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For the Remission of Sins November 5, 2006

Posted by Seraphim in Baptism.

But you will perhaps say, “What does the baptism of water contribute toward the worship of God?” In the first place, because that which has pleased God is fulfilled. In the second place, because when you are regenerated and born again of water and of God, the frailty of your former birth, which you have through men, is cut off, and so …you shall be able to attain salvation; but otherwise it is impossible. For thus has the true Prophet [Jesus] testified to us with an oath.
-From the Recognitions of Clement, c. A.D. 221

Christ is in our midst!

There is perhaps no more vital and yet divisive issue amongst the Biblical faiths today than baptism. How should we baptize? Why should we baptize? What is baptism? Who should be baptized?

It is first important to define baptism. The word itself comes from Greek baptizo, which means “to immerse,” or “to dunk repeatedly.” This is distinct from the Greek bapto, which means “to dip,” in a fascinating and nuanced manner: bapto implies a temporary state of being dipped, which will eventually pass away and return the object to its original state. When baptizo is used, however, it is understood that the immersion causes the object to undergo a permanent change of substance.

Etymologically and traditionally, within the context of the Church, baptism is a reference to the three-fold immersion of the body in water (in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) as the signal act that brings a new believer into the Church. The act has powerful sacramental symbolism, representing washing, death, rebirth, transfiguration, and plunging into the Spirit.

Many Protestants today affirm baptism as a sort of vestigial, symbolic expression of faith with no more grace inherent in it than lifting up the hands while praying or any such thing. They deny it has any role in salvation as such, and relegate it to the adult faithful who wish to undergo a rite to make their belief public, if you will. However, baptism has from the earliest times of the Church been administered for remission of sins and as an essential component in salvation. Moreover, infant baptism has from earliest times been practiced within the Church.

Let us begin with Scripture to test this thesis. Perhaps the best place to start is with the example of Christ Himself, in the third chapter of Matthew:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Conclusions we may draw from this passage:

-Baptism is for all, from the lowliest to the greatest.
-Baptism is righteous, and is an integral part of a righteous life.
-Baptism pleases God greatly.
-Christ insisted it was necessary He be baptized. This is not a point to be missed.
-If we take this symbologically, or even literally, extrapolating the same result for us in baptism as with Christ, the Spirit of God descends on us when we are baptized. This is a bold claim for those who believe baptism is an empty act ineffecacious for salvation; but, as we shall presently see, baptism is an ordinance of God for the working of the gospel.

Let us now turn to the fourth chapter of Ephesians.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

This is a wonderful, wonderful excerpt with far-reaching implications for almost every aspect of its thoughts. It’s practically a microcosm of the Nicene Creed! There is one body, the Church (incidentally, as the implication of the body is that it’s physical, this is a good point for those who believe the Church is not a physically recognizable group), animated by one Holy Spirit; one Lord, Jesus Christ, one God, the Father Almighty, one faith, in the mercy of God and the resurrection of the age to come… and most notably, one baptism.

This declares that baptism is an unchanging sacrament, an item of belief within the confession of the Church, and an article of faith. Participation in baptism is here put on the same level as participation in the life of Christ, the service of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. No faithful man truly honest with himself could possibly deny any more the importance, necessity, and efficacy of baptism from this passage alone. However, for those who yet doubt, let us proceed to further evidence of the saving grace transmitted in the sacrament of baptism, as recounted in the sixth chapter of Romans:

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.

St. Paul gives the truth of the matter to us very directly. Baptism, the sacred immersion into water, is immersion (baptizo) into the death of Christ, that we, spiritually partaking of Christ’s death, might also be gifted with the life with which Christ was rewarded… because, just as Christ’s death broke the curse of sin on mankind, our death and rebirth in baptism breaks the curse of sin on us. Baptism is the death of sin and the birth of life everlasting, very simply, very Scripturally!

By now, we’re beating a dead horse, but I wish to run through all the relevant Scriptures, that even those who do not wish to believe may be convinced by the Truth of the word which God has handed to us from generation to generation. Let us turn to 1 Peter’s third chapter:

Once, the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.

The key word to understanding this is “antitype,” antitupon in the Greek. It defines a relationship that is concrete, though indirect. It’s used only in one other place in the Bible, in Hebrews, mentioning that the Holy of Holies was a prefigure of Heaven. As Noah was saved through water, which bore him up through the judgment that destroyed other men and deposited him in a new land, so baptism bears us through the judgment of souls and deposits us in Heaven. It is very important to clearly understand what this verse says: Baptism saves us.

Now, those who argue against the necessity of baptism point to where St. Peter footnotes his statement by saying baptism is “not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God.” Context is key here. The rest of the verse is very clearly talking about baptism as a physical act. From this, and from the other verses which proclaim the necessity of baptism, we can therefore see that our salvation lies not in the physical cleanliness baptism brings, but in the spiritual renewal accompanying it. We can dip ourselves in water every day of our lives and be no closer to salvation. It is the sacramental, spiritual power accompanying the physical act of baptism which makes us pure, enabled by a mind free of animosity toward God.

Having by now a solid understanding of baptism (particularly from the type presented in 1 Peter), let us now consider the third chapter of John:

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

The Faith is one, the Truth unchanging, God’s word the same from age to age! This is exactly the same message later spoken by Peter, whom we have just read. As Peter said, baptism is the salvation of water; yet it is not the water which saves, but rather, the grace of God transmitted through the water. And yet, emphasizing the necessity of the sacrament, Christ notes that it is neither water, nor Spirit, that enables us to see God’s kingdom, but both in one, enlightening act of rebirth.

We’ve just read that baptism saves us. Still, we have a few passages yet to consider. We shall now consider the second chapter of Colossians:

In Him [Christ] you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses.

Baptism is equated to “the circumcision made without hands,” the “putting off of the body of the sins of the flesh,” and burial in Christ. This precisely follows Orthodox belief. Just as circumcision enabled a man to partake of the old covenant of God, and made him a part of Israel, God’s people, so baptism enables men to partake of the new covenant of God, and brings him into God’s people, new Israel, the Church. And, as the Church operates on the principle of forgiveness of sins and life everlasting in Christ, so baptism enables our participation in the same.

Note very specifically that Paul takes baptism as the new circumcision. Circumcision was administered to those adults who adopted the Jewish faith, and to all children born into that faith. That baptism is the New Covenant type of this ancient practice is a strong, if not irrefutable, argument in favour of infant baptism.

Let’s follow that thought up with a passage from the third chapter of Galatians:

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

If we are baptized into Christ, we wear Christ like a garment, a robe of dazzling white wool from the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Is this beautiful imagery not a wonderful illustration of how baptism shields and cleanses us from sin? The passage goes on to emphasize the unity of the faith; something which, I feel, implies (at least) the Orthodox commonality of belief and practice. Note the unity which baptism brings; one might equally well say there is neither cripple nor leper, neither young nor old, in Christ. The unity and universality of baptism is another powerful argument in favour of infant baptism, since one would hardly, for example, expect a mentally deficient person to be damned simply because he could not be baptized. Similarly, infants too can partake of the saving power of baptism.

What truly gives “punch” to this passage, however, is that we are of the seed of Abraham when we are baptized. What were Abraham’s people marked by? Circumcision. And thus, in line with what we just read from Colossians, baptism is the new circumcision which ensures our inheritance in the blessing of Abraham! This, too, is a strong mark in favour of infant baptism, since the way Abraham signaled Isaac’s inheritance of the covenant was by circumcising him when he was born.

We now turn to the third chapter of Titus for deeper wisdom and understanding (it’s interesting how many of these passages are in the third chapters of their books, is it not?):

For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.

He saved us through the washing of regeneration. That’s pretty black-and-white. It’s a clear reference to baptism, and a clear statement that baptism spiritually regenerates us.
What I love about this passage is that it distinguishes baptism from “works of righteousness” in a more general sense. God’s grace saves us, through faith… but keeping the commandments and ordinances of God is inherent in that faith. Baptism is a work… but it is a work of faith, sanctified and made into righteousness by the good will of God. The error of so many who preach sola fide is that declare the necessity of spiritual righteousness without preaching physical righteousness, when in fact the two are one and the same. Orthodox Christians are sola fide in the truest, fullest sense of the term, living by faith because they act by faith.

We’re almost done with our Scriptural exegesis. Now for a passage from the sixteenth chapter of Mark:

Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

Christ appears to the Apostles after their resurrection and orders them to go forth and preach the Gospel, proclaiming the efficacy of baptism with His own sanctified, transfigured lips: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Christ, earlier in His ministry, said that belief in absence of action is insufficient; the devils believe, but they fail to do. He again illustrates that principle in this passage; true baptism and true belief begets true salvation.

A common argument raised against this passage is that Christ does not explicitly state that the unbaptized will be damned. This is an extremely weak argument which completely ignores Christ’s explicit statement that baptism and belief are necessary for salvation, and hence the implicit statement that one lacking baptism lacks salvation. Saying that one surely knows Christ’s motives for omitting an explicit statement to that effect is an exercise in arrogance and, as it promotes the debater as precisely knowing the mind of God, deserves nothing but contempt. Christ could very easily have omitted such a thought for the reason that it’s already implicit in the rest of the statement, or perhaps for reasons of the “baptism of desire,” i.e., that those who wish to be baptized but die before they are able are saved by the mercy of God.

Next, let’s proceed to Paul’s own story of his conversion, in the twenty-second chapter of Acts:

“For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”

Paul, on the way to Damascus, was struck blind by the glory of God. He saw Christ in glory, believed in His identity, and was faithful to what He commanded (asking Christ what he should do, and being commanded to go to Damascus). I would venture that the average Protestant who could say, “I believe in Christ the Saviour, I keep His commandments, and heck, I’ve even seen Him in glory” would certainly consider himself “saved,” no? Ahh, but what is Paul told in the house of Ananias? “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins.” It could not possibly be more clear that baptism is efficacious for the purification of sin.

I’ve saved one of the “smoking guns” until almost the end. Let’s read from the second chapter of Acts:

“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers… And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.

Now, this is where the fire meets the flesh. St. Peter states, outright, bluntly, that baptism is for the remission of sins, and a requirement to be a follower of Christ Jesus. There is quite simply no wriggling around this passage. If you believe in the truth of Scripture, then you must correspondingly believe that baptism is for the remission of sins.

This passage is also interesting for a couple of other reasons. First, on the topic of infant baptism, note that St. Peter says that baptism for the remission of sins is a promise to the multitudes and to the children of the multitudes. That day at Pentecost, there were surely dozens and dozens of families who came to Christ. Peter didn’t say, “Let every one of you be baptized… but come back in ten years if you’re on the young side.” Christ Himself said, “let the little children come to Me.” Baptism was a sacrament universally administered.

The other point of note is that the Church is defined as those who, after baptism, followed the teaching of the apostles, praying, and partaking of the Eucharist (the breaking of bread). This was during times far before the New Testament, clearly establishing that the Apostolic, oral doctrine was a crucial and integral part of the Church. Now, this might seem like plain common sense, but most Protestants (and even some Catholics) blanch when the Early Fathers write about what this Apostolic doctrine consisted of, since it so dramatically contradicts the safe, individualistic, semi-Gnostic house of cards on which they’ve built their praxis.

Last, but not least, let us again attend to the words of Christ, in the twenty-eighth chapter of Matthew:

Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

This is known as the Great Commission. The evangelical nature of Christianity stems from this command of Christ. And what are His orders? To go forth to all nations and bring the peoples thereof to obedience of Christ. What are the two things He commands them to do, to make this possible?

1. He commands them to teach observance of His commandments. This is a crippling blow to sola fide in the Protestant sense. Christ doesn’t say, “tell all nations to believe in Me;” He says, rather, “tell all nations to observe the commandments.”

2. He commands baptism. Again, this highlights the extreme importance baptism is given in the New Testament. He makes it a specific part of the charge which He gives His disciples.

Thus we see, from the whole of Scripture, a pattern emerges of the most fundamental Christian practice–baptism–and it is starkly in contrast to the belief of many today who call themselves “Christian.” The baptism of the new testament is for all people of all ages, for the remission of sins, and is non-negotiable; if you wish to be a member of the Church, if you wish to rest within the ark of salvation, you must be baptized.

Now, since the Apostolic doctrine is still fresh in our minds, let us briefly see what the Early Fathers had to say about baptism. If, as it is written, baptism is a necessity, and for the remission of sins, we would expect to see it in early Christian practice. Let’s take a cross-section of, oh, the first two hundred years of Christianity, beginning in about 70 A.D. with the Epistle of Barnabas:

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.

Step down into the water with sin, and emerge from our immersion bearing spiritual fruit. That seems consistent enough with Scripture…

Next, The Shepherd of Hermas, late first century:

They had need [the Shepherd said] to come up through the water, so that they might be made alive; for they could not otherwise enter into the kingdom of God, except by putting away the mortality of their former life. These also, then, who had fallen asleep, received the seal of the Son of God, and entered into the kingdom of God. For, [he said,] before a man bears the name of the Son of God, he is dead. But when he receives the seal, he puts mortality aside and again receives life. The seal, therefore, is the water. They go down into the water dead [in sin], and come out of it alive.

Baptism for the remission of sins. Hard to get clearer than that.

Justin Martyr’s First Apologia, c. 150 A.D.:

Whoever is convinced and believes that what they are taught and told by us is the truth, and professes to be able to live accordingly, is 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 there 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 with water. For Christ said, “Unless you be reborn, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” …The reason for doing this, we have learned from the Apostles.

Again, baptism for the remission of sins, as a precondition of entry into the Kingdom of Heaven, and as the doctrine taught by the Apostles.

St. Ireneaus, Fragment 34, c. 190 A.D.:

“And [Naaman] dipped himself…seven times in the Jordan” [2 Kings 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared: “Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

The good Saint draws an interesting antitype of Naaman’s healing… and again, passes on the Apostolic doctrine, the Truth that Christ declared.
Now, to briefly answer a few common objections to the Orthodox doctrine of baptism:

“Baptism is an outward symbol of an inward reality; it has no power in and of itself.”

I reply: This is nowhere conclusively stated in the Bible. Baptism’s necessity is conclusively stated, but its purported symbological purpose is at best implied, based on selective interpretation of verses.

“Well, what about the thief on the cross? HE wasn’t baptized!”

This is a shoddy argument for the simple reason that there’s no way of conclusively knowing whether or not the thief was baptized. He could well have been baptized by John or by one of the disciples earlier in life before slipping into a life of sin. Alternatively, it could be a case of “baptism by desire” or some such. St. Cyril of Jerusalem makes reference to an Apostolic teaching that martyrdom is a baptism in blood.

“Salvation is by faith alone, so baptism can’t possibly be essential to salvation.”

Quote me a Bible verse where it’s said salvation is by faith alone.

I realize that’s a bit of a glib answer, so I’ll reply more fully by saying: We are saved by faith, but faith is manifested in action. Let me quote Paul in the sixth chapter of Romans:

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness.

In other words, as Christians, we are slaves to God’s righteousness, and must do His will. Obeying from the heart the doctrine which we received… that is faith. Or, in the words of Christ, “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” Therefore, salvation is by faith, because faith involves baptism as part of obedience to God. What is faith if not obedience?
“Paul said, ‘Christ sent me not to baptize.’ [1 Corinthians 1:17]”

The passage does, however, state that everyone got baptized, and it nowhere states that baptism is unnecessary; merely that Paul’s role was more as a preacher (preceding baptism) than as an administrator of the sacraments. It provides no evidence against the necessity of baptism except in the most speculative sense.
“But Matthew 3:11-12 says: ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'”

Obviously not necessarily a direct interpretation, since we don’t start flaming when we believe God. I would simply state that the baptism of Christ permits the Holy Spirit to abide in us. St. John’s baptism, while certainly a good thing, was incomplete without the sacrifice of Christ.

“What about Acts 10:44-48?”

Quoted here for reference:

While Peter was still speaking… Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.

Such an incidence is never repeated in Scripture, and, given the context of the passage, appears to be a one-time incident to demonstrate to the Christians (up until that point Jewish) that Christ’s saving power was for all men. Note that, even with the Holy Spirit, they still had to be baptized.

In short: Baptism now saves us. May we all be baptized unto the remission of our sins and immerse ourselves in the Truth that saves and the Light that brings life.

In Joy,