The Catechism states that “Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission …” (CCC 1213) It also states that “The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us ‘the righteousness of God’] … through Baptism.” (CCC 1987) But, the Catechism explains, “The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification …” (CCC 1989, emphasis added)
In the case of an infant who is baptised, he is freed from sin, reborn, a member of Christ and his Church, sharers in the Church’s mission. We also see that the Spirit has the “power” to justify us through baptism. But we see that the “first” work of the Spirit is conversion, which the Catechism’s explanation treats as volitional. So when an infant is baptised, is THIS act that which provides the infant with initial justification, or is it merely an act that cleanses the infant of original sin, after which the child receives initial justification at some later point in life when he has an inner “conversion experience,” so to speak? Or, of course, am I totally off base, and if so, how?
You are correct in understanding the Church’s teaching that in baptism we are reborn, cleansed of the stain of original sin, freed from our inherently sinful nature (although not totally relieved of the inclination to sin), are made new members of the Body of Christ – that we receive Justification. (CCC 1992 - Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy.)
I think you may be a tad off in thinking that justification is split up into stages, like “initial” or “final”. The grace of Justification is intrinsically effective, & is immediate.
The idea that we need to have a “conversion experience”, or make a “decision to accept Christ” to become justified, implies that justification is earned by us, rather than being a gift freely given by God’s grace.
The rest of CCC paragraph 1989 also begins to explain what Justification does: Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. "Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.
At birth, we are “children of wrath”. We have been born of the flesh. When we are baptized (whenever that occurs in each of our lives,) we are born again (“of water and the Spirit.”) Neither our age, nor our frame of mind is relevant.
In being justified through Baptism, we receive an indelible mark - our natures are changed (or “renewed”.) We are freed from the enslavement to sin (not from inclination to sin, but from enslavement), we are renewed, we have been “renewed and sanctified.”
The grace of Justification that we receive at Baptism does not mean that we are “home free”; that we receive some “golden ticket” to heaven. (Or would that be a “pearly ticket”?? HA HA.)
We may succumb to the inclination to sin.We might later turn from God. We might lose (or “throw away”, if you prefer) our salvation. This has happened to many people, both those who have been born again in baptism whether as infants or as adults.
In each of these cases, we don’t need to be “re-justified” (so to speak) but need to be forgiven in the sacrament of Penance to return to a state of grace.
A common Protestant argument aainst Infant Baptism is that infants don’t have the ability to repent. They don’t understand what’s going on, so they don’t repent, and how can baptism save if there is no repentance?