Most Evangelicals find the Catholic Church’s teaching on salvation to be out of sync with both Scripture and personal experience. We teach that regeneration/justification/re-birth occurs at water baptism. We teach that works and sacraments are requirements for salvation. We thus, according to Evangelicals, obfuscate and obstruct the message of the Gospel. For them, the Gospel is all about the free gift of God’s grace that comes through faith, to every person who believes, at the moment they believe, no matter who they are or what they have done.
John 3:16 and Romans 10:9-10 are good examples of their Scriptural foundation. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life. If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. And the personal experience of Christians around the world testifies to the fact that a person does indeed become radically transformed by The Holy Spirit the moment they encounter Christ through sincere, heart-felt faith and surrender.
From their perspective, baptism is symbolic of this event and good works the result of it. When they hear Catholics say that baptism and good works are required for the event to take place, they look at the Scriptures which promise the new-birth to all who believe in their heart, and at their own personal experience of this, and thus are forced to reject what the Church teaches.
However, their rejection of Catholic teaching is because, in my opinion, we Catholics have done a poor job understanding our own doctrines, and a worse job explaining them to others.
Our teaching about water baptism, as I understand it, is that regeneration occurs at water baptism *ordinarily *; and it is required for salvation - but not absolutely. Water baptism is only the ordinary form, as was originally intended by God for the early Church, such that converts were to be baptized immediately upon reception of the Gospel, so conversion and baptism were basically simultaneous. (read Acts, Peter preaches, 3,000 are converted, they are all baptized immediately that same day)
But the Church has always understood that water baptism is not necessary if there are extenuating circumstances which make it impossible at the moment of conversion. God will use water baptism to bring about regeneration if it is possible to do so, but in the event that a person comes to Christ without a person present who can baptize them in water, God will bring about the baptism by purely Spiritual means. The Church teaches that when a person comes to faith in Christ, such that they love Christ more than anything else, at that moment they are supernaturally regenerated and justified by The Holy Spirit of God.
This is called a “Baptism of Desire.” Any time a person is moved to love God more than anything else, God has promised that He will forgive all their sins, justify them, and regenerate them at that moment.
Now, isn’t this the exact same Evangelical Gospel that our separated brethren believe in? Could we not explain our understanding of justification to them in such a way that we place a heavy emphasis on the reality of this phenomena? Yes, the ordinary form is water baptism. Yes, we should always insist that every believer receive water baptism, even if they have already experienced a baptism of desire. Evangelicals will not have any problem agreeing with us that water baptism is necessary as long as we affirm the reality which we call the “Baptism of Desire.”
It seems to me that our efforts at ecumenism with Evangelicals would be greatly benefited if we would make a point to always lead with and emphasize this teaching of ours. If they knew that we have always believed in this evangelical Gospel of free grace to all who surrender their heart, they would be much more open to hearing what we have to say. Their entire theology is based upon an absolute commitment to this understanding of the Gospel, and without affirming it we stand no chance at winning them over. But if this is truly a Catholic teaching, and it is indeed a Catholic teaching as I understand it, then we would benefit ourselves and our separated brethren by bringing it to the forefront of our theology.