Efficacious Baptism: A Conversation

The following is a conversational essay between Anisha O. (University of Texas at Austin) and Daniel S. (Loyola University at Chicago) regarding Mr. Sutkowski’s Baptism and Circumcision:


Thank you Daniel, for sharing your perspective in that article. I enjoyed learning about the relationship between baptism and circumcision and was glad to be reminded of how God sees Jews and then Christians as God’s people across the old and new testament.

We both agree that baptism is a commandment that Christ gives us and should be honoured by Christians everywhere. On the other hand, we have significantly different beliefs on what baptism does and how that relates to salvation. In this conversation we’ll build a foundation on the purpose of baptism and then, hopefully, focus explicitly on its role in salvation in the future.

My first question is, ‘in what way does God work in baptism?” When Catholics say that baptism is efficacious, help me to understand what that means.


   I would preface my response to say that with Baptism, as with any sacrament, there is an inherent mystery to the nature of how the divine interacts with the physical and can’t be known in its entirety. To say baptism is efficacious is to say that, per the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “it is Christ himself who is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies” (CCC, 1127).  The most fundamental impact of baptism is the admission of the baptized into the Church – the Body of Christ. This entrance is marked by the removal of both original and actual sin through the Holy Spirit.  I quote Acts 2:38 to this effect but it is also noteworthy that St Justin Martyr, who lived in the second century, writes:

“In order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe” (The First Apology, Chapter 61)

St. Justin Martyr’s clear expression of the efficaciousness of baptism may not have the same weight as scripture but given his proximity to the time of Christ and the scripture quoted in my article the evidence seems to be in my favor.


What is original sin and how is it different from just a “sinful nature.” How do you know that baptism removes all of a person’s original sin?


   Original sin and sinful nature are closely tied together, however there is more to the term Original Sin than the concept of sinful nature itself.  The concept is not simple and can be elaborated to a great extent, yet original sin is, essentially, the consequence of the first sin of Adam, by which there is a hereditary stain that impacts us all. While we have no personal fault in Original Sin, its effects are known to all of us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that Original Sin is “a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence” (CCC, 405).


I think you are artificially separating original sin and the continuing sin or sinful nature that we act out daily. You defined that original sin is a corruption, not a total corruption, but an influence inside each person to sin. However, if that root level of influence is removed by baptism, what causes people to sin, then? The work you’re suggesting being done by the holy spirit, is not like washing away some spiritual stain, but rather about shifting something significant within human nature. Original sin is the seed that is planted in each human being that grows into a deviant nature, and we can buttress or deprive that nature as we continue in life. What you suggest sounds like cutting out the sin in man that produces death, the inward part of them, and therefore I can’t see why we would then continue to sin. It is part of our identities to want things for ourselves, want things apart from God, and that is something we continue to fight with even when we love God. Now, if you are saying that it removes the penalty, that we no longer inherit the consequences of Adam’s sin but we start on a ‘blank slate’ before God, that might help. However, I would argue that Christ’s death paid for all sin both past and future, and then there’s no need for a ‘starting clean’ mentality.


Let’s review from Romans 5 as a way to understand Original Sin:

“sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way, death came to all people, because all sinned […] Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.” (Romans 5:12-14)

Thus it is through Adam that sin entered the world and humanity became separated from God, and Paul goes on to say in Romans 15 that it is through Christ that we are redeemed. Yet Christ’s death on the cross, in and of itself, does not bring about healing from our sinful nature. This is why in his conversation with Nicodemus Christ says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit”. (John 3:5-6).

Photo of Pope Francis Baptizing child in Rome.

Simply put, Christ redeems us of our own sin and original sin through his sacrifice, but we must accept this redemption. We still are able to reject God, even though Christ bore the guilt of our sin to his death. As made clear in scripture, we must not only accept Christ through a conversion of heart, but also be purified with ‘water and Spirit’ in order to enter the kingdom of God. So it is not that the Holy Spirit does not start working in us when we accept Christ, but that Baptism is an intrinsic and essential part of this process of turning towards God.



Baptism cannot be the mechanism by which the penalty of our sins is paid, that is Christ.  Christ, in his sacrifice, removed all penalty and bore God’s wrath for our sins. In that way we suffer no consequence. Baptism is not where this sin is paid, and you agree with this Daniel, but it’s also not how that state of innocence is individually conveyed on to each of us. From there, the Holy Spirit sanctifies us, but I think he does that process through our whole lives and not just with the act of baptism. Rather, as 1 John 1:9 states, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It is through confession and repentance, that the Holy Spirit sanctifies us, and makes us holy. Here he says, “all unrighteousness” which means everything from the original sin passed down from Adam to every future act against him. He paid the price for all sin in the world.

Additionally,  baptism cannot be a means to accepting that redemption.  Isn’t acceptance a state of the heart? Our hearts must be set on God before we enter into baptism, but baptism itself apart from our hearts by nature cannot be a means of acceptance. Baptism should not be doing that work for us. There must be something about the state of our hearts, not the act of baptism itself, that allows the spirit to work. Although they were circumcised and descendants of Abraham, Jesus rebukes the pharisees telling them that they are not children of Abraham, in the way of being God’s chosen people, because the moral state of their hearts is in defiance to Him. “Abraham is our father,” they replied. “If you were children of Abraham,” said Jesus, “you would do the works of Abraham.” Galatians 3 makes a clearer and more compelling case, that it is our faith that marks us as children of God. What I am saying is, the act of being washed by water cannot be the means of becoming God’s people. It is the turning of our hearts from proud enemies to humble children that is important. The Holy Spirit, knowing and guiding that heart change, marks us as his children from that.  The holy spirit works when we have turned to him: “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14)”.

Furthermore, most scriptural references to baptism connect repentance and baptism very closely. The pattern is usually belief and trust in God, which involves and leads to repentance and then baptism. Even John the Martyr, whom you quoted earlier,  expressed the coexistence of these concepts when he says “there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and the Lord of the universe”.

Now, here is a little bit that can lead into a future article: I think the Holy Spirit works in all people who have turned to God.  For example, in some way when I open my bible to read, the Holy Spirit is alongside me guiding me and actually teaching me wisdom through God’s words. God does not waste any act that we do out of a desire to honor him, and I don’t think the commandment to be baptized is ‘without good consequence’. So perhaps in that sense, baptism is efficacious because the Holy Spirit will work through different ways to sanctify us, but he does that post-faith, not prior. I cannot see how the holy spirit will work in baptism, unless our hearts themselves are first turned towards him.


   We must understand how Original Sin relates to Christ’s sacrifice as the ultimate pascal sacrifice through whom we find forgiveness and salvation with God. The death of Christ forgave us for our sins, so it is clear that baptism is not the tool by which we are forgiven. Yet it is clear the Baptism is intimately connected with sin and forgiveness, even though Christ’s sacrifice for us was the salvific action. For in Acts Peter speaks,

“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. This promise belongs to you and to your children and to all who are far off, to all whom the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:38-39).

   The commands of Peter to both ‘Repent’ and ‘be Baptized’ are the areas of focus for the purpose of our conversation. Yes, it is through Christ’s sacrifice we are saved, but we are given two distinct commands by Peter that we must do in order to be saved, as well as receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I will table the discussion of the command to ‘Repent’, because it relates to Confirmation/Chrismation and not Baptism. The Church holds that in fulfilling Peter’s command to be baptised we are purified of Original Sin, made holy so that we can begin the process of Sanctification and rejoice in Easter and Christ’s resurrection with him. Thus Baptism does not forgive sins, but it purifies us of our lost holiness and begins the journey of the Christian in the Body of Christ; the Church.


While I would defend and say that Baptism, in some manner, is necessary for salvation, this topic deserves further research and possible another article in its own right. While Catholicism teaches that Baptism is efficacious, the connection between baptism and salvation is often debated within the Church. As a general rule Baptism is necessary, however, exceptions and difficult cases can arise that complicate matters.


That debate aside, the importance of Baptism is something we can both agree on, though we may disagree whether Baptism points to realities divine or if these realities actually occur through it.


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