Nearly two-thousand years ago, at least six different New Covenant writers composed eleven books that include descriptions of several different kinds of baptisms.
These writers wrote from a first century Jewish culture that performed diverse purifications that may be called baptisms. Most Christians today are not familiar with that Jewish culture.
The New Covenant writers lived in a region awash with different cultures and at least four distinctive languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin.
The surviving primary documents are in a language called today "Koine Greek," which is markedly different from modern Greek.
To compound the story further, these writers used the Greek verb for baptize more than eighty times, and two nouns for baptism more than twenty times.
In short, the current confusion about baptism is not entirely surprising.
Moreover, a major element today that perpetuates the confusion is the practice by long-established Christian confessions of defending traditional teachings handed down to them.
This makes it difficult to face subtle, though crucial questions that challenge their views.
The result: in place of the loving unity of "one baptism" we find the modern Christian world divided into camps, even when there is agreement on other basic tenets of the faith.
If we really seek to improve our understanding of these subjects then it is imperative to evaluate New Covenant Scriptures from a Jewish mind-set of late second temple days. We must rightly appreciate the mind-set from which the Scriptures flowed.
This is only natural since the Jewish Apostle Paul informed gentile Roman believers that they, by faith, had been grafted in, contrary to nature, to a cultivated Jewish Olive Tree, Romans 11:17-24.
But in light of subsequent history it is no exaggeration to say that for many centuries Christian authorities refused to acknowledge dependence on this Jewish Tree, leading to the loss of a Jewish approach to Scriptures, which in turn led to all kinds of error.
Recent decades have seen more readiness for dialogue than conflict between differing Christian confessions.
Nevertheless, even a hopeful declaration published March 29, 1994 reveals major abiding disagreements, including over the meaning of baptism.
"...We do not presume to suggest that we can resolve the deep and long standing differences between Evangelicals and Catholics. Indeed these differences may never be resolved short of the Kingdom Come. Nonetheless, we are not permitted simply to resign ourselves to differences that divide us from one another....
"Among points of difference in doctrine, worship, practice, and piety that are frequently thought to divide us are these:...
"Baptism as sacrament of regeneration, or (baptism as a) testimony to regeneration.
"...Moreover, among those recognized as Evangelical Protestants there are significant differences between, for example, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Calvinists on these questions. But the differences mentioned above reflect disputes that are deep and long standing. In at least some instances, they reflect authentic disagreements that have been in the past and are at present barriers to full communion between Christians....
"Repentance and amendment of life do not dissolve remaining differences between us. In the context of evangelization and 'reevangelization,' we encounter a major difference in our understanding of the relationship between baptism and the new birth in Christ. For Catholics, all who are validly baptized [including infants] are born again and are truly, however imperfectly, in communion with Christ. That baptismal grace is to be continuingly reawakened and revivified through conversion. For most Evangelicals, but not all, the experience of conversion is to be followed by baptism as a sign of new birth. For Catholics, all the baptized are already members of the church, however dormant their faith and life; for many Evangelicals, the new birth requires baptismal initiation into the community of the born again. These differing beliefs about the relationship between baptism, new birth, and membership in the church should be honestly presented to the Christian who has undergone conversion. But again, his decision regarding communal allegiance and participation must be assiduously respected."
While the generous intent behind the document above is commendable, there is no ease of conscience over unity at the expense of doctrinal compromise.
In fact the document itself is no attempt at compromise, or exposition, but merely the laying out of differences.
The follow is a brief survey of a number of prevalent views about baptism among Christians. More details can often be found online for those interested.
The Council of Florence states in part:
"Holy Baptism holds the first place among the sacraments, because it is the door of the spiritual life; for by it we are made members of Christ and incorporated with the Church."
"The effect of this sacrament is the remission of all sin, original and actual; likewise of all punishment which is due for sin."
Roman Catholics believe the accepted forms of baptismal ablution are immersion, infusion (pouring), and aspersion (sprinkling).
Roman Catholics believe the water for baptism should first be made holy by the blessing of a priest. The water, thus supposed permeated of the Holy Spirit, is ready for use in the Roman Catholic sacrament of baptism.
Roman Catholics believe that a valid act of water baptism de facto confers "Spirit Baptism" according to the dogma of ex opere operato.
The supposed Spirit Baptism in the water baptism thus regenerates, and is the reason the Roman Catholic Church practices baptism of infants (also called paedo-baptism).
Eastern Orthodox Churches do baptize infants, but disagree with Roman Catholicism about baptismal regeneration of infants. They nevertheless profess a creed of one water baptism that cleanses from sins.
"In contrast to a common Protestant viewpoint, baptism is more than just a symbolic act of burial and resurrection, but an actual supernatural transformation. Baptism is believed to impart cleansing (remission) of sins and union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection."
Eastern Orthodox churches also perform water baptism by triple immersion, including infants, and doubt the efficacy of other modes.
Nevertheless, a news report that I read in Israel some years ago recounted the "baptism" of Orthodox congregants in the flooding and dangerous Jordan river. The priest pronounced a blessing on his crucifix and threw it into the river in place of the congregants. They were thus baptized.
Among many Presbyterian and Reform churches water baptism is held to be a sacrament that "signifies" many things, including the washing away of sin, rebirth, and being sealed by God's Spirit. But they reject the view of Roman Catholicism and other like Churches that water baptism effectively bestows those divine benefits during the rite.
They nevertheless often attempt to justify water baptism from an entirely different direction, as the following example shows:
"The outward sign that one belonged to the redeemed community in the Old Testament was circumcision; the outward sign that one belonged to the redeemed community in the New Testament was baptism. The covenant is the same, the meaning of the sign of the covenant is the same; it follows that, in the absence of Scriptural instruction to the contrary, the application of the sign of the covenant is the same."
Here there is no sacrament of regeneration, but rather supposedly there is community covenantal identification. Parents are thus responsible to ensure children and infants are water baptized to ensure their bond with the covenantal community.
This idea of baptism for covenantal community in turn defends their ongoing practice of infant baptism.
Methodists, at minimum United Methodists, view baptism as a sign that does not provide salvation, but signifies belonging to the community. Sprinkling and aspersion are practiced, as well as infant baptism.
Yet further, the 1962 Southern Baptist Convention statement of faith on baptism reveals another view:
"Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead."
This statement of faith is a principle example of creedo-baptism (believer's baptism) that is diametrically opposed to the practice of paedobaptism (of infants).
Only such a person aged enough to have the mental ability to understand and believe the message of the Gospel can participate in baptism.
Nevertheless, baptism does not confer grace, nor provide salvation. It is viewed as a sign or public profession of an inward work.
The Baptist movement in England and continental America of the 17th century was yet a further development of the Reformation and arose as a movement against Anglican infant baptism, among other things.
Early Baptists professed creedo-baptism only and condemned paedo-baptism. They nevertheless continued to practice baptism by pouring or sprinkling for some time. Baptists later became known for baptism by immersion.
Anglican beliefs are widely diverse, but infant baptism is practiced, as well as pouring or sprinkling.
"[There is] considerable variation in doctrine and practice between Anglican churches in different provinces. ...[S]ome emphasize Protestant doctrines while others hold more to Catholic teachings.
This diversity has sometimes caused strain with regard to issues of authority and comprehensiveness of the Anglican Communion..."
There are Anglican web-sites that essentially promote Roman Catholicism.
The Book of Common Prayer certainly includes the invocation to God to wash away the sins of an infant being baptized.
"Dearly beloved, forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin: and that our Saviour Christ saith, None can enter into the kingdom of God, except he be regenerate and born anew of Water and of the Holy Ghost: I beseech you to call upon God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bounteous mercy he will grant to this Child that thing which by nature he cannot have; that he may be baptized with Water and the Holy Ghost, and received into Christ's holy Church, and be made a lively member of the same."
For Anglicans who accept the Book of Common Prayer as authoritative the Holy Spirit is conferred during the sacrament of water baptism.
However, within the Anglican communion are churches that ordain women to priesthood, and others have ordained known homosexuals. So belief and practice about baptism can vary as well.
The congregations under the Church of Christ banner typically hold to believer's baptism by immersion. Infant baptism is rejected, but for adults the rite does provide regeneration and salvation.
The Lutheran view of baptism as a sacrament is similar to Roman Catholic. The following from the LCMS and ELCA speak for themselves.
"[Baptism] is a sacred act in which God Himself is at work forgiving sins, giving new life in Christ and bestowing on us the Holy Spirit with all of His gifts... When we recognize that it is not our work, but God's gracious promise and work,we realize that infants are to be baptized and receive the treasures offered in and through Baptism."
"In Baptism, and it can be seen more clearly in infant Baptism, God freely offers his grace and lovingly establishes a new community. It is in Baptism that people become members of Christ's Body on earth, the Church."
Seventh-Day Adventists hold to believer's baptism by immersion.
Though there is some diversity about meaning, most Messianic Jewish statements about baptismal practice note believer's immersion, and that the rite is based on traditional Jewish practices involving the mikveh. Infant baptism is not practiced
The publication, "The Messianic Jewish Movement, An Introduction" by Dan Juster and Peter Hocken surveys Messianic Judaism and presents the following about baptism:
"Most Messianic Jews immerse believers in water and do not practice infant baptism. This is seen as more in line with Jewish practice. Male children enter the Abrahamic covenant by circumcision, while the girls are dedicated. Baptism is thus reserved for those who have come to conscious faith. It is common in Messianic Jewish circles to see a sacramental value to immersion that would not be shared by many in the free churches. A real work of grace is understood to take place in immersion that applies the work of the Cross and resurrection to the person's life. There is an expectation of an experienced reality that has continuing effect for the rest of one's life."
What percentage of the Messianic movement believe a work of grace occurs is not given. But it is certain that most groups advocate believer's baptism by immersion.
This brief survey of Christian baptismal doctrine shows significant variety of belief and practice. The mode of water baptism varies from immersion to pouring to sprinkling, from adults only to infant baptism, and the results of the rite vary from regeneration and reception of the Holy Spirit, to symbolically joining the covenant community, to nothing other than symbolizing identification with Christ.
The non-canonical literature not included in the Bible shows us that by the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century, only about forty years after the deaths of Paul and Peter, water baptism was for many deemed essential for eternal salvation, for washing away sins. Later it was considered the vehicle for the bestowing the Holy Spirit. It was not considered either an ordinance or merely a sign of salvation.
Such being the case, should followers of Messiah simply accept the ideas of the Church Fathers uncritically?
Some modern Christian expositors argue that the "Fathers" were closer to the sources of the faith and thus may reflect a more authentic expression of faith.
But we should not forget that humans are frail and prone to error no matter how "close" they may have been. Judas Iscariot was as close to the true Source as anyone could get, yet no disciple of Messiah believes he is an example to emulate.
Modern Protestants denominations have their origins in the sixteenth century specifically because of the belief that the mainstream Church was lost in significant error.
Even the Catholic Church will admit it has erred at times - not long ago regarding Catholic anti-Semitism through the long ages.
All this means we are not bound to anything the Church Fathers say simply because they are closer to the sources than we are. We must examine their beliefs in light of the canon of Scripture. We will see that error crept in swiftly among followers of Messiah regarding baptism.
The decades that followed the passing of the original Jewish apostles were a time of great tumult for Israel and the emerging gentile dominated Church. Of that time period Dan Juster writes in his booklet, Jewishness & Jesus, on pages 10-11,
"Soon gentile followers of Yeshua outnumbered Jewish followers. However, the leadership of living disciples kept the movement in accord with the basic decision of Acts 15. Unfortunately this understanding was soon lost. The period from 60-90 C.E. has been designated by one scholar as the tunnel period of biblical history (S.G.F. Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church). When the dust of war and tragedy settled, the situation had drastically changed."
Juster would have us know that the original Jewish following of Yeshua which proclaimed God's open the door to the nations in Acts 15 was soon swallowed up by the much larger non-Jewish following, with an accompanying radical change in attitude against the original Jewishness of the message of Yeshua.
We might certainly expect this change in attitude to have an impact on all aspects of the faith, including the understanding of baptism.
Things which were understood in a particular way by the original Jewish disciples and authors of New Covenant Scripture were understood in a different way by non-Jewish followers a few decades later.
In this light it is certainly reasonable to believe the end-time Messianic Jewish baptism of repentance for Israel was still being practiced by the multitudes of loyal Jews who came to see Yeshua as the long awaited Messiah of Israel.
It is now estimated that about one-tenth of the seventy million in the Roman Empire was Jewish, and this does not include the large population of Jews in the east, outside the Roman rule. Certainly a significant number of these millions of Jews became disciples of Yeshua the Messiah. One estimate is as high as one million Jewish believers.
But as the message of the Good News spread to more and more nations which were farther and farther from Israel, some things were not clearly understood. The example of Apollos in Acts 18 clearly shows that successful teachers might not present everything correctly, and Apollos preached his incomplete message with zeal. How many others preached a less than perfect message is impossible to know, but there are continuous warnings in the New Covenant about faulty teachings.
What follows is a brief review of the earliest non-canonical writings by those claiming allegiance to Messiah, I & II Clement, Epistle of Ignatius, Didache, Barnabas, and Shepherd of Hermas, Justin Martyr and Tertullian, works which make reference to baptism.
Barnabas has a chapter on the topic while Hermas contains a short dialogue on it, Tertullian wrote an entire treatise. Eusebius (264-340 C.E.), a later historian of the Church classified some of the earlier writings known to him as follows:
The universally accepted books.
Disputed book; James, II Peter, Jude, II & III John.
SPURIOUS BOOKS; Acts of Paul, SHEPHERD OF HERMAS, Apocalypse of Peter, BARNABAS, DIDACHE, and the Gospel to the Hebrews.
Forgeries of the heretics; Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Matthias, etc.
Other early commentators are generally in agreement.
The spurious books were understood not to have the authority of the universally accepted books but they were read for whatever benefit they might produce.
Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, and Didache would have some influence on the second century disciples and would reflect ideas in vogue before the time of composition. The dates are estimated as;
Didache; 80-120 C.E. or later.
Shepherd of Hermas; 100 or 140 C.E.
Barnabas; 90-120 C.E.
The Didache is supposed to be the teaching of the Twelve Apostles and appears to be one of the pseudepigrapha of early centuries of the era.
It definitely enjoins water baptism with a formula reminiscent of Matthew 28:19. Nevertheless, certain factors in its teaching of baptism separate it from what was taught in New Covenant Scriptures.
"But concerning baptism, thus shall ye baptize. Having first recited all these things, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water.
"But if thou hast not living water, then baptize in other water; and if thou art not able in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, then pour water on the head thrice in the name of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
"But before the baptism let him that baptizeth and him that is baptized fast, and any others also who are able; and thou shalt order him that is baptized to fast a day or two before." J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers.
Apparently of Jewish background, we see similarities in the desire to use living waters, just as the Rabbinic sages prescribed for ritual purification.
We also see the continuous expansion of the "fence" from what is thought to be the best baptism to what is merely acceptable. Pouring is acceptable as a form of Jewish purification baptism.
There is nevertheless a substantial gulf between the teaching of this document and the teaching of New Covenant Scriptures.
Here the candidate is to fast one or two days before the baptism. This is a religious work to satisfy the writer's beliefs about God's requirements for salvation.
In the eyes of some, perhaps fasting would not seem to be such an important issue. But then in the eyes of others, maybe circumcision would not be a problem. If it were believed God had commanded either one then neither would be a great burden.
Yet Paul vehemently opposed the circumcision of gentile believers as a means of pleasing God. Fasting and other religious works fall under the same ban.
Contrary to this document we do not find anyone in New Covenant Scripture who is ordered to fast a day or two before a ceremony. Water baptisms were performed upon faith not fasting, e.g. Acts 2:41:
"And were added that day about three thousand." See also Acts 8:26-40.
Furthermore, in the next paragraph the Didache prescribes specific fast days in the week for disciples of Messiah. They were not to keep the weekly fast days of the hypocrites (most likely the Pharisees), but to observe different days and were also enjoined to recite the Lord's model prayer three times a day.
The New Covenant Scriptures give no direct testimony that such a fixed order of observance was typical or enjoined on anyone, though among Jewish believers zealous for the Torah it would certainly be a possibility.
For all that, in Acts 15:4-11, during a dispute over whether or not gentiles were bound to keep religious ritual requirements, Peter told the Jewish Assembly in Jerusalem;
"Now therefore, why do you tempt God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor ourselves were able to bear. But through the grace of the Lord Yeshua the Messiah 'we exert faith to be saved' in the same manner as (the gentiles) also." (from the Greek)
Observance of rituals could not please God. Peter knew the gentiles had been fully included in New Covenant salvation purely on the basis of faith in Messiah.
"We exert faith to be saved," as seen in the Greek, indicates faith pleases God, not works. F.F. Bruce's commentary on Acts 15:11 explains why "exerting faith" is a much more appropriate translation than the usual translations of "believe," which is often found. Instead of surmising they may be saved through the grace of Messiah, in reality they actually understood that by exerting faith, by believing, they please God and know they are saved.
Moreover, Peter mentions nothing about water baptism, neither about fasting.
There is no indication that anyone was ordered to fast before they were baptized with water, although after Paul was struck blind by Messiah he voluntarily fasted for three days, but with no command to do so.
Since the author of Didache was convinced fasting was a requirement prior to baptism there is no reason to trust his beliefs about baptism. The work reflects what some people believed after the time of the original apostles.
But as mentioned in Scripture, erroneous teachings circulated even during their lifetimes according to 2 Peter 3:16. If Didache is that early, then it may have been written by those who called themselves apostles but who had never been sent by Messiah, 2 Corinthians 11:13, Revelation 2:2.
Hermas tells how indispensable water baptism had become to its author.
In the third vision, sections 2-3, Hermas saw a great tower which was being built on water with various stones being used to build it. He was told this great tower was the Church.
When he asked the female guide of the vision why the tower was built on water she replied:
"It is because your life is saved and shall be saved by water."
Hermas was then given explanations as to why the various stones were used in the tower and why some were cast away and others were broken. In 3:7 he was told that stones which fall near water, yet cannot roll into the water were those people who got to the point of considering being baptized unto the name of the Lord, then they change their minds and go back after their evil desires and were not used in the tower.
From these statements we see the author believed water was absolutely required to be able to join the body of Messiah, the Church.
Contrary to this, the hundred and twenty disciples became the living body of Messiah on Shavu'ot when they received the Holy Spirit. The only water baptism they would have undergone was John's baptism to Israel, which was not mandated for non-Jewish disciples. Neither did it provide ultimate salvation for Jewish believers. Only the Spirit, poured out by Messiah, can make a person a living stone and fit him into His body, even as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:13.
The epistle attributed to Barnabas contains a chapter on water baptism. Other passages are clearly at fault, making the entire composition unreliable.
For example, in 8:6 (or section 9 in another system of numbering) we are told that God now circumcises the ears so that people may hear and believe His word, adding a scathing attack on the Jewish people;
"But as for that circumcision in which [the Jewish people] have confidence, it is abolished; for He spoke of a circumcision not being of flesh."
Writers of the New Covenant clearly showed that circumcision of the flesh could not save nor guarantee a relationship with God.
However it was never said to be abolished, even as marriage between males and females was not abolished. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul admonished Corinthian Jews, called while circumcised, to abide in their Jewish calling and not be uncircumcised. Thus Barnabas has made an extremely serious error in this assertion.
In ch. 10 (section 11 in others) the author explains things about the water of baptism and the cross. Various passages from the Hebrew Scriptures are used to support his view of the requirement of water baptism for salvation.
He also attacks Israel, who would not receive the water of baptism which brings the remission of sins, but would build their own. Note that the initial baptism to Israel which brought remission of sins was John's baptism to Israel.
So if Barnabas said Israel rejected it he apparently is saying that disciples of Messiah have received it and practice it to achieve remission of sins. It is true the original apostles did believe this for some time, but eventually, in the house of Cornelius, their minds were changed.
Barnabas goes on, quoting Jeremiah 2:12-13, Isaiah 16:1-2, 45:2, 33:16-17 and Psalm 1 in reference to what he believed about water baptism, and then, after discussion of the passage in Psalm 1 he concludes the discourse by saying,
"We go down into the water full of sins and filth, and rise up bearing fruit in our heart, resting our fear and hope on Jesus by the Spirit. 'And whoever, shall eat of these shall live forever.' He means this, whoever shall hear these things spoken and shall believe shall live forever."
Here water baptism is a requirement to wash away sins, again contradicting the salvation of the hundred and twenty on Shavu'ot when they received the Spirit without water baptism.
Only the Sacrifice of Messiah has the power to take away sins and only the Holy Spirit can impart the reality of the blood of this Sacrifice to a disciple.
Barnabas then ought not be used to explain what the Bible says about water baptism or salvation. It indicates what some people believed, as do Shepherd of Hermas and Didache.
The usual dates for I & II Clement and the epistles of Ignatius are:
I Clement, 95 C.E.
II Clement, 120-140 C.E.
Epistles of Ignatius, about 110 C.E.
Eusebius tells us I Clement was considered to have come from Clement, who wrote in the name of believers in Rome.
Eusebius also felt the evidence of his day indicated this Clement translated the book of Hebrews into Greek from a version supposed to have been written in Hebrew by Paul.
Some commentators of today feel this Clement may have been a companion of Paul, Philippians 4:3 while others do not.
Whatever view is taken concerning the identity of the Clement who wrote the epistle bearing his name, in the days this epistle was written it was widely received by believers which indicates two things;
The epistle had authority concerning their faith.
The author Clement was thus viewed as having the authority to speak about matters of faith.
Indeed, Clement was the bishop of Rome and later a martyr. He would certainly have received much respect concerning any epistle he might have written.
The point to be made concerns a passage dealing with the resurrection. Chapter 12 (other versions, section 25) tells how the Phoenix bird is a type of the future resurrection of believers.
The section was written in a way which leads the reader to conclude Clement actually believed there was a Phoenix bird in the land of Arabia which lived and died in a five hundred year cycle. At the death of the bird its decaying body would produce a worm which would grow into a new Phoenix bird. Once the new bird was strong enough it would take the casket it had died in and carry it from Arabia to a city in Egypt, Heliopolis, the City of the Sun. The bird would then lay the coffin on the Altar to the Sun in public. The priests would examine the records and confirm the five hundred year cycle had been completed.
Here is a bishop of Rome, whom some believe had been a companion of Paul, writing about the resurrection with the help of a myth he believed true.
Because of his authority many disciples received this epistle and what they might have believed about the Phoenix bird legend would have been strongly influenced by it.
If a sub-apostolic bishop of Rome could believe and write about this myth to other believers, is it also possible that by this time other un-Scriptural beliefs were promoted about salvation and water baptism which were widely received?
Clement did not make a direct statement about water baptism. However he did quote Psalm 51 in its entirety, in which David wrote of washing from iniquity and cleansing from sin, as well as being sprinkled by means of hyssop and being clean.
On the other hand, Clement mentioned very early in the letter (1:10 in some versions) that at one point an abundant outpouring of the Holy Spirit had fallen on them all. Much later (20:16 in some versions) he asked,
"Is not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us all?"
Although there is no direct mention of water baptism there is explicit mention of the pouring out of the Spirit on each disciple who was reading his letter.
This epistle was not well received and appears doubtful that its author was the same as had written I Clement.
It was written in the form of a sermon and does have a reference to baptism.
The author spoke about maintaining a degree of holiness before the Lord in 3:9, saying that if righteous men were not able by their righteousness to save their children (Ezekiel 14:14 referring to Noah, Daniel, and Job), how can believers hope to enter the kingdom of God, except they,
"Keep [their] baptism holy and undefiled?"
In 3:13 and 3:18 mention is made of a "seal" which is to be kept pure, apparently meaning a person who had been water baptized had been sealed (later this idea became popular anyway). In 3:13 he describes the consequences of this sealing.
"Thus speaks the prophet concerning those who keep not their seal, 'Their worm shall not die and their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be a spectacle to all flesh.’"
In 3:18 he admonished,
"This, therefore is what he says, 'Keep your bodies pure, and your seal without spot, that you may receive eternal life.'"
The result of ideas like these, that water baptism was a revocable seal of salvation, eventually led many to postpone this "sealing" for months or years.
In this way the purification achieved by baptism would not be ruined by sins they believed they would probably commit later.
This practice became widespread as time went on. Constantine the Great was baptized on his deathbed in 337, twenty-five years after he saw the sign of the cross in the cloud leading him to the Christian belief of those days.
Instead of receiving the new spiritual life by faith and then concentrating on living in the resurrection power of Messiah, disciples were eventually taught they had to strive to live a sinless life after water baptism or else lose their salvation.
Far from a promise of freedom and power for a new life by the Spirit of Messiah, the Christian message eventually became a proclamation of condemnation for failure to perform a man-made legal code, the starting point being water baptism.
It is good to be diligent to put away sin, but water never changed the nature of a person to be able to walk in newness of life. Only the Holy Spirit can purify a person.
Though it is not possible to be sure of the exact origin of the above teaching of keeping one’s baptism pure, we can see a cause for such a teaching in the letters of Ignatius.
During his journey from Syria to martyrdom in Rome he wrote several epistles to congregations along the way. In his epistle to the Ephesians he wrote about baptism in 4:9,
"For our God, Jesus Christ, was according to the dispensation of God conceived in the womb of Mary, of the seed of David, by the Holy Spirit. He was born and baptized, that through His passion He might purify water, to the washing away of sins."
This clearly seems to have some relation to the idea of keeping one’s seal of baptism pure. Ignatius believed that through Messiah’s death the waters of baptism were infused with purifying power to wash away sins. His epistle to Polycarp in 2:14 adds,
"Please Him under whom you war, and from whom you receive your wages. Let none of you be found a deserter, but let your baptism remain as your shield. Your faith as your helmet, your charity as your spear, your patience as your whole armor."
By the time of Ignatius in about 110 C.E. many supposed that the sufferings of Messiah had purified water baptism through the supposed infused Spirit. Sins were washed away in the water. In other words, baptismal regeneration.
Those who believe this teach a water baptism which does all the things that only the Holy Spirit has the power to do.
Once it was believed the Holy Spirit was infused with the water of baptism it became necessary to restrict those who performed the water baptism. Thus Ignatius told the Smyrneans in 3:5,
"It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold a love feast (eucharist); but whatever he shall approve, this is well pleasing to God, that everything may be sure and valid."
By the end of the first century the bishop carried extensive responsibility and authority. Yet we have seen that a bishop like Clement who believed the legend of the Phoenix might teach an erroneous doctrine that would have been widely received.
The teaching that water baptism was required by Messiah as the source of regeneration was forcefully propagated. Not because the Lord commanded it but because certain leaders taught it.
Multitudes of first century disciples were Jewish or had been proselytes to Judaism. Neither had the Messianic water baptism to Israel been annulled. This situation set the stage for confusion to arise by those who were ill-informed as to how a writer of Scripture wanted his reference of baptism to be understood.
Towards the beginning of the second century a growing consensus of disciples viewed water baptism as a requirement for salvation.
This is by no means surprising since earlier Jewish disciples believed circumcision was required for the gentiles to be saved, Acts 15:4-5, and this belief was deep seated, Philippians 3:2. We could suspect that others might teach the requirement of being baptized with water, even during the time of the original apostles.
Justin Martyr took Matthew 28:19 to mean water baptism. He died about 165 C.E. so this passage is somewhat earlier.
"As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them.
"Then they 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,...Jesus Christ,...and Holy Spirit they then receive the washing with water...And may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed..."
Justin also required a religious work of fasting before a person could be regenerated into his understanding of salvation. As such he put the new believer under rules which, in Acts 15, Peter had declared useless to please God. Repentance is a requirement. Turning from sin is a requirement. Turning to God is a requirement. But turning away from food is of no value to God for salvation.
We also see that Justin believed remission of sins and regeneration were provided through water baptism, even as we read in his "Dialogue With Trypho the Jew," ch. XLIII.
"And we, who have approached God through Him, have received not carnal, but spiritual circumcision, which Enoch and those like him observed. And we have received it through baptism..."
This understanding, doubtless based on a faulty interpretation of Colossians 2:11-12, eventually led the Christian Church to believe that water baptism was the sign of the covenant with God that replaced the physical circumcision of Israel. In other words, the Christian Church said it was the beloved Spiritual Israel of God, over against the rejected Israel who observed physical circumcision.
For Justin water baptism was salvation and the means of receiving a new nature. It was not a sign or an ordinance.
Tertullian (c.160 to c.220 C.E.) was the son of a Roman army officer, and was trained in Roman law. He became a Christian in middle age and wrote a treatise which consolidated the belief in the sacrament of baptism by then long widespread.
What follows are excerpts from De Baptismo in which we clearly see the state of baptism only a hundred years after the last of the twelve apostles.
Ch. 1, The reason for his treatise was to combat the Cainite heresy which denied the importance of water baptism.
"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."
"Like little fishes we are born in water."
Ch. 4, After describing water as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit in view of Genesis 1:2 he begins his argument to distinguish baptismal water from all water on earth.
"(There is no) distinction between those whom John baptized in the Jordan and those whom Peter baptized in the Tiber. All waters, therefore, in virtue of the pristine privilege of their origin, do, after invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of sanctification; for the Spirit immediately supervenes from the heavens, and rests over the waters, sanctifying them from Himself; and being thus sanctified, they imbibe at the same time the power of sanctifying."
Ch. 6, The "Angel of the waters" in Christian baptism is like the angel of the pool of Bethesda which foreshadowed spiritual healing. (Angels)...who used to work temporal salvation, now renew eternal.
"Not that in the water we obtain the Holy Spirit; but in the water, under (the witness of) the angel, we are cleansed, and prepared for the Holy Spirit...Thus too, does the angel, the witness of baptism, 'make the paths straight' for the Holy Spirit, who is about to come upon us, by the washing away of sins, which faith, sealed in (the name of) the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, obtains."
"Tertullian unwittingly links the saving efficacy of baptismal water with downright animism...there can be little doubt that Tertullian thought of a real angel-spirit present to make the baptismal waters effective, as the angel-spirit was held to give healing power to the pool in Bethesda." (Baptism, p 4.)
Ch. 7, The "unction" is described, after baptism the candidate is lavishly smeared with fragrant ointment.
"Thus too, in our case, the unction runs carnally, (i.e. on the body,) but profits spiritually; in the same way as the act of baptism itself too is carnal,...but the effect spiritual, in that we are freed from sins."
Ch. 8, Hands are laid, inviting the Holy Spirit. He comes to those who are water baptized and profusely anointed.
"After baptism the hand is imposed, by blessing, calling and inviting the Holy Spirit; then that most Holy Spirit willingly descends from the Father upon the bodies that are cleansed and blessed."
Ch. 11, Tertullian explains that when the apostles of the Lord performed water baptism in John 3 they performed John's baptism.
"Let none think it was some other, because no other exists,"...(at that point).
Ch. 12, The apostles were only baptized with John's baptism, but in the company of Messiah they were supplied what they lacked in not being baptized with the post-resurrection baptism commanded by the Lord. All must be baptized with water because of what was written in John 3, "unless a man is born of water..."
"Without (water) baptism, salvation is attainable by none."
Ch. 13, The need for extra laws after faith.
"Grant that, in days gone by, there was salvation by means of bare faith, before the passion and resurrection of the Lord. But now that faith has been enlarged, and is become a faith which believes in His nativity, passion and resurrection, there has been an amplification added to the sacrament, viz., the sealing act of baptism; the clothing, in some sense, of the faith which before was bare, and which cannot exist now without its proper law.
"For the law of baptizing has been imposed, and the formula prescribed: 'Go,' He said, 'Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit'...and 'unless a man be born of water and Spirit'...(Christ) tied faith to the necessity of baptism." cf. Latin Christianity, Tertullian, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. III, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1963.
So for Tertullian, instead of understanding the true purification accomplished through the Holy Spirit poured out directly from Messiah, water was deemed the vehicle for washing away sins, after the appropriate "invocation" had been offered to charge the water with sanctifying power.
Once a candidate was cleansed with baptismal water and then anointed, he was fit for the Spirit to come and dwell in him. And "bare faith" in God supposedly needed this "extra clothing" of religious works because of all the extra graces of God's work in Messiah. The "law" of baptism is imposed, the command of Matthew 28:19.
All this sounds reasonable, and persuasive, especially coming from a lawyer who knows how to argue to the jury. But with any measure of discernment it obviously falls under Paul's curses of works for righteousness at the beginning of Galatians.
This is not grace. Otherwise circumcision should be practiced as well, the special "grace" added to the "bare faith" of Abraham because his faith was enlarged. Water baptism, sacramental anointing and laying on of hands were acts which supposedly rouse God to open the door to His storehouse of grace.
These beliefs set the stage for many centuries of an enslaved faith, Judaized in the worst sense, but now by misguided gentiles. The ideas hardly coincide with the glorious New Covenant revelation of salvation declared six times,
"John baptized with water but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit."
To summarize this chapter, please remember, there simply are no other better sources than what have been presented above of "Christian tradition" of the decades and early centuries that followed the original apostles.
These passages are the sources of post-biblical Christian tradition, and they show a flawed belief regarding water baptism. In short, we will do well to rely on Scripture alone to find God's will regarding baptism.