Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Is Baptism Needed For Salvation? Part 2: On the Necessity of Baptism

Not all Protestant churches dispute the importance of baptism, only the more radical ones do. But it is also true that Protestant churches generally fail to see the ontological significance and symbolism of the sacramental economy, which is “the communication or dispensation of the fruits of Christ’s Paschal mystery in the celebration of the Church’s ‘sacramental’ liturgy” (CCC 1076). In other words, they do not believe the use of visible signs and symbols such as water, oil, incense, bread, wine, etc. in the liturgy can communicate and make present efficaciously invisible graces wrought by Christ’s Paschal sacrifice. With this critical belief abandoned, no wonder many of them see the Catholic Church’s use of sacraments as a form of superstition or even idolatry.

The efficacy of sacraments is affirmed by Christ and the apostles on many different occasions. As far as the sacrament of baptism Jesus confirms its necessity in John 3:5, as you pointed out; he commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19); he also promises salvation if one believes and receives baptism (Mark 16:16).

Not only does the necessity of baptism have the support of Jesus himself, it’s of such paramount importance in the overall economy of salvation that its institution was already anticipated, foretold and prefigured in the great events of salvation history. The Noah’s ark, for example, is a prefiguring of salvation by baptism in the sense that people were saved through water and in the process a world corrupted by sin was purified and transformed to become a new creation (cf. CCC 1219). Similarly, the Exodus event signifies our liberation from the slavery of sin through water just as Israel was liberated from the slavery of Egypt through the crossing of the Red Sea (cf. CCC 1221). The need for purification and the symbolic efficacy of water as a source of life were already evident and emphasized in the Mosaic law of purification (cf. Numbers 19:11 ff).

If you think Mel Gibson was exaggerating when the blood and water that gushed out of Jesus pierced side were depicted to look like a heavy downpour, it’s because the redemptive and purifying grace of Jesus’ blood and water was what all of humanity had been waiting and yearning for ever since our first parents fell into Satan’s trap. When compared to the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of water flowing out of the threshold of the temple (Ezekiel 47:1-12), which is also a prefiguration and anticipation of the powerful baptismal, life and Spirit giving water that Jesus would bring, the fore-mentioned scene in the Passion of the Christ is actually quite an understatement!

Quoting Mark 16:16 (“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved”), the Catechism reaffirms in no unclear terms that baptism “is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament” (CCC 1257).

That said, it must not be forgotten that while the Sacrament of baptism is a wonderful gift from God to help us live in sanctification, salvation for those who have been baptized is far from guaranteed. “Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved,” the Vatican II Fathers warned in Lumen Gentium 14. For it’s “not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthews 7:21, also see James 2:24). In fact, if even St. Paul was unsure he would ultimately stand acquitted before the judgment of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:3-4), who are we to boast of the certainty of our salvation just because we have been baptized?

At this point of our discussion, it’s only logical to ask this question: If baptism is needed for salvation, what do we say about all the good people from other religions and those with no particular religious belief? Do they have any hope of being saved? This will lead us nicely into the next discussion. Please stay tuned for Part 3 of this serial topic.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Is Baptism Needed For Salvation? Part 1: The Question and Its Purported Scriptural Origin

A CMCC Bible Study Program participant emailed me to ask the following question on the Sacrament of Baptism (reworded to simplify):

My Protestant friend believes one will be saved if he confesses publicly and sincerely that he accepts Christ as his personal savior. But what if the person dies after his public expression of faith before receiving baptism? Will he be saved? My friend believes so, explaining that this is because God is merciful. But what about John 3:1-7 in which Jesus says that unless one is born of water and the Spirit one cannot enter the kingdom of God? Also, how do we reconcile this with the Catholic Church’s position that people from other religions "may" also be saved (who obviously will not have received baptism)? My Protestant friend offers another reason why baptism is unnecessary: baptism does not wash away our sins - Christ's blood and His crucifixion is what washes away our sins. How do we answer this?

There are three parts to this question: (1) Is baptism necessary for salvation? (2) If yes, what about the unbaptized? Can they be saved? (3) How can the Catholic Church uphold the necessity of baptism and maintain at the same time that people who haven’t been baptized (i.e. those from other religions and the non-believers) may also be saved? I will answer the three parts in three other posts following this one. But first of all, let me explain why your friend believes inward faith (sincere adherence to Christ in one’s heart) and its outward expression (open confession by mouth) will lead to one’s salvation. Since the question touches on a number of theological issues, you may find the language I use a little theological. But I will do my best to lighten it up. Please bear with me.

The understanding that inward faith (sincere adherence to Christ in one’s heart) and outward expression (open confession by mouth) is all it takes to achieve salvation is rooted in a misinterpretation of Romans 10:5-10. In this passage, Paul repudiates the arduous nature of the observance of the law or “the righteousness that comes from the law” in order to bring to light the power and simplicity of the new way of uprightness, i.e. Jesus’ redemptive grace or “the righteousness that comes from faith”. To Paul, Deuteronomy 30:11ff - “the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" - anticipates Christ. “The word” is “the word of faith that we preach”; it is Christ who is near you and should be in your mouth and in your heart. Therefore, for you to be saved, you should “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” (cf. New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 51:102; R. Sungenis, Not By Faith Alone, p.35), which is what a baptismal candidate does in the Catholic baptismal ritual ("Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord who...rose from the dead...?"). By quoting Deuteronomy, Paul’s intent is to convey the message that “God is near to the person who lives by faith, but far from the one who bases his relationship with God on law” (R. Sungenis, p.26).

Did Paul suggest that the outward confession and inward faith is all it takes to achieve salvation? In other words, did Paul suggest faith alone - no need for works; no need for rituals; no need for baptism? By no means. No faithful reading of this passage in context will allow this conclusion. In fact, further scholarly research suggested that this statement was actually a traditional creedal formula from a baptismal liturgy commonly used in Paul’s time. Its purpose was to enable the baptismal candidate to rejoice in Jesus’ divinity, “Jesus is Lord”, and his resurrection, “God raised him from the dead” (see G. O’Collins, Interpreting Jesus, p. 14).

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Still Thinking Sola Scriptura?

Still thinking Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone)? The few words extracted below from the Catechism should be sufficient to refute the idea once and for all; it should be exceedingly clear by now that theologically Catholicism operates on a plane loftier, more profound, and more faithful to scriptural teaching than what Protestantism has chosen to operate on.

The Christian faith is not a “religion of the book”, but the religion of the “Word”; not a word written and mute, but the Word incarnate and living (cf. CCC 108).

Now let’s turn our thoughts to the Gospel of John, which begins with a big bang that resounds through all ages:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be… And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…(John 1:1-3, 14).

Shall we say more?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Spiritual Tea House - May 19, 2012

A few days after sharing on my blog my reflection on "The Summons" (, my heart still resounds with the song's powerful tune and lyrics:

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?...Should your life attract or scare?....Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around?...

Our Christian faith, if authentic, will constantly and repeatedly renew us, changing us drastically, rendering us transformed and reshaped. Will you use the faith you've found to reshape the world around? The divine summons challenges each one of us who profess to follow Christ. Have you responded to it? If you are finding it difficult, here's one suggestion that may help: bring a friend or a relative who is a non-believer or a non-Catholic or a lapsed Catholic to the Spiritual Tea House scheduled to be conducted at the Don Bosco Hall of CMCC from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 19. Here's a snapshot of what will happen if you follow our suggestion:

You walk into the CMCC lobby with your friend and immediately the Spiritual Tea House banner is there to greet you. Going down the stairs, you and your friend can sense the music and laughter that fill the Don Bosco Hall. A friendly FLL Outreach team member extends a warm welcome at the entrance and then walks you over to one of the many small tables where people are already seated, chatting away in small groups of 2 to 5. The hall is gleaming softly with candlelight; snacks and drinks are readily available.

Edmond Lo and Dr. Jason Kwok, representing the FLL and the 333rd Scouts Group respectively, are the MCs of the evening, which begins with a rousing and spiritually uplifting singspiration. Echoing the theme of the evening, "Seek and You Shall Find (Matthew 7:7)", Dr. Kwok shares his personal spiritual journey and how with God's blessing he was able to overcome his personal doubts to eventually receive baptism. You and your friend enjoy not only Dr. Kwok's story of baptism, but also a very entertaining performance in which Dr. Kwok sings and plays Tai Chi.

The lights are then turned on and the program breaks for a brief intercession. You find yourself surrounded by many familiar faces that you often see at church. You friend is very impressed by your church friends and the FLL volunteers who take the initiative to talk to him and make him feel at home. When the program resumes, a FLL representative makes some announcements and your friend is very much intrigued to learn that Chinese Catholic TV and radio programming is broadcast nationally across Canada. He is impressed even more by the FLL volunteers' strong desire to spread the Gospel. Then Dr. Kwok gets on stage again to share how he matures spiritually after baptism and his involvement in various parish activities. He also fields some questions from the floor. You are pleasantly surprised when your friend stands up and asks Dr. Kwok why as a doctor he would choose to use his precious personal time to serve God instead of using it to make more money.

The evening ends with another lively singspiration. You and your friend leave with the satisfaction that in 2 hours’ time you have been given a good glimpse of the faith journey of a good and active Catholic. While driving home, your friend asks you to explain what it is that makes the Catholic faith so important to Dr. Kwok and to you. Unprepared for his question, you don't know what to say and feel a little embarrassed. But deep inside, you promise yourself that you'll do better the next time…

Yes, that's typically how an evening of Spiritual Tea House will unfold. Can we count on your attendance and help? Will you bring a friend or relative? Let's work together to use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around! Hope to see you there! If you can't go this time, at least help us spread the news. We know we can count on your prayer too!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Summons

With a purportedly severe storm system crouching on the horizons, the sky over the Greater Toronto Area looked gloomy and threatening. I hurried home after morning exercise and quickly wolfed down my oatmeal and toasts to get ready for St. Justine's 9:10 a.m. Mass. It began with the priest leading us in singing "The Summons" – a song I had known for as long as I could remember. But this morning, with my heart and my senses infiltrated by the Holy Spirit, it was anything but just another old song. It was more like a song that I had heard for the very first time.

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?...Should your life attract or scare?....Will you love the ‘you’ you hide?...Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen?... Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around?...

Question after question, challenge after challenge - each one was coming at me like a flaming arrow that pierced my heart and set it ablaze! The experience was penetrating and the impact shattering. It was a painful but somehow healing encounter. Like a good surgeon wielding a scalpel gently and skillfully, the Holy Spirit was operating on my heart.

Praise the Lord Jesus that we have Him as a good friend, one who is not afraid to reveal to us the secrets concealed in the darkest chambers of our hearts; one who is totally honest in telling us what we need to do to be cured!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

1 World Trade Centre and the Divine Builder

The World Trade Centre gleaming ever so gloriously in the morning sun was a sight itched deep in my memory. It was the first thing that caught my eyes on the second day of my arrival in New York City. It was July 19, 1974 when I left Hong Kong to study in Canada. Before going there, I took three weeks to visit my sister in New York City. A few logistical complications and confusions in my itinerary had left me stranded in Oakland for the whole morning; and I didn't make it to New York until almost mid-night Eastern Time on that same day. Like Jeremy Lin, I spent the rest of the night sleeping in a couch in my sister's apartment after a very warm welcome by her family. The sun streamed in early the next morning. I looked out the window of her old Chinatown apartment; standing there to greet me like two giants were the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.

Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the killing of Bin Laden. It’s fitting that on this very day, the construction of the re-incarnated building of the World Trade Centre, 1 World Trade Centre, has reached a meaningful milestone: already the tallest building of New York City. It’s taken Ground Zero a full decade to reclaim its former glory and dignity since Bin Laden’s horrific terrorist act of 9/11.

Monumental and special as it is, the 1 World Trade Centre project currently underway can never compare with the divine project that takes place everyday ever so inconspicuously in the maternal womb of a conceived woman. It’s a project that takes only 9 months to complete, from the time of conception to birth. Unlike the 1 World Trade Centre, people generally don’t consider this project monumental or glamorous; it’s more like just another ho-hum pregnancy. Concealed by the abdominal tissues of a human body especially in the early stages of its development, the project is not very eye-catching and does not attract many camera crews from media outlets all over the world. Sad to say, it is so low-key and so vulnerable many people will not feel the slightest sense of guilt to nip it in the bud.

With the help of modern day MRI technology, the glamour of the Divine Engineer is finally visualized and revealed to the human eye. Hang on tight to your chair; get ready for a 10-minute mystical tour. Watch it and be prepared to be humbled by the Divine Builder:

Alexander Tsiaras: Conception to birth -- visualized