Naaman, the great Syrian general, had a little problem. He was a leper. His Israelite slave girl gave him news that a prophet of Israel, a great man named Elisha, might be able to help him out of his predicament. So, being a great man himself, he went to the prophet to ask for help. The reply came from Elisha: “Not a problem. Come on down and take a dip in our filthy, muddy Jordan River and God will heal you.”
Naaman was furious. Elisha was not treating him as an equal, but as a mere groveling supplicant, like any other loser. Naaman groused that his home country had a lot of rivers cleaner than the Jordan. His dignity and intelligence bucked like broncos at the insult of it all.
But none of that made his leprosy go away. In the end, his servants brought him to his senses with these words:
“My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13).
In his pride, Naaman was prepared to perform seven Herculean feats to earn his healing. But he hadn’t been prepared to humble himself. When he realized his servants were right, he took a deep breath, crucified his pride (which is even more Herculean) and received healing on God’s terms, not his.
Baptism is a similarly simple act of submission to God. It washes us of all sin, the greatest of which is pride.
It seems like such a small thing. A little spill of water. A few words. No blood, sweat, toil or tears. No complex formulas. No Herculean feats. No demonstration of your worthiness to be among the Few, the Proud.
On the contrary, it’s all about confessing your unworthiness and your readiness to admit that you are among the Many, the Sinners.
Baptism “justifies” us according to the Church. Justification does not come from acting justified. Justification comes with admitting you are not justified, because it comes from God, not us. It’s a gift.
Because it’s a gift, some Christians have the theory that justification is like snow on a dunghill. According to this theory, you remain the nasty creature you were, but God pretends otherwise.
This is not, however, what Scripture or the Church teaches. On the contrary, in baptism your sins and your sinfulness really are taken away, and you become a “partaker in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). That doesn’t mean you are incapable of sin. It doesn’t even mean that you are not still afflicted with concupiscence: The weakened will, disordered appetites and darkened intellect that linger on like a trick knee after baptism has operated on the injury inflicted by original sin.
Rather, it means that as you cooperate with grace (and nowhere more so than in the field of combat with temptation); you are being changed into a creature who more and more fully replicates the life of Christ. As he is the Just Man, so you too become more and more like him: not merely a disgusting dunghill that God endures, but a genuine delight through whom God radiates Christ’s goodness to the world.
This process of sanctification can look a bit like the “snow on a dunghill” theory, but it’s not. The “snow on a dunghill” theory says, “You’ll never change, so God has to pretend you’ve changed.” The essence of Catholic moral exhortation is always “Become what you are.” It’s an approach that comes to us directly from St. Paul, who confronts the squabbling, stupid Corinthians in the midst of their sins and tells them not “So! You were never really Christians after all!” but:
“[Y]ou were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
In short, in baptism you already have changed.
Now the mustard seed that has been planted in your soul must grow.
That’s hard to believe because the world constantly tells us that underneath the veneer of goodness lie nothing but abysses of hunger for selfishness — in a word, sin. So when we sin we think, “That’s what I’m really made of.” But the faith tells us that our sins do not name us and that we are ultimately meant for God.
Our sins make us anonymous, take away our names, and destroy our true identity. Paul’s exhortation calls us to take up the dignity that is already ours in Christ through our baptism. He does this because he knows Christ means to give us a new name.
Which is to say that he means to make us saints.