The creed tells us, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” This clause emphasizes a teaching of the ancient Church that would later be denied by the rise of anabaptism. Anabaptism taught that infant baptism was a waste of time and said that you must be baptized as an adult in order for baptism to be valid. It maintained that the only thing that baptism really counts for is a sign showing you are serious about following Christ. In short, anabaptism teaches that baptism is something we do for God, not something he does for us. So it insisted that those baptized as infants needed to be re-baptized as adults since they couldn’t have made an intelligent profession of faith as infants and therefore baptism could not have done them any good.
The apostolic doctrine that there is “one baptism” and not two as Anabaptists taught goes all the way back to Acts, in which we repeatedly find that not just adults but whole households were customarily baptized when the head of the household was. In the ancient Mediterranean, that typically included not just children, but slaves as well. Paul, fully aware of this, has no difficulty declaring in Ephesians 4:4-6 that, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Similarly, the fact that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins is spelled out by Peter who tells us “baptism… now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). And Paul repeatedly tells us that baptism is not a mere sign of belief, but rather 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).
This understanding of baptism as sacramental—as doing something to us—is right at the core of the Catholic and biblical conception of the thing. And ironically, it has everything to do with refuting one of the great falsehoods about Catholic faith: the notion that the Church teaches “justification by works”. The great irony is that Anabaptism decoupled baptism from salvation, yet still insisted on performing the rite as a pledge of the faith which alone could save.
The immediate practical effect of this was twofold:
First, it made baptism precisely the hollow ritual Anabaptists claimed Catholic baptism to be. Baptism no longer bore Christ’s salvific power. You just did it because you did it. Why it was necessary to tack this mandatory-but-empty outward observance on to the act of faith was never satisfactorily explained.
Second, it predicated salvation, not on the grace of Christ working through baptism, but upon our being clever enough to understand a particular theory of justification.
Catholics, in contrast, baptize babies and even profoundly mentally handicapped people. To reject this is to say that a person can only have the grace of God if they are smart enough to master the doctrine of justification by faith. Catholics know that babies or severely mentally handicapped people are just as entitled to the grace of God by their braininess as well-read, theologically sophisticated adults of high intelligence are: which is to say, not at all. But God never said he’d give us his grace because we are smart. He said he’d give it to us because he loves us. So we baptize in obedience to God and trust him to do the job through the grace of Christ, not through our cleverness in understanding justification by faith. All subsequent baptisms just get you wet.
Some may find it hard to grasp the awesome nature of baptism, especially if they have been schooled in current notions of the sacraments as mere communal celebrations of our Us-ness and not miraculous acts of the Blessed Trinity conferring his eternal life upon mortal flesh. For Paul, who was, like most of the first generation of Christians, an adult convert, the miracle of baptism was still fresh. To have toiled your life long with a burden of sin on your conscience; to have “kicked against the goads” and persecuted innocent people in your zeal to defeat him whom your conscience told you was the Messiah; and finally, to receive, not a fiery curse from the heavens but complete forgiveness of sins and everlasting life—what words of thanks are sufficient? But that is precisely what baptism confers on every human being from the sleepiest baby to Hans Frank, the Gauleiter of Poland who oversaw the murder of 2 million human beings: the forgiveness of all sin and everlasting life. It’s still amazing!