AnglicanTheology & Spirituality

In Defense of Baptismal Regeneration

This is the 5th post in a series titled “In Defense of.” Check out part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4

Baptismal regeneration is the process through which the Holy Spirit makes the recipient of the sacrament of baptism a new creation by forming a covenant. whereby . This is different from conversion, where someone repents of their sins and has faith in God (i.e. the thief on the cross next to Jesus). For someone like me, who was raised in Baptist and non-denominational traditions, this idea was always rejected prima facie because baptism constituted merely a public pronouncement of regeneration that had already occurred. However, further investigation of Scripture and the traditions of the Church show the validity of a sacramental position favoring baptismal regeneration.

Two persuasive arguments for baptismal regeneration can be found in Scripture: Old Testament typology and the baptismal theology of the New Testament. In the Old Testament, circumcision was an obligation placed on the Israelites in order for them to participate in the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 17:10-14). Circumcision determined one’s status in relation to God’s elect people, Israel. When Christ came, however, one phase of salvation-history ended while a new one began. Paul proclaims the reality that, “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything” (Gal 5:6; NRSV). While the New Testament Church is distinct from Old Testament Israel in some ways, Paul indicates continuity between the old and new by typologically equating circumcision with baptism (Col 2:11-12): “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” Identifying a close correspondence between baptism and circumcision was not a later move of the Church to justify the practice of paedobaptism or the anachronistic doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Rather, Paul points to this correspondence to highlight the regenerative effect of baptism, through which the recipient is brought into the Body of Christ.

Two other important New Testament passages shed light on Paul’s larger baptismal theology: Romans 6:1-4 and 1 Peter 3:21.

Romans 6:1-4: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Romans 6 engages in a discussion of baptism derived from Israel’s deliverance through the Red Sea. Baptism in 6:1-4 is cast as a deliverance from death and a new creation. Not only that, but baptism is the explicit mechanism by which one is identified with the death–and as a result, the resurrection life–of Christ. Commenting on this passage and the ontological change that occurs in baptism, theologian Karl Barth states, “The man who emerges from the water is not the same man who entered it. One man dies and another is born. The baptized person is no longer to be identified with the man who died. Baptism bears witness to us of the death of Christ where the radical and inexorably claim of God upon men triumphed. He that is baptized is drawn into the sphere of this event.”1

1 Peter 3:21: “And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

In 3:21, Peter is discussing the concept of suffering. Peter draws a connection between baptism and the flood waters through which Noah and his family were saved (3:20). This prefigures the act of baptism according to verse 21. It is important, however, that we not elevate the actual water. There is nothing magical about the water being used in the rite (if there were, it would lose its significance, in fact). Rather, Luther is correct when he states, “in Baptism God gives us grace and life.”2 The baptismal waters are not significant in and of themselves. They are significant because they are the objective, covenantal means by which one is saved. The waters are not the agent of salvation, God is.

This is how the Church initially understood the baptismal rite. Writing in the second century, Justin the Martyr, one of the earliest Christian thinkers, explains that converts are “brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water.”3 Irenaeus (130-202), bishop of Lyon, France, held a similar position as Justin. He argued against heretics who held unorthodox positions on “schemes of redemption” by claiming that they were “instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole [Christian] faith.”4 If a rejection of baptismal regeneration was considered heretical by the second century, the position most likely did not originate with Irenaeus. Thought difficult to date, Irenaeus’ words carry quite a bit of weight and undermine the claim that baptismal regeneration was a later innovation of the Church.

Another instance of baptismal regeneration being explicitly promulgated in the Early Church is the Second Council of Orange (529 C.E.). The purpose of the council was to rebut “semi-Pelagianism,” the idea that humans could, of their own volition, choose to be in relationship with God. The council condemned both semi-Pelagianism and double predestination (the view that God’s predestination of the elect to salvation necessarily entails the reprobation of others). However, the council went on to affirm the concept of baptismal regeneration: “If anyone says that the increase as well as the beginning of faith, and the very desire of faith—by which we believe in him who justifies the sinner and by which we come to the regeneration of holy baptism—proceeds from our own nature and not from the gift of grace, namely from an inspiration of the Holy Spirit… reveals himself to be in contradiction with the apostolic doctrine.”

Baptismal regeneration is a beautiful doctrine because it places the impetus for salvation on God, not on us. It is an objective reminder of our status as members of God’s covenantal family. When baptism is stripped of its sacramental status and becomes merely a sign of a faith that has already kindled, this objectivity is lost. Because of this,some Christians get baptized two or three times because they “really mean it this time.” Alternatively, when a Christian begins to question their salvation because they are walking through a dark period in their life, the memory of their baptism can come alongside them as a reminder that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

Anglo-Catholic theologian Francis J. Hall summarizes the discussion by saying, “The history of baptismal doctrine in the Church shows a catholic consensus from primitive days that Baptism is a true instrument of regenerating and sanctifying grace and of remission of sin, employed by the Holy Spirit.”5 The model of sacramental baptismal regeneration is a thoroughly biblical one. It draws on parallels from Old Testament circumcision and finds support in the pages of the New Testament epistles. Baptismal regeneration is also a key doctrine held by the Church since antiquity. It is found in the pages of some of the earliest Christian writers, eventually being made official doctrine of the undivided Church at the Second Council of Orange. Certainly many people today are uncomfortable because they perceive it as mystical, however dismissing a doctrine as strongly attested to by Scripture and Tradition as baptismal regeneration should give us serious pause.

[1] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968) 194.

[2] Erick Pontoppidan, H. U. Sverdrup, and Martin Luther, Explanation of Luther’s Smaller Catechism, trans. E. G. Lund (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1900), 109.

[3] Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 183.

[4] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenaeus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 345.

[5] Francis J. Hall, Dogmatic Theology, Vol. IX, The Sacraments (New York: The American Church Union, 1969), 5.

Wesley Walker

Wesley Walker

Wesley is from Raleigh, North Carolina. He went to Liberty University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biblical Studies where he was also on the debate team and is working on his STM at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Annapolis, Maryland and is a priest at St. Paul's Anglican Church (APA). He lives with his wife Caroline, their son Jude, and their dog. He co-hosts The Sacramentalists Podcast.

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