This is the beginning of a series of short articles I’m writing about Baptism, specifically addressing the historic practice and doctrine of Infant Baptism (or Paedobaptism). By way of a brief outline, I intend to discuss:
- First the immediate precursor to Christian Baptism (namely the ministry of John the Baptist),
- then the evangelical nature of Baptism (by which I mean how Baptism proclaims the Gospel),
- then link between Baptism and Regeneration or New Birth (as opposed to the alternative “proclamation of saving faith”),
- and finally how individual faith plays into Baptism, particularly in the instance of Infant baptism.
Each of these points will comprise its own article, allowing me to go into appropriate detail along the way. If significant discussion ensures, or further questions arise, I will be happy to explore specific details further and eventually write more on the matter.
John the Baptist’s baptism foreshadowed Christian Baptism
One of the most important things to consider in any discussion about Baptism is the background behind its origin. When Jesus instituted the practice of Baptism, it was not entirely out of the blue, otherwise he would have had to sit down with the Apostles and explain it all to them. But as it is (and as it is with everything else He did), there is a wealth of historical and biblical-theological background building up to the institution of Christian Baptism. I will explore some of the biblical-theological precedents throughout this series, and focus now on the immediate historical precedent: the ministry of John the Baptist. (I say immediate historical precedent because John the Baptist didn’t just make up Baptism either, but was himself drawing upon pre-existing customs. Not a lot of details are known about that, and I hardly know the basics of it, so I’m not going to dwell on that now.)
All four Gospel books introduce John the Baptist’s ministry as that of the prophesied role of Elijah: the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ Specifically, he was preaching against sin and calling for repentance among the Jewish people. It was time for a revival as the Messiah approached, and John was stirring things up and trying to get people ready to hear Jesus’ message of the culmination of the Kingdom of God. Luke 3:7-18 gives the most detail on the actual content of John’s preaching.
Beyond preaching, though, John also baptized people in the Jordan River. Luke describes it as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – probably where the line in the Nicene Creed came from. Did this mean that John was forgiving peoples’ sins when he baptized them? I suppose that depends on how you understand the relationship between the Old and New Covenants. John’s father seemed to prophesy that John would be proclaiming the forgiveness of peoples’ sins, and the temple sacrifices were also offered as atonement for the forgiveness of sin. One could argue that such atonement and forgiveness is only effective linked to the full atonement accomplished by the one perfect sacrifice of Christ on the Cross (and I heartily agree!), but at the same time it doesn’t take away from the reality of the sacrifice or the baptism as the means through which God’s forgiveness is delivered.
But at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel book, Jesus institutes a Baptism somewhat different from John’s. The text of Matthew 28 doesn’t say much on this subject; it just states that Christian Baptism is in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and is part of the discipleship process. Just what the spiritual and theological differences will be, I’ll address throughout the rest of this series. Suffice it to say here that John’s baptism was insufficient for Christian Baptism. John himself observed, I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16). So already we have a clue: John used water and was proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, but Jesus is going to bring the Holy Spirit and fire into the picture. More on that in later articles!
I will conclude this article with the official judgment on John’s Baptism by the Church. In Acts 19, St. Luke records:
And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.
So, once again, the missing key component of John’s baptism according to St. Paul is the reception of the Holy Spirit. Realizing the forgiveness of sins is great, but there’s more to it than that. Enough difference, in fact, that they had to be re-baptized with the Christian Baptism in place of John’s!
Next time I’ll continue with how this Christian Baptism proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ.