The intellectual price tag attached to denying baptismal regeneration is at least threefold.
1. One must first explain why the seemingly unambiguous statements made by Christ and the apostles regarding the necessity of baptism mean something else.
Here are three Scripture passages addressing the nature of baptism followed by three attempted refutations of baptismal regeneration:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” – John 3:5
“…The water which Jesus refers to is amniotic fluid (ie the liquid surrounding and protecting an unborn child while in its mother’s womb). Thus, Jesus was explaining to Nicodemus that one must be born of both a woman and the Spirit…”1
“He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” – Mark 16:16
“…He that believeth and is baptized-Baptism is here put for the external signature of the inner faith of the heart, just as “confessing with the mouth” is in Ro 10:10…”2
“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, ” 1 Peter 3:21
“It may very well be that baptism refers to the Ark, not the waters which may be why the rest of the verse says, “not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God” which is consistent with what Paul said in Col. 2:11-12 where He equates baptism with being circumcised of heart. In other words, Peter clarifies that it isn’t the water baptism that saves, but the appeal to the heart.”3
For further research on what Christ and the apostles taught about Baptism:
Lord Jesus (Matthew 1:21, 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-17; Luke 24:45-47; John 3:5, 5:43, 14:26, 20:20-23),
St. Peter (Acts 2:38, 4:10-12, 8:16; 10:36-48; 1 Peter 3:20-21),
St. Paul (Acts 9:18, 16:15-33, 18:8, 19:1-6, 22;16; Romans 6:15, 10:13; 1 Corinthians 1:1-21; Galatians 3:26-28; Colossians 2:9-12, 3;17; Titus 3:5
2. Secondly, one must then explain why his personal interpretation is in head on collision with the interpretation of the earliest Christians.
The early Church Fathers were unanimous in their belief that baptism was the normative means of our salvation.
Let me demonstrate by offering two examples:
HERMAS OF ROME
Hermas wrote around the year AD 80 in Rome and was known for his work “The Shepherd”. Origen of Alexandria, another early Church Father reports that it is this Hermas who Paul explicitly mentions in his letter to the Romans 16:14.
Here’s what he has to say:
“And I said, “I heard, sir, some teachers say that there is no other repentance than what takes palce when we descended into the water and received remission of our former sins.” He said to me “That was sound doctrine you heard; for that is really the case”. [The Shepherd 2:4:3 (C. A.D. 80)]
ST. AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO
And finally let’s take a read of St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians of all time who lived in the 4th and 5th century said,
“Baptism, therefore, washes away indeed all sins – absolutely all sins, whether of deeds or words or thoughts, whether original or added, whether committed in ignorance or allowed in knowledge.” [Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 3:5 (c. A.D. 420)]
Who first denied baptismal regeneration?
You might be wondering, “Well where did the belief that baptism was merely a symbol originate?” The first prominent individual to deny baptismal regeneration – that I’m aware of – was Protestant reformer Ulrich Zwingli who lived in the 16th Century! Zwingli seems to understand the intellectual price required of denying baptismal regeneration when he writes in his article “De Baptismo”,
“In this matter of baptism – if I may be pardoned for saying it – I can only conclude that all the doctors have been in error from the time of the apostles.”4
3. Thirdly one must explain why the Church, of whom Christ promised the Spirit would “guide…into all the truth,” is still confused as to the nature of Baptism after 2000 years.
Lutherans believe in baptismal regeneration, The Church of Christ does not. Calvinists believe you can baptize babies, Baptists do not. Anglicans (as well as most Protestant denominations) believe you should baptize in the name of the Trinity, The United Pentecostal Church believes you should not.
As a Catholic I can believe that 1. Christ and the apostles meant what they said. 2. That the unanimous consent of the early Church Fathers is accurate and 3. The Church Christ established has the authority to speak for God in matters of faith and morals. Aaah – that’s a comforting truth.
“The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. 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. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” (CCC 1257)
4. Zwingli and Bullinger, pg. 130.