The gift of life: what the Catechism teaches about baptism.

I want to begin this seventh post in my series on the teaching of the Prayer Book Catechism by inviting you to imagine a young couple who have announced to their family and friends that they have now produced a baby. However, what they then show to their family and friends is a lifelike wooden carving of a baby which they have made.

In many ways this carving is like any other baby in its outward appearance. Nevertheless, it lacks one crucial characteristic of a real baby. It does not have the life which can only be bestowed upon  a child as the result of a sexual union between a man and a woman.[1]

There can be no doubt that what the couple claim to be their new baby has existence. It is not an imaginary baby in the sense of being an entity that exists only in their shared imagination. However, the form of existence that it has does not include life. The nature of things in this world means that wooden carvings of babies cannot have life in the same way that babies begotten through sexual union do. It follows that only thing that could give life to what our young couple claim to be their baby would be a miracle, a supernatural occurrence that would result in it having the life that it would not naturally have.

The reason why I have told this imaginary story is that it provides a good way in to understanding what the Catechism teaches about baptism. What we saw in last week’s post about the nature of the sacraments is that baptism is an effective sign of the love of God. It is effective in the sense that it effects something. It makes something happen.  If we ask what it effects the answer is that it gives the person who is baptised the opportunity to have life that they would not otherwise possess. In John’s Gospel Jesus declares ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10), and baptism is the sacramental means by which this new life is received.

Now at this point someone might well object that human beings do not need to be given life since they have it already as a result of the sexual union between their parents. What this objection fails to understand however, is that there are two different types of life. There is the life that we naturally have as a result of sexual union, and there is the life that comes to us supernaturally through the miraculous action of God.

In his book Mere Christianity  C S Lewis helpfully distinguishes between these two types of life. Just as the wooden baby in my story lacked life because it was made by the young couple rather than being begotten by them through sexual intercourse, in the same way, writes Lewis:

‘We are not begotten by God, we are only made by Him: in our natural state we are not sons of God, only (so to speak) statues. We have not got Zoe or spiritual life: only Bios or biological life which is presently going to run down and die. Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this;  that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God. [2]

If we turn to what the Catechism says about baptism, we shall see that it tells us that the benefit of baptism is precisely that it enables us to become the children of God in the way Lewis describes.

‘Question. What is the outward visible sign or form in Baptism?

Answer. Water: wherein the person is baptized, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Question. What is the inward and spiritual grace?

Answer. A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

Question. What is required of persons to be baptized?

Answer. Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in that Sacrament.

Question. Why then are infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform them?

Answer. Because they promise them both by their sureties: which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform.’

In line with Catechism’s general teaching about the sacraments that we looked at last week, these words declare that there are two parts to baptism, the ‘outward visible sign’ – the administration  of water in the name of the Trinity, and the ‘inward and spiritual grace’ – the gift of new life promised by Jesus in John 10.  

The Catechism says that our being born into this new kind of life  through baptism in the way described by Jesus in John 3:3-6 involves ‘death.’ This may initially seem difficult to understand. Why should ‘birth’ involve ‘death?’ This point becomes clear when we understand that death is used here to mean not biological death, but rather the cessation of a particular kind of existence.

In my story at the start of this post, for instance, in order for the couple’s wooden image to become a real baby it would have to cease to exist as a wooden image and become a living human being instead. In similar fashion, human beings need to cease to exist (‘die’) as they are and begin a new form of life instead.

Why? Because, as described in the Bible in Genesis 3, something went drastically wrong at the dawn of human history which means  that the natural life that we possess as a consequence of our biological birth is a self-centred form of life, in which we fail to love either God our neighbours as we should (this is what the Catechism means when it says that we are ‘born in sin’).

Since God is morally perfect, he must necessarily hate this form of life and our existence as those marked by it. To quote Lewis again ‘if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do.’[3] It this form of existence as the objects of God’s hatred that the Catechism refers to when it says we are ‘children of wrath.’

However, while God hates us, he nevertheless loves us[4] and therefore does not give up on us. Instead, he makes it possible for our existence as ‘children of wrath’ to come to an end and for us to begin a new life as ‘children of grace,’  people who share the life of Christ and who in consequence begin a new God-centred form of existence marked by love for him and for our neighbours (what the Catechism calls ‘righteousness’).

As saw last week, gifts of love have to be received as well as offered and this is true of what God offers through baptism. As the Catechism explains we have to receive it and this reception takes two forms. We have to say ‘no’  to our old life of sin (‘repentance’) and we have to believe in, and say ‘yes’ to, God’s promise of  new life through union with Christ (‘faith’). 

Those who are baptised as infants cannot make this response for themselves, so those who act for them (their ‘sureties’) respond on their behalf. When they become old enough to do so, those who are baptised as infants then have the obligation to make this response their own (‘which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform’). When they do this the seed of new life sown at their baptism comes to fruition.

In summary, like the wooden baby in my story human beings in their natural state have existence, but they lack life. In Lewis’ terms they have Bios, but are without Zoe. Jesus came to give us the life which he has, but we lack, and baptism, when received with repentance and faith, is the sacramental means through which that life is given to us.

[1] Even IVF treatment is an artificial form of sexual union. 

[2] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1984), p. 150.

[3] Lewis, p.37.

[4] Augustine puts it well ‘in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved even when he hated us’ (Tract in John 110).