The Scriptures give us some very plain, but hard to accept words about baptism and what is supposedly does. “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27), seems to be so true that we can literally say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
I don’t know about you, but I look at my own sin and think, “It sure does not feel I put on Christ and it is not I who live, but Him.” Then, I ask myself, am I reading the Scripture correctly?
Saint Paul further complicates matters:
[D]o you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts. (Rom 6:3-12)
How can any of us, living the way we do, accept such a teaching? Can we?
The Biblical teaching on baptism. Paul’s logic in Rom 6 is clear as to what baptism does:
- Christians who are baptized are literally joined to Jesus Christ’s death.
- Those who have literally died with Christ are likewise literally “raised from the dead” spiritually which enables us to “walk in newness in life.” In other words, baptized Christians now live a resurrected life.
- Slavery to sin is no longer the norm, but rather slavery to righteousness.
- Because of the preceding, we consider ourselves dead to sin and willingly do not “obey its lusts.”
In short, baptism both forgives literal sins and blesses our minds/souls to live righteously–so much so where sin borders on the unthinkable!
Why do we not take the Bible at its word? Protestant commentators such as John Piper likewise admit that taken on its face, Paul seems to even discount the possibility of sinning after being baptized. We see this also in early Christian sources, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, and early rigorist Christian movements (Monatism and Novationism).
In the earliest decades of Christianity, when persecution was seemingly the norm, the idea that people may commit adultery once or even remarry after death (which ironically Saint Paul explicitly allows for) significantly confused Christians. How can a baptized person do this? Should we even…let them back if they repent? This is how strong the belief was that Christians after baptism did not sin.
What happened? This may be up there with one of the grossest simplifications ever, but in short the Church dealt with rigorist heresies (deciding against them). Very shortly afterwards, Christianity became the state religion of more than one empire which ultimately lessened the mega-discipline of the early Church and watered down the concentration of serious-minded Christians.
To this day, a member of one’s congregation living in serious sin is not really a scandal anymore. Any one of us, likewise going through a trying period of sin, do not view such “backsliding” as particularly scandalous.
In fact, we have come to view the preceding as normal. And, perhaps it is–but the problem is that it has twisted the Biblical view of baptism beyond recognition. So much so, most people think baptism either does nothing or merely forgives sins once, but nothing else.
However, if we listen to the fathers (as well as the literal teaching of the Scriptures), we can see the preceding is wrong.
The Patritstic teaching on baptism. In short, the fathers appear to take for granted that baptism consisted of two things:
- A “wiping the slate of clean” moment where previous acts of sin are forgiven.
- An indwelling of the Spirit which enables us to live the life of Christ in a way we could not do so beforehand. In other words, baptism is a Spirit-driven purification of the mind and soul.
For adult converts, which is what most of the early writings on baptism were concerned with, both of the preceding criteria would be relevant. For infants, who only have original sin but no personal acts of sin, only the latter criteria is relevant.
I will parse some select passages from the fathers invoking specifically the second of the above criteria, specifically because it appears to have been forgotten today.
Our first witness is Saint Cyril of Jerusalem:
For since man is of twofold nature, soul and body, the purification also is twofold, the one incorporeal for the incorporeal part, and the other bodily for the body: the water cleanses the body, and the Spirit seals the soul; that we may draw near unto God, having our heart sprinkled by the Spirit, and our body washed with pure water…look for salvation by the power of the Holy Ghost: for without both you can not possibly be made perfect. (Cyril of Jerusalem, Cat. Lecture 3, On Baptism, Par 4)
As we can see, Cyril of Jerusalem asserts that the “purification” of baptism is that the Spirit “seals” the soul (Eph 1:13, 4:30) enabling us to “draw near unto God” without which we “cannot possibly be made perfect.” Hence, the Spirit gives us an “umph” to press on towards Godliness and perfection. In other words, baptism enables our continued sanctification and salvation.
Neither does he that is baptized with water, but not found worthy of the Spirit, receive the grace in perfection; nor if a man be virtuous in his deeds, but receive not the seal by water, shall he enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Cyril of Jerusalem, Cat. Lecture 3, On Baptism, Par 4)
We see that Cyril teaches that the cooperation of the will in its sanctification is necessary for it to press onwards towards “perfection.” In fact, the grace of baptism would be forfeited if one’s will did not coincide with the grace of God in the sacrament. This appears to be consistent with Saint Peter who wrote that “an antitype…now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God)” (1 Pet 3:21).
[S]o thou by going down into the water, and being in a manner buried in the waters, as He was in the rock, art raised again walking in newness of life. (Cyril of Jerusalem, Cat. Lecture 3, On Baptism, Par 12)
Cyril asserts that raising out of the waters of baptism enables “walking in newness of life” in the Christian. Hence, a continued doing, “walking,” is given to us by grace.
Moreover, when you have been deemed worthy of the grace, He then gives you strength to wrestle against the adverse powers…after you have received the grace and art henceforth confident in the armour of righteousness 2 Corinthians 6:7, must then do battle, and preach the Gospel, if you will. (Cyril of Jerusalem, Cat. Lecture 3, On Baptism, Par 13)
Here, Cyril says baptism give us “strength to wrestle against the adverse powers” to “do battle.” Clearly, the grace of baptism is not the mere forgiveness of past sins, but the continued sanctification of the mind and soul.
In the West, the same baptismal doctrine existed. Rufinus, in his Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed, speaks of the latter aspect of baptism laid out above:
For the Pagans are wont to ridicule us, saying that we deceive ourselves, fancying that crimes committed in deed can be purged by words. And they say,
Can he who has committed murder be no murderer, and he who has committed adultery be accounted no adulterer? How then shall one guilty of crimes of this sort all of a sudden be made holy?…For if it is plain, as I have shown, that crime consists not in the deed but in the will, as an evil will, prompted by an evil demon, has made me obnoxious to sin and death, so the will prompted by the good God, being changed to good, has restored me to innocence and life. It is the same also in all other crimes. In this way there is found to be no opposition between our faith and natural reason, while forgiveness of sins is imputed not to deeds, which when once done cannot be changed, but to the mind, which it is certain can be converted from bad to good. (Rufinus, Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed, Par 40)
As we can see, the Pagans criticize Christians by saying, “Your baptism does not rewrite history–your sins still really occurred.” To this Rufinus responds that baptism may not erase past deeds, but it changes “the will” which previously was “prompted by an evil demon” or in other words, inclined towards the passions. But, after baptism, it has now been “restored…to innocence and life.”
Rufinus is referencing Gen 3. Adam’s prelapsarian will was lost by the tempting of a demon so that henceforth he was inclined towards the passions and evil inclinations. However, baptism undoes this by changing “the mind…from bad to good.”
Rufinus does not go as far as to say the mind is restored completely to its state prior to the fall. Nevertheless, a dichotomy between Adam before and after the fall is being drawn in order to show a contrast between the state of the will before and after baptism. The utility of baptism is clearly portrayed as that it purifies the mind.
Now that we have covered Runinus, let’s move onto Chrysostom’s treatment of the topic when exegeting Rom 6:
But the remaining dead to sin after baptism must be the work of our own earnestness, however much we find God here also giving us large help. For this is not the only thing Baptism has the power to do, to obliterate our former transgressions; for it also secures against subsequent ones. As then in the case of the former, your contribution was faith that they might be obliterated, so also in those subsequent to this, show forth the change in your aims, that you may not defile yourself again. (Chrysostom, Homily 11 on Romans 6:5)
As we see in the preceding and elsewhere in Homily 11, almost all of his emphasis is on the idea that baptism purifies our mind and soul. He continues in this same vein elsewhere:
For if He does not die again, then there is no second laver, then do thou keep from all inclinableness to sin. (Chrysostom, Homily 11 on Romans 6:10)
First, Chrysostom concurs with the preceding writers in that not dying onto sins=no baptism. Hence, “keep[ing] from all inclinableness to sin” is accomplished by the grace of baptism. In other words, it purifies the mind and soul to do the work of God.
One may say I am reading Chrysostom out of context and inferring the wrong idea from him. The following should lay such a notion to rest:
For he that so lives will lay hold of every virtue, as having Jesus Himself for his ally…He came not to destroy our nature, but to set our free choice aright. Then to show that it is not through any force or necessity that we are held down by iniquity, but willingly, he does not say, let it not tyrannize, a word that would imply a necessity, but let it not reign. For it is absurd for those who are being conducted to the kingdom of heaven to have sin empress over them, and for those who are called to reign with Christ to choose to be the captives of sin…it is possible even for one with a mortal body not to sin. Do you see the abundancy of Christ’s grace? For Adam, though as yet he had not a mortal body, fell. But you, who hast received one even subject to death, can be crowned. How then, is it that
sin reigns? he says. It is not from any power of its own, but from your listlessness. (Chrysostom, Homily 11 on Romans 6:11-12)
As we can see, baptism “set[s] our free choice aright,” enabling us to continue in our sanctification. He calls it “absurd” that sin would any longer by “necessity…reign” over the baptized. In fact, “it is absurd” for those who are baptized “to have sin empress over them” and they are no longer “captives of sin.”
In fact, baptism enables Christlike living. So much so, “is is possible even for one with a mortal body not to sin.” This is how powerful Chrysostom viewed the grace of baptism.
How do baptized people then sin? Chrysostom says that “[i]t is not from any power of” sin’s “own, but from your listlessness.” In other words, sin comes from a willful turning away from God–as one’s inclinations have allegedly been set right in baptism.
It is this; that our body, before Christ’s coming, was an easy prey to the assaults of sin. For after death a great swarm of passions entered also. And for this cause it was not lightsome for running the race of virtue. For there was no Spirit present to assist, nor any baptism of power to mortify…But when Christ had come, the effort became afterwards more easy, and therefore we had a more distant goal set us, in that the assistance we had given us was greater… grace too which also remitted our former sins, and secures us against future ones. (Chrysostom, Homily 11 on Romans 6:14)
Before baptism “our body…was an easy prey to the assaults of sin” and “a great swarm of passions.” Why? “[T]here was no Spirit present to assist, nor any baptism of power to mortifiy” the flesh. Baptism makes “the effort” of living righteously “more easy…in that the assistance we had given us” by God to not sin “greater.”
Not only does baptism purify the mind and soul as we just see Chrysostom posit at length, but it “also remitted our former sins” not without securing “us against future ones.” From Chrysostom, we can see both criteria for what baptism “does” that I have laid above elucidated in the preceding passage.
To those who claim baptism does not give Christians supernatural powers to live righteously, Chrysostom responds incredulously:
For what would be the advantage, pray, of a king dressed in a purple robe and possessed of arms, but without a single subject, and exposed to all that had a mind to attack and insult him? In like manner it will be no advantage to a Christian to have faith, and the gift of baptism, and yet be open to all the passions. In that way the disgrace will be greater, and the shame more…I placed (He might say) all the passions in subjection to you by baptism. (Chrysostom, Homily 11 on Romans 6:18)
What advantage is it for “a Christian to have faith and the gift of baptism and yet be open to all the passions?” This is a rhetorical question that does not expect serious pondering. The answer is obvious: none.
The Christian is not open to all the passions as he was before baptism. This is an incredible teaching utterly inconsistent with how we view our sinful selves. According to Chrysostom, God Himself may rightly say, “I placed all the passions in subjection to you by baptism.”
Could Chrysostom be any clearer that baptism purifies the mind and enables it to turn away from passions that incline us towards acts of sin?
Conclusion. In the preceding, we see that the clear Biblical and Patristic teachings on baptism are that baptism both forgives sin and as well as gives us a supernatural “shot in the arm” to live with newness of life. If we find ourselves not doing this after baptism, it is not because baptism does not really do any of this, but our own “listlessness.” In other words, our own willful turning away from God is to blame.
From such willfulness is what we must repent from. We must doubt our own weak faith that does not feel like it is Christ Himself who lives in us. If one has been baptized into Christ, he has truely put on Christ.
Personally, I take comfort in the knowledge that when my son was baptized, though he had no personal sins, he greatly benefited from the sacrament.
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Baptism. NT. Matt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:16; John 3:3,5,16; Eph. chapter 4; Titus 3:5. Cf. 2 Peter baptism now saves.
Great quotes Scott.
Acts 2:38 says: “38 ‘You must repent,’ Peter answered, ‘and every one of you must be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
As you have ably shown Craig, the first effect of baptism is the forgiveness of sins, the second the gift of the Holy Spirit which enables us to resist sin and strenghtens us in developing the virtues, as St Peter encourages us in 2 Peter 1:5-9 “5 do your utmost to support your faith with goodness, goodness with understanding,
6 understanding with self-control, self-control with perseverance, perseverance with devotion,
7 devotion with kindness to the brothers, and kindness to the brothers with love.
8 The possession and growth of these qualities will prevent your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ from being ineffectual or unproductive.
9 But without them, a person is blind or short-sighted, forgetting how the sins of the past were washed away.”
It is when we fail in developing the virtues that we become ” blind or short-sighted, forgetting how the sins of the past were washed away.”
Good synopsis. The question now is, does the experience of most people in the Church actually validate the understanding of baptism presented? I would answer in the negative.
Why do we baptize infants?
Not disagreeing with your evaluation, But do we, in fact, see any kind of big moral transformation as a result of baptism (the shot in the arm)?
Of course, baptism is also an entering in of the baptized into a covenant whereby they are obligated to cultivate those virtues and follow the commandments of God
Our faith appears to tell us to deny our feelings 🙂
Thanks for the great write up! I don’t often comment here but I always enjoy reading your thoughts on Orthodoxy! I recently saw an old article of yours claiming that the Fathers (Tertullian in particular) did not hold to baptismal regeneration but held it was merely a seal of faith (and that it conveyed no grace or forgiveness). Has your reading of Tertullian changed along with your understanding of baptismal theology? Do you now read his words as a both/and with respect to regeneration/sealing? Just curious as someone who has wrestled with these issues as well!
This may not be a real satisfying answer and hopefully someone asks me on my web show, but in short I would have to look at the individual passages. I think I was overly zealous in the past to discount baptismal regeneration, strictly because i did not understand the Orthodox idea of a sacramental reality only being true by the cooperation of our will. So, in effect, faith makes the sacraments real. Ambrosiaster and Tertullian say some tough things. Interestingly, neither are saints, though to be fair to Ambrosiaster I did not have whole works of his but only snippets.
Pray for me, a sinner,
Thanks for your kind reply! I really appreciate the grace with which you answer these questions. On a related note, I was recently talking with a family member who is struggling with the traditional teaching that our salvation comes during our baptism (as a result of our faith). She doesn’t seem to buy the explanation that our faith is necessary for the sacramental reality (by the cooperation of our will). Rather she argues that we are saved the second we have faith and not the moment of our baptism (in other words, God does not use sacramental realities to convey grace precisely because he just does so immediately). How would an Orthodox Christian reply to this? In the Orthodox mind, is this a problem with trying to pin eternal things into a moment of time?
Just a biblical perspective on this:
Mark 16:16 “16 Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
Acts 2:38 “38 ‘You must repent,’ Peter answered, ‘and every one of you must be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
I never heard a satisfying answer to your question. In short, the Orthodox doctrine just reiterates the Biblical teaching. To get into hypotheticals that the Scripture does not (i.e. “wasn’t I saved when I had faith and this obvious spiritual experience before my literal baptism”) is sort of the undoing of Scripture for the sake of one’s own logic–which the Scriptures warn again: “Trust the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (Prov 3:5-6)
To try to give some sort of answer, it would be that we can only positively assert what is Biblical and normative. So, normatively, baptism saves–because this is what the Scriptures and Church have always taught. We are aware of exceptions. Baptism by blood and desire, for example, or spoken of by the saints. We have the thief on the cross in the Scriptures themselves, honestly, who we Orthodox hold has one of the chief saints. What we do not do is make exceptions into the rule. So, just because God *can* do it the extra-ordinary way, that does not mean that baptism is not the ordinary, normative means of grace.
For most Christians in history, baptized as infants in the Church, their salvation would have always been dependent upon their will faithfully cooperating with the grace of God given to them at the time of the sacrament. So, historically speaking, what is normative numerically is indeed normative.
To quote Jesus, to twist our teachings in order to meet the extra-ordinary experiences of a minority of people who have in effect made their experience a new tradition set on top of the Scriptures themselves, is to disregard the commandment of God and follow the tradition of man. (Mark 7:8)
Hope this helps–sort of.
What do you do with Cornelius then who was filled with the holy spirit before baptism. Also Jesus died before the thief on the cross did activating the new covenant. He wasn’t baptized either.
We would not consider these normative events. Orthodox believe that the Holy Spirit is bestowed in Chrismation normatively, but we believe that many have received the sacrament invisibly “by desire,” particularly martyrs.