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published: 12/9/05
updated: 1/11/13

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Christian Baptism



What is Baptism?

baptism

Baptism is one of the two most important sacraments in Christianity. At its most basic, it involves application of or immersion in water, a blessing, and the pronouncement, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." Some Christian denominations baptize both infants and adults, but others believe that baptism is only rightly performed on adults.

Views of baptism vary, but common views of the rituals include: it grants or symbolizes salvation, commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, fulfills the command of Christ to baptize, cleanses away sins, confers grace, and publicly expresses one's faith.

The following article provides an overview of baptism in Christian scriptures, views of various churches on the meaning of baptism, and various practices related to Christian baptism.




Baptism in Judaism and the Old Testament

The first person to conduct a baptism in the New Testament is John the Baptist. According to the Gospel narratives, John was conducting a ministry of baptism for repentance when Jesus asked to be baptized by him. Even in the New Testament, therefore, it is clear that a baptism ritual existed in Judaism prior to its adoption by Christianity.

Baptism in Christianity and the New Testament

The ritual of baptism is mentioned throughout the New Testament in various contexts. It appears in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the writings of the Apostle Paul and other books.

Matthew 28:19 is the only recorded direct command of Jesus regarding baptism, and its authenticity has been disputed by some scholars. Mark 16:16 belongs to the spurious appendix of the Gospel and is itself dependent upon Matthew 28:19. However, Christians have clearly practiced baptism since a very early date, which strongly suggests that they believed it to be the will of their Lord. {1}

An explicit reference to baptism "in the name of the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit" is occurs only in Matthew 28:19, and outside of the New Testament only in Didache (7.1) and Justin's Apology (1.61). Elsewhere in the Bible and early Christian writings, baptism is in the name of Jesus only. This is in part the basis for doubting Matthew 28:19. {2}

In the writings of Paul, baptism secures purification from sins, the putting off of the sinful body of the flesh, mortification of sin, renewal of life, regeneration, the power of the Holy Spirit, communion with the life of Christ, incorporation into the mystical body of Christ, the Church. {3}

Throughout the New Testament, baptism appears to be represented as the means for obtaining real objective effects, with God as their cause, not just as a symbolic act. Baptism was usually performed immediately after the recognition of the Messiahship of Jesus and the decision to join the Messianic congregation without further preparation. {4}

New Testament references to baptism occur in the following verses: Matthew 28:19; Mark 1:8; John 3:5, 13:10; Acts 1:5, 2:38, 8:16, 19:5; Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27; Eph. 4:5; I Cor. 1:13-15; I Pet. 3:21; Heb. 10:22; 6:2.

Infant Baptism vs. "Believer's Baptism"

Infant baptism is practiced in most of the major Christian denominations, including Catholic, Orthodox, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Lutheran churches. For these churches, infant baptism is seen as a ceremony inducting the newborn into the community of faith and indicating the community's commitment to raise him or her to be a faithful Christian. In the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that it washes away original sin, thereby ensuring salvation if the child died. This belief is still held in some Christian churches, but is no longer a major emphasis.

The Catholic Catechism emphasizes that infant baptism is only the beginning of a child's Christian life and salvation:

Where infant Baptism has become the form in which this sacrament is usually celebrated, it has become a single act encapsulating the preparatory stages of Christian initiation in a very abridged way. By its very nature infant Baptism requires a post-baptismal catechumenate. Not only is there a need for instruction after Baptism, but also for the necessary flowering of baptismal grace in personal growth. The catechism has its proper place here. {5}
John baptizing Jesus

Infant baptism in Methodist churches is based on on the distinctive Methodist emphasis on prevenient grace:

Infant baptism rests firmly on the understanding that God prepares the way of faith before we request or even know that we need help (prevenient grace). The sacrament is a powerful expression of the reality that all persons come before God as no more than helpless infants, unable to do anything to save ourselves, dependent upon the grace of our loving God. {6}

Infant baptism is rejected by Baptists (which is how they got their name) and most evangelical Christians. Taking baptism in the Bible as a model, and reasoning from the Protestant emphasis on justification by faith alone, these Christians believe that baptism can only be meaningful and effective if undertaken by someone old enough to understand and assent to the sacrament. This is referred to as "believer's baptism," and is usually done by full immersion in water.

The American Baptist Church, for example, declares: "We insist that baptism be administered only to those who have the maturity to understand its profound significance: resurrection to new life in Christ. And we follow the biblical example set by Christ when we fully immerse in water, a beautiful symbolic statement of that new life." {7}

The Godfather and Godmother

In those churches that practice infant baptism, there are usually family members or friends that take on the role of godfather or godmother to the baptized child. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes their role this way:

For the grace of Baptism to unfold, the parents' help is important. So too is the role of the godfather and godmother, who must be firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized - child or adult on the road of Christian life. Their task is a truly ecclesial function. The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism. {8}

Baptism and the Christian Life

Despite the strong link between baptism and both salvation and Christian initiation, most Christians regard baptism as being in some way an ongoing event throughout one's Christian life. In the Catholic Church, baptism is seen as the source "from which the entire Christian life springs forth." To illustrate this, baptized persons renew their baptismal promises every year at the Easter Vigil. {9}

Luther also saw baptism as an ongoing event in the life of a believer: "[Baptism] means that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance, and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, in turn, a new person daily come forth and rise from death again. He will live forever before God in righteousness and purity." {10}

Emergency Baptism

The Catholic Church prescribes that in case of emergency any person, even someone not baptized, can baptize, if he or she has the required intention. The baptizer is to say: "[Name], I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," while pouring water three times on the head. The sign of the cross is then made over the recipient. The omission of the name or the sign of the cross and the addition of "Amen" at the end have no effect on the validity of the sacrament. The validity of baptism is doubtful if impure water is used. In such a case, the sacrament should be repeated conditionally with certainly valid water as soon as possible if the emergency persists.

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References and Sources
  1. "Baptism." New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I, p. 435 <http://www.ccel.org/php/disp.php?authorID=schaff&bookID=encyc01&page=435&view=thml>
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid, p. 436; Rom. 6:1-11; Col. 2:11-12; Gal. 3:26, 27; I Cor. 12:13; 6:11; Eph. 5:26; Tit. 3:5.
  4. Acts 2:41; 8:38; 9:18; 10:33-48; 16:33.
  5. Catechism of the Catholic Church on Baptism. <http://www.christusrex.org/www1/CDHN/baptism.html>
  6. By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism - Official foundation document on baptism in the UMC.
  7. "We are Guided by God's Word" - ABC Official Website
  8. CCC 1255.
  9. CCC 1254.
  10. Luther's Small Catechism – Baptism <http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/little.book/web/book-4.html>