Round Table: Baptism
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority 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, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Since Jesus’ delivery of this Great Commission to his disciples following his resurrection, Christians everywhere have made the act of washing in water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit an integral part of what it means to be a Christian. Although the manner and meaning of this practice has not always been the same, there have been few followers of Jesus in the last 2,000 years who have not sought to obey this command of the Lord.
One of the earliest non-New Testament references to baptism comes in the Didache, a late first or early second-century Syrian Christian writing. This practical early Christian text says the following concerning baptism:
“…Baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” (Didache 7)
For these early Christians the practice of baptism—regardless of extenuating circumstances—was of great importance for those following Jesus. In this month’s Round Table, the Conciliar Post community answers the question “What is the meaning and effect of Christian baptism?” In so doing, they—like the writer of the Didache—reflect on the importance of baptism for Christian faith and how to best obey the command of the Lord Jesus.
Author, Conciliar Post
“It is ironic as it is tragic that although baptism is the sacrament of union with Christ and the communion of saints…baptism is one of the most divisive issues in Christianity today.” —Michael Horton
In discussing the understanding of baptism from a Reformed perspective, it is important to first discuss the context of baptism within God’s covenants, second to explain the effect of baptism, and third to discuss the subjects of baptism. All of the quotes within this argument are taken from Michael Horton’s systematic theology The Christian Faith.
First, the context of baptism comes within God’s covenant of grace, initially signified and sealed through the ritual of circumcision for the Israelites, now signified and sealed through baptism. Circumcision, for the Israelites, was a ritual symbolizing the grace God has shown to his people. God has given the Israelites a physical representation of that grace, a “cutting away of sin rather than the cutting off of the sinner,” thus prefiguring the substitutionary atonement of Christ. One who was circumcised was then “devoted either to the blessings of the covenant (through circumcision) or to its curses (without circumcision).” Baptism, standing in continuity with the old covenant, is now the new covenant administration of the promises to the Israelites, the rite that proclaims that God’s promises of grace have come to fruition in Christ. Now administered on the other side of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, baptism testifies to God’s grace in the cutting off of Christ in our place, for through it we are “buried with [Christ]…and raised with him through faith” (Col. 2:12).
Second, according to the Reformers, baptism is a means of grace, the “lively action of God’s energies.” As a means of grace, baptism is both a sign and seal of that grace. Horton writes, “As a sign, it objectively witnesses to our inclusion in the covenant of grace; as a seal, it is the means by which the Spirit brings about within us the ‘amen’ to God’s promise and command, not only once but throughout our pilgrimage.” Baptism is also a public demonstration that one is a part of the covenant community, a “visible means of bringing about a life-giving participation in the Vine.” However, as we see in the cyclical apostasy of the Israelites in the Old Testament, circumcision did not cause salvation. Inward circumcision of the heart must exist through faith, in which the “reality that baptism communicates is embraced.”
Third, the subjects of baptism are all who are a part of the covenant community, both infants and adult converts. There is continuity in the covenant of grace, the Reformed emphasize, for just as Abraham—as a circumcised adult convert—circumcised his sons “unto repentance and faith,” so we are to baptize children of the covenant. This continuity is reflected in Paul’s explanation that the children of believers are holy (1 Cor. 7:14), Peter’s exclamation that we are to “repent and be baptized, every one of you…The promise is for you and for your children,” (Acts 2:38-39) and the multiple descriptions of “families” and “households” being baptized when a parent believes (Acts 16). Further, in looking at the history of the practice in the early Church, “we have no evidence of any commands to forbid infant baptism, and by the second century the literature is replete with references to the practice.”
Editor, Conciliar Post
“Well-beloved, you have come hither desiring to receive holy Baptism. We have prayed that our Lord Jesus Christ would vouchsafe to receive you, to release you from sin, to sanctify you with the Holy Ghost, to give you the kingdom of heaven, and everlasting life.”1
So says the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (BCP) in the rite of Holy Baptism. It goes on to say, in Article 27, “Baptism is not only a sign of profession…but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed, Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.”2
Thus, Anglicans believe in a form of baptismal regeneration. I say “a form”—water baptism for regeneration—for a few reasons. If pressed, many Anglicans I have talked with will tell you that an infant baptised into the church still needs to be confirmed when he or she is older, so that the child is able to know what it means to be a Christ-follower. Baptism, many will say, is the outward sign that the parents, sponsors, and believing friends will help guide the child toward Christ by their teaching, words, and actions—much like an infant dedication with water added.
Having been baptised in the Anglican church as an adult, I was a little wary of the wording of the BCP. I grew up in various churches, believing what I read in Scripture, that water baptism was a sign—replacing circumcision—and not salvific. Therefore, I had trouble with the BCP’s reference specifically to water baptism for regeneration. Jesus tells Nicodemus, in John chapter three, that he must be born of water (one’s first or natural birth) and of spirit (being immersed into the Spirit of God through Jesus).
The day I asked Jesus into my life I was immersed (baptised) into him, no water necessary. We see also the baptism of the Holy Spirit with fire in Acts, showing that water is not the only form of immersion. I believe in baptismal regeneration—if that means I was immersed into Jesus at the point he became Lord of my life. I can’t agree if it means Jesus plus water. Or Jesus plus anything else, in fact. So, I can say with Peter that our baptism [into Jesus] now saves us, because we are buried with him and raised to new life in him.
“And also, corresponding to this, baptism now saves you, not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (I Peter 3:21 LEB, emphasis mine)View Sources
2. ibid pg 608
Editor-in-Chief, Conciliar Post
The Mystery of Holy Baptism is replete in scripture. Paralleled in the creation story where the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters1, the story of Noah2, the washing of Naaman3, the priestly purification rites4, and prefigured in the Israelites’ passage through Red Sea5, and the crossing of the Jordan river6, baptism is described in the New Testament as the circumcision of Christ7, and a washing of regeneration8 for the remission of sins9. Baptism, in a very real sense, is our uniting with Christ10, our grafting into the body of Christ11—the Church—so much so that Paul warns baptized persons against uniting Christ with a harlot12.
There are typically a handful of questions people ask to find out which ‘baptism camp’ you are in: What is the effect of baptism? Who can be baptized? How should we baptize? Like most, I believe that we can look to scripture for some answers. Interestingly enough, however, our conclusions may differ. Baptism is for remission of sins13; it saves us14. Just as infants were circumcised and grafted into the promise of Abraham, so infants should be baptized.15 We are to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit16. Baptism is the beginning of our Christian journey—it is not the end—and is a Mystery that we are implored to readily renew through our tears in confession.
Beyond the scriptural witness concerning baptism (which you can find in the footnotes—along with some notes about salvation, etc.), we have the historical Tradition of the Church. In the Orthodox Church we submerge three times; immediately after Baptism, the newly illumined is Chrismated (anointed with oil) and tonsured (the priest cuts of four sections of hair in the shape of a cross, one of which is placed in the censer as his first offering to God). The newly baptized then approaches the chalice for the first time as a communicant—yes, even infants. Baptism and the Eucharist are intricately connected and together form the initiation and consummation of the Christian journey17—a journey that is dynamic, not static.
Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast of Theophany (the baptism of Christ) every year on January 6th—and every year, as we take home small bottles of Holy Water, we are reminded that Christ was baptized not only as an example for us, but in order to sanctify the waters of the world. In this lies a great mystery: the physical and spiritual realities are not opposed to one another; God works in the world and through the world. God uses the physical world to effect our salvation.18 This is a reality that can also be heard over and over again in scripture and patristic voices.*
One could talk for hours about the Sacrament of Holy Baptism within the Orthodox Church: the role of the godparent, the prayers of exorcism, the renouncing of the devil (which includes spitting out the back of the church), the sign of the cross made over the child’s body, and the water, the oil, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, the naming, the three candles on the baptismal font, the water, the clothing in white, and the tonsuring. It is a truly beautiful service—one filled with prayers that will bring tears to your eyes.19
Baptism is, without a doubt, at the center—the heart—of what it means to enter into the Church as a Christian. The Christian Church is a family (an organic body), and just as we do not make a rational choice to be born into our biological families, the child does not need to make a rational choice to be grafted into the body of Christ. But just like we can reject our birthright like Esau20, or set off like the Prodigal Son21, baptized infants have a choice to remain in the family of God, or reject it later on. The scriptural and patristic voice, the latter of which I have not even touched, is undeniable: baptism is a great mystery. Through it we are mystically and physically united with Christ, and are united as the body of Christ, for the remission of sins.View Sources
*Joseph Green recently wrote about the physicality of spirituality in a series called, Cosmic Communion. I would highly recommend checking out part three, specifically, on the subject of baptism. I would also recommend his article “Saved or Unsaved” to get an idea of how Eastern Orthodox Christians speak about salvation (and why the way we speak about it is important in understanding how we see salvation as it relates to baptism).
Note: St. Paisios points out in his 4 Volume Spiritual Counsels that our God is a gracious God—if there is not enough water to submerge, then pour it over the child’s head. If there is not enough to pour over his head, sprinkle him. If there is no water available, and the infant is in poor health, lift him up in the air, making the sign of the cross, proclaiming the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
- Genesis 1:1-2
- Genesis 6:9-18; 1 Peter 3:18-21
- 2 Kings 5:1-19 Note: In Old Testament typology (something the Church Fathers were prone to talk about), leprosy is a type for sin. Seen in this light, Naaman is prefiguring/paralleling baptism as a remission of sins.
- Exodus 30:17-21; Numbers 19:11-13
- Exodus 14; 1 Corinthians 10:1-2.—Note: the crossing of the Red Sea is in the hymnology of the Orthodox Church as a type for Baptism. John Chrysostom (among others) spoke about Egypt as a type for slavery to sin and the journey of the Israelites a type for the Christian journey from slavery (Egypt) to freedom in Christ (Promised Land). The crossing of the Red Sea is our baptism, where the trespasses and passions are destroyed, like the Egyptians. But not without scars, as St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite is sure to point out in his Exomologetarian.
- Joshua 3
- Collosians 2:11-12
- Titus 3:4-8
- Acts 2:38-39
- Romans 6; Galatians 3:26-29
- 1 Corinthians 12:12-14
- 1 Corinthians 6:15
- Acts 2:38-39 — Notice how Peter says, in verse 39, ” promise is to you and to your children”
- 1 Peter 3:18-21 — Note: Some may have a problem with this kind of language, “baptism saves,” especially if they believe that a person is “once saved, always saved.” They argue that the infant has no choice and is, therefore, passively saved. This kind of conclusion is erroneously constructed, typically without fully understanding the role of baptism, the Holy Spirit, and the person’s choice. Just like Esau could reject his birthright (Genesis 25:34), so we, too, can reject our baptism for something as menial as a bowl of lentil soup. But even more than that, our salvation should not be considered a “one time event” but rather an ongoing journey. Lord have mercy on us!
- 1 Corinthians 1:16; Acts 11:13-14; Acts 2:38-39 —Notice how Peter says, in Acts 2:39, that the ” promise is to you and to your children”
- Matthew 28:19
- Read through 1 Corinthians chapters 10-12.
- This has to be affirmed by every Christian, at the very least, because of the Incarnation.
- “You have bestowed upon us regeneration from on high by water and the spirit. Manifest Yourself, O Lord, in this water, and grant that he (she) that is to be baptized may be transformed therein to the putting away of the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and to the putting on of the new, which is renewed according to the Image of Him that created him (her).That, being planted in the likeness of Your death through Baptism, he (she) may become a sharer of Your Resurrection; and, preserving the Gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increasing the deposit of Grace, he (she) may attain unto prize of his (her) high calling, and accounted among the number of the first-born, whose names are written in Heaven, in You our God and Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom be all Glory and Might, together with Your Eternal Father and with Your All; Holy, Good, and Life; creating Spirit, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages.” (Prayer from the service of Holy Baptism)
- Genesis 25:29-34
- Luke 15:11-32
Editor, Conciliar Post
When I tell people that I am a Reformed Baptist, there are two concerns running through my mind. First, is the merger of these two terms confusing? Second, for mental ease, will they assume that I’m giving a fancy title to being a Baptist? In order to avoid either of these problems, I usually give a short explanation: I’m a Presbyterian who dunks believers instead of sprinkling babies. That particular difference flows from the fact that I believe that the Bible directs us to baptize believers only via immersion. What follows is the rough outline of how the meaning and effect of baptism is highlighted through this practice.
While considering the meaning and effect of baptism, “Why baptism?” serves as an excellent starting point for exploration.1 The first part of the answer is symbolism. The act of baptism highlights several scriptural themes. First, as Paul points out in Romans 6, baptism reminds us of Christ’s death and resurrection: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life”2 (Romans 6:3-4). As a side note, this would also indicate that baptism serves as a confirmation of a believer’s rest in and on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.3 Second, baptism also pictures the believer’s cleansing from sin. We hear echoes of this as Ananias tells Saul to “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). Finally, coming out of the baptismal water reminds us of the times and places where God has used water as judgment. In a culmination of the prior two symbols, coming out of the baptismal waters symbolizes that, through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the believer has been cleansed of their sin and therefore saved from judgment.
Admittedly, all of this is rather abstract. Also, it raises the question of who is entitled to receive baptism. If baptism is merely a recapitulation and picturing of Biblical themes, why don’t we set out a signup sheet and let people volunteer to be part of baptismal reenactments during Sunday services? The answer to this question highlights the necessary limits to baptism, while providing a tangible foundation for the practice. Scripture indicates that baptism serves as a visual confirmation of a believer’s profession of faith. It is a demonstration of the fact that they have become part of the body of the Christ. Consider the fact that when the New Testament records the salvation of specific people they are baptized right away.4 Thus, the Ethiopian Eunuch responds to Philip’s presentation of the Gospel with “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). Baptism does not make someone a member of the Body, but rather illustrates that they are a member of the Body. For this reason, baptism should not extend to those who cannot make a credible profession of faith. To do so would be to claim membership for individuals we cannot confidently say are in fact members of the church. By this same light, though, the times when we do baptize believers are moments for great celebration, for they are the points where we are reminded of the blessing of salvation while welcoming and rejoicing with a new member of Christ’s family.View Sources
1. As we begin, I should mention that I relied heavily on Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology for this piece.
2. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3. If it is not clear by now, I hold immersion, rather than sprinkling, to be the correct mode for baptism.
4. I first remember hearing this insight from John Roberts during a sermon delivered at Moses Lake Christian Church.
In Roman Catholic theology, water baptism is a necessary component of salvation. It is considered, in the sacramental system, as one of the three sacraments that denote initiation. The Church fathers say a lot about baptism, obviously. So does the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the many synods, councils, and encyclicals that have gone before. My approach is going to be a simple, scriptural one.
There are many prefigurements to baptism in the Old Testament, such as the flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the crossing of the Jordan River. As engaging as they are, and as tempting as it would be to talk about the mode and possible recipients of baptism, I will talk about the New Testament view in the Gospels concerning the efficacy of baptism.
The first passage I will deal with is Saint John 3:5, where Jesus states that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” The context seems obvious: how does someone enter God’s kingdom? Despite the various attempts by entire denominations to explain this to be something other than water baptism, there isn’t a single theologian who interprets this to be anything other than water baptism, until the sixteenth century, when the Protestant reformer John Calvin offers an alternate view. So if this means something besides water baptism, then every theologian for the first fifteen hundred years of church history got it wrong until the arrival of John Calvin. Besides that historical note, the Gospel writer himself has already suggested this is what it meant. We have seen this couplet before, when in chapter one of Saint John’s Gospel we see water and Spirit being joined together in the act of Jesus being baptized, with water and the Spirit descending in the form of a dove. So, when Jesus says this to Nicodemus as a necessity to enter God’s kingdom, we have seen it foreshadowed two chapters earlier. There is too much theological dancing that has to be done in order for this not to mean water baptism. Besides, the very first verse after the nocturnal conversation ends between our Lord and Nicodemus, in verse 22, when it says that Jesus’ disciples went into the land of Judea and baptized.
For Roman Catholics, the long ending of Saint Mark chapter sixteen, which the Council of Trent endorsed and said was Scripture, contains a dogmatic assertion that is hard to escape. Saint Mark 16:16 says, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Again, the context is straightforward, the requirements to be saved as a result of preaching the Gospel. People will dismiss this because of manuscript evidence, which, if time and space permitted, I would love to address; but since this article is from a Roman Catholic perspective, those who adhere to the Holy See are bound by Trent that these verses are legitimate. This is one of many plain scriptures on the necessity of baptism for eternal life.
A third passage that I would like to use is Saint Matthew chapter 28:18-20. I apologize if people are used to reading these in the order that all Bibles have them, which would be the exact reverse order I am using, but since that is a man-made utility, I won’t bother to correct it. In Saint Matthew’s passage, which states, “And Jesus came and said. To them, “All authority in heaven and 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, to the close of the age.” The context seems to be consistent with the other two passages I have chosen, the decree for his disciples to go forth and present the gospel, or good news, and in the process make even more disciples by baptizing them in the triune formula. Again, Saint Matthew seems pretty clear on the requirement for discipleship and its heavenly authority.
I have only chosen passages from the Gospels, but we are all aware that other passages could have been utilized to make an even stronger case. Such passages like Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, Romans 6:1-4, I Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:27, Colossians 2:11-13, and 1 Peter 3:21 could be used to bolster my claim. I didn’t have the space to explicate these verses, nor did I have the room to explain the possibility of using the Granville-Sharp rule when talking about Saint John 3:5. Examining the ancient languages was also not used in order to make my case. This essay was not purposed to answer such queries or use such methods. I am sure there are many objections and questions people may have about this very basic and simple article. I would be happy to answer any and all, to the best of my ability. I know how some may feel when reading this, as I myself was on that very side at one point in my theological journey.
All Scriptures used were quotations from the Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition.
Author, Conciliar post
The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod recognizes baptism as one of the principle means of grace by which God forgives our sins and marks us members of his fold. We confess that is primarily through baptism that we receive the name and title of Christian. That is to say, it is through the baptismal washing of rebirth by the water and the Word that the gentile is claimed by God as one of His chosen people. While members of the LCMS do not partake in the Lord’s Supper with Christians that do not share the same confessions, we acknowledge all who believe and are baptized to be our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Bible is full of theological accounts built around the use of water as a means of claiming God’s people, long before John the Baptist ever make an appearance. The flood that cleansed the earth, but spared Noah and his family; the parting of the Red Sea that brought the Israelites out of Egypt before wiping away the armies of Pharaoh; and even Jonah’s time in the belly of the great fish are all Old Testament representations of baptism. In each case, water and the Word were used to wash away sin and evil while preserving and protecting the faithful. This cleansing use of baptism is one of the chief means given to God’s people for the washing away of sins.
Baptism doesn’t eliminate the potential for sin in a Christian, nor does it remove the need for daily repentance and forgiveness, but it is a means by which our sins are forgiven and it is a formal adoption of the Christian faith. Baptism is only just the beginning, and it is through the continued preaching and teaching of the Word, as well as the shared Communion of the Lord’s Body and Blood, that our faith is sustained. My father, and pastor, Rev. Rick Stuckwisch, once described baptism like being drafted into an army. Through our baptism we are brought into the company of saints as servants of the one true God. However, to join the army and not receive the weapons and training required to wage the war, is suicide. Similarly, taking on the name of Christ through baptism, without receiving the gifts grace through ongoing catechesis and the Lord’s Supper, is like throwing yourself in the face of the Devil, the world, and your own sinful nature, with little to fall back on.
This metaphor, like all metaphors attempting to describe a divine mystery in human terms, is flawed, but I think it helps to paint a useful picture of what baptism is and how it fits into our lives as Christians. It is the foundation and the means by which we our given our identity. It one of the many ways God has chosen to grant us his grace and forgiveness, but it is also only the beginning. In a way, the person who is baptized but then pulls away from the church has rejected the gifts that their baptism offers. The forgiveness of sins and the name of Christ they were given at their baptism do not become meaningless or go away, but they are deprived of the food they need to be sustained and thrive under the weight of this fallen world.
In short, baptism is a forgiveness of sins; it is an identity, and it is the beginning of a more than lifelong journey in the fellowship of Christ and His Church.