Baptism: Symbol or New Birth?

There are basically two views in the Church as to the meaning and mode of baptism.  As a result of reading Church Fathers, Reformers, denominational Confessions, systematic theologies, and so on, it can seem bewildering and daunting.  And it is vital to know the truth because there are passages in the Bible which indicate that baptism is necessary for salvation.  Indeed, the early Church believed that baptism gives new birth, and the Catholic, Orthodox, and many Anglican Churches likewise believe this.  But Protestants believe that baptism is merely a symbol which represents what Jesus did for us.  Given that the view of the early Church and the contemporary sacramental churches ever since believe that baptism gives new birth, it is essential that we make sure that what we believe about it is correct.

Teaching and Examples in the New Testament

Jesus tells us that whoever believes in him will have everlasting life (Jn 3:16).  But it’s clear that it is not bare belief (faith) that saves.  There must also be repentance, water baptism and the Holy Spirit.  These four components are each vital parts of the process of salvation, and just as we are said to be saved by faith, we’re also told that repentance, baptism and the Holy Spirit save us.  They are sometimes mentioned together, other times not.  But when we look at the various passages of scripture we find them each stated as being necessary to salvation and new birth.

(i) When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, he said “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5 RSV-2CE).  No doubt he had in mind Ezek 36:25-27, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes….”. Is this not new birth?  And is not water an essential component?

In this verse Jesus binds water (i.e. baptism) and the Spirit together as essential to being born again, which he equates with entering the kingdom of God.  In the next few verses the emphasis is very much on the Holy Spirit but the connection with water in verse 5 has been made.  Just a few more verses down, in the same discourse, he says it is belief in the Son that gives eternal life, thus introducing a third essential component of salvation.

(ii) The apostle Peter tells us that baptism is essential to salvation.  For example, when the people asked him and the apostles what they must do to be saved, he replied “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). 

Here, repentance and baptism are bound together as essential to receive new birth and the Holy Spirit by whom we are regenerated.  If baptism is only symbolic then so is repentance because they are stipulated equally by Peter for “the forgiveness of sins”.

(iii)  Peter also wrote concerning baptism “…baptism…. now saves you…” (1 Pet 3:21).  Technically the eight souls were saved by the ark, but Peter’s emphasis is The Flood water.  He says they were saved “through or by water”.  My limited understanding of Greek tells me that as the Genitive case is used for “through or by” so the meaning is they were saved by means of the water.  And, he says, baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…”.

So we are told that baptism actually saves us.  If Peter can be so explicit, how can we ignore baptism as an essential component of salvation and new birth? 

(iv) And Mark, who was closely associated with Peter, writes “He who believes and is baptized will be saved (Mk 16:16).  Here faith is connected with baptism for salvation.

In the light of these passages I contend that when the Ethiopian eunuch requested baptism, he didn’t regard it as symbolic and a public testimony but as giving new birth.  Further, that faith in Jesus is necessary before baptism becomes effectual because when he heard the gospel, he asked Philip what was to stop him from being baptised.  Philip replied “’If you believe with all your heart, you may’.  And he answered and said ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God’” (Acts 8:36-37 RSV-CE margin).  So he was baptised on profession of faith and was thus born again (see Jn 20:31). 

(v) After Jesus appeared to Saul/Paul, who was blinded by this appearance, Jesus sent Ananias to Saul to set him apart for his work.  When he was baptised, the account in 22:4-16 says he was told to “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name”.

So here, it appears that baptism alone is required for salvation.  But obviously faith, repentance and the Spirit are understood, just as in other passages where one or more of these four components aren’t stated.  But it is telling that baptism is the only component mentioned, and that it washes away sins.

(vi) Paul calls baptism “the washing of regeneration” (Tit 3:5 RSV); or “water of rebirth” (NRSV and REB).  These are terms commonly used for baptism in the post-apostolic church.  This baptismal water is bound together with “renewal in the Holy Spirit” (3:5). 

As I did with the Ethiopian eunuch I also contend, in the light of these passages, that Lydia (Acts 16:15) and the Philippian jailer were born again when baptism was administered:  “’Men, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household’.  And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house…And he was baptised at once, with all his family (Acts 16:30-34).

Indeed, the question the jailer specifically asked them was the same as that asked of Peter in Acts 2:38; but it can’t be concluded that baptism is not essential for salvation just because it wasn’t recorded in Paul’s answer; if this were true then neither is repentance necessary.  It is inconceivable that Peter and Paul would give different answers to this vital question.  Therefore the only logical conclusion must be that the converts in each case were born again and received forgiveness for their sins, which were washed away when they believed and were baptised.     

 (vii) When Paul was with the Ephesian elders (Acts 19:1-7), even though they were believers and had been baptised with the baptism of John the Baptist, he baptised them in Jesus’ name, laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

John’s baptism was not sufficient for receiving the Holy Spirit; this can only be achieved through baptism in Jesus’ name.  John’s baptism only revealed Jesus to Israel (Jn 1:31), and was a baptism of repentance (Acts 19:4), but Christian baptism gives new life (Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5). 

(viii) In Gal 3:27 Paul says that in baptism we put on Christ.  Expanding on this, in Eph 4:22-24 he says “Put off your old nature…and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature…”.  This is accomplished through baptism – putting off the old nature and putting on the new nature are equivalent to putting on Christ.

(ix) And in Rom 6:3 he asks “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Is baptism merely symbolic?  If it is then new birth is also symbolic. 

In light of this verse, when Paul said “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20), and “….those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24), can we not conclude that these occur at baptism?

(x) In Eph 5:26 he shows how Christ gave himself up for the church “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word”.

Here the church is sanctified and cleansed by baptism and the word.

(xi) Heb 10:22 tells us to approach Christ “with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water”.  And so we’re brought back to Ezek 36:25-27!

Variations

In the following examples we see baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit separated by time and action and in reverse order to the “norm”, i.e. the Holy Spirit is given and this is followed by baptism.  I see the first section of this document as the norm, that’s why I’ve listed this second section as anomalies.  Thus the anomalies have to be interpreted in light of the norm rather than set against it.  My understanding, therefore, of these verses is that baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit are still bound together, even though ordered differently, and faith and repentance are also involved. 

(i) Acts 8:12-17.  In this passage Philip was in Samaria preaching the gospel and many believed and were baptised.  Consequently Peter and John came to Samaria and prayed for them to receive the Holy Spirit “for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (verse 16). 

Simon Magus was obviously not born again as the account shows; the belief he evinced was not saving faith and neither was there repentance, so it is to be expected that he was not born again.  This is another passage where we’re shown that baptism alone does not save; neither does repentance alone or faith alone.  All these components must be there for new birth to be complete. 

And in this case the usual order of belief, baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit is there, the only difference being that the Holy Spirit was received some time after they were baptised.

 (ii) Acts 9:17-18.  After Paul had seen the resurrected Jesus he was blinded and Ananias was sent to Paul as Jesus’ messenger to him.  “So Ananias departed and entered the house.  And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit’…..Then he rose and was baptized…”

Again, this may at first sight contradict the norm but it doesn’t say that Paul received the Holy Spirit before he was baptised.  But even if that were the case, the essential element of baptism was still there.  However when this passage is compared with Paul’s account in Acts 22:4-16 we may logically conclude that it was at his baptism that Paul received the Holy Spirit because it says “And now why do you wait?  Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (v16). 

(iii) Acts 10:44-48; 11:15-19.  After Peter had preached the gospel to Cornelius and his associates “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word….Then Peter declared ‘Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’  And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ’” (10:44-48).  Yet again the essential elements of faith and baptism are involved with the reception of the Holy Spirit.  Peter considered baptism essential for Cornelius and his associates, even though they had just received the Holy Spirit.  Many modern churches would have been content with Cornelius’ faith and acknowledgement of the gospel, let alone his baptism with the Holy Spirit; to them, baptism is an optional symbol, thus ignoring or reinterpreting Mark 16:16, John 3:5, Acts 2:38 and 1 Pet 3:21.

(iv) Acts 18:24-28 describes a man called Apollos who “spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John”.  There is no mention of his being baptised in the name of Jesus subsequently.  Either he was left in this state (which seems hard to believe in the light of all the above examples) or he was re-baptised when Aquila and Priscilla taught him more accurately, or when he was in Corinth with Paul (Acts 18:8). 

(v) When Paul told the Corinthians “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel….” (1 Cor 1:17), it’s possible that this was an important aspect of his correcting the Corinthian church because of their party spirit in boasting about various apostles; he was glad that none of them could lay claim to him as being head of their party; his concern was that the body of Christ be not divided. 

He may also be saying that baptism itself doesn’t save; rather it’s the gospel that enlightens.  This is evident from passages such as Acts 19:8-10 and 20:20-21 where Paul’s emphasis is on preaching the gospel and where baptism isn’t even mentioned.  Preaching the gospel was Paul’s primary focus because it is the means by which we are saved (Rom 1:16). 

But that he did not baptize at all, or that he thought baptism insignificant, optional, or unnecessary, cannot be gathered from this passage.  In fact, in this very letter (1 Cor 12:13) he says “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and all were made to drink of one Spirit”.  And Acts 18:8 says “….and many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized”.  Paul may not have baptised many people personally (1 Cor 1:14-16) but his co-workers would have – just as Jesus did with his disciples (Jn 4:1-2).  Besides, it was the Lord’s command that the church “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….” (Matt 28:19-20), so it would be inconsistent of Jesus not to send Paul to baptize at all when he had earlier issued “the Great Commission” to the whole church for all time.

(vi) In passages such as Rom 10:9-13 where it discusses faith being the instrument of salvation, just because baptism isn’t mentioned, it doesn’t mean that baptism isn’t involved.  In Acts 15 at the Jerusalem Council Peter told how the Gentiles had been saved; he mentioned the gospel, faith and the Holy Spirit but not baptism.  But Acts 10 tells us he instructed these new converts to be baptised; and in Acts 2:38 he considered baptism to be so important that he coupled it with repentance as being essential for forgiveness of sin.  He even mentions it in his first letter, saying that baptism saves; so baptism figured prominently in Peter’s gospel.

And a comparison of Acts 9:1-19 and 22:4-21 with 26:12-19 shows that Paul was baptised, washing away his sins after his conversion in the first two passages but it isn’t mentioned in the third passage.

So when we read passages in the New Testament that we are saved by faith, we must assume that baptism is an element involved in our salvation even though it may not be mentioned; it is an expression of our faith and obedience and the means by which we obtain new birth (1 Pet 3:21; Jn 3:5). 

Similarly, Jesus told the disciples to baptize in the name of the Trinity but nowhere are we told they actually did this; rather we’re told they baptized in the name of Jesus.  Can we conclude therefore that they didn’t baptize in the name of the Trinity?  Of course not.  So can we conclude that baptism wasn’t administered to every convert?  No.  In the light of passages cited here, they must have been.  And can we conclude that faith only was required to be saved?  No, because even though some verses appear to say so, those cited here show that baptism was essential.

This would also apply to verses such as James 1:18 which says God “brought us forth by the word of truth”, and James 1:21 which says we are to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls”.

Infant Baptism

In view of the fact that baptism is necessary for salvation and new birth, and that Rom 5:12 tells us that everyone is born under the curse of the Fall, it is necessary therefore that infants also be baptised.

Paul baptised the Philippian jailer “with all his family”; Lydia “with all her household”; and the “household of Stephanas” (1 Cor 1:16).  It is more logical to assume that there were children in these households than to assume there were none.  And Paul baptised them.  The adults in the above three passages had to have faith before they could receive baptism and new birth; but the children who could not demonstrate such faith because they were too young to understand the gospel were also baptised.

Paul also tells us “….the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband.  Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Cor 7:14). 

Baptism in the Early Church

Baptismal regeneration was universally believed in the early church.  The following extracts from writings from the end of the first century and beginning of second century demonstrate this.  They could not have invented the teaching and practice because they straddled the apostolic and post-apostolic ages, John being still alive (he died 100 AD); thus if it was invented there were still plenty of orthodox Christians around who would have condemned it.  So they must reflect the belief and practice of the whole church.

(i) An early Christian document, “The Epistle of Barnabas” (100 AD) which circulated among the churches, describes the belief and practice of the churches concerning baptism.  It says “Let us further inquire whether the Lord took any care to foreshadow the water [of baptism] and the cross.  Concerning the water, indeed, it is written, in reference to the Israelites, that they should not receive that baptism which leads to the remission of sins…. (chap xi). 

And later in this chapter it says “This meaneth, that we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God]and trust in Jesus in our spirit”

(ii) Justin Martyr (110-165 AD) writes about the belief and practice of the Church concerning baptism of those who believed the gospel, “Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated….Since at our birth we were born without our knowledge or choice….in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe…..And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings….” (“The First Apology of Justin Martyr” chap LXI).

(iii) Irenaeus (120-202 AD), who learned from the Apostle John’s disciple Polycarp, stated “And again, giving to the disciples the power of regeneration unto God, He (Jesus) said to them, ‘Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’”. 

And “For our bodies have received unity among themselves by means of that laver which leads to incorruption; but our souls, by means of the Spirit.  Wherefore both are necessary, since both contribute to the life of God…”  (“Against Heresies” Bk 3; chap xvii, 1, 2). 

(iv) Excerpt from “The Pastor of Hermas” (160 AD); “And I said ‘I heard, sir, some teachers maintain that there is no other repentance than that which takes place, when we descended into the water and received remission of our former sins’.  He said to me ‘That was sound doctrine which you heard; for that is really the case.  For he who has received remission of his sins ought not to sin any more but to live in purity’” (Book II, Commandment Fourth, chap. iii).

In these examples salvation and new birth are obtained through faith, repentance and baptism.  This is the teaching of scripture and the witness of the first generation of Christians during and immediately after the apostles, and of all the Church since then until the Reformation, after which some Protestant churches changed the doctrine to make baptism a symbol only, without any warrant from scripture.  Luther is the exception as he believed in baptismal regeneration.

(iv) Cyprian of Carthage (200-258)  “When, however, they come to the water of salvation and to the sanctification of baptism, we ought to know and to trust that there the devil is beaten down, and the man, dedicated to God, is set free by the divine mercy.  For as scorpions and serpents, which prevail on the dry ground, when cast into water, cannot prevail or retain their venom; so also the wicked spirits, which are called scorpions and serpents, and yet are trodden under foot by us, by the power given by the Lord, cannot remain any longer in the man in whom, baptised and sanctified, the Holy Spirit is beginning to dwell”  Epistle LXXV.

(v) Gregory of Nyssa (born 335 AD) summarises beautifully and concisely the teaching of scripture and the Church.  In his “On the Baptism of Christ” he writes “Baptism, then, is a purification from sins, a remission of trespasses, a cause of renovation and regeneration”

(vi) Sulpitius Severus in chapter vii of his “Life of St Martin of Tours” gives a fascinating account of a catechumen who died a few days after joining himself to St Martin for instruction in the Christian faith.  He writes “…so suddenly had death occurred, that he had left this world without receiving baptism.  Consequently St Martin prayed for him and he was raised to life.  “Thus being restored to life, and having immediately obtained baptism, he lived for many years afterwards; and he was the first who offered himself to us both as a subject that had experienced the virtues of Martin, and as a witness to their existence.  The same man was wont to relate that, when he left the body, he was brought before the tribunal of the Judge, and being assigned to gloomy regions and vulgar crowds, he received a severe sentence.  Then, however, he added, it was suggested by two angels of the Judge, that he was the man for whom Martin was praying; and that on this account, he was ordered to be led back by the same angels, and given up to Martin, and restored to his former life.  From this time forward, the name of the sainted man became illustrious, so that, as being reckoned holy by all, he was also deemed powerful and truly apostolical”.

Conclusion

In view of the above bible passages and the universal practice and belief of the early Church I find it impossible to believe any longer that baptism is purely symbolic.  If Peter told the people to repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of sin; if Paul was told to be baptised and wash away his sins; if Jesus said that it is impossible to enter the kingdom of God unless they are born again of water and the Holy Spirit; and also said that only he who believes and is baptised will be saved; and if Paul said that baptism regenerates; how can it be concluded that baptism is only symbolic?  And when the early Christians believed that the waters of baptism are the waters of regeneration, thus taking the scriptures about baptism literally, who am I to disagree?

In light of all this, surely the only reason a person would insist on baptism being symbolic is if they already have their minds set.  For evangelicals this would mean they believe that salvation is by faith in Christ alone; and they will present scriptures to prove that.  But when the bible presents baptism as being a component of the process of salvation, they make it a symbol so that it doesn’t clash with faith in Christ alone.  So they have an either/or situation when, in fact, the scripture presents both/and. 

So, in summary, I conclude that….

  • No-one can enter the kingdom of heaven without being baptised (Jn 3:5)
  • Baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38)
  • Baptism actually saves (Mk 16:16; 1 Pet 3:21)
  • Baptism regenerates (Tit 3:5)
  • Baptism washes away sins (Acts 22:16; Eph 5:26)
  • Baptism is necessary for receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 19:1-7)

“New Testament, Copyright 1946; Old Testament, Copyright 1952; The Apocrypha, Copyright 1957.  The Catholic Edition of the complete Bible incorporating Old Testament, New testament and Apocrypha copyright 1966 by Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America”

Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition, Copyright 2006, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America