Saturday, December 22, 2012

Does Baptism Save Us?

In a blog I posted a while back on Circumcision and Baptismal Regeneration, an interesting discussion ensued with an “Anonymous” Protestant. He tried to argue that the Catholic teaching of baptismal regeneration was damnable heresy. He tried to use 1 Pet 3:21 in an attempt to argue that it is not baptism which saves...but “spiritual baptism”:
“And baptism, which this prefigured [i.e. the Great Flood and Noah’s ark], now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” – 1 Pet 3:21
His argument was basically that St. Peter’s reference to baptism saving us – but not as a removal of dirt from the body – was a reference to spiritual baptism, not physical baptism i.e. the body is physical; conscience is spiritual; therefore, St. Peter was talking about spiritual baptism.

I dealt with the Anonymous comments at the time, but recently as I was reading the book of Hebrews, I was reminded of the discussion as I read a passage which sheds some light on 1 Pet 3:21. 

Before I explain further, I need to digress slightly...

Protestants who hold to the tradition of Sola Scriptura hold as a fundamental principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. This is good insofar as it goes, but it fails to see an underlying circular argument which always comes back to private interpretation. In other words, Sola Scriptura is REALLY Sola Mea i.e. it’s not so much about Scripture interpreting Scripture, but more about how “I interpret Scripture interpreting Scripture”. The logical conclusion of “Sola Scriptura” is that Scripture is ultimately interpreted according to the individual interpreter’s own preconceived theology. For example, a Baptist using the principle of “Scripture interpreting Scripture” will formulate a very different “Biblical” framework for baptism than a Presbyterian using the exact same principle. Both appeal to Sola Scriptura...and Scripture interpreting Scripture...yet they come to completely opposing views.

The Catholic position embraces the principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture, but also goes further. The Catholic Church teaches that “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written” (CCC # 111). The Spirit was given by Christ to His Church for the purpose that He would always lead the Church in all truth (Jn 16:13); ensuring that throughout all ages, the Church would ALWAYS remain the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15).

So, for the Catholic, Scripture certainly does interpret Scripture, but always within the guidance of Apostolic Tradition and the interpretive authority of the Holy Catholic Church.

OK...back to the topic at hand...

The passage in Hebrews which sheds light on 1 Pet 3:21 is Heb 9:13-14. For ease of reference and comparison, here are the two passages:
“And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” – 1 Pet 3:21

“For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” – Heb 9:13-14

To put Heb 9:13-14 in context, the author has been dealing with the various Old Testament ceremonies which were unable to perfect the consciences of the Old Testament worshipper (v9). This included the various baptisms in the Old Testament (v10). [Which, by the way, is an interesting point for Baptists to consider – given that they mistakenly hold that baptism always means immersion; whereas these Old Testament baptisms were carried out by sprinkling.]

The reason the Old Testament ceremonies could not perfect the conscience was because they were symbols that pointed forward to fulfilment in the Passion of Christ. As symbols of the reality to come, they were incomplete. But now Christ has come; He has died on the Cross for the sins of the world, and He has risen again for our justification. And so the Old Testament symbols now give way to the New Testament realities (vv11-12).

Now this doesn’t mean that the Old Testament symbols were completely empty. No – the author of Hebrews tells us that although they were not able to perfect the conscience (v9), they were able to purify the flesh (v13). But now in the New Covenant, the Blood of Christ has been shed and so the conscience of the worshipper is able to be purified. And this is the same point that St. Peter was making in 1 Pet 3:21 – that baptism in Christ is not like the Old Testament symbols which only purified the body – NO! Baptism in the New Covenant purifies our very conscience – not by virtue of the water, but by virtue of the Blood of Christ shed for the one being baptised.

To confirm that this has always been the understanding of the Church, handed down from the Apostles, consider the following sample of quotes from the Church Fathers which show that they unanimously agreed that baptism regenerates us and washes away our sins:

St. Justin Martyr (AD 155)

In speaking of converts to Christianity, St. Justin states that after a time of fasting and remission of former sins:

they are led by us to a place where there is water; and there they are reborn in the same kind of rebirth in which we ourselves were reborn: in the name of God, the Lord and Father of all, and of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they receive the washing with water. For Christ said, ‘Unless you be reborn, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”...The reason for doing this, we have learned from the Apostles.” – First Apology; Chapter 61

St. Theophilus of Antioch (AD 181)

“Those things which were created from the waters were blessed by God [referring to Creation], so that this might also be a sign that men would at a future time receive repentance and remission of sins through water and the bath of regeneration – To Autolycus; Book 2, Chapter 16

St. Clement of Alexandria (AD 202)

“When we are baptised, we are enlightened...It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins; a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted...” – The Instructor; Book 1, Chapter 6

Tertullian (AD 206)

“...Baptism is itself a corporal act by which we are plunged in water, while its effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from sins.” – On Baptism; Chapter 7

St. Jerome (AD 397)

“All sins are forgiven in baptism” – Epistle 69, To Oceanus; Chapter 4

How is it possible that water is able to wash away sins? St. Augustine explains:
“From the moment that Christ is immersed in water, from that moment water washes away all sins.”

“The Lord is baptised, not having occasion to be cleansed, but that, purifying the waters by the contact of His pure flesh, they may have the power of cleansing.”
– Sermon de Tempore; 29, 36, 37

And St. John Chrysostom concurs:
“The water of baptism, had it not been sanctified by contact with the body of our Lord, could not purge the sins of believers.”

What is the point of all this? The point is to remind us that our baptism is not just an empty symbol. It is something far greater than that. By our baptism, we are crucified and risen with the Lord Jesus Christ; we are born again; and as the author of Hebrews reminds us – through our baptism we are purified from dead works to worship the living God (Heb 9:14). Through baptism we have been made alive (regenerated) by a sharing in the Life of the Living God – and our only reasonable response should be to worship and adore God forever for giving us such an amazing and unmerited gift. In the words of the Catechism of the Council of Trent:

“ is especially required of every Christian man to strive to spend each day of his life as holily and religiously as if it were that very day on which he had received the sacrament and grace of baptism.” – Question XL

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Four Gifts of our Glorified Bodies

In the Second Reading for today (Second Sunday of Advent, Year C), we hear St. Paul say:
“Brothers and sisters:
I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you,
because of your partnership for the gospel
from the first day until now.
I am confident of this,
that the One who began a good work in you
will continue to complete it
until the Day of Christ Jesus.
God is my witness,
how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer:
that your love may increase ever more and more
in knowledge and every kind of perception,
to discern what is of value,
so that you may be pure and blameless for the Day of Christ,
filled with the fruit of righteousness
that comes through Jesus Christ.” – Phil 1:4-6, 8-11
St. Paul talks about growing in knowledge and understanding so that we can become pure and blameless, and so prepare ourselves for the Day of Christ, in which the faithful will reach perfect goodness (the fruit of righteousness) through Christ. As mentioned in my previous blog, this is achieved ultimately in the Beatific Vision, where we are made to be fully like our Lord Jesus Christ because we behold Him as He is (1 Jn 3:2).
As we prepare for the coming of Christ in this Season of Advent, our hearts and minds should be drawn particularly to the final article of the Apostles’ Creed:

“I the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen”

I am busy reading through the Catechism of the Council of Trent, and I happened to be reading through the Catechism’s explanation of this final Article of the Apostles’ Creed, which is certainly worth the read if you have never read it. What I found particularly significant, is the Catechism’s teaching on “What Gifts the Bodies of the Blest shall be adorned after the Resurrection” (see Part I - Question XI).

The Catechism on this point is so profound that I had to share it. There are four gifts principally which our Resurrected bodies will enjoy in Heaven. They are:

1) Impassibility – the gift whereby our glorified bodies will be beyond the reach of suffering any pain or any inconvenience. 

2) Brightness / glory – the gift whereby our glorified bodies will be said to “shine like the sun” (Matt 13:43).

3) Agility – the gift whereby our glorified bodies will be able to go wherever the soul shall please without any hindrance. 

4) Subtility – the gift whereby our bodies will be in complete subjection to the dominion of our souls. 
Of all the above gifts, I’d have to say that my “favourite” is subtility. In our current weak bodies, the flesh and the spirit are at enmity against each other; we want to do good, but we struggle to; we want to avoid sin, but we find ourselves constantly falling (Rom 7:21ff). Or as Our Lord said, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt 26:41). With the great gift of subtility, our bodies will be in complete subjection to our souls, which in turn will be in complete subjection to God...and so we will be able to perfectly obey the will of our Heavenly Father.

As if to spur us on, the Lord God has left us examples of these great gifts in Our Lord Jesus and in His Blessed Mother. That is a whole different topic, but it is worth mentioning as something to meditate upon during these days of Advent. If we want to attain to these gifts, let us never cease to ask Our Lord through Mary for them. 

And with these amazing gifts in mind, promised by Our Lord to all those who persevere in faith, may we grow in our love for Him as we await the blessed hope and coming in glory of our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Advent and Adoration

The season of Advent officially began this past Sunday. The word “advent” basically means “coming” – as such Advent is typically a time when we prepare for the coming (or advent) of Christ. This involves preparing ourselves for Christmas (the celebration of Christ’s First Advent) as well as the Last Day when the Lord Jesus Christ returns in His glorious Second Advent. 
The readings for the First Sunday of Advent (Year C) were a reminder to us of this preparation. We were reminded of the First Advent in Jeremiah 33:14-16, where the prophet foretells the promise of the Messiah who would come to restore God’s people.
In the Gospel reading (Lk 21:25-28, 34-36), we were reminded of the Second Advent. In its immediate context, the Gospel reading is the account of Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70AD – but there is also an undertone of the Final Judgement at the end of time. In addition, Jesus also incorporates the particular judgement which will be faced by “every man” – the judgement which takes place upon our death and determines our eternal destiny i.e. Heaven or Hell.
Sandwiched between these two readings, we heard St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians encouraging them to make more and more progress in living lives of holiness (1 Thess 3:12-4:2). This reading from St. Paul really serves as an encouragement to each and every one of us to live worthy of the name “Christian” – especially as we prepare for Christmas; but also as we live our lives in continual preparation to oneday stand before the Son of Man. 
These readings really hit home for me this week. I’ll explain why shortly, but first some background...
As part of “contemplating the fact of Christ” during this Year of Grace (for all dioceses around Australia), our parish priests decided that it would be a good idea to have Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for a few minutes after Mass on the first Sunday of each month. It just so happened that this past Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, was also the first Sunday of the month. And so, we had time for reflection during Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. 
Concurrently, over the past week or so, I have been thinking about the beauty and importance of Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament – and I was struck by a thought. Exposition refers to the Blessed Sacrament being “exposed” in a monstrance (as pictured above). Any Catholic who has spent time praying with the right dispositions before the Blessed Sacrament will tell you that it changes a person. I was reminded of someone who likened it to being exposed to the sun – when we are exposed to the sun, our skin is changed. And that’s when it hit me!!! I realised that Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is not so much about Jesus in the Sacrament being exposed to us (although this is true) – it is MORE about us being exposed to the Blessed Sacrament. And being exposed to the Son most certainly changes us. 
As I contemplated this in light of the readings at Mass, I was reminded of 1 Jn 3:2 where St. John, speaking in the context of the Beatific Vision, reminds us:
“...what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we know is this: when He [Jesus] is revealed, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is.”

What an awesome thought!!!
Now, read that verse in context of the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus is no less present in the Blessed Sacrament than He will be when He comes again in glory. The only difference is that in the Blessed Sacrament, His glory is veiled. If we can expect that we will be gloriously changed when we behold Him in His Second Advent; we can also expect that He is already changing us now – especially when we are exposed to Him in the Blessed Sacrament. 
So, in addition to receiving Holy Communion in a state of grace, what better way to prepare for Christmas, and to make progress in holiness, than to spend some time during this Advent season in Eucharistic Adoration. Jesus waits for us – and He waits for us so that He can change us and conform us more and more to His glorious image.
Wishing you and yours a blessed Advent as you progress more and more in holiness in preparation for the coming of the King of Kings!