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Why I’m Catholic: One Measly Little Doctrine, Part II

Ken Hensley
January 17, 2018 16 Comments

In Part I (here) I described how I came to see that the unanimous testimony of the early Church thoroughly supported a Catholic and sacramental view of Baptism.

In his Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, the great Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan summarizes the early Church’s view of what occurs in Baptism. The early Church believed, Pelikan explains, that Baptism effects “the remission of sins, deliverance from death, regeneration, and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit.”

Being a Baptist minister at the time, who, along with Baptists everywhere, held to a purely symbolic view of Baptism, this realization rattled my theological bones.

I immediately turned to the New Testament. I wanted to read it again in the light of what I had seen in the early Church Fathers, to read what it had to say about Baptism as though for the first time. I wanted to see if viewing the pertinent passages through the lens of Church Tradition I might not see something I missed before.

Water and Spirit in John’s Gospel

I began with John 3:3-5, a passage the early Fathers insisted was about Baptism and that Baptists insisted was about anything but Baptism. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to Nicodemus, “unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God … unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Was Jesus talking about baptism in this passage?

Baptist theologians generally dismissed this passage by saying that Jesus is simply contrasting natural birth with spiritual rebirth, saying we must be born naturally (born of water) and then born again spiritually (born of Spirit). There’s nothing here about Baptism.

Catholic writers encouraged me to examine the context of Jesus’ words within the Gospel of John, and when I did it seemed nearly impossible to imagine Jesus wasn’t talking about Baptism when He spoke of the need to be “born of water and the Spirit.”

To begin, only 40 or so verses prior to this, in chapter one of John, we find described the baptism of Jesus, during which the Spirit descended and remained on Him (John 1:32-34). In the parallel accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke we learn that at the same time a voice from heaven was heard: “This is my beloved Son.”

Interesting. In our Lord’s baptism the same three ideas are present as we find in John 3:35. There is water. There is Spirit. There is this idea of being declared a son of God (born again?).

Moving forward into the second chapter of John, we find Jesus performing a miracle in which He transforms the water in six vessels used for Jewish purification rites into wine. In Hebrews 9:9-10 these ceremonial washings are referred to as “baptisms”. Again, interesting.

So, the theme of Baptism appears in John 1. It appears in John 2. Finally, immediately following Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, what do we find? John 3:22: “After this Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized.” It turns out that this is the only place in all four Gospels where Jesus is described as baptizing.

In other words, John 3:3-5 is bracketed on all sides by stories about Baptism. This is its literary context within John’s Gospel.

In the light of this — and especially considering Jesus’ own baptism where the themes of water, Spirit, and divine Sonship appear together as they do in John 3:3-5 — is it really possible, I thought, to not see that Jesus was making reference to Baptism when He said that a man must be “born of water and the Spirit”?

Water and Spirit throughout Scripture

But this was just the beginning. I was encouraged to see that the themes of “water” and “Spirit” and “new life” appear together repeatedly throughout Scripture.

For instance, what do we find in the very story of Creation but the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters to bring forth life (Genesis 1:2)? Water. Spirit. New life.

Speaking of this passage, St. Theophilus of Antioch, writing around AD 181, related it immediately to Baptism.

Moreover, those things which were created from the waters were blessed by God, 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.

In the story of Noah, we again find these themes occurring together. For a second time waters cover the face of the earth, and for a second time, God sends His Spirit to cause the waters to recede and new life to appear. “And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided” (Genesis 8:2). The Hebrew word translated here as “wind” is the same word translated “spirit” in Genesis 1:2.

In 1 Peter 3:20, St Peter likens the Christian’s passing through the waters of Baptism to Noah and his family passing through the waters of the flood. Water, Spirit, and new life.

In the story of the crossing of the Red Sea, we find these same themes appearing together once again. The Israelites have left Egypt and become trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian armies. Moses stretches forth his staff and suddenly a “wind” comes from God (same Hebrew word) and blows across the waters, dividing them so that the children of Israel can pass over on dry land.

In 1 Corinthians 10:2 St Paul tells us this was the Israelites’ “baptism” into Moses. Through the waters, separated by the Spirit of God, the Israelites left behind their life as slaves and embarked on their new life as free children of God. Water, Spirit, and new life.

In 2 Kings 5, Naaman the Syrian is instructed to dip himself in the Jordan River seven times in order to be cleansed of his leprosy. He complains that Elijah hasn’t given him something more impressive to do, but finally humbles himself to perform this simple act of faith and is healed. God uses this washing with water as the occasion for a miraculous cleansing that He performs by His Spirit.

Writing around AD 190, St. Irenaeus Bishop of Lyon commented on this miracle and connected it with baptism:

“And [Naaman] dipped himself … seven times in the Jordan.” It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared: “Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of God”‘ (Fragment 34).

Water and Spirit in the New Covenant

The idea of ceremonial washings is of course all through the Old Testament. There were a number of these “washings” (Hebrews 9:9-10 refer to them as “baptisms”) but as the author of Hebrews tells us, these were “not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.” He describes them as a matter of “external regulations applying until the time of the new order” — the New Covenant in Christ.

It’s when the Lord establishes His New Covenant that He will actually accomplish by His Spirit what the ceremonial washings of the Old Covenant merely foreshadowed.

In light of the theme of water and Spirit bringing forth new life, which I now saw woven throughout the fabric of the Old Testament, I must admit it really hit me to read again Ezekiel’s description of the promised New Covenant.

For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ezek. 36:24-27).

Baptism in the New Testament

It was time to read on through the New Testament, to see if there were any other passages that might support the Catholic teaching that in Baptism sins are washed away, the Spirit is given, and we are made sons and daughters of God (born again).

I came to John 9 where Jesus sends a man born blind to wash in the Pool of Siloam. After he washes, he comes back seeing.

I read on and came to Acts chapter two. The New Covenant has been established in Christ’s Body and Blood, the Jewish feast celebrating the ingathering of the first fruits of the harvest arrives (Pentecost) and the Spirit descends on the Apostles. Peter preaches; his hearers are cut to the heart and cry out, “What must we do?” Peter then responds, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you for the remission of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

The question came to me for the first time: is Peter saying that remission of sins and the gift of the Spirit are received in Baptism?

I read on and came to Acts 19, where Paul encounters some disciples in Ephesus. He asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed and when they answer, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” Paul responds with the strangest of questions: “Then what baptism did you receive?”

Does Paul, I wondered, see the gift of the Holy Spirit as connected with Baptism? Is this what is implied here?

I read on and came to Acts 22, where the devout Ananias says to Saul of Tarsus, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”

At this point I was almost wondering whether I had ever even read these verses before! Did Ananias believe — like all the Church Fathers! — that sins are washed away in Baptism?

I read on and came to Romans 6, where Paul says that in our baptism we were buried with Christ and raised to new life.  It’s clear from the context that he believes something actually happened to us in our baptism that freed us from slavery to sin so that we might walk “in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

I came to 1 Corinthians 12:13, where Paul says Christians have been baptized by one Spirit into one body and all given one Spirit to drink.

Finally, I came to 1 Peter 3:21, a passage confusing to most evangelical Protestants. Peter is speaking about how Noah and his family were saved through the waters of the flood. And then he says,

And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also — not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I noticed a connection with something Peter had said earlier in that same epistle. In chapter 1:3 he speaks of how believers have been “given a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  Here he speaks of Baptism saving them “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

In Peter’s mind, it seems that Baptism and the new birth are related. Peter seems to be saying that as Noah and his family were saved through the waters of the flood, so we are saved through the waters of Baptism — not because there’s something magical about the water or the outward rite. Rather, it saves us; we are born anew through the power of Christ’s Resurrection (the Spirit!) as we pledge ourselves to God by this act of submitting to Baptism.


Now, as an evangelical Protestant, at this point I was still wrestling with myself. On the one hand, there was a voice saying: “These passages don’t prove that the New Testament is teaching a sacramental view of Baptism. There are other ways in which each of these passages can be interpreted.”

On the other hand, I had to admit that somehow the Apostles spoke in ways I, as a Baptist preacher, would never have spoken.

Why is it, I wondered, that if I had preached a million sermons I would never have thought to say what Peter said in Acts 2: “Repent and be baptized and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”? In fact, I had never heard a single Evangelical pastor use words like that. We called people to “believe in Christ.” We called them to “accept Christ as Savior”’ No one ever said, “Repent and be baptized and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit!” Why?

Why is it I would never have thought to say to anyone, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins”?

Why is it that if I had met someone who had not received the Holy Spirit, it would never have crossed my mind to respond, “Hmmm, what baptism did you receive?”

Why would I never in my entire lifetime as a Baptist minister have said, “Baptism now saves you”?

Sure, one might not be able to “prove” on the basis of Scripture alone that all of this evidence added up to the Catholic teaching on Baptism. But what I had said to myself, after being confronted with the unanimous teaching of the early Church on Baptism, was not that I would accept the Catholic position if I could somehow “prove” on the basis of Scripture alone that their position was correct.

What I had said was that given the weight of the early Church’s testimony I would accept the Catholic teaching unless it was absolutely certain that it was contradicted by the teaching of the New Testament. 

Could I say that? Not even close. Not even close.

And even though this was just one measly little doctrine, it changed the way I thought about everything. I used to think only of the question: “What do I see Scripture teaching about this?” It was clear to me now that this would no longer be enough.

I remember imagining that I could parachute back into the early Church. Faced with Ignatius and Justin and Tertullian and Cyprian and Barnabas—faced with the universal Church’s understanding of Baptism as a powerful sacrament in which sins are remitted, regeneration takes place, and the Holy Spirit is given — would I have been willing to separate myself on the basis of my private interpretation of Scripture? Would I have been willing to say, “Well, you can’t prove that your interpretation is correct. There are other possibilities” — and on that basis start my own church?

To ask the question was to answer it.

I became eager to see if what I found to be true of the Catholic view of Baptism might not be true of other Catholic beliefs.

For instance, what about the Eucharist?

Ken Hensley

Ken is a well-known Catholic speaker and author on staff with CHN. To subscribe to his personal email list and browse his many recorded talks on Catholic apologetics, visit his website at

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