November 19, 2014.
The topic of baptism seems to be a topic of peculiar controversy amongst different denominations and continues to drive a wedge between many believers. It is interesting to me that we have been able to take a concept that is so simple (simple in practice, not in meaning) and argued about it to the point where it is a controversial and touchy issue. Sometimes I think theology ruins religion. Whereas they did have some arguments over baptism in the bible, they were nothing like the ones we have today. Actually, it would seem they were the exact opposite. Today we argue over its role in salvation, whereas the argument amongst the church at Corinth assumed its role. Due to the nature of this issue, I think it would be benefit from a study of the history of baptism in Christianity, as many may have heated arguments without even knowing its history. I’ll admit that I have done that in the past. I think though history, we can get a good picture of how it was understood throughout the ages and how we should look at it today.
Echoes of a Jewish purification.
Baptism, or rather the purification by washing, wasn’t an entirely new concept to the Jews when John the Baptizer came on the scene to prepare the way for Christ. In the Old Law, there are long passages written directing certain purification rituals that the priest and anyone who was considered unclean (such as if you touched a dead animal) would have to go through to become clean again. This is actually really interesting from an apologetic standpoint, as the water of purification made for a rudimentary soap mixture, with the abrasiveness to wash the body clean. One of the major passages that deals with this water of purification is found in Numbers 19.
“Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days. He shall cleanse himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean. But if he does not cleanse himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not become clean. Whoever touches a dead person, the body of anyone who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, he shall be unclean. His uncleanness is still on him.”
Whereas this was a ritual performed to become clean, it actually did physically clean the body (note this). But baptism, which was familiar (converts to Judaism were immersed in water) but still different in concept when John started preaching, for the baptism John preached as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
“John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
Jesus was baptized by John, though He had no sin, to fulfill all righteousness. This was a precursor to the baptism that Jesus and the apostolic writers proclaimed.
Baptism in the apostolic age and early church.
There really isn’t that much arguments amongst historians over what the early church taught about baptism. If you read through the book of acts without any theological bias, you read simply what the apostles taught and did. The first commission to go out baptizing comes in Matthew 28:
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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,teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
This is often referred to as the great commission. The first mention of baptism in Acts comes at the end of the first gospel sermon in Acts 2 as the audience that Peter is preaching to cries out “what shall we do?” Peter had just told them that they had crucified the Messiah they had for whom they had waited many decades, and they were cut to the heart.
“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
Following through the book of Acts there are several more examples of baptism, as far as we know all being in adulthood when people believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. A reading of the this book would clearly indicate that the early church taught baptism as part of salvation. Paul would go on to expound on baptism in Romans 6 and Colossians 2, detailing it as our burial with Christ, putting to death the old man of sin and raising anew in Christ, a new creation. For more on this, read “Repentance and baptism.”
Modes change, but meaning the same.
According to history, things continued along this same pattern until about the third century and fourth century. For any of you history buffs, you know that this is around the time that Christianity went from being persecuted by the Roman Empire to becoming the state religion. Along with this institutionalization of Christianity came drifting from the pure word that was given in the apostolic age to a more ritualistic and laid out way. This was the beginnings of the Catholic church, though the word Catholic simply means universal. There was a reorganization of the church leadership to form the rudiments of what we see today in the Catholic church, and baptism became more ritualistic in nature, at one point lasting a full week (culminating in the actual baptism). Delaying baptism until the death bed became a common practice. Though the ritual was taking place, baptism was still believed to be for the forgiveness of sins.
At first, adult baptism was what what practiced by the church, but over the years children began taking on this otherwise adult ritual and the concept of original sin (that states a child is born in sin, specifically the sin that has been passed down from the fall) began to develop. With this idea came infant baptism to get forgiveness of original sin, which began to displace the practice of delaying baptism. Eventually, the ritual became much simpler and was done very quickly.
Confusing times in the reformation.
As the church in the middle ages continued to grow more and more corrupt, Martin Luther sparked the protestant reformation in 1517. With this reformation came a split in unity, separating protestants and catholics. Those who followed Martin Luther, later known as Lutherans, made many changes in their theology, though style of worship probably didn’t change all that much. Baptism was kept as a sacrament, though Luther is confusing when he wrote about it. There were times that he said it was necessary for salvation and others where he implied it wasn’t. Infant baptism continued amongst Lutherans in a belief that it worked the forgiveness of sins. Though we call this the Protestant reformation, really the only churches that were formed in this age were the Lutheran church and sects of Calvinism.
Among the first group to dismiss infant baptism and stick firmly to the adult baptism that was founded in faith were the Anabaptists. Their ideology was that an infant was not able to express faith in Christ and thus the baptism meant nothing to the child as the child was sinless. For conversion, Anabaptists required baptism and discounted any baptism that was done outside of this. Many protestant groups that we see today in some way derive from the Anabaptists, or hold to these beliefs.
Present day beliefs.
Almost surprisingly, today it would seem that many protestants have gone the opposite way on baptism, believing it to be an outward sign of an inward faith and having little, if anything, to do with salvation or the forgiveness of sins. There are many denominational churches that feel strongly against baptism, not the act itself, but rather the idea that it is necessary for salvation. Other churches, such as the restoration churches (disciples of Christ/churches of Christ), amish and pentecostal churches hold to adult baptism as being necessary for salvation. Well, I guess I can’t say that for certain other than for my fellowship, but that’s what I found on the internet at least.
It is very interesting to me that the debate over what baptism does for the believer even exists today. Throughout history this was never an issue. There were issues over who baptized someone, leading to church status and pride, which Paul had to deal with in the Corinthian church. There were issues over who should be baptized, adults or children. There were issues over the mode of baptism, whether it had to be immersion or it could be done through pouring. But there never seemed to be an issue of whether or not it was for the forgiveness of sins. Rather, this idea was vital in the argument of infant baptism, because with the idea of original sin, babies needed to be baptized to cleanse this sin. It really wasn’t until, at the very earliest, 1517 that baptism for the forgiveness of sins was questioned, and even then the church leaders were confusing about it. The concept that baptism is an outward sign of an inward faith and is not essential for salvation is a relatively new concept that has only been around for about 300-400 years. Yet those against baptism for the forgiveness of sins are very adamant about it, citing Scripture from apostles who actually taught baptism.
I do not believe that we should take church history as authoritative scripture, but I do think we can learn a lot from it and we can see what the early Christians believed about certain issues that we may struggle with. To me, it is very hard to argue with 1500 years of Christians who believed that baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, especially when that is exactly said in the bible. It is hard for me to believe that Christians just had this concept wrong until the last 400 years when some people, who were obviously smarter than any who came before them, decided that baptism was not necessary for salvation due to the theology of faith only (for more on this, read “How do I become a Christian“).
If we are going to follow the example of New Testament Christians, would it not make since to simply believe what they believed? Has the word of God changed over the past 2,000 years? I hope this study on baptism has shed some light on the issue, and it is my prayer that one day we can all simply believe what is written and bring back the unity of the body of Christ.
Suggested Daily Reading: Numbers 19, Mark 1, Acts 2, Romans 6, Colossians 2, Titus 3.
The Lord guide you into wisdom.