The Mark of Baptism
On a recent trip home I asked my mother, who is a non-denominational evangelical, about the significance of Baptism. Growing up in a Baptist home, I was always taught that Baptism was nothing more than a symbol; a public proclamation of an interior change. However, it came to my mind that it was of great significance to my mother that her family members be Baptized. Her husband, son, and I were all Baptized at different intervals in our lives. Some long after their commitment to be a Christian, like my brother, some relatively close to their conversion, like my father. However, for each one of us my mother pressed hard for our Baptism. Recently I had begun to wonder why. If the true salvific moment was contained elsewhere in a person’s life (for evangelicals when one asks Jesus into their heart as their personal Lord and Savior) then why was Baptism so eminently important? Therefore, I asked her in the spirit of non-confrontational fact-finding. I really wanted to know. I did not want to argue theology.
Her answer was simple: because of the several examples we have in the Bible of believers hearing the word and being Baptized. Not to mention Jesus’ own directive that one must be born again through spirit and water. (cf John 3:5) I also wanted to know that since the salvific moment for her came at a different moment from Baptism and since Baptism was strictly symbolic, would a soul who was not Baptized be saved. She wasn’t able to answer that affirmatively.
This was the culmination of something that, as I realized yesterday, has been a lifelong curiosity in my life in ways I had not even realized. For many Protestant denominations, and certainly the Catholic Church, the practice of baptizing takes on a much different form by following the doctrine of infant Baptism. In fact, the doctrine of a “believer’s Baptism” – being Baptized only after one makes the conscientious decision to follow Christ – is a doctrine which sprung up in 1609 when John Smyth established the Baptist denomination. My curiosity was satisfied, yet the doctrinal foundation of ‘why’ left much to be desired as I had long ago realized.
However, it did leave me with a train of thought as to the distinct differences in Baptismal protocol and the deep significance to the purpose of infant Baptism. As I have discussed before in certain places, many Evangelicals have taken a complete 180° turn back into Catholic doctrine without even realizing it. Evangelicals now utilize what is called a “baby dedication” which has the same intentions of an infant Baptism (dedicating an infant’s soul to God) but it is not Sacramental (or what Protestants call an “ordination”) in nature. Essentially it is a man-made tradition to do what has historically been done with the Sacrament of Baptism since their purpose of Baptism was redefined to exclude those below an age of reason. In other words, it is a ceremony imitating a traditionally understood Baptism without, in fact, being a Baptism at all.
In order to highlight the phenomenal significance of infant Baptism, I’m going to walk backward into my own journey a little in order to be able to demonstrate how I came to understand why it was so significant. It might get a little convoluted, but stay with me, I promise I have a point.
When I was what you would call today a ‘tween, I became familiar with the beliefs of Dispensationalism invented by J.N. Darby in the 1830’s. Dispensationalism is the belief in what could most clearly be summed up as the “Left Behind” theology involving a Rapture, Tribulation, etc. My mother went through a very long period of fascination with this idea and openly talked about it for years speculating on the time it would occur, how life would be, what would lead up to it, end time signs, the mark of the beast; et all. Most common among Dispensationalists is a theoretical belief that the money system will collapse leading to the abolition of paper money and into the use of cards which would then give way to a bar code (or some such similar device) being implanted or placed in your hand without which “no one could buy or sell” and that would really be the mark of the beast (cf Rev. 13:16-17).
I often wondered about those things and pondered and imagined what it would be like. However, another contemplation came to me, what if the mark of the beast was not something physical but something one acquired spiritually through adherence to a certain idea or indulgence in some sort of worldly action. You would have a spiritual mark put upon you which committed your soul to the Devil. It was something that impacted me for a very long time and the thought of how one might acquire any mark spiritually stayed with me and it was something I took with me well into my conversion into Catholicism.
Upon my conversion, and indeed a few years after it, I can’t say that I had given the belief much thought, but when I found out the fact that the Catholic Church did not believe in the idea of the Rapture and Tribulation, it still was a little like having the rug yanked out from under me. (In fact, the entire shift in theological belief is much like that.) Something I had imagined and believed in my entire life was suddenly “removed” from my theological system of belief. While I didn’t reject the fact that the Catholic Church neither believes or teaches the concept of the Rapture, it still comes as a bit of a shock when you find a theological idea with which you’ve always held, rejected by the faith you now embrace. However, I digress.
The thought that still followed me though was the thought of the mark of the beast. While I no longer believed in the dispensational idea of the mark of the beast, I still wondered about its correlation to spiritual connotations and affiliations along with another longstanding thought that had constantly troubled me… if the Devil can mark us with his sign, is there anything at all wherein we can be sealed with the mark of God? Is there something, anything that would serve as some kind of “invisible mark” which denotes your soul’s “affiliation” so to speak. If so, what?
It is well-known or observed, even by non-Catholics, that holy items used by Catholic priests in the Rite of Exorcism have an affect on demons. Even those that are unsure or skeptical of this can find many reliable sources of validation. Physical holy items, physical gestures (like making the Sign of the Cross), formulaic prayers and recitations all affect demonic beings. Even those who do not believe that Catholic holy items can affect demons certainly believe in the power unholy items generate in the influence of unclean spirits. Things like Ouija boards, tarot cards, and palm readings are all eschewed by both non-Catholics and Catholics alike as having the power to open up one’s soul to demonic influence.
All Christians also acknowledge the fact that even mental assent to certain things affects spiritual matters. For instance, prayer affects an individuals state of grace as much as a mental sin like lust or envy does. However, a greater effect upon the spiritual realm appears in physical manifestations. Therefore, while one can mentally ascent to become a Christian the greater effect upon the spirit comes through physical demonstration. I still wondered about the ability of being sealed to an entity with your soul when I heard something on the radio that was profound. The gentleman on the radio was speaking about Baptizing infants and he said,
“When you are Baptized your soul is dedicated to God. It it given to God. When you are Baptized the soul is sealed to God. When you are Confirmed the mark of the Lord is literally placed upon your forehead when the priest makes the Sign of the Cross on it with the Chrism Oil then you bear the mark of the Lord. Your soul belongs to Him.”
How profoundly eye-opening and wonderful I found that! It was an answer to a question I had all my life and delivered to my understanding what an amazing event takes place when we are Baptized. Baptism is often something that is almost rote for Christians. In some cases you believe, you are Baptized. In others you take your children to be commended to God. It’s just what you do. The words I heard that day congealed an entire life’s worth of thought strands into a wonderful, rich tapestry of amazing spiritual events which deliver our soul right into the hands of our Creator. That, I saw, is what Baptism is and the powerful effect it has on an individual. It isn’t just about washing away the stain of Original Sin or any other personal sin, although it certainly does that. It says to the world that I’m a Christian and it affects a spiritual consecration of a person’s soul to the Lord and places upon their brow (through Confirmation) the seal of the Lord.
That is amazingly powerful and a simple gesture (which if Trinitarian, is still a valid Baptism) and I don’t think a “baby dedication” can fathom the richness of presenting your soul, or the soul of a child to God to receive His mark upon you as the Sacrament can simply because of the fact that it is a man-made imitation of an already valid and licit practice which is Baptism. That is what Baptism means to a Catholic and the beauty of that seemingly obvious gesture gives me a hope that service to God doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly “great” or fantastically pious in order to be abundantly effective. The most seemingly simple gestures, postures, or sentences have immeasurable merit. I heard another statement on the radio which helped bolster my understanding of the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. The speaker said, “Baptism and Confirmation have left indelible marks upon your soul.” How refreshing that something so seemingly “simple” creates such a deep impact on your spiritual life!
It is important to understand that, for mainstream Protestants and Catholics, the seal of God on your soul and the dedication of your soul to God is not an “assurance of Salvation”. A human soul has as much free will to renounce and deny the gifts of God as one who has never received them. Simply partaking of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and any other Sacrament does not “eternally secure your soul”. The Bible is chock full of verses calling Christians to maintain in the faith and hold fast to the faith otherwise they will be cut off from God (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-2, Romans 11:22, Romans 6:11-13, 1 Cor. 9:24, Titus 3) even after receiving these gifts. Therefore, while God does place His seal upon your soul when it is dedicated, it can be fortified, by your own will and choices. However, these Sacraments are your visible, physical consent to dedicate your soul to God.
For a further study on the invention of Dispensationalist theology, read The Rapture Trap by Paul Thigpin, PhD