The use of Sacraments, more than any other feature, sets Catholics (including those in the Orthodox and Anglican traditions) apart among other Christians. These seven sacraments — Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation (Confession), Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony (marriage) and Holy Orders (priesthood) — are signs or symbolic actions which Jesus gave us to communicate the spiritual realities and grace necessary to be His followers.
They bring us into His family, making us sons and daughters with and in Him. They strengthen our bond with Him and bring us forgiveness for our sins through His sacrifice on the cross. All the Sacraments have this in common: in them God uses visible signs (words, actions, bread, wine, oil, etc.) of spiritual realities (forgiveness, the Body and Blood of Christ, etc.) to confer grace.
In the Sacraments of the Catholic Church “Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.”Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1127
The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.CCC, 1131
The first sacrament which a Christian receives is baptism. In this symbolic washing, God makes us His adopted children. Whether by pouring water or being completely immersed in water, God heals the state of separation from Himself, the state of original sin, into which we are all born. By baptizing people to make them Christian, the Church is carrying out the command of Jesus:
Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”Matthew 28:18-20
Jesus even said that this Sacrament is necessary for salvation.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.Mark 16:16
Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.John 3:5
Likewise, the first disciples saw that baptism was essential as they preached the gospel and continued to establish the Church.
“Therefore, let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do, my brothers?” Peter (said) to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit. For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.” He testified with many other arguments, and was exhorting them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day.Acts 2:36-41
And St. Paul, when he was converted, was told “Get up and have yourself baptized and your sins washed away, calling upon his name” (Acts 22:16).
St. Paul tells us that through baptism we receive salvation by being made heirs to eternal life with Christ.
But when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.Titus 3:4-7
Becoming heirs with Christ, adopted sons and daughters, is what ultimately saves us from sin and death.
To understand why baptism is necessary, we have to understand the state of separation from God that each of us is born into. “Just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned . . .” (Romans 5:12). After the sin of Adam, all people would be born into the world separated from God and the friendship with Him which He originally intended. Even if a person has not committed a sin of their own, they do not come into the world with the grace that allows their complete union with God.
And being estranged from God, all of us have since committed our own personal sins against God. Because of Original Sin, we constantly struggle between a desire to do good and the failure to do so. This failure to do good is sin. “For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want” (Galatians 5:17).
Being separated from God, the human race was in need of a Savior. In our need, and not because we deserved it, but only because He is loving and merciful, God graciously provided a man without sin, God made man, who could make up for all the sins of the rest of us. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, is this Savior.
For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ.Romans 5:17
It is through the Sacrament of Baptism that we enter into Christ’s life, sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection.
Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection. . . . If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.Romans 6:3-5, 8
By dying with Christ in the waters of baptism and rising with Him in a rebirth to new life, God makes us His adopted children, heirs to the life which Christ shares with the Father.
If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you. . .. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.Romans 8:11, 14-17
Through the ministry of the Church, God continues to bring people to salvation in faith by the waters of baptism.
As Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize and make disciples of all nations, it is the ordinary way of receiving God’s grace and mercy. Of course, God can work outside of this normal means. Jesus Himself offers salvation to the good thief in response to his faith. “‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied to him, ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:42-43). But that it the exception to the rule which Jesus established. The Church recognizes these extraordinary cases as “Baptisms of Desire.” The regular and ordinary way of becoming Jesus’ disciple is through the Sacrament of Baptism with water administered by His Church.
Discipleship, and so baptism, must be accompanied by faith. But faith is a gift that is not merited, and so baptism is offered to infants who cannot profess their own faith. Jesus Himself showed that He wished for children to be brought to Him.
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked them, but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”Matthew 19:13-14
In the baptism of infants, the faith of parents, which they commit to handing on to their children, stands in the place of the children’s own faith. These children will develop their own faith under their parents’ guidance. Jesus often used other people’s faith when offering His grace and forgiveness in His earthly ministry.
And some men brought on a stretcher a man who was paralyzed; they were trying to bring him in and set (him) in his presence. But not finding a way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on the stretcher through the tiles into the middle in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, “As for you, your sins are forgiven.”Luke 5:18-20
Furthermore, baptism replaces the Jewish rite of circumcision for bringing new members into God’s chosen people, the Church.
In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not administered by hand, by stripping off the carnal body, with the circumcision of Christ. You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the deadColossians 2:11-12
Just as infants were normally circumcised and made members of the Jewish people because they would be raised in their family’s Jewish faith, so infants have always been baptized and made members of Christ’s Church because they would be raised in their family’s Christian faith. The Catholic practice of baptizing infants is sometimes a controversial issue with some Protestant Christians because it is not explicitly described in the Bible. There are indications, though, of the practice, as when whole households, which almost certainly included infants, were baptized (Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Corinthians 1:16). But all Christians should agree that there is nothing explicitly in Scripture which forbids infant baptism. Rather, this has been constant teaching and practice of the Church from the earliest centuries as explicitly described by St. Irenaeus (AD 189), Hippolytus (AD 215) and Origen (AD 244). Infant baptism is still practiced by Orthodox, Anglican (Episcopal), Lutheran and Methodist Christians in addition to Catholics.