The Sacrament of Baptism & Original Sin
Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
Isaiah 1, 18
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring,
and my blessing on your descendants.
Isaiah 44, 3
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.
Ezekiel 36, 25-27
And that is what some of you were. But you were washed,
you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the LORD
Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
2 Corinthians 6, 11
In Catholic theology, original sin is regarded as the general state of sinfulness, that is the absence of sanctity and perfect charity into which all human beings are born. We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that original sin is the natural state of “deprivation of the original holiness and justice” which we inherit as descendants of Adam and Eve. It is a sin that is contracted by all human beings by natural propagation, not a sin committed by them. Because original sin is a state or condition of our human nature and not a sinful act on our part, it “does not take on the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405).
All Adam’s descendants are conceived and born in the state of original sin (Ps. 51:7). St. Paul tells us: “As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men inasmuch as all men sinned” (Rom. 5:12). The apostle adds: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). Physical death is a sign of spiritual death. Though physical death remains a temporal penalty for our common sins against God, Christ restored humanity to spiritual life with God by his passion and death on the Cross. The second death – eternal damnation or separation from God – is no longer an irrevocable prospect for all human beings.
At any rate, original sin is the state of being deprived of supernatural grace. When Adam fell from the supernatural life with God, he fell into a defective state. Having fallen from grace, the supernatural life was something that he should have possessed as God destined him to. But since he lost it, his lower natural condition is what we call the state of original sin: the deprivation of the original sanctity and justice in which Adam was originally created by God in His goodness. Since the Fall, all his biological descendants are thus inclined, as natural members in the organic body of Adam, to evil: concupiscence of the eyes, the concupiscence of the flesh, and the pride of life.
Not unlike their primordial father, human beings tend to want to be like God, but apart from God, before God, and not in accordance with the will of God. Human acts that originate from this attitude may constitute mortal sins that deprive the soul of sanctity and justice before God through the original fall from grace. Thus, original sin is called sin only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed” – a state and not an act. Only one’s own personal sins carry with them the character of a personal fault and guilt by the natural proclivity to sin as a member of fallen humanity.
In the redemption of humankind, God restored sanctifying or justifying grace to all humanity by Christ’s merits. Without this merciful act of God, man could never have retrieved that supernatural state above nature which is the end for which God destined him. The grace of redemption blots out the sin of Adam, although the moral and physical ill-effects of original sin remain after we are baptized. Dom Bruno Webb describes original sin as “some disease that has infected the original cell of the human body” which may “permeate every organ and cell of the body, as it grows forth from that [first] cell.” The original sin that we contract is like a “poison” that has “passed into every member of the human race”. The sin of Adam, therefore, is something that belongs to each member of the human race as such and is “our common heritage.”
In Romans 5:19, Paul writes: “Many (Polloi) were made sinners. He isn’t contradicting himself by not using the word “all” (pantes) since what he means to say here as in verse 18 is that all people are subject to original sin, but not everyone rejects God. He certainly doesn’t mean to say in the distributive sense that everyone who has ever lived has sinned without exception, since infants and mentally disabled people cannot sin, at least not subjectively or with moral responsibility. The act of sin requires full knowledge and full consent on the part of the subject. But given the right circumstances, they might sin, since they fall short of God’s glory by their very lower nature as collectively part of humanity.
Infants and young children below the age of moral reason do in fact suffer and die, though they have never committed any personal sins in their short lives because all human beings are guilty of Adam’s sin by association. For this reason, the Sacrament of Baptism is required for all of us, including infants and young children who haven’t yet attained the age of moral reasoning, since the baptismal water washes away original sin and restores the soul to the original state of holiness and justice, despite the remaining moral ill-effects of this stain of sin.
Adam and Eve died spiritually when they ate the fruit on the forbidden tree of knowledge against God’s command (Gen 2:17). And, as a result, their spiritual deprivation was transmitted to all their biological descendants, except the Blessed Virgin Mary by her Immaculate Conception (Gen 3:15; Lk 1:28; 42, etc.). All of us are thus inclined to sin and eventually do sin because of the moral ill-effects of original sin. We further read in the Old Testament, that a “man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” (Job 14:1, 4). All humanity is afflicted by the stain of original sin, including infants and young children, by natural propagation.
In acknowledgment of his sins, David cries out, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps 51:5). The Psalmist owns he wasn’t conceived and born in a natural state of innocence and remained in this state until he had committed his first sin. After all, Jesus himself tells us that our personal sins originate from the heart (Mt 15:18-20). We have inherited the sin of Adam upon being conceived in our mothers’ wombs. From infancy, we are in dire need of being baptized to be saved from our sinful condition.
Moreover, St. Paul teaches us sin came into the world through one man, Adam, and because of his sin, death entered the world (Rom 5:12). We can’t help but acknowledge our propensity toward evil and the need for God’s grace to be restored to friendship with him. Spiritual and physical death is the result of Adam’s sin in which we are all implicated by association. We all fall under the same condemnation together with Adam and Eve (Rom 5:16). The apostle adds that “by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” (Rom 5:19). He is affirming that original sin is passed on as part of our human condition. The hidden premise is that only God in the flesh could atone for our sins by the eternal sacrifice of Himself. Through this sacrifice, God has re-opened the gates of heaven. Access to the tree of life is no longer barred from us because of the tree of the Cross. By one man, Adam came death and by one man, the new Adam came renewed life with God (1 Cor 15:21).
All humanity was spiritually dead because of sin, having lived in the disordered passions of the flesh until Christ not only sacrificed Himself to expiate sin and propitiate the Father but also merited the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit to heal and restore us to friendship with God (Eph 2:1-3). We receive the initial grace of forgiveness and justice that is merited by our Lord and Savior when we are baptized. Through the sacrament of initiation, we actually die with Christ so that we, like Him, might be raised to the newness of life through the operation of the Holy Spirit (Rom 6:4).
By virtue of our baptism, we no longer suffer and die in vain. Since we now join our suffering and death with Christ, what were the physical penalties for original sin are now an efficacious means to be saved. In baptism, we literally die with Christ so that we may be raised with him on the last day (Col 2:12). What has transpired in our baptism is a supernatural reality. Baptism is a sacrament and not merely a symbolic ritual. It is a sign that points to an actual spiritual transformation in the physical world.
Hence, St. Paul is referring to the Sacrament of Baptism when he says that we are “washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 6:11). Our baptism restores us to the original state of justice and holiness that our primordial father had forfeited for all his progeny. The entrance to heaven is accessible to us by being baptized of water and Spirit. The washing or cleansing of baptism gives rise to our sanctification and justification. By being baptized in Christ, we “put on Christ” who himself isn’t just a symbol but a living person who dwells in our souls so that we can be righteous as he is righteous and pure as he is pure by the working of the Holy Spirit and His many gifts of grace in our lives (Gal 3:27; 1 Jn 3:3, 7). Through baptism, we are reborn from above and become children of God.
The Sacrament of Baptism applies the salvation that Christ alone has merited for the whole world personally to us. St. Paul writes: “He saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ so that we might be justified (or sanctified) by his grace and become heirs of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7). Baptism is salvific because the sacrament regenerates our souls. The cleansing water purifies us from the stain of sin. The Holy Spirit justifies us by His infused grace that produces an interior renewal without which we have no hope of being saved. By this interior transformation, we become heirs of eternal life and adopted children of God who partake of the divine image. Baptism marks a new life with God and is the beginning of a new life in Christ. By receiving this sacrament, we are now able to supernaturally merit eternal life by our deeds of grace and charity (Eph 2:8-10). Our righteous deeds are now necessary for the gift of salvation to be complete in and through Christ’s redeeming merits.
Baptism has a twofold effect: the forgiveness of sin and regeneration. Justification and sanctification go hand-in-hand. Our position before God is not only mended but our personal relationship with Him is also restored as it was meant to be before Adam’s fall from grace. We read in the New Testament that in baptism “our hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (Heb 10:22). A clean conscience comes from sincerely repenting and being spiritually renewed. The gifts of the Holy Spirit help transform our interior disposition. With forgiveness comes inner cleansing and healing. Without the assistance of the Holy Spirit, we can never hope to cast off the old self and put on the new, as St. Paul puts it. Baptism isn’t about exterior components in our salvation but about our interior lives. The sacrament is the “circumcision” of the New Covenant or of the heart (Col 2:11-12).
Thus, the initial grace of justification and sanctification doesn’t benefit us unless our interior self is renewed daily. With repentance must come a firm desire for amendment as we grow in holiness and continue to strive for divine perfection. We aren’t saved simply by converting and putting our faith in what Christ has formally gained for us all but by persevering in grace, now that our Lord and Savior has opened the gates of heaven for us to hopefully pass through. Baptism is necessary for our salvation because we receive the graces we need for our interior transformation through the sacrament. It isn’t a symbolic ritual that demonstrates we have placed our faith in our personal Lord and Savior and are thereby irrevocably saved. Baptism is the beginning of a life-long process of justification for each of us made possible by the redeeming merits of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Early Sacred Tradition
“He stood in need of baptism, or of the descent of the Spirit like a dove; even as He submitted to be born
and to be crucified, not because He needed such things, but because of the human race, which from Adam had
fallen under the power of death and the guile of the serpent, and each one of which had committed a personal transgression.
For God, wishing both angels and men, who were endowed with freewill, and at their own disposal, to do whatever He had strengthened each to do, made them so, that if they chose the things acceptable to Himself, He would keep them free from death and from punishment; but that if they did evil, He would punish each as He sees fit.”
St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 88:4
“Every soul, then, by reason of its birth, has its nature in Adam until it is born
again in Christ; moreover, it is unclean all the while that it remains without this
regeneration; and because unclean, it is actively sinful, and suffuses even the
flesh (by reason of their conjunction) with its own shame.”
Tertullian, On the Soul, 40
“Baptism is given for the remission of sins; and according to the usage of the
Church, Baptism is given even to infants. And indeed, if there were nothing in
infants which required a remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to
forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous.”
Origen, Homily on Leviticus, 8:3
(post A.D. 244)
“If, in the case of the worst sinners and of those who formerly sinned much
against God, when afterward they believe, the remission of their sins is granted
and no one is held back from Baptism and grace, how much more, then, should
an infant not be held back, who, having but recently been born, has done no sin,
except that, born of the flesh according to Adam. He has contracted the
contagion of that old death from his first being born. For this very reason does
he approach more easily to receive the remission of sins: because the sins forgiven
him are not his own but those of another [from Adam].
”St. Cyprian, Epistle to Fidus, 68:5
(c. A.D. 250)
“Adam sinned and earned all sorrows;–likewise the world after His example, all
guilt.–And instead of considering how it should be restored,–considered how its
fall should be pleasant for it.–Glory to Him Who came and restored it!”
St. Ephraem, Hymns on the Epiphany, 10:1
“‘Unless a man is born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter
the kingdom of God.’ No one has an exception: not the infant, not the one
prevented by necessity.”
St. Ambrose, Abraham, 2,11:79
“This grace, however, of Christ, without which neither infants nor adults can be
saved, is not rendered for any merits but is given gratis, on account of which it
is also called grace. ‘Being justified,’ says the apostle, ‘freely through His blood.’
Whence they, who are not liberated through grace, either because they are not
yet able to hear, or because they are unwilling to obey; or again because they did
not receive, at the time when they were unable on account of youth to hear, that
bath of regeneration, which they might have received and through which they
might have been saved, are indeed justly condemned; because they are no
without sin, either that which they have derived from their birth, or that which
they have added from their own misconduct. ‘For all have sinned’–whether in
Adam or in themselves–“and come short of the glory of God.’”
St. Augustine, On Nature and Grace, 4
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved:
but he that believeth not shall he condemned.
Mark 16, 16