Few truths are so clearly taught in the New Testament as the doctrine that in baptism God gives us grace. Again and again the sacred writers tell us that it is in baptism that we are saved, buried with Christ, incorporated into his body, washed of our sins, regenerated, cleansed, and so on (see Acts 2:38, 22:16; Rom. 6:1–4; 1 Cor. 6:11, 12:13; Gal. 3:26–27; Eph. 5:25-27; Col. 2:11–12; Titus 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:18–22). They are unanimous in speaking of baptism as really bringing about a spiritual effect.
Despite this wealth of evidence, Protestants are almost equally unanimous in rejecting this truth. In general, Protestants regard baptism as something like an ordinance: an observance that does not itself bring about any spiritual effect but merely represents that effect. Its observance may be required by obedience, but it is not necessary in any further sense—certainly not for salvation.
This view requires Protestants to explain away all the New Testament passages on the nature of baptism as figurative language. It is not baptism itself, they assert, but what baptism represents, that really saves us. Yet the language of the New Testament on this point is so uniform that they cannot even dredge up a couple of “proof-texts” on baptism to support this view or their figurative reading of all the other passages.
There is one text that Protestants occasionally mention. In 1 Corinthians 1:14–17 Paul wrote that he was glad that he himself had baptized so few of the Corinthians, since they could not say that they were baptized in his name; and he went on to say, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.”
Needless to say, this passage doesn’t say anything about baptism only representing spiritual realities, or not really saving. Paul didn’t pit preaching against baptism. He would hardly have contradicted the great commission in Matthew 28:19: “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.” Paul’s point was not that God didn’t want him to baptize, only that preaching was the driving force of his evangelistic ministry.
In short, Paul’s remark doesn’t remotely support the Protestant view of baptism, or justify a figurative interpretation of all the other passages.
The early Fathers were equally unanimous in affirming baptism as a means of grace. They all recognized the Bible’s teaching that “[In the ark] a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:20–21, emphasis added).
Protestant early Church historian J. N. D. Kelly writes, “From the beginning baptism was the universally accepted rite of admission to the Church. . . . As regards its significance, it was always held to convey the remission of sins . . . we descend into the water ‘dead’ and come out again ‘alive’; we receive a white robe which symbolizes the Spirit . . . the Spirit is God himself dwelling in the believer, and the resulting life is a re-creation. Prior to baptism . . . our heart was the abode of demons . . . [but] baptism supplies us with the weapons for our spiritual warfare” (Early Christian Doctrines, 193–4).
Here are examples of what early Christian writers had to say on the subject of baptismal grace:
The Letter of Barnabas
“Regarding [baptism], we have the evidence of Scripture that Israel would refuse to accept the washing which confers the remission of sins and would set up a substitution of their own instead [Ps. 1:3–6]. Observe there how he describes both the water and the cross in the same figure. His meaning is, ‘Blessed are those who go down into the water with their hopes set on the cross.’ Here he is saying that after we have stepped down into the water, burdened with sin and defilement, we come up out of it bearing fruit, with reverence in our hearts and the hope of Jesus in our souls” (Letter of Barnabas 11:1–10 [A.D. 74]).
“‘I have heard, sir,’ said I, ‘from some teacher, that there is no other repentance except that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins.’ He said to me, ‘You have heard rightly, for so it is’” (The Shepherd 4:3:1–2 [A.D. 80]).
Ignatius of Antioch
“Let none of you turn deserter. Let your baptism be your armor; your faith, your helmet; your love, your spear; your patient endurance, your panoply” (Letter to Polycarp 6 [A.D. 110]).
“Whoever are convinced and believe that what they are taught and told by us is the truth, and professes to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to beseech God in fasting for the remission of their former sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are led by us to a place where there is water, and they are reborn in the same kind of rebirth in which we ourselves were reborn: ‘In the name of God, the Lord and Father of all, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit,’ they receive the washing of water. For Christ said, ‘Unless you be reborn, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven’” (First Apology 61:14–17 [A.D. 151]).
Theophilus of Antioch
“Moreover, those things which were created from the waters were blessed by God, so that this might also be a sign that men would at a future time receive repentance and remission of sins through water and the bath of regeneration” (To Autolycus 12:16 [A.D. 181]).
Clement of Alexandria
“When we are baptized, we are enlightened. Being enlightened, we are adopted as sons. Adopted as sons, we are made perfect. Made perfect, we become immortal. . . . This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing. It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins, a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted, an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation” (The Instructor of Children 1:6:26:1 [A.D. 191]).
“Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life. . . . [But] a viper of the [Gnostic] Cainite heresy, lately conversant in this quarter, has carried away a great number with her most venomous doctrine, making it her first aim to destroy baptism—which is quite in accordance with nature, for vipers and.asps . . . themselves generally do live in arid and waterless places. But we, little fishes after the example of our [Great] Fish, Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water” (Baptism 1 [A.D. 203]).
“Baptism itself is a corporal act by which we are plunged into the water, while its effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from our sins” (ibid., 7:2).
“And the bishop shall lay his hand upon them [the newly baptized], invoking and saying: ‘O Lord God, who did count these worthy of deserving the forgiveness of sins by the laver of regeneration, make them worthy to be filled with your Holy Spirit and send upon them thy grace [in confirmation], that they may serve you according to your will” (The Apostolic Tradition 22:1 [A.D. 215]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“While I was lying in darkness . . . I thought it indeed difficult and hard to believe . . . that divine mercy was promised for my salvation, so that anyone might be born again and quickened unto a new life by the laver of the saving water, he might put off what he had been before, and, although the structure of the body remained, he might change himself in soul and mind. . . . But afterwards, when the stain of my past life had been washed away by means of the water of rebirth, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart; afterwards, through the Spirit which is breathed from heaven, a second birth made of me a new man” (To Donatus 3–4 [A.D. 246]).
Aphraahat the Persian Sage
“From baptism we receive the Spirit of Christ. At that same moment in which the priests invoke the Spirit, heaven opens, and he descends and rests upon the waters, and those who are baptized are clothed in him. The Spirit is absent from all those who are born of the flesh, until they come to the water of rebirth, and then they receive the Holy Spirit” (Treatises 6:14:4 [A.D. 340]).
Cyril of Jerusalem
“If any man does not receive baptism, he does not have salvation. The only exception is the martyrs, who, even without water, will receive baptism, for the Savior calls martyrdom a baptism [Mark 10:38]. . . . Bearing your sins, you go down into the water; but the calling down of grace seals your soul and does not permit that you afterwards be swallowed up by the fearsome dragon. You go down dead in your sins, and you come up made alive in righteousness” (Catechetical Lectures 3:10, 12 [A.D. 350]).
Basil the Great
“For prisoners, baptism is ransom, forgiveness of debts, the death of sin, regeneration of the soul, a resplendent garment, an unbreakable seal, a chariot to heaven, a royal protector, a gift of adoption” (Sermons on Moral and Practical Subjects 13:5 [A.D. 379]).
Council of Constantinople I
“We believe . . . in one baptism for the remission of sins” (Nicene Creed [A.D. 381]).
Ambrose of Milan
“The Lord was baptized, not to be cleansed himself but to cleanse the waters, so that those waters, cleansed by the flesh of Christ which knew no sin, might have the power of baptism. Whoever comes, therefore, to the washing of Christ lays aside his sins” (Commentary on Luke 2:83 [A.D. 389]).
“It is an excellent thing that the Punic [North African] Christians call baptism salvation and the sacrament of Christ’s body nothing else than life. Whence does this derive, except from an ancient and, as I suppose, apostolic tradition, by which the churches of Christ hold inherently that without baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal? This is the witness of Scripture too” (Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:24:34 [A.D. 412]).
“The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration” (ibid., 2:27:43).
“Baptism washes away all, absolutely all, our sins, whether of deed, word, or thought, whether sins original or added, whether knowingly or unknowingly contracted” (Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 3:3:5 [A.D. 420]).
“This is the meaning of the great sacrament of baptism, which is celebrated among us: all who attain to this grace die thereby to sin—as he himself [Jesus] is said to have died to sin because he died in the flesh (that is, ‘in the likeness of sin’)—and they are thereby alive by being reborn in the baptismal font, just as he rose again from the sepulcher. . . . Infants die to original sin only; adults, to all those sins which they have added, through their evil living, to the burden they brought with them at birth” (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love 13 [A.D. 421]).
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