In times of trouble, unrest and great distress–whether personal, cultural, or political–we must constantly throw ourselves on the mercies of Christ through the grace of his Church. The greatest saints are forged by the greatest tribulations; through which tribulations they resisted the temptation to seek perfection, utopia, or security in this world, and sought above all the secure perfection of the Face of Jesus Christ. It is essential now and always that we know deeply and put into practice that the spiritual regeneration that all crave – knowingly or unknowingly the liberation from sin and shame that all need at their deepest core – is found not in political regimes, cultural fads, or ideological programs, but in the real grace of Jesus Christ dispensed throughout the world through the sacraments of his Church.
St. John Henry Newman’s sermon “Regenerating Baptism” anchors us in baptism as the fount of Christ’s grace, and reminds us that we are really redeemed by this sacrament. Baptism confers the gift of faith, allows entrance into the Church, incorporation into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and removes all trace of original sin. It is no “mere” symbol, but a real work of the Holy Spirit.
In this sermon and throughout his life Newman did much work to distinguish the truth about baptism from the erroneous ways it was viewed in his time. In the more “evangelical” party of the Church of England, actual regeneration by baptism was denied in favor of withholding it until a person was mature enough to “have faith and repentance” prior to, or without, baptism. But the “middle way,” or via media, of more traditionalist Anglicans upheld infant baptism by adhering to tradition and appealing to the precedent of Jewish circumcision, which was administered to infants. Although Newman very much upheld the practice of infant baptism inherited by Tradition, he says both of these views are “defective” in regarding baptism as a mere ritual rather than a sacrament, a real means of grace.
Newman focuses on Scripture, the clear text of which suggests that the grace of regeneration is conferred because of the Holy Spirit’s work through the baptism itself, not by something else before or after. And, the regeneration baptism offers is open to anybody, at any age. Scripture describes baptism in terms of “regeneration,” not merely in terms of visible entrance into a corporate body. In other words, it actually does something, actually confers some essential grace, to the “individual soul.” It remits sins and gives the gift of the Holy Spirit. If it does not, then Newman agrees that infant baptism should not be permissible. But he goes further to suggest that if baptism does not affect regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit, then there is no reason to do it at all, at any age. His terms are stark and true: “Either Baptism is an instrument of the Holy Ghost, or it has no place in Christianity.” If it has “no power above a Jewish rite,” “we should discard it.”
This is extremely important for us to pay careful attention to. Some Protestant Christians believe baptism to be only a visible sign, or a public proclamation of one’s faith that arises from a different source, often one’s own conviction or feelings. Out of reverence for Scripture, they still baptize if for no other reason than because Christ commands us to explicitly in Scripture. And yet we must press: why did Christ command it? Why would Christ command an empty ritual if He promised to bring the real substance to replace the “shadow” of Jewish customs?
Newman presses farther: the “plain meaning” of Scripture is that baptism actually does something. It “regenerates” an individual soul by the power of the Holy Spirit, giving the gift of faith. Scripture, Christ, and the Apostles all “attach grace to the ordinance of baptism” in a way that was not attached to circumcision. Circumcision is a mere rite, baptism a sacrament. Circumcision is the shadow, baptism the reality, not merely an “outward sign and type of spiritual privilege,” but itself a spiritual privilege. It is now a mystery, a sacrament, the actual “instrument of the application of [God]’s merits to individual believers.”
Newman cites the Book of Acts, wherein the Apostles baptize “for the forgiveness of sins,” and the baptized are “filled with the Holy Spirit.” He cites John the Baptist, who says his own baptism for repentance will be replaced by a baptism that really forgives sins and is of “fire and the Holy Spirit.” And he cites Colossians 2, where St. Paul calls baptism the “circumcision without hands” by which we join into the power of the Head, Christ Incarnate, a “Baptism” by which our “sins of the flesh” are stripped away and we receive the “Circumcision of Christ.” And one could go even further into Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 3, and Matthew 28. These Scripture passages also show the mere rite has given way to Christ’s real sacramental grace in Baptism. Dead sinners are brought back to life by waters sanctified by the Holy Spirit and prayed over in the way Christ taught us. Faced with such a beautiful and compelling reality, Newman asks, “why should we draw back, like Thomas, doubting of our Lord’s resurrection?”
Our world is going mad with crises, and is seeking redemption in all the wrong places. But the real crisis is in our own souls, and is healed by Christ through his Church. If the sacraments are merely “external signs of an internal grace,” then they are dispensable. But if, as the Church teaches, a sacrament is both sign, symbol, and reality (sacramentum et res), they are necessary and desirable for all. They are “efficacious signs of grace,” “visible rites” that “signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament… They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (CCC 1131). They are the real means by which Christ communicates his grace, Christ’s real work by the Holy Spirit to save us, to “make present efficaciously the grace that they signify” (CCC 1084, 1 Peter 3:20-21). Christ himself is the “mystery of salvation,” and his Body, the Church, is itself a “sacrament” in an “analogical sense”: the Church both “contains and communicates” the “invisible grace she signifies” (CCC 774).
This foundational truth must alter the way we view all things human: born into a world marred by sin, our only hope for redemption, for the regeneration of our wounded, dying or dead souls, is Christ’s grace mediated by his Body, the Church, whose visible presence in the world actually makes available the real presence, the healing touch of Christ.