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the sacrament of baptism

What is the Sacrament of Baptism?

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Table of Contents

  1. Why is it called the Sacrament of Baptism?
  2. Prefigurations of Baptism in the Old Testament
  3. The Baptism of Jesus
  4. The Effects (or Graces) of Baptism
  5. Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?
  6. Who Can Receive Baptism?
  7. How is Baptism Celebrated?
  8. Who Can Baptize?
  9. Further Reading

The Sacrament of Baptism is the way one enters into the Christian life and, thereby, is necessarily the first of all the sacraments. In the words of the Church: 

“Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC 1213).

Why is it called the Sacrament of Baptism?

The english word baptism comes from the Greek word baptizein, which means “plunge” or “immerse”. The reason this sacrament is called baptism is due to the preferred way this sacrament is celebrated: through the “plunging” or “immersing” of the catechumen into the baptismal waters. 

This immersion of the catechumen into the waters is a symbol of his or her participation in Christ’s death and resurrection: 

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4, RSV-CE). 

Prefigurations of Baptism in the Old Testament

There are many figures in the Old Testament which foreshadow, or prefigure, the Sacrament of Baptism, with the following five being the most prominent:

#1 The Creation Story in Genesis 1

Water, a common symbol for life, shows up in the story of creation in Genesis 1:

“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2)

However, the water is not alone; instead, we see the Spirit hovering over the water–an image echoed by Jesus in his words to Nicodemus: “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).

#2 The Water in the Story of Noah’s Ark

The recognition of the water in the story of Noah’s ark as a prefiguration of the Sacrament of Baptism can be attributed to St. Peter in Sacred Scripture:

“…when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him” (1 Peter 3:19-22).

Interestingly, St. Peter preached that, like Baptism, it was through water that Noah and his family were saved, not just through the ark. In addition, many of the Church Fathers, notably St. Cyprian of Carthage, saw in the ark of Noah a type of the Church:

“[T]he one ark of Noah was a type of the one Church. If, then, in that baptism of the world thus expiated and purified, he who was not in the ark of Noah could be saved by water, he who is not in the Church to which alone baptism is granted, can also now be quickened by baptism” (St. Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 75:2).

#3 The Crossing of the Red Sea by Israel 

The liberation of Israel from its slavery to Egypt in the crossing the Red Sea, under the leadership of Moses, announces the liberation wrought by Baptism:

“You freed the children of Abraham from the slavery of Pharaoh, bringing them dry-shod through the waters of the Red Sea. to be an image of the people set free in Baptism (Roman Missal, Easter Vigil 42).

[W]hen the people, set unconditionally free, escaped the violence of the Egyptian king by crossing over through water, it was water that extinguished the king himself, with his entire forces (Ex. 14:27-30). What figure more manifestly fulfilled in the sacrament of baptism? The nations are set free from the world by means of water, to wit: and the devil, their old tyrant, they leave quite behind, overwhelmed in the water” (Tertullian, On Baptism 9).

#4 The Crossing of the Jordan River by Israel

Israel, the People of God, after forty years of wandering, left the wilderness behind to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. Their journey from the wilderness into the Promised Land, through the waters of the Jordan River, is an image of the Christian journey from the wilderness of this world into the Promised Land of Heaven, or eternal life, through the waters of Baptism.

“So you must not think that these events belong only to the past, and that you who now hear the account of them do not experience anything of the kind. It is in you that they all find their spiritual fulfillment. You have recently abandoned the darkness of idolatry, and you now desire to come and hear the divine law. This is your departure from Egypt. When you became a catechumen and began to obey the laws of the Church, you passed through the Red Sea; now at the various stops in the desert, you give time every day to hear the law of God and to see the face of Moses unveiled by the glory of God.

But once you come to the baptismal font and, in the presence of the priests and deacons, are initiated into those sacred and august mysteries which only those know who should, then, through the ministry of the priests, you will cross the Jordan and enter the promised land. There Moses will hand you over to Jesus, and He himself will be your guide on your new journey” (Orgien, Homily of Joshua).

#5 Circumcision

Circumcision was the sign and ritual that brought the descendants of Israel into the Old Covenant with God: 

“And God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you’” (Genesis 17:10-11).

St. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, speaks how the circumcision of Israel was a sign which foreshadowed the “circumcision of Christ,” Baptism:

“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12).

Though the Old Covenant ritual of circumcision cleanses the flesh, only the Sacrament of Baptism cleanses the soul. Today, we do not undergo the circumcision of the flesh in order to become members of the People of God, but instead participate in Baptism to be incorporated into the Body of Christ.

The Baptism of Jesus

It is not uncommon to hear the question, “If Jesus was without sin, why did he need to be Baptized?”

In the words of the Church:

“Our Lord voluntarily submitted himself to the baptism of St. John, intended for sinners, in order to ‘fulfill all righteousness.’ Jesus’ gesture is a manifestation of his self-emptying (CCC 1224). 

Powerful. Jesus’ Baptism first and foremost expresses his constant self-emptying, which began at the moment of the Incarnation and finds its fulfillment in his crucifixion. 

In addition, St. Maximus of Turin (4th c.), famously stated:

Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water.” 

In other words, Jesus didn’t need to be baptized; the waters needed him. He made the water holy so that we too could be consecrated. 

The Effects (or Grace) of the Sacrament of Baptism

The Sacrament of Baptism provides the gift of sanctifying grace and has many effects on the soul, but, according to the Church, “the two principal effects are purification from sins and new birth in the Holy Spirit (CCC 1262).

The following are a result of these two principal effects:

#1 The Forgiveness of Sins

By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin” (CCC 1263).

Upon the reception of the Sacrament of Baptism, there is nothing preventing the person from entering eternal life in heaven, as every sin and their consequences (both temporal and eternal) are forgiven and washed away. 

However, though all sin has been removed from the person, it may seem otherwise in one’s experience. The baptized person still experiences both the inclination to sin and various weaknesses in their human nature, such as suffering, illness, and death. This is because, by God’s wisdom, Baptism does not remove these temporal effects caused by Original Sin. As Christ revealed, it is often through both suffering and the temptation to sin that one can reach the spiritual heights of conformity to Christ. 

#2 A New Creature in Christ

As St. Paul stated, “[W]hoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corin. 5:17).

Coming out of the waters of Baptism, we rise with Christ to new life. We no longer live a mere natural life in this world, but rather share in the supernatural life of Christ. Sacred Scripture has many ways for referring to this reality: a new creature; an adopted son of God; a partaker of the divine nature; a member of Christ; a co-heir with Christ; and a temple of the Holy Spirit (CCC 1265).

It is through the gift of sanctifying grace received in Baptism that the person is justified, or made just, and enabled to begin living the supernatural life here on earth. 

#3 Incorporated (or Initiated) into the Church, the Body of Christ

Often it is said that Baptism initiates one into the Church, but it is more appropriately said that Baptism incorporates one into the Church, the Body of Christ. This is because the Sacrament of Baptism does not merely initiate one into an organization, but truly makes us members of Christ’s Body–the one People of God of the New Covenant is born from the baptismal font (CCC 1267).

It is crucial to understand that Baptism is not only an incorporation into Christ, but also an incorporation into His Body, the Church. Salvation is not received merely on an individual level, but as a member of a People, or a community, in Christ. 

In the words of the Church:

Baptism… constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn” (Unitatis Redintegratio 22)

#4 Indelible Spiritual Mark

Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated” (CCC 1272).

This spiritual mark, as mentioned in the Catechism, is also called a character. St. Augustine likened this mark, or character, to distinctive brand-ings impressed upon soldiers and slaves during Roman times to signify the commander or owner to whom they belonged. In the context of the spiritual life, the Sacrament of Baptism marks us permanently as belonging to Christ, whose image we bear.

The Sacrament of Baptism is Necessary for Salvation

In the Gospels, Jesus affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation:

Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn. 3:5).

Just as it was necessary for an Israelite to become circumcised, otherwise he would be cut off from the Old Covenant people, so it is necessary to receive the “circumcision of Christ” to prevent being cut off from the New Covenant people, the Body of Christ:

If a male is uncircumcised, that is, if the flesh of his foreskin has not been cut away, such a one will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen. 17:14).

The necessity of Baptism for salvation begs the question: what about those who are ignorant of Baptism or who die before the capability of receiving Baptism?

As the Church says:

God has bound salvation to the Sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (CCC 1257).

In other words, God desires and wills to save all men of good will who seek the truth, and will likely hold us accountable for that which we know and only truly had the possibility of attaining. Again, we are bound by God’s wisdom to receive the gift of salvation through the Sacrament of Baptism, but God himself is not bound by the sacraments. 

With this in mind, the Church has constantly taught that the grace of Baptism can be received through two different occasions, often referred to as the Baptism of Blood and the Baptism of Desire.

Baptism of Blood: those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism 

Baptism of Desire: catechumens who have repented of their sins, but die before their Baptism

Who Can Receive the Sacrament of Baptism?

Every person not yet baptized and only such a person is able to be baptized” (CCC 1246).

To be clear, this includes persons of all ages and circumstances: adults, children, infants, etc.

Many Christians choose to refrain from offering the gift of Baptism from infants due to their inability to give an intellectual assent of faith. However, this is a rather new practice and tradition, not in accord with the Sacred Tradition of the Church. It has always been understood that Baptism (and therefore salvation) is a completely free gift offered by God.

In the words of the Church:

The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth” (CCC 1250).

How is the Sacrament of Baptism Celebrated?

Baptism is performed in the most expressive way by triple immersion in the baptismal water. However, from ancient times it has also been able to be conferred by pouring the water three times over the candidates head.

In the Latin Church this triple infusion is accompanied by the minister’s words: ‘(Name), I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

In the Eastern liturgies the catechumen turns toward the East and the priest says: “The servant of God, (Name), is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’” (CCC 1240).

In addition, the newly baptized are anointed with a sacred chrism (perfumed oil consecrated by the bishop) as a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit and the anointing of the person incorporated into Christ as priest, prophet, and king. 

In the Latin Rite this is merely a post-baptismal anointing which announces the future second anointing with sacred chrism that will be given later at the reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation. 

In the Eastern Rites, this post-baptismal anointing is the Sacrament of Confirmation, though called the Sacrament of Chrismation in these Eastern Churches. 

Who Can Baptize?

The ordinary ministers of Baptism are the bishop and priest, and in the Latin Church, also the deacon” (CCC 1256).

However, in cases of necessity, anyone, including even a non-baptized person, with the required intention of willing to do what the Church does when she baptizes, can baptize, by using the Trinitarian baptismal formula:

(Name), I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The Church recognizes that it is due to “the universal saving will of God and the necessity of Baptism for salvation” that Baptism can be conferring in this manner (CCC 1256).


Further Reading about the Sacrament of Baptism

Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told by Brant Pitre

-A book about how Christ’s passion and death were not a Roman execution, but rather the fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecies of a wedding between God and humankind. In this context, Baptism (as well as all the other Sacraments) is presented through a unique lens that is sure to deepen your devotion to our Lord.

Sacraments in Scripture by Tim Gray

-An overview of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church and their scriptural basis.

Swear to God: The Promise and Power of the Sacraments by Scott Hahn

An overview of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church and their connection to God’s covenants throughout Salvation History.


Were you Baptized as an infant, child, or adult? What effect(s) have you seen most active in your life?

Let me know below in the comment box!


Are you often asked what the Catholic Church teaches about tough subjects? Are you curious about what the Church teaches?

In this Tough Catholic Teachings cheat sheet I provide for you direct links to the paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that speak specifically about these tough topics.

You won’t need to go searching for what the Catholic Church actually teaches about these subjects as you will have direct access to the Catechism’s teaching all in one place!

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