One of the disagreements between the Reformed and Catholics has been about baptismal regeneration. Catholics affirm it, the Reformed, including most Evangelicals, effectively seem to deny it. Instead, they say that any adult brought to baptism should already have been justified and regenerated or “born again”. And that baptised infants are not necessarily regenerated ever unless part of the Elect, whereas they are (it is common but not universal among Calvinists to say) regenerated when they come to faith and not, properly speaking, before then. I drew out the differences at length here in sections M to R.
When I was in the process of becoming a Franciscan Tertiary, back in 2001, I had to make a regular report on the lessons I was being sent. They were largely based on Carleton's book, The King's Highway. This is what I wrote in response to one section:
One fact about “the necessity of baptism for salvation” that it seems to me should be kept in mind is that it is not absolute in the way that salvation’s dependence on living faith is absolute for one having reached the age of reason. St Thomas Aquinas, following a number of the Fathers, teaches that
"a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of his desire for Baptism, which desire is the outcome of ‘faith that worketh by charity,’ whereby God, Whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies man inwardly"
and that, because God looks on the heart,
"a man who desires to be ‘born again of water and the Holy Ghost’ by Baptism, is regenerated in heart though not in body. Thus the Apostle says (Romans 2:29) that ‘the circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not of men but of God.’"
(S.T., P3, Q68, A2)
The seemingly unavoidable consequence of this is that the majority of people who have undergone a conversion experience, given that their heart reached out to Jesus in penitent, “God-hungry” faith, receive the grace of baptism before their reception of the sacrament. As long as we remember that the grace still belongs properly to the sacrament and that, in particular, the covenanted guaranteeing of grace and thus its secure “sealing” require the sacrament, such an admission should do no harm. It may be a Catholic way of expressing true Evangelical insights based on passages such as Romans 10:9-13. Since in the sacraments time kisses eternity, the solid connection of justification and sanctification with baptism does not seem to necessitate simultaneity.
This is similar, in its approach to temporality, to something Ed has posted
How can this concept of baptismal “sealing” (Romans 4:11 cf. Colossians 2:11-12), though present by implication in the Pauline comparison of circumcision (called a seal of faith) with baptism, be understood in other Scriptural terms? And what of the Fathers?
Scripture includes phraseology such as the following:
In the Parable of the Sower, the seed is the word of God (Mark 4:14).
“[B]orn of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).
John 12:24 has Jesus comparing the seed planted (and thus “dying” as seed to “rise” as a new, fruitful plant) to humanity's need to die to self and live to God by following Christ.
“[W]ashing of the water of the word” (Ephesians 5:26)
“[W]ashing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5).
“[B]orn again of imperishable seed” (1 Peter 1:23).
“[B]orn of God, ... God's seed remains in him” (1 John 3:9).
(NB: Not all the words translated as “seed” above have the same Greek original, however, they can all possess the connotation of seed in the agricultural sense, and some are probably related etymologically as well (e.g., sporas, sperma). Interestingly, there is no word for “seed” in the Parable of the Sower, the verb “sowed” (Gk: speirein) implying its object throughout the passage.)
So, although baptism is never directly compared to the seed in Scripture, they are intimately connected via their common association with the word of God and the death and resurrection of Christ and their common signification of regeneration. Indeed, regeneration is being born again spiritually through divine “application” and human “reception” of the powerful word of God (as the instrument of grace) and through Christ's death and resurrection (as the fount of grace). In other words, it is the planting and germination of “the seed”, the inward grace of “burial” and “rising again” from the waters of baptism.
Do the Fathers and the Church compare baptism to planting seed and see it as dependent on the word of God? Do they acknowledge the necessity of faith in the Gospel to fruitful reception among those capable of such faith, and that it is the action of the Holy Spirit that matters? Yes. Four excerpts will suffice, I think.
The Apostolic Constitutions have, in section III on preparing Catechumens for Baptism, the following: “He must beforehand purify his heart from all wickedness of disposition, from all spot and wrinkle, and then partake of the holy things; for as the skilfullest husbandman does first purge his ground of the thorns which are grown up therein, and does then sow his wheat, so ought you also to take away all impiety from them, and then to sow the seeds of piety in them, and vouchsafe them baptism.”
St Ambrose in his On the Mysteries says (3:14-15) “For water without the preaching of the Cross of the Lord is of no avail for future salvation, ... You must not trust, then, wholly to your bodily eyes; that which is not seen is more really seen, for the object of sight is temporal, but that other eternal, which is not apprehended by the eye, but is discerned by the mind and spirit.” (4:19,23) “By this you may recognize that water does not cleanse without the Spirit. ... The baptism of unbelievers heals not but pollutes”.
St Augustine, in a sermon to the newly baptised says: “I speak to you who have just been reborn in baptism, my little children in Christ, you who are the new offspring of the Church, gift of the Father, proof of Mother Church’s fruitfulness. All of you who stand fast in the Lord are a holy seed”.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has the following in section 1228: 'Hence Baptism is a bath of water in which the "imperishable seed" of the Word of God produces its life-giving effect. St. Augustine says of Baptism: "The word is brought to the material element, and it becomes a sacrament."'
So, Holy Tradition encourages us to make the link as well. Now, if baptism is thus justifiably linked with the image or symbol of the seed, it would seem appropriate to explore ways this image can have its rich potentialities used to better understand the various ways baptism operates, depending on circumstances.
In the case of Infant Baptism, we can say the seed of new life is always genuinely planted, and regeneration in this sense genuinely occurs. However, in those unfortunately all too frequent circumstances where the family does not continue to bring the child up in the faith, and the child does not naturally come to an incipient faith as he or she comes to the age of reason, we might say that the new life given does not become an experiential reality, almost as if the seed did not germinate, or if we consider it to be initially “watered” and invariably germinating, did not “break the surface of the ground”, but remained a seed effectively buried, dormant. On the other hand, if the vows are kept by parents and godparents, the seed which was genuinely and objectively given at baptism, becomes a subjective, experienced participation in the life of God.
In the case of Adult Baptism, if the word has already been received and the new life has begun, the baptism waters this seed, and may have already functioned, as I discussed above, the mysterious causal role in the initial salvation preceding the outward sign. But it might also be thought to first press it more firmly into the soil, so to speak, or to allow it to better “take root”. The latter is my attempt at an anaolgy for the “sealing” role abovementioned. For those who come to baptism in sincerity, desire and belief, but without yet possessing the assurance of living faith, the seed is properly implanted, watered and germinated. In this case the very objectivity and physicality of the rite helps the soul to take hold of the Covenant promise. For insincere receivers of baptism, the seed is still “there”, still delivered or at least promised to faith in potentia, but is neither properly implanted nor in any way germinated. Its rests “at the surface”, a visible word of challenge and rebuke in its “standing apart”, so to speak. The person is "marked", and does not need re-baptism if faith comes later, but they have not received the grace of the sacrament.
I admit that it is possible I have taken these analogies too far, and not made due allowance for the fact that all metaphors have a limited range of similtude to those realities they represent. Nevertheless, I am persuaded that a bold exploration of biblical imagery such as this can help us sythesise Evangelical and Catholic concerns better than sole reliance on customary abstractions and scholasticisms. And so I leave it to our readers. Does the above theological speculation help integrate the priority and intrinsic saving instrumentality of Gospel-faith with the doctrine that baptism effects regeneration?