cor 1,16).

When, first baptism and teaching is mentioned in Matthew 28,19-20, it refers to this stage of preaching, when the entire family have accepted the gospel. At that point, we would have to teach those who were born in Christian families so they would have to be formed in the faith. Understood in this way, both texts harmonize perfectly.

Martha: But you can’t be sure that there were children in those families. On the contrary, in these texts, it is said that they first heard the preaching and then they were baptized.

Joseph: As I said to you before, the adults heard the preaching, but when they believed the entire family was baptized, included the children, if there were any. The same passages that you mentioned at the beginning can confirm this idea if we examine them in more detail. Let’s see again Acts 2,38-39: “But Peter said to them: Do penance: and BE BAPTIZED EVERY ONE of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins. And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For THE PROMISE IS TO YOU AND TO YOUR CHILDREN and to all that are far off, whomsoever the Lord our God shall call”. Don’t overlook the detail of St. Peter as he commands to baptize clarifies that the Promise is for HIMSELF and HIS CHILDREN.

There are other texts from which you can draw the same conclusion, you can see that St. Paul wrote: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife: and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the believing husband. Otherwise your children should be unclean: BUT NOW THEY ARE HOLY. (1 Cor 7,14). Therefore, when one of the parents is a believer, the children are considered “saints” by the apostle because of that faith. This a term that is only used in the Bible to appoint the members of the Church, so you can understand that it is talking about the baptized children[3].

Martha: Wait a minute, let’s go back to Acts 2,38-39. Look at the promise that the apostle talks about. He says that they will be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, but what kind of sins can a child have? A child doesn’t steal, doesn’t kill, a child doesn’t even have bad thoughts. I understand that this promise can be for his children, but when they have any sins that can be forgiven, or what is the same, when they reach the age of reason.

Joseph: I think you’re missing something very important. It is true that a child doesn’t have personal sins…

Martha: Neither personal nor any other. 

Joseph: I’m referring to the original sin[4] that our first parents committed and the same one that we have contracted. When King David recognizes “For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and IN SINS DID MY MOTHER CONCEIVE ME. (Ps 51,5) he’s referring to this sin, and the same thing does St. Paul when he writes: “For as by the disobedience of one man, MANY WERE MADE SINNERS: so also by the obedience of one, many shall be made just” (Rom 5,19). Well, if everyone, including the children, were conceived in sin and constituted sinners, everyone needs the baptism to be forgiven for their sins.

Martha: I’m not convinced yet. Isn’t the fact that you baptize a child without his permission a violation of his freedom? Wouldn’t it be better to wait until he is old enough to decide if he wants to be baptized or not?

Joseph: Remember that this is God’s will and it is a part of the natural order he has instituted that the parents decide for their children until they have the capacity to do it for themselves. If your child gets sick and he doesn’t want to go to the doctor, do you take him or not?... Or if he doesn’t want to go to school, what do you do?

Martha: I take him, of course.

Joseph: And nobody says that you’re violating his freedom. And the spiritual life is the same thing. Do you remember how you became part of God’s people before the Christian era?

Martha: Through circumcision. 

Joseph: Exactly. God himself commanded it: “This is my covenant which you shall observe between me and you, and thy seed after thee: All the male kind of you shall be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, that it may be for a sign of the covenant between me and you. AN INFANT OF EIGHT DAYS OLD SHALL BE CIRCUMCISED among you, every man child in your generations: he that is born in the house, as well as the bought servant, shall be circumcised, and whosoever is not of your stock” (Gen 17,10-12). Look that the children were circumcised after eight days of their birth, and no one (including God) was thinking that they were violating their freedom.

When God agrees with a people, he does with everyone, including the children: “If therefore you will hear my voice, and keep my covenant, you shall be my peculiar possession above all people: for all the earth is mine.  And you shall be to me a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation. These are the words thou shalt speak to the children of Israel. And all the people answered together: All that the Lord hath spoken, we will do.” (Exod 19,5-8). Do you think that it is logical that the New Covenant is more limited than the old one so it doesn’t consider the children? The text that announce the New Covenant point the opposite: “Behold the days shall come, saith the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Juda: Not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, the covenant which they made void, and I had dominion over them, saith the Lord. But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, after those days, saith the Lord: I will give my law in their bowels, and I will write it in their heart: and I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying: Know the Lord: for all shall know me from the least of them even to the greatest, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31,31-34)

Martha: It’s an interesting argument. But if you’re right, why has this practice not been confirmed in history since the origins of the Church? Because I understand that in the first centuries of Christianity, only adults were baptized and it was in later centuries that they began to baptize children.

Joseph: If you search for the testimonies of the early Church, you’ll see that this is not true. In the earliest writings of the first Christians, there is evidence that the Church had baptized children since apostolic times. Origen, for example, who lived in the second century, wrote: “The Church has received from the apostles the custom of administering baptism even to children. For those to whom the secrets of the divine mysteries were entrusted knew well that all carry the stain of original sin, which must be washed by water and spirit.”[5].There are also testimonies of Saint Irenaeus of Lyon (2nd century), Saint Hippolytus of Rome (2nd century), Saint Cyprian of Carthage (3rd century) and many others.

Martha: Saint Cyprian of Carthage? I had read that it was precisely Cyprian of Carthage who opposed the bishop of Rome because he re-baptized the adults, as the Baptists do.

Joseph: The dispute that St. Cyprian had with the Pope was for a different matter, because he defended the need to baptize the children even before the eighth day after their birth[6].The real dispute was that the ones who were baptized outside the Catholic Church, in a schismatic or heretical community, were not validly baptized and had to be baptized again, but their personal opinion in this matter - which had nothing to do with the baptism of children - prevailed in the Church.

Martha: I’ll read about this, but what about the way in which you do the baptism? Because another characteristic of the real Church according to the Bible is that the baptism must be done by immersion, as the word itself means, “submerge”, not sprinkle some drops of water as the Catholic Church do.

Moreover, after our last conversation, I’ve been searching a little, and I’ve found that some works of the Catholic Church recognize that they have changed the baptism. For example, James Gibbons, who was a Roman Catholic Cardinal, wrote a book entitled The Faith of our Fathers, and with ecclesiastical approval, he wrote: FOR SEVERAL CENTURIES after the establishment of Christianity, BAPTISM WAS USUALLY CONFERRED BY IMMERSION; but since the twelfth century, the practice of baptising by infusion has prevailed in the Catholic Church, as this manner is attended with less inconvenience than Baptism by immersion.”[7]

Joseph: With that, the cardinal doesn’t mean that the Church changed the way of baptizing, but that one was more usual than the other, which is natural depending on the circumstances. But let’s take one step at a time; it is true that the word baptize means “submerge”, but if you study the context, you’ll see that it refers to immerse in the Holy Spirit, and that the water is only a symbol.

Baptism by immersion can certainly symbolize very well what happens to the Christian in baptism, being buried with Christ to resurrect a new life (Col 2,12), but it is not always possible to baptize in this way and that can’t be an impediment to receive it. 

We can find an example in the book of the facts of the apostles, where we can read the moment in which three thousand people were baptized in Jerusalem: “They therefore that received his word were baptized: and there were added in that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2,41). There aren’t rivers in Jerusalem and it is hard to believe that they could have plunged into a public well from which the water was drawn. St. Paul was baptized in a house and standing on his feet: “They therefore that received his word were baptized: and there were added in that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 22,16).It is the same case of the jailer who accepted the gospel and who was baptized in the night (Acts 16,33). Moreover, in the Bible you can’t read any specific form of baptism, the only requirement is it has to be in the name of the Holy Trinity. The oldest writing of the early Church with information about the practices of the baptism is The Didache, dated on the 60 AD and it recognizes the baptism by sprinkling as valid[8].

Martha: I think what you’ve told me it is very interesting and I’ll take the time to verify it.

Joseph: Of course Martha, I only want to share one last thought. Remember that Jesus is the one who commands us “But Jesus, calling them together, said: Suffer children to come to me and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18,16). If the baptism gives us the opportunity to be born into a new life, to join ourselves to the body of Christ which is the Church, if we receive the forgiveness of our sins and we also receive the Holy Spirit, denying the baptism to our children doesn’t precisely mean to prevent them from going to Jesus?

Think about it…


[1] The protestant reformer John Calvin rejects this argument of the Anabaptists in his work The Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, XVI:, 19. 7: “But faith, they say, cometh by hearing, the use of which infants have not yet obtained, nor can they be fit to know God, being, as Moses declares, without the knowledge of good and evil (Deut. 1:39). But they observe not that where the apostle makes hearing the beginning of faith, he is only describing the usual economy and dispensation which the Lord is wont to employ in calling his people, and not laying down an invariable rule, for which no other method can be substituted. Many he certainly has called and endued with the true knowledge of himself, by internal means, by the illumination of the Spirit, without the intervention of preaching. But since they deem it very absurd to attribute any knowledge of God to infants, whom Moses makes void of the knowledge of’ good and evil, let them tell me where the danger lies if they are said now to receive some part of that grace, of which they are to have the full measure shortly after. For if fullness of life consists in the perfect knowledge of God, since some of those whom death hurries away in the first moments of infancy pass into life eternal, they are certainly admitted to behold the immediate presence of God. Those, therefore, whom the Lord is to illumine with the full brightness of his light, why may he not, if he so pleases, irradiate at present with some small beam, especially if he does not remove their ignorance, before he delivers them from the prison of the flesh? I would not rashly affirm that they are endued with the same faith which we experience in ourselves, or have any knowledge at all resembling faith (this I would rather leave undecided); but I would somewhat curb the stolid arrogance of those men who, as with inflated cheeks, affirm or deny whatever suits them.”.

[2] The Protestant reformers also understood that the texts that talk about the baptism of the people and the house, naturally included the children. The aforementioned work of the reformer John Calvin says “They now come down to the custom and practice of the apostolic age, alleging that there is no instance of any one having been admitted to baptism without a previous profession of faith and repentance. For when Peter is asked by his hearers, who were pricked in their heart, “What shall we do?” his advice is, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:37, 38). In like manner, when Philip was asked by the eunuch to baptise him, he answered, “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest.” Hence, they think they can make out that baptism cannot be lawfully given to anyone without previous faith and repentance.

If we yield to this argument, the former passage, in which there is no mention of faith, will prove that repentance alone is sufficient, and the latter, which makes no requirement of repentance, that there is need only of faith. They will object, I presume, that the one passage helps the other, and that both, therefore, are to be connected. I, in my turn, maintain that these two must be compared with other passages which contribute somewhat to the solution of this difficulty. There are many passages of Scripture whose meaning depends on their peculiar position. Of this we have an example in the present instance. Those to whom these things are said by Peter and Philip are of an age fit to aim at repentance, and receive faith. We strenuously insist that such men are not to be baptised unless their conversion and faith are discerned, at least in as far as human judgment can ascertain it. But it is perfectly clear that infants must be placed in a different class. For when any one formerly joined the religious communion of Israel, he behoved to be taught the covenant, and instructed in the law of the Lord, before he received circumcision, because he was of a different nation; in other words, an alien from the people of Israel, with whom the covenant, which circumcision sanctioned, had been made.” (Ibid., 23. 10°)

[3] St. Paul used the word “saints” in his letters to refer to the believers. If we take only the letter to the Ephesians as a sample, we can see that Paul uses the word saints in this sense at least 9 times: Eph 1,1.15.18; 2,19; 3,5; 3,8; 4,12; 5,3; 6,18; St. Luke does the same thing in the book of Acts: 3,21; 9,13.32.41; 26,10; Like these, the other books of the New Testament.

[4] The doctrine of the original sin isn’t uniform within the Protestantism. The Reformers Luther and Calvin accepted and defended this doctrine (look, for example: John Calvin, Institution of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter 1), but among the denominations that reject the baptism of children, we can find some that also deny the original sin.In the case of the Baptists, most seem to accept it. 

[5] Origenin Rom. Com. 5,9: EH 249
Traslated from Johannes Quasten, Patrología I, BAC 206, Fifth Edition, Madrid 1995, p. 395

[6]Saint Cyprian defends the baptism of children in a categorical way before those who wanted to wait until the eighth day of birth, making a parallel with the circumcision:
“But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, WE ALL THOUGHT VERY DIFFERENTLY in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man…

Moreover, belief in divine Scripture declares to us, that among all, whether infants or those who are older, there is the same equality of the divine gift...

For which reason we think that no one is to be hindered from obtaining grace by that law which was already ordained, and that spiritual circumcision ought not to be hindered by carnal circumcision, but that absolutely every man is to be admitted to the grace of Christ, since Peter also in the Acts of the Apostles speaks, and says, “The Lord hath said to me that I should call no man common or unclean.” But if anything could hinder men from obtaining grace, their more heinous sins might rather hinder those who are mature and grown up and older. But again, if even to the greatest sinners, and to those who had sinned much against God, when they subsequently believed, remission of sins is granted—and nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace—HOW MUCH RATHER OUGHT WE TO SHRINK FROM HINDERING AN INFANT, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins—that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another.

And therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council, that by us no one ought to be hindered from baptism and from the grace of God, who is merciful and kind and loving to all. Which, since it is to be observed and maintained in respect of all, we think is to be even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born persons…”

(Cyprian of Carthage, To Fidus, on the Baptism of Infants, Ep 58
Early Church Fathers,
New Advent Encyclopedia,

[7] The Baptist Pastor M.L Moser, Jr uses the quote of the cardinal Gibbons in his book The Strange Baptism to make an effort to show that the Church changed the way of the baptizing from immersion to sprinkling, but without a context he fails, because you can read that it affirms that the baptism was usually conferred by immersion, but it doesn’t say that this was the only way. The cardinal clarifies it later in the same quote that the pastor doesn’t reproduce completely and says: “To prove that Baptism by infusion or by sprinkling is as legitimate as by immersion, it is only necessary to observe that, though immersion was the more common practice in the Primitive Church, the Sacrament was frequently administered even then by infusion and aspersion.” (James Cardinal Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers, Chapter 19)

[8] “And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Matthew 28:19 in living water. But if you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot in cold, in warm. BUT IF YOU HAVE NOT EITHER, POUR OUT WATER THRICE UPON THE HEAD INTO THE NAME OF FATHER AND SON AND HOLY SPIRIT. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.”

(The Didache 7, New Advent,