The Meaning and Effect of Baptism in the Early Church

“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4-5 NRSV-CE).

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, the Apostle 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 – but none of them did.  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).

(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”.

In these examples salvation and new birth are obtained through faith, repentance and baptism.  This is the teaching of the first generations of Christians during and immediately after the apostles, and of all the Church since then until the Reformation, after which most Protestant churches changed the doctrine to make baptism a symbol only, without any warrant from scripture.