Opponents of baptismal regeneration like to point out that the doctrine negates the idea of free will. The only problem with this is that it doesn’t. First off, both the doctrines of free will and the doctrines of baptismal regeneration are the orthodox positions. There is no dispute about this within the universal Christian Church. Some will say that many Christians don’t agree with baptismal regeneration–I answer back that many Christians in the fourth century also disagreed with the Nicene Creed. Just because “many Christians” say “x” about something that is contrary to the officially established orthodox dogma does not mean that the doctrine they dispute is not the orthodox position. Many Evangelical Christians dispute the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, true. But Evangelical Christians hold to yet another heterodox position–Biblicism (the belief that the Bible is the pillar and ground of truth, not the Church). Some of their liturgical practices are also heretical–such as the use of electric guitars and pop music in their “worship” services are no doubt demon-inspired. (I was considered a disrupter of worship whenever I complained in one Evangelical Church about the corny pop music–not because I was demon-inspired but because the demons like to gang up on those who are right.) If I sound like a “fundamentalist” at this point, sorry about that–lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of worship is the law of belief–if corny pop music you use in liturgical services, a cultural sell-out you are).
Back on topic, the orthodox doctrine of what baptism does is no better summed up than in the Niceno-Constanopolitan Creed that every orthodox Christian Church holds to. (What about the non-creedalists who don’t use creeds?–THEY AREN’T ORTHODOX!) This creed recites at the very end that “We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.” Some heretics will try to say that this does not necessarily mean baptismal regeneration but this is easy to disprove. In the context that the creed was written in, all of the bishops who decided the orthodoxy of this council agreed with the doctrine of baptismal regeneration as it has been passed down today. And besides, what else could “one baptism for the remission of sins” mean? That is symbolically remits sins? If so, then is only the Trinity symbolic? That it remits sins upon a certain condition? (We’ll get back to that.) That it is not required for the remission of sins but is just a way to remit sins? I’m sorry, but that position is simply untenable. Baptism grants you entry into the Church–this has historically been the interpretation of the Church on the nature of baptism. And without the Church, your sins cannot be remitted.
So does baptism refute the also orthodox doctrine of free will? First off, we must remember that there is no defined concept of free will in the orthodox Christian faith. This does not mean that there isn’t some sense of synergy but this does mean that when free will is discussed in orthodox Christian circles, we are always talking about libertarian free will. Most opponents of baptismal regeneration are Arminians and affirm that the only type of freedom one can exercise is libertarian free will or no free will. But what if their definition of free will is off base? I think it is. I, by no means am a Calvinist but I certainly am not an Arminian. I do not believe in libertarian free will. I do believe in free will. According to the Angelic Doctor,
Free-will in its choice of means to an end is disposed just as the intellect is to conclusions. Now it is evident that it belongs to the power of the intellect to be able to proceed to different conclusions, according to given principles; but for it to proceed to some conclusion by passing out of the order of the principles, comes of its own defect. Hence it belongs to the perfection of its liberty for the free-will to be able to choose between opposite things, keeping the order of the end in view; but it comes of the defect of liberty for it to choose anything by turning away from the order of the end; and this is to sin. Hence there is greater liberty of will in the angels, who cannot sin, than there is in ourselves, who can sin. (Summa Theologica, First Part of Part 1, Q. 62, A. 8)
Free will is therefore not strictly libertarian but is instead the freedom to desire the absolute good. If you’ll note, this position is the Biblical position as well (for those Biblicists that like to rat on St. Thomas Aquinas). The Biblical authors describe life in Christ as “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1) and “the freedom we have in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:24). You don’t see such appraisals of sin in the Bible. There is no such concept as “freedom in sin”. In sin, there is no “freedom” whatsoever. In sin, one is permanently enslaved. Of course, our free will has been damaged by The Fall and so everyone has to rely on God to bring mankind up to that level of deification or theosis but truly libertarian free will is the desire of only the good. So I would consider myself an advocate of libertarian free will. This is why the Arminian doctrine is so condemnable though for Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. Neither Catholics nor Eastern Orthodox agree with the doctrine of total depravity that makes us void of free will. Both the Arminian and the Catholic/Orthodox Christian affirm free will is a gift but the Catholic/Orthodox Christian affirms we are born with it, the Arminian says we are born totally depraved of this gift. The Arminian, therefore, rejects the position that all men are made in the image of God (yes, I know they say otherwise, but their anthropology is seriously misguided and needs to be repudiated).
Back to the question–can an Arminian still maintain baptismal regeneration? Yes and no. There is an ongoing debate in the Church of England in regards to the subject of baptismal regeneration. High Anglicans (Anglican Catholics) say that baptism does in fact regenerate. Low Anglicans (Evangelical Anglicans) say it doesn’t regenerate. Of course, there is further discussion on this in regards to baptismal regeneration int the Church of England–is baptismal regeneration conditional? High Anglicans would say that for adults it is conditional and Low Anglicans would say for even infants it is conditional. But what does John Wesley, the founder of Arminians (whoops! That was William Laud–not to negate the influence of John Wesley in the Anglican Church) in the Anglican Church say about baptismal regeneration?
1. And, First, it follows, that baptism is not the new birth: They are not one and the same thing. Many indeed seem to imagine that they are just the same; at least, they speak as if they thought so; but I do not know that this opinion is publicly avowed by any denomination of Christians whatever. Certainly it is not by any within these kingdoms, whether of the established Church, or dissenting from it. The judgment of the latter is clearly declared in the large Catechism: [Q. 163, 165. — Ed.] — Q. “What are the parts of a sacrament A. The parts of a sacrament are two: The one an outward and sensible sign; the other, and inward and spiritual grace, thereby signified. — Q. What is baptism A. Baptism is a sacrament, wherein Christ hath ordained the washing with water, to be a sign and seal of regeneration by his Spirit.” Here it is manifest, baptism, the sign, is spoken of as distinct from regeneration, the thing signified.
In the Church Catechism likewise, the judgment of our Church is declared with the utmost clearness: “What meanest thou by this word, sacrament A. I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Q. What is the outward part or form in baptism A. Water, wherein the person is baptized, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Q. What is the inward part, or thing signified A. A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness.” Nothing, therefore, is plainer than that, according to the Church of England, baptism is not the new birth.
But indeed the reason of the thing is so clear and evident, as not to need any other authority. For what can be more plain, than the one is a visible, the and invisible thing, and therefore wholly different from each other — the one being an act of man, purifying the body; the other a change wrought by God in the soul: So that the former is just as distinguishable from the latter, as the soul from the body, or water from the Holy Ghost. (The New Birth, IV.1)
This makes it seem as if Wesley is agreeing with the Low Anglicans at first, right? Baptism is not the new birth, therefore, an infant cannot be “born again” by baptism? Actually, Wesley seems to be in agreement with the High Anglicans on this as if you read on, we find…
2. From the preceding reflections we may, Secondly, observe, that as the new birth is not the same thing with baptism, so it does not always accompany baptism: They do not constantly go together. A man my possibly be “born of water,” and yet not be “born of the Spirit.” There may sometimes be the outward sign, where there is not the inward grace. I do not now speak with regard to infants: It is certain our Church supposes that all who are baptized in their infancy are at the same time born again; and it is allowed that the whole Office for the Baptism of Infants proceeds upon this supposition. Nor is it an objection of any weight against this, that we cannot comprehend how this work can be wrought I infants. For neither can we comprehend how it is wrought in a person of riper years. But whatever be the case with infants, it is sure all of riper years who are baptized are not at the same time born again. “The tree is known by its fruits:” And hereby it appears too plain to be denied, that divers of those who were children of the devil before they were baptized continue the same after baptism: “for the works of their father they do:” They continue servants of sin, without any pretence either to inward or outward holiness. (IV.2)
So for Wesley, infants are in fact regenerated by their baptism. And this is generally the classic doctrine he aims at in baptism. It is not accurate to assert that water baptism is always necessary for one’s salvation. This has never been the case in the Church. And it is not accurate to insist that just because someone is baptised, they will be forever a child of God. One must be born of both water and Spirit in order to be truly born again but in some instances, a person can actually enter the Kingdom of Heaven without being baptised! This is called the baptism of desire–and if one is truly born of the Spirit, one will desire baptism if not already baptised. This is called the baptism of desire. It is important to note that this is an exception to the rule and not the actual rule itself. In addition, St. Emerentiana was martyred before she was baptised and we all know that the saints are the only ones we know for sure are in Heaven.
Where I disagree with Wesley in his sermon on “The New Birth” is his idea of growing into a state of sinlessness. I think such flows from the doctrine of the source of free will in Arminianism. “Arminianism teaches that all humans are born morally and spiritually depraved, and helpless to do anything good or worthy in God’s sight without a special infusion of God’s grace to overcome the effects of original sin” (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 33). “Classical Arminianism agrees with Protestant orthodoxy in general that the unity of the human race in sin results in all being born ‘children of wrath’” (33). “Arminius, Wesley and classical Arminians in general affirmed inherited total depravity as utter helplessness apart from a supernatural awakening called prevenient grace” (27). “prevenient grace restores free will so that humans, for the first time, have the ability to do otherwise” (76). “sinners under the influence of grace have genuine free will as a gift of God” (emphasis mine, 76). Wesley’s position on sinlessness makes sense in the context of Arminianism where we are not born with the image of God but that prevenient grace puts us back in this position but it does not make sense with much of Biblical or ascetical theology.
“Baptism confers on its recipient the grace of purification from all sins. But the baptized must continue to struggle against concupiscence of the flesh and disordered desires.” (CCC, 2520)
“”You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” One must appreciate the magnitude of the gift God has given us in the sacraments of Christian initiation in order to grasp the degree to which sin is excluded for him who has “put on Christ.” But the apostle John also says: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” And the Lord himself taught us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses,” linking our forgiveness of one another’s offenses to the forgiveness of our sins that God will grant us.” (CCC, 1425)
“St. Ambrose says of the two conversions that, in the Church, “there are water and tears: the water of Baptism and the tears of repentance.”” (CCC, 1429)
Catholic doctrine insists that,
“those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin,…have thus lost their baptismal grace” (CCC, 1446)
Thus, agreeing with Wesley that one can be baptised, but not “born again”.
In the stages of spiritual maturity, we do not see ourselves without sin but rather we see ourselves as not loving God enough, not loving my neighbor enough, not having enough faith in spiritual realities, and being filled with pride (Light for Life, Part 3: The Mystery Lived, 92-93). True spiritual maturity forces us to realize our brokenness and our inability to achieve perfect holiness. We can only become by grace what God is by nature. We cannot work our ways toward this goal. Of course, some might insist that we have to work our salvation out with fear and trembling. I don’t disagree. But the key is with fear and trembling. This does not mean we will ever be perfectly sinless. Otherwise, the sacrament of confession would not be so necessary. But alas, because no advocate of baptismal regeneration believes it to be enough to “just” be baptised. Baptism does incorporate into the Church but it does not guarantee you will stay. Indeed, heresy, apostasy, and schism, are all post-baptismal (CCC, 2089).