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).