• Nathan Schneider
Baby being baptized with a seashell

There are some stories in the news that don’t seem like they’re big stories, but they are. This was especially true this past Tuesday. In the midst of international tensions rising over Russia’s posturing towards Ukraine, the convoy protests over vaccine mandates in Canada, and the new details coming to light of the Hillary Clinton campaign’s alleged involvement in illegal spying on the Trump campaign and administration, a regional story of a Catholic priest in Phoenix, AZ doesn’t seem like it should make the list of important stories. But it is an important story, not only because it made national headlines but because it exposes a very clear demarcation between historic Roman Catholicism and the true gospel of Jesus Christ and his church.

The article, published by David Aaro on Fox News, reported that Father Andres Arango of St. Gregory Catholic Church in Phoenix, AZ had resigned from his position after it was determined by the Diocese of Phoenix that “all of the baptisms he has performed until June 17, 2021 are presumed invalid.” Arango had been serving in various leadership roles for 20 years, which adds up to thousands of baptisms which have now been determined to be, as the Diocese of Phoenix put it, “invalid.”

What led to such a massive overturning? Apparently just one word. As the article explained, Father Arango has been using an incorrect formula in his baptismal ceremonies, stating, “We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” when the correct wording of the formula is “I baptize you . . . .” Thomas J. Olmsted, bishop of the Phoenix Diocese explained that “the issue with using ‘We’ is that it is not the community that baptizes a person, rather, it is Christ and Him alone, who presides at all the sacraments, and so it is Christ Jesus who baptizes.”

The article goes on to discuss the enormous consequences the error has for the individuals whose baptisms have proved invalid. In fact, an entire FAQ page has been created to answer some of these questions and guide people on what to do next. Concerning baptism, this is what the FAQ page states regarding how an invalidated baptism might affect people:

“Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC 1213). As the entry point to other sacraments, an invalid baptism therefore invalidates any subsequent sacraments, especially confirmation, marriage, and holy orders (ordination to the priesthood or diaconate).

What this means for you is, if your baptism was invalid and you’ve received other sacraments, you may need to repeat some or all of those sacraments after you are validly baptized as well.

Obviously, there’s a lot going on here we could discuss from a number of different angles, but what I’m concerned about here is for us as Christians to understand the immense theological issues uncovered by this issue. Some of them specifically concern the Roman Catholic Church and its doctrine. Others are warnings and reminders for us to weigh as we consider our walk in this world. So let’s look at these issues for a moment.


Obviously, we can’t talk about this issue without discussing the sacrament of baptism according to Roman Catholic (RC) dogma. Evangelical doctrine views baptism as a public pronouncement of faith in Jesus Christ and public identification with him as a disciple. It is a public demonstration of the reality of justification and identity in and with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. It is a way of proclaiming that you belong to him as his follower. Following baptist tradition, which in turn has its roots in anabaptist tradition, we view baptism as an act to be performed only after one genuinely believes on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. There is no procurement of special grace or instrumentality in the act.

Roman Catholic doctrine views baptism much differently. As a sacrament, baptism (as well as the other six sacraments of the RCC) works by automatically conveying grace to the recipient. It does this through its “mode,” or in other words, ex opere operato—”by the working of the works.” As R.C. Sproul put it, “Simply performing the sacrament causes it to operate and perform what it is designed to perform” (Sproul, Are We Together, 68). It’s interesting that in the Fox News article, David Aaro comments that “in the Catholic faith, a baptism is a sacrament in which people, typically infants, have water poured over their foreheads, which symbolizes purification and admission to the Church.” Now, that is far from an accurate description of RC baptism, because if it is symbolic, then it doesn’t necessary convey anything other than something that has already happened. According to RC theology, baptism actually conveys grace so that the next line in the article is very much true: “Baptism is a requirement for salvation.” This was said not by the reporter but by the Diocese of Phoenix.

It’s a requirement specifically because of what the RCC believes is happening during the sacrament of baptism. It is the first sacrament to be administered to a person (usually an infant because of the RC view of the seven sacraments as analogous to the medieval idea of the seven stages of life, thus making baptism the initial stage in a person’s life), and the grace it conveys is the grace of regeneration. James McCarthy writes,

According to the Roman Catholic Church, the purpose of the sacrament of baptism is the reverse the effects of Adam’s sin. Baptism is said to accomplish this by removing original sin from the soul and infusing sanctifying grace back into it. This justifies the recipient, making the person holy before God, a participant in the life of grace, and a member of the Roman Catholic Church (McCarthy, The Gospel According to Rome, 333).

There’s some important language being used in that description, and it’s not by accident. Certain key theological terms pop up, but they mean something different than they would to an evangelical. When an evangelical hears the term “justification,” we think of a legal declaration. “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom 5:1). By this, we understand Paul to mean that when a person exercises saving faith, God declares that person to be not guilty of their sin because he has imputed that sin to Christ, who paid its penalty on the cross, thus making peace between the sinner and God. At the same time they are declared “not guilty” of sin, they are also declared to be righteous, not because of their own righteousness, but because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to them so that they are treated not as sinners but as those who lived Christ’s life (2 Cor 5:21). It is an alien righteousness put on them—a righteousness not their own. Thus, they can be called “holy ones” or “saints,” not because they are holy in any practical sense, but because God views them as holy because they are joined with Christ, who covers them in his righteousness. The Christian then awaits the time when their status as holy saints aligns completely with their practical life as sinners, at which point they are glorified and made to be like Jesus Christ. The Christian life, then, is marked by the sanctification of the believer, the process by which God brings a person’s practical holiness closer and closer in line with his position as a holy one in Christ.

RC theology understands justification in a completely different way. They see justification as an infusing of righteousness—at baptism, the sinner isn’t declared righteous but actually made righteous. Sproul writes, “Righteousness is ‘infused’ or poured into his soul. Rome, then, believes and teaches that the prerequisite for justification, the instrumental cause, is baptism. In Protestant theology, by contrast, the instrumental cause is faith, and God ‘imputes’ righteousness to the believer” (Sproul, Are We Together, 69).

Thus, the key difference here between Protestant and RC views on baptism and salvation have to do with faith. The RCC holds that faith is the “beginning of justification, the foundation for justification, and the root of justification,” yet at same time it holds that “a person can have true faith and still not be justified” because it is not faith that conveyed saving grace to the individual but baptism. In their view, the instrument of justification—the tool used by God to make someone righteous—is not faith, but baptism. What’s more, justification could not be merely a divine declaration, because they hold that God will not declare someone righteous who is not already righteous. Thus, baptism must infuse the sinner with real righteousness—a righteousness that is their own righteousness.

The Protestant view, on the other hand, holds that “we are justified by faith alone . . . [as] the sole instrumental cause for our justification.” In other words, “We receive all the benefits of Jesus’ work through putting our trust in Him alone” (Sproul, 2). No matter the issues surrounding indulgences which first sparked the theological conversation Luther intended to have with Rome, the issue of faith alone became the heart cry of what unfolded as a reformation of the Christian faith and the rediscovery of the pure gospel.

So as we look at the issue unfolding in Phoenix, we have to deal first and foremost with the obvious issue of baptism. There are literally thousands of people discovering that their entire Christian life has been invalidated. Their baptism did not confer upon them anything. We understand as evangelicals that that was true regardless of what they thought was happening. But the reality is that when you believe that baptism is what makes you righteous and acceptable before God, it’s devastating to find out that because of the error of one priest, your entire Christian life has been invalidated. This is the folly of trusting in works for salvation. “By works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal 5:16). This is the way God has always operated, and Paul goes into painstaking detail in Romans 4 to make it clear that salvation from beginning to end is all of faith. So when we say, “Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone,” we’re saying not only that “faith is enough to save,” but also that faith plus anything else cannot save because it invalidates the very idea of faith.

As soon as we place our hope and confidence in something we do—even something that someone else has to do—we have placed our hope on not just shaky ground, but ground which will collapse. Only the work of Jesus Christ is ground firm and solid enough to hold our hope without waver and without risk of collapse. As the old hymn puts it,

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name

On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand


This brings us to a second issue exposed in this news article, which we touched upon briefly toward the end of the previous point. The fact that the foundation of so many people’s lives could be so quickly and effortlessly dismantled by the imprecise words of just one man points out the obvious issue of the hierarchical priesthood in the RCC.

The RCC recognizes a hierarchy of authority in the church. At the top of this structure are the bishops. Considered the successors of the apostles, bishops are said to have inherited from the apostles power to (1) teach, (2) sanctify, and (3) rule. Thus, only bishops possess the authority to interpret and teach the Scriptures, ordain priests, administer the sacraments, and govern the church. What’s more, presiding over the bishops as the chief bishop is the Bishop of Rome, the Pope (which means “father”), who alone holds the supreme authority and responsibility for ruling, shepherding, teaching, and sanctifying over the universal Catholic church. Beneath the bishops are a second order of leaders called cardinals, who serve the pope and elect a new one when a papal vacancy arrives. The next order of authority falls to priests, who serve in parish churches and are responsible to pastor the people and administer the sacraments. Beneath them are the deacons, who can perform the sacraments of baptism and marriage. Finally, there are a series of unordained men (brothers) and women (sisters/nuns) who minister and serve in a wide variety of ways.

The power and authority of bishops, priests, and deacons must be understood in light of Scripture, particularly as it pertains to the validity of a person’s salvation. By their very role and authority, a RC bishop, priest, or deacon holds the very spiritual life a person in their power. Priests must perform the sacrament of the Mass without error, or else the sacrament is invalidated and grace is not conveyed. Baptism must be performed correctly, lest the person not receive the necessary justification that makes them right with God.

Here’s the thing we need to understand about the priesthood in the NT. First, there is only one high priest who has presided over one final sacrifice for which no other sacrifice is necessary. This high priest is Jesus Christ, who is a priest of the New Covenant after a new order—the priesthood of Melchizedek. This is a role Christ serves perpetually, never to be replaced because he offered a final, perfect sacrifice when he entered the Most Holy Place with his own blood and offered a final atonement which alone was able to do what no other sacrifice could do—remove the stain of sin and the guilt of sin on the conscience (see Hebrews 8-10).

Second, every believer is part of the New Covenant priesthood. As Peter declared, believers are “being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices” (1 Pet 2:5). Thus, we are part of a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9), a kingdom of priests (Rev. 1:6), who offer our own lives up as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1) and have direct access to God through our high priest Jesus Christ (Heb 4:17), enabling us to pray on behalf of others and minister to each other in ways not possible in Israel under the old covenant.

This fiasco in Phoenix uncovers the disaster of placing the hope of our salvation in the performance of any other person than Jesus Christ. The RC priesthood with its hierarchical orders and authorities are nothing but a structure that crumbles at the first evidence of the fallen, imperfect nature of the people who make up that hierarchy. There is one high priest—”holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Heb 7:26)—we need no other. He alone offered the only sacrifice necessary to atone for sin, and he alone is the sole object necessary and worthy to place our faith.

Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears:
Before the throne my surety stands,
Before the throne my surety stands,
My name is written on His hands.


There’s one last issue I want to bring up that serves as an important lesson for us as Christians. That lesson is that there is immense power in words. Now, we might be tempted to view this debacle as an example of the inflexibility of the RC system and how they are incapable of taking the spirit of the act of baptism over and above the ceremony itself. But the reality is that the RCC views the sacrament of baptism very much as a formula which works by the very act of itself, which means the formula must be right. When you use a math formula but you input the wrong number into the formula, you get the wrong result from the equation. The same is true in the case of the RCC sacraments. In fact, the FAQ page attempts to explain the reasoning behind this narrow reliance of precise wording:

It may seem legalistic, but the words that are spoken (the sacramental form), along with the actions that are performed and the materials used (the sacramental matter) are a crucial aspect of every sacrament. If you change the words, actions, or materials required in any of the sacraments, they are not valid.

Now, before we dismiss this issue as irrational inflexibility, let’s make clear something important: words do matter. Words matter a lot, in fact. We could say that the entire contrast between Protestant theology and the RC tradition is based on the fact that words matter. So let’s not act like they don’t. It matters when we say that God justifies sinners through faith alone. It matters when we say that God justifies us by declaring us righteous rather than making us righteous. These are just single words. Yet they mean the difference between life and death, salvation and judgment, heaven and hell. It matters what we say to people when we preach to them the gospel. Words matter, perhaps more than we may think they do. Which means all of us may need to pay a little more attention to the words we use. Or just like Father Arango, we may just discover that one wrong word can lead people into a lot of error with immense spiritual consequences. Let that be a warning to pastors. Let that be a warning to evangelists. The power of words is real. Let’s not pretend otherwise.