Although Baptism is one of the most widespread practices shared amongst Christians, it is also one of the most controversial when it comes to the understandings and explanations given by different denominations. While all Christians agree that Baptism is an outward sign of one’s rebirth in Christ, there is a split in beliefs regarding what actually takes place in Baptism. The focal point of this obstacle resides in whether Baptism is solely an outward sign or if it is also a sacrament that points to the regeneration truly taking place within the baptized, namely by the washing away of original sin and the infusion of God’s Grace into the baptized so as to enable and aid the baptized person to live a holy life and grow through sanctification. This understanding of Baptism as a pouring out of grace onto the baptized without the baptized having done anything to have “earned” this grace underscores the popular practice of infant baptism that many denominations -including Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodists- hold in high esteem. Baptism, especially infant baptism, cannot be fully understood without first addressing the doctrine of original sin. The doctrine of original sin is that “in” Adam all have sinned. This parallels the doctrine of justification that “in” Christ all are righteous. Romans 5:12-19 says, “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin… Many died through one man’s trespass… For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation… Because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man… Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men… By one man’s disobedience many were made sinners.” Because of Adam’s sin, all men were made subject to sin and death. His sin did not just affect Adam personally; it affected all of human nature; as in Ephesians 2:3: “Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
However, we now see a new Adam in 1 Corinthians 15:21–22; “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” We are born with a fallen nature, a nature that is separated from God as a result of Adam’s sin. We have to be born again in Christ, to become a member of the body of Christ, to be saved. We are born of Adam’s body into condemnation. We are born of Christ’s body unto salvation.
In order to be born in Christ, we must be baptized as in John 3:3-5, Christ says, “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God… Unless one is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” When Christ spoke of “being born again,” he used the Greek word anothen, which means both again and from above. This echoes Ezekiel 36:25–26: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.” Paul reiterates Baptism’s cleansing of sins in Acts 22:16; “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his [the Lord’s] name.”
When a child is born, it is born into the flesh, but “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6) and “it is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail” (John 6:63). Therefore, in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, one must be “born anew” by water and Spirit, or in other words: one must be Baptized. When we are baptized we put on Christ (cf. Gal. 3:27). We are buried with him in baptism (Rom. 6:4). We become members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). We receive the Holy Spirit and a forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). We become a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).
Baptism is thus a necessary thing for the washing away of original sin and for joining us to the Body of Christ (1 Peter 3:21, Mark 16:16). Baptism is the Christian equivalent of circumcision, or “the circumcision of Christ”: “In him you were also circumcised with . . . the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:11–12). Thus, like circumcision, baptism can be given to children as well as adults. This is implied in the book of Acts where we see the apostolic Church baptize whole “households” (Acts 16:33; 1 Cor. 1:16), a term which encompasses children and infants. Peter had already said as much in Acts 2:38-39; “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children.” Luke 18:15–16 tells us that “they were bringing even infants” to Jesus; and he himself related this to the kingdom of God: “Let the children come to me . . . for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”
Because salvation is something Christ earned for us and not something we earned for ourselves, there is no reason for a parent to deny an infant the gift of washing away original sin, entering the Church, and becoming a member of the Body of Christ. To say that a child must wait until the age of reason, say the sinners prayer, and confess that Jesus is their savior implies that these actions and not Jesus’ work on the cross is what merits them salvation. The truth is salvation is a gift, bestowed on us by God’s grace alone through Baptism, which continues to work on us and through us throughout our lifetime if we respond to this grace with faith working through love.
The Historical Development of the Doctrine:
1 Cor. 1:16
1 Pet. 3:21
Church Father Quotes:
Irenaeus of Lyons
“He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men. Therefore he passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, sanctifying infants; a child for children, sanctifying those who are of that age . . . [so that] he might be the perfect teacher in all things, perfect not only in respect to the setting forth of truth, perfect also in respect to relative age” (Against Heresies 2:22:4 [A.D. 189]).
Hippolytus of Rome
“Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16 [A.D. 215]).
Origen of Alexandria
“Every soul that is born into flesh is soiled by the filth of wickedness and sin. . . . In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants. If there were nothing in infants which required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous” (Homilies on Leviticus 8:3 [A.D. 248]).
“The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit” (Commentaries on Romans 5:9 [A.D. 248]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born” (Letters 64:2 [A.D. 253]).
“If, in the case of the worst sinners and those who formerly sinned much against God, when afterwards they believe, the remission of their sins is granted and no one is held back from baptism and grace, how much more, then, should an infant not be held back, who, having but recently been born, has done no sin, except that, born of the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of that old death from his first being born. For this very reason does he [an infant] approach more easily to receive the remission of sins: because the sins forgiven him are not his own but those of another” (ibid., 64:5).
Gregory of Nazianz
“Do you have an infant child? Allow sin no opportunity; rather, let the infant be sanctified from childhood. From his most tender age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Do you fear the seal [of baptism] because of the weakness of nature? Oh, what a pusillanimous mother and of how little faith!” (Oration on Holy Baptism 40:7 [A.D. 388]).
“‘Well enough,’ some will say, ‘for those who ask for baptism, but what do you have to say about those who are still children, and aware neither of loss nor of grace? Shall we baptize them too?’ Certainly [I respond], if there is any pressing danger. Better that they be sanctified unaware, than that they depart unsealed and uninitiated” (ibid., 40:28).
“You see how many are the benefits of baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors [it bestows]! For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by [personal] sins, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be his [Christ’s] members” (Baptismal Catecheses in Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21 [A.D. 388]).
Augustine of Hippo
“What the universal Church holds, not as instituted [invented] by councils but as something always held, is most correctly believed to have been handed down by apostolic authority. Since others respond for children, so that the celebration of the sacrament may be complete for them, it is certainly availing to them for their consecration, because they themselves are not able to respond” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 4:24:31 [A.D. 400]).
“The custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded in any way as superfluous, nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 10:23:39 [A.D. 408]).
“Cyprian was not issuing a new decree but was keeping to the most solid belief of the Church in order to correct some who thought that infants ought not be baptized before the eighth day after their birth. . . . He agreed with certain of his fellow bishops that a child is able to be duly baptized as soon as he is born” (Letters 166:8:23 [A.D. 412]).
“By this grace baptized infants too are ingrafted into his [Christ’s] body, infants who certainly are not yet able to imitate anyone. Christ, in whom all are made alive . . . gives also the most hidden grace of his Spirit to believers, grace which he secretly infuses even into infants. . . . If anyone wonders why children born of the baptized should themselves be baptized, let him attend briefly to this. . . . The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration” (Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:9:10; 1:24:34; 2:27:43 [A.D. 412]).
Council of Carthage V
“Item: It seemed good that whenever there were not found reliable witnesses who could testify that without any doubt they [abandoned children] were baptized and when the children themselves were not, on account of their tender age, able to answer concerning the giving of the sacraments to them, all such children should be baptized without scruple, lest a hesitation should deprive them of the cleansing of the sacraments. This was urged by the [North African] legates, our brethren, since they redeem many such [abandoned children] from the barbarians” (Canon 7 [A.D. 401]).
Council of Mileum II
“[W]hoever says that infants fresh from their mothers’ wombs ought not to be baptized, or say that they are indeed baptized unto the remission of sins, but that they draw nothing of the original sin of Adam, which is expiated in the bath of regeneration . . . let him be anathema [excommunicated]. Since what the apostle [Paul] says, ‘Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so passed to all men, in whom all have sinned’ [Rom. 5:12], must not be understood otherwise than the Catholic Church spread everywhere has always understood it. For on account of this rule of faith even infants, who in themselves thus far have not been able to commit any sin, are therefore truly baptized unto the remission of sins, so that that which they have contracted from generation may be cleansed in them by regeneration” (Canon 3 [A.D. 416]).
The Shepherd of Hermas
“‘I have heard, sir,’ said I [to the Shepherd], ‘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]).
“As many as are persuaded and believe that what we [Christians] teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly . . . 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. For Christ also said, ‘Except you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:3]” (First Apology 61 [A.D. 151]).
Tertullian of Carthage
“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. So that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes—by taking them away from the water!” (Baptism 1 [A.D. 203]).
“Without baptism, salvation is attainable by none” (ibid., 12).
“We have, indeed, a second [baptismal] font which is one with the former [water baptism]: namely, that of blood, of which the Lord says: ‘I am to be baptized with a baptism’ [Luke 12:50], when he had already been baptized. He had come through water and blood, as John wrote [1 John 5:6], so that he might be baptized with water and glorified with blood. . . . This is the baptism which replaces that of the fountain, when it has not been received” (ibid., 16).
Hippolytus of Rome
“[P]erhaps someone will ask, ‘What does it conduce unto piety to be baptized?’ In the first place, that you may do what has seemed good to God; in the next place, being born again by water unto God so that you change your first birth, which was from concupiscence, and are able to attain salvation, which would otherwise be impossible. For thus the [prophet] has sworn to us: ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you are born again with living water, into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’” (Homilies11:26 [A.D. 217]).
Origen of Alexandria
“It is not possible to receive forgiveness of sins without baptism” (Exhortation to the Martyrs 30 [A.D. 235]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“[T]he baptism of public witness and of blood cannot profit a heretic unto salvation, because there is no salvation outside the Church.” (Letters 72:21 [A.D. 253]).
“[Catechumens who suffer martyrdom] are not deprived of the sacrament of baptism. Rather, they are baptized with the most glorious and greatest baptism of blood, concerning which the Lord said that he had another baptism with which he himself was to be baptized [Luke 12:50]” (ibid., 72:22).
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 the kingdom. . . . For the Savior calls martyrdom a baptism, saying, ‘Can you drink the cup which I drink and be baptized with the baptism with which I am to be baptized [Mark 10:38]?’” (Catechetical Lectures 3:10 [A.D. 350]).
“[Besides the baptisms associated with Moses, John, and Jesus] I know also a fourth baptism, that by martyrdom and blood, by which also Christ himself was baptized. This one is far more august than the others, since it cannot be defiled by later sins” (Oration on the Holy Lights 39:17 [A.D. 381]).
“It would tend to the ruin of our souls if, from our refusal of the saving font of baptism to those who seek it, any of them should depart this life and lose the kingdom and eternal life” (Letter to Himerius 3 [A.D. 385]).
“Do not be surprised that I call martyrdom a baptism, for here too the Spirit comes in great haste and there is the taking away of sins and a wonderful and marvelous cleansing of the soul, and just as those being baptized are washed in water, so too those being martyred are washed in their own blood” (Panegyric on St. Lucian 2 [A.D. 387]).
Ambrose of Milan
“But I hear you lamenting because he [the Emperor Valentinian] had not received the sacraments of baptism. Tell me, what else could we have, except the will to it, the asking for it? He too had just now this desire, and after he came into Italy it was begun, and a short time ago he signified that he wished to be baptized by me. Did he, then, not have the grace which he desired? Did he not have what he eagerly sought? Certainly, because he sought it, he received it” (Sympathy at the Death of Valentinian [A.D. 392]).
Augustine of Hippo
“There are three ways in which sins are forgiven: in baptism, in prayer, and in the greater humility of penance; yet God does not forgive sins except to the baptized” (Sermons to Catechumens on the Creed 7:15 [A.D. 395]).
“I do not hesitate to put the Catholic catechumen, burning with divine love, before a baptized heretic. Even within the Catholic Church herself we put the good catechumen ahead of the wicked baptized person” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 4:21:28 [A.D. 400]).
“That the place of baptism is sometimes supplied by suffering is supported by a substantial argument which the same blessed Cyprian draws from the circumstance of the thief, to whom, although not baptized, it was said, ‘Today you shall be with me in paradise’ [Luke 23:43]. Considering this over and over again, I find that not only suffering for the name of Christ can supply for that which is lacking by way of baptism, but even faith and conversion of heart [i.e., baptism of desire] if, perhaps, because of the circumstances of the time, recourse cannot be had to the celebration of the mystery of baptism” (ibid., 4:22:29).
“When we speak of within and without in relation to the Church, it is the position of the heart that we must consider, not that of the body. . . . All who are within [the Church] in heart are saved in the unity of the ark [by baptism of desire]” (ibid., 5:28:39).
“[According to] apostolic tradition . . . 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]).
“Those who, though they have not received the washing of regeneration, die for the confession of Christ—it avails them just as much for the forgiveness of their sins as if they had been washed in the sacred font of baptism. For he that said, ‘If anyone is not reborn of water and the Spirit, he will not enter the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5], made an exception for them in that other statement in which he says no less generally, ‘Whoever confesses me before men, I too will confess him before my Father, who is in heaven’ [Matt. 10:32]” (The City of God 13:7 [A.D. 419]).
Pope Leo I
“And because of the transgression of the first man, the whole stock of the human race was tainted; no one can be set free from the state of the old Adam save through Christ’s sacrament of baptism, in which there are no distinctions between the reborn, as the apostle [Paul] says, ‘For as many of you as were baptized in Christ did put on Christ; there is neither Jew nor Greek . . . ’ [Gal. 3:27–28]” (Letters 15:10 [A.D. 445]).
Fulgentius of Ruspe
“From that time at which our Savior said, ‘If anyone is not reborn of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5], no one can, without the sacrament of baptism, except those who, in the Catholic Church, without baptism, pour out their blood for Christ, receive the kingdom of heaven and life eternal” (The Rule of Faith 43 [A.D. 524]).
Martin Luther (1483-1546), Father of the Protestant Reformation & Founder of Lutheranism
“Baptism is no human plaything but is instituted by God himself. Moreover, it is solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we shall not be saved. We are not to regard it as an indifferent matter, then, like putting on a new red coat. It is of the greatest importance that we regard baptism as excellent, glorious, and exalted.” –Large Catechism 4:6
“Question: What gifts or benefits does baptism bestow? Answer: It works the forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the word and promise of God declare” (Short Catechism 4:2).
“[I]t is solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we shall not be saved. . . . To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men but by God himself. Although it is performed by men’s hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act. From this fact everyone can easily conclude that it is of much greater value than the work of any man or saint. . . . Therefore it is sheer wickedness and devilish blasphemy when our ‘new spirits’ [Anabaptists], in order to slander baptism, ignore God’s word and ordinance and consider nothing but the water drawn from the well and then babble, ‘How can a handful of water help the soul?’” (Long Catechism 4).
“Our know-it-alls, the ‘new spirits,’ assert that faith alone saves and that works and external things contribute nothing to this end. We answer: . . . Yes, it must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped and thus brought into the heart, just as the entire gospel is an external, oral proclamation. In short, whatever God effects in us he does through such external ordinances. . . . Hence it follows that whoever rejects baptism rejects God’s word, faith, and Christ, who directs us and binds us to baptism” (ibid.)
John Calvin, Protestant Reformer, Founder of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches
“But I reply, first of all, that infant baptism is not a recent introduction, nor are its origins traceable to the papal church. For I say that it has always been a holy ordinance observed in the Christian church. There is no doctor, however ancient, who does not attest that it has always been observed since the time of the apostles.
I wanted to touch on this point in passing for the sole reason of informing the simple that it is an impudent slander for these fanatics [the Anabaptists] to make others believe that this ancient practice is a recently forged superstition and to feign that it derives from the pope. For the whole ancient church held to infant baptism long before one ever knew about the papacy or had ever heard of the pope.
Besides, I do not ask antiquity to legitimate anything for us unless it is founded on the Word of God. I know that it is not human custom that gives authority to the sacrament, nor does its efficacy depend on how men regulate it. Let us come, therefore, to the true rule of God, of which we have spoken, that is to say, his Word, which alone ought to hold here.
Their view is that one ought to administer baptism only to those who request it, to those who have made a profession of faith and repented. And thus infant baptism is the invention of man, opposed to the word of God.
In order to prove this they cite the passage from Saint Matthew’s last chapter, where Jesus Christ says to his apostles,”Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” To which they add this sentence from the 16th chapter of Mark: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” That to them seems an invincible foundation.
… We see that our Lord acted the same way toward Abraham with regard to circumcision. For before he conferred this sign on him he received him into his covenant and instructed him in his Word.
But we must now note that when a man is received of God into the fellowship of the faithful, the promise of salvation which is given to him is not for him alone but also for his children. For it is said to him: “I am thy God, and the God of thy children after thee.” Therefore the man who has not been received into the covenant of God from his childhood is as a stranger to the church until such time as he is led into faith and repentance by the doctrine of salvation. But at the same time his posterity is also made a part of the family of the church. And for this reason infants of believers are baptized by virtue of this covenant, made with their fathers in their name and to their benefit. Herein, thus, lies the mistake of the poor Anabaptists. For since this doctrine must precede the sacrament, we do not resist it.” (John Calvin: Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines, trans., Benjamin Wirt Farley, 1982, pp. 44–47.)
Dale Moody, theologian & professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“A baptismal hymn in Titus 3:4–7 is thelocus classicus on baptism in relation to regeneration . . . Baptism in relation to the whole process of salvation brings further focus on the primacy of faith. Another baptismal hymn found in 1 Peter 3:18–22 does indeed declare that, after the antitype of Noah’s flood, ‘baptism now saves’” –The Word of Truth: A Summary of Christian Doctrine Based on Biblical Revelation, pg 466 (1981).
James McClendon Jr. (1924–2000), Anabaptist theologian
“How can some gallons of water (and some words) make outsiders insiders, beget anew, banish sin, merge our lives with the risen One’s life, transmit God’s Holy Spirit? How can any rite admit, or convert, or identify, or endue?. . . It will not be enough to point out that it is God and not the Christian assembly, God and not the candidate, who does these things, for while in Scripture the believer, the community, Christ, and the Spirit are all depicted as active agents in baptism, Scripture also speaks of the baptismal act itself as effectual (cf. Luke 3:16, 1 Cor. 1:14ff, Acts 2:38, with 1 Pet. 3:21)” –Systematic Theology: Doctrine, pg. 387 (1994)
George Raymond Beasley-Murray (1916-2000) Baptist scholar & Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Known for what became the standard work on Baptism in the New Testament
“The rite of baptism is not only God’s appointed way of his either bestowing or confirming the gift of the Holy Spirit (i.e., regeneration) and of our entering into the church of Christ, but it is also the means by which the new Christian testifies to having been born from above and converted to the Lord Jesus Christ” –Born Again: A Biblical and Theological Study of Regeneration, pg. 188 by Peter Toon
Howard Ervin (1915-2009) Pentecostal pastor & professor at Oral Roberts University
“As Noah and his family were saved through water, so baptism, as the fulfillment of the Noachian type, ‘now saves you’ [1 Pet. 3:21]. . . . The salvific event of baptism involves more than the baptismal confession of faith. It is through the resurrection that God’s saving power is extended to mankind. The convert’s baptismal confession is rendered efficacious through the resurrection of Jesus Christ ‘into whose death and resurrection we were baptized.’ Baptism is, therefore, more than an expression of ‘man’s repentance and/or faith to God’” (Conversion, Initiation and the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 157f).
R. C. Sproul (1939-2017), Reformed Presbyterian pastor & theologian
By the middle of the second century infant baptism “is spoken of as the universal practice of the church. It appears to be occurring everywhere.” -How Then Shall We Worship?: Biblical Principles to Guide Us Today (2013).
J.N.D. Kelly, early Church historian
“From the beginning baptism was the universally accepted rite of admission into the Church. . . . As regards its significance, it was always held to convey the remission of sins. . . . [It is that washing with] the living water which alone can cleanse penitents and which, being a baptism with the Holy Spirit, is to be contrasted with Jewish washings. It is a spiritual rite replacing circumcision, the unique doorway to the remission of sins.” –Early Christian Doctrines