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Baptism, the Sacrament of Regeneration and the Supernatural Life

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

As we begin our conferences on the seven sacraments, our plan is to introduce each conference with some of the modern misunderstandings on each sacrament. I say misunderstandings. But they could better be called blatant errors that we used to call heresies. What makes these errors so serious is that they are being openly taught and promoted by professedly Catholic writers and speakers.

One prominent writer has some unusual insights in his book, Doors to the Sacred. On the grounds that there has been a development of doctrine in the Catholic Church, he affirms that “the Catholic hierarchy seems to have accepted the notion that Baptism is necessary for joining the Church but it is not necessary for salvation.” [1]  He further writes that, “Contemporary theology and religious education texts now speak of Baptism as incorporating a person into the life of Christ which is continued in the Church, and talk about its causing the forgiveness of original sin is slowly disappearing.” [2]

Almost five centuries of Protestant thought have deeply penetrated Catholic minds. In a standard analysis of Roman Catholicism, the author is very clear. “Rome”, he says, “has perverted the meaning of Baptism so that instead of accepting it as a symbolical ordinance and an outward sign through which Christ and the benefits of the new covenant are represented and conveyed to the believer and received by faith, it is represented as working in a magical way to produce baptismal regeneration and securing automatically the forgiveness of all past sins, and as absolutely necessary to salvation.” [3]

As we go through our reflections on Baptism, we shall see how to cope with these domestic and alien critics of what we believe is the sacrament of regeneration and the supernatural life.


Baptism is not only the first of the seven sacraments; it is also the basic sacrament. How?

Unless a person is baptized, none of the other six sacraments can be received. Only a baptized person can be confirmed. Only a baptized person can receive absolution in the sacrament of Confession. Only a baptized person can receive the sacrament of Matrimony. Only a baptized man can be validly ordained a priest.

Baptism first gives a person the supernatural life, whereas the other sacraments provide for the restoration, or growth, or healing, or communication of the supernatural life. As we shall see, the moment we are conceived in our mother’s womb, we receive the principle of the natural life of our body, called the soul. When we are baptized, our soul receives its principle of the supernatural life. This foundation of supernatural existence is conferred by the sacrament of Baptism.

Baptism clearly shows what the Catholic Church understands by the sacraments. They actually give, cause if you will, the grace which they signify. There need be no deliberate contribution from a newborn child. The sacrament itself confers grace from God just because the infant is baptized.


Baptism can be defined as the sacrament of supernatural rebirth or regeneration. We should stress the prefix “re” when we speak of Baptism as a rebirth or regeneration. This brings out the astounding fact that although we are indeed generated or born naturally of our human parents, Baptism gives us a new life. This is a higher life, the supernatural life that we need above our natural existence. Why do we need this life? Because we hope to reach heaven after our natural life expires when we die. Absolutely speaking, none of us will ever die. What we commonly call death is merely the separation of our immortal soul from our body. But the soul is meant to be alive twice over. As a spiritual reality, our soul will never cease to exist. But if our soul is not animated by the grace we received at Baptism, we shall die the double death of both body and soul.

Institution by Christ

Jesus Christ told us about Baptism during his conversation with Nicodemus. This Pharisee had just complimented Jesus. The Savior replied by saying, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is begotten from above.” To which Nicodemus objected, “How can a man be born again? Can he go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” This was a perfect question to introduce Christ’s revealed teaching about Baptism. He said, “I solemnly assure you no one can enter the kingdom of God without being begotten of water and the Spirit.”

For no less than fifteen verses does Jesus explain the meaning of what He had just told Nicodemus. Underlying Christ’s teaching is the fact that Baptism is necessary. So true is this that the Catholic Church recognizes the rite of Baptism practiced by other Christian churches, provided the sacrament is conferred by immersion in water or the pouring or sprinkling of water, while the same person pronounces the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

How necessary is Baptism? It is absolutely necessary to receive Baptism of water or at least of desire, which can be implicit, provided a person believes at least in God and His goodness and is faithful to the graces that God gives him.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “As regards infants who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward infants which caused him to say: ‘Let the little ones come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for infants who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent infants coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.”

Effects of Baptism

All the effects of Baptism are supernatural as we should expect. These effects are mainly five and may be summarized in five words: sin, life, power, Church and character.

Removal of guilt and penalty for sin.  The first and most practical effect of Baptism is to remove the guilt of original sin and restore the corresponding title to heavenly glory. What does this mean? It means that all the guilt of all the sin a person may have on his soul is taken away. A baptized child who has not reached the age of reason, if it dies, has an immediate title to the beatific vision. After the age of reason, a baptized person is freed not only from original sin but all the sins committed, and all the punishment due to even the lifetime of personal sins.

We should immediately add, however, that two penalties for original sin are not removed by Baptism. Our first parents lost for themselves and all their posterity the gift of bodily immortality and of freedom from irrational desires. Baptism does not restore either of these, what we call, preternatural gifts that we would have inherited had we not inherited a fallen human nature.

Supernatural life.  By the sin of Adam, mankind lost its share in the divine life. By the death of Christ, the second Adam, this life can now be restored. Baptism restores what we call our supernatural life.

This is the new birth of which Christ spoke to Nicodemus, when He said that we must be born again of water and the Holy Spirit.

This is that life of which St. John writes in the opening chapter of his Gospel, when he says that we are children of God, “who are begotten not by blood, nor by carnal desire nor by man’s willing it, but by God” (John 1:13). Because we have this life of God in our souls, we become heirs of heaven.

The only condition which God requires is that we remain spiritually alive when our bodies die. Provided we are in the grace of God when, as we say, we die, our souls will not only survive but will have a right to heavenly glory. In other words, this supernatural life received at Baptism is destined to continue, beyond our bodily death, into a heavenly eternity.

We have a name for the source of this supernatural life. We call it sanctifying grace. St. Augustine calls it the soul of the soul. What our soul is to our body, giving it natural life, sanctifying grace is to the soul, giving it supernatural life.

To be noted, however, is that sanctifying grace is already the created effect of the indwelling of the Holy Trinity. We may therefore say that the most important effect of the sacrament of Baptism is to have the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dwell in our souls. This indwelling is called the uncreated grace that we have received when we were baptized and are to retain when the Lord calls us to our everlasting destiny.

Virtues, Gifts and Fruits.  Baptism not only gives supernatural life to the soul, it also gives the soul supernatural powers, instincts and joys which we commonly identify as the virtues, gifts, and fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Another name for the virtues infused at Baptism is supernatural powers to do what is impossible to human nature alone. The three most important of these powers are the virtues of faith, hope and charity.

By faith we are empowered to believe everything which God has revealed: that God is the eternal Community of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary; that Jesus Christ, the God-man, suffered and died for our sins; that Jesus Christ is now present, really and truly, actually and bodily on earth in the Holy Eucharist; that the Church which Christ founded is our road to salvation, and that the visible head of this Church is the Bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter, whom Christ made the rock, so that what the Pope teaches the universal Church is the teaching of Christ Himself.

By hope we are empowered to confidently trust that all the good things promised us by God we shall obtain; that we will never be without the light and strength we need to fulfill the will of God; that no trials that God sends us will be greater than, with His grace, we can bear; that provided we cooperate with God’s grace, heaven is ours. We are confident of His mercy, no matter how sinful our lives may have been. The only condition is that we repent, make a good Confession, and resolve to amend our lives.

By charity we are empowered to love God above all things; to love Him more than ourselves; to love Him even, or especially when He sends us sufferings and the cross; to love Him in all the circumstances of life, no matter how demanding His love may be.

By charity we are empowered to love others not only as much as we love ourselves. We are enabled to love others more than ourselves; to love others even as Christ has loved us, by suffering and dying on our cross out of love for others; to love others out of love for God constantly, patiently and generously beyond all human power and expectation.

Membership in the Church.  The sacrament of Baptism incorporates a person in the Church founded by Christ. What does this mean? In the words of the Second Vatican Council, it means that “All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.”

Here we must distinguish. Every validly baptized person belongs to the Catholic Church no matter how unaware the person may be of belonging to the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church militant here on earth. However, we distinguish between belonging to the Church and being a member of the Church founded by Jesus Christ. To be an actual member of the Catholic Church, the baptized person must also profess what the Catholic Church teaches, and accept her laws and obligations with an open heart.

To belong to the Catholic Church further means that Baptism is the door to obtaining such graces as only baptized persons have a claim to. Certainly the Church is the universal sacrament of salvation and sanctification. All the graces that anyone receives from God are channeled through the Catholic Church. Those who are baptized have a special right to these graces to which no one else has a claim.

Indelible character.  The final and most mysterious effect of Baptism is to receive a permanent, irremovable character or seal. Baptism imparts a likeness to Christ, especially to Christ the priest. The seal will remain throughout our lives on earth and into the endless reaches of eternity. The baptismal character grafts a person into Christ the Vine so that all the baptized share in a unique way in the graces of Christ’s humanity. As a result, Jesus Christ has a claim on the baptized that no one else enjoys; and they have a claim on Him that no one else on earth can share.

The baptismal character is permanent because it is timeless; it is indelible because nothing, not even the loss of faith can remove it. Therefore a baptized person always remains a Christian. Why? Because the baptismal seal confers a permanent relationship with Christ.

How to Grow in the Gifts of Baptism

Gone is the day when a Catholic can simply possess the gifts of grace received at Baptism. These gifts must grow and develop at the risk of losing the divine blessings which Baptism confers. I would single out especially the need for growing in the most fundamental gift we received when we were baptized, namely the gift of faith. Either we grow in our faith or we risk losing not only the virtue of believing in God’s revealed truth, but even the prospect of eternal salvation.

We are living in the most critical century of Christian history. Only firm believers who have grown in their faith will survive. Only firm believers will be used by Christ as channels of His grace to others.

How do we grow in our faith? We grow in our faith by studying our faith, by praying our faith and by putting what we believe into generous, even heroic practice.

Study.  By studying the faith, I mean that no Catholic today, no matter what his age or state in life or previous education can be excused from learning more and more deeply what Christ has revealed and what the Church He founded teaches about the faith.

A word of warning, however—make absolutely sure that in studying the faith you read authors who support the faith, and consult people who themselves are staunchly Catholic, and listen to speakers and attend conferences and discuss with those who will fortify what you believe. Let their faith nourish yours and your faith nourish theirs. Never has it been more necessary to choose your close friends and companions. Studying the faith must be done with faithful persons, using faithful sources, and its purpose should be to acquire a clearer understanding, a deeper certitude and a greater appreciation of what the Holy Spirit has revealed. He wants the seed of His Word to grow. The first means for assuring that growth is study.

Prayer.  Study has to be joined with prayer. This can be meditation on the mysteries of faith, or petition for more light on the meaning of faith. It should always be a humble recourse to God if only with a moment’s aspiration whenever a difficulty in the faith arises or when, as so often happens these days, we are faced with malicious attacks against our beliefs or forced to witness some conduct or read some writing or hear some statement that betrays the true faith.

Practice.  In order to grow in the faith, we must use it. The duty is that simple, but also that necessary. Let me illustrate—we believe that nothing happens by chance, but that everything that occurs is part of the mysterious Providence of God. If we believe it, and we do, let us act on our belief no matter how painful the things God sends us—ah, but we must believe that God sends it—or how painfully He takes pleasant things away. And no matter how unwelcome a duty, we do it; doing it infallibly strengthens the faith. We believe that Christ is really, truly and entirely present in the Holy Eucharist. We should act accordingly by visiting Him often in the Blessed Sacrament where we adore Him, telling Him how much we love Him and asking Him for whatever we need. That is why He is there, the same Jesus who raised the dead.

If He worked miracles then, trust Him, He will work miracles now.


“Lord Jesus, in Your closing message to the disciples, You told them, ‘Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned.’

“I thank You for the gift of Your Baptism and the grace of my Catholic faith. Give me the strength to remain faithful to You and the courage to share my faith with everyone who enters my life. I trust that when You call me into eternity, I will be in Your divine friendship as I was the day I was baptized. Amen.”

[1] Martos, Joseph. Doors to the Sacred. p. 173.

[2] Ibid. p. 175.

[3] Boettner, Loraine. Roman Catholicism. (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1962), p. 190.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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