The Sacrament of Baptism in the Bible and Early Church Writings

The Baptism of the NeophytesMagisterial Teaching on Baptism

The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the following about the effects of baptism:

263. What are the effects of Baptism?

Baptism takes away original sin, all personal sins and all punishment due to sin. It makes the baptized person a participant in the divine life of the Trinity through sanctifying grace, the grace of justification which incorporates one into Christ and into his Church. It gives one a share in the priesthood of Christ and provides the basis for communion with all Christians. It bestows the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. A baptized person belongs forever to Christ. He is marked with the indelible seal of Christ (character).

>>  Go to Catechism of the Catholic Church’s full teaching on the Sacrament of Baptism (CCC, par. 1213-1274)

The Sacrament of Baptism in the Bible

…In the Old Testament, God promised spiritual cleansing and divine indwelling through a future ‘sprinkling’ with water:

  • Ezekiel 36:24-27: “For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. 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 and be careful to observe my ordinances.”

…John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and foretold that Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit:

  • Luke 3:3: “and he [John the baptist] went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
  • Mark 1:4: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
  • John 1:33: “I [John the Baptist] myself did not know him [Jesus]; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’”

…In baptism, we are united to Christ:

  • Romans 6:3-4: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. “
  • Colossians 2:12: “and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
  • Galatians 3:26-28: “…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

…In baptism, we are reborn:

  • John 3:4-7: “Nicode’mus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born anew.’

…In baptism, we are ‘washed clean,’ sanctified, and our sins are forgiven:

  • Acts 2:38-39: “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 shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
  • Acts 22:16: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
  • 1 Corinthians 6:11: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
  • Ephesians 5:25-27: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
  • Hebrews 10:22: “let us draw near 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.”

…Baptism saves:

  •  Titus 3:5-6: “he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior…”
  • 1 Peter 3:18-22: “…God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”
  • Mark 16:15-16: “And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

The Early Church Writings on the Sacrament of Baptism

Belief in the spiritually regenerating grace that is bestowed through the Sacrament of Baptism was so universal in the early Church, renowned Anglican Early Church historian J.N.D. Kelly wrote;

“From the beginning baptism was the universally accepted rite of admission to the Church. . . . As regards its significance, it was always held to convey the remission of sins . . . we descend into the water ‘dead’ and come out again ‘alive’; we receive a white robe which symbolizes the Spirit . . .the Spirit is God himself dwelling in the believer, and the resulting life is a re-creation. Prior to baptism . . . our heart was the abode of demons . . . [but] baptism supplies us with the weapons for our spiritual warfare” (Early Christian Doctrines, 193–4).

In fact, the Early Church Fathers were so unanimous regarding their understanding of baptismal grace that one of the founding fathers of protestantism, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), was forced to conclude;

“In this matter of baptism—if I may be pardoned for saying it – I can only conclude that all the doctors [teachers] have been in error from the time of the apostles.”

I don’t know about you, but I will stand by the Early Church Father’s unanimous interpretation of Scripture instead of 15th century protestant forefather Ulrich Zwingli and the private interpretations of the Bible that his innovative theology required.  Here is what the Early Church writes on the subject:

The Letter of Barnabas                                                                                             “Regarding [baptism], we have the evidence of Scripture that Israel would refuse to accept the washing which confers the remission of sins and would set up a substitution of their own instead [Ps. 1:3–6]. Observe there how he describes both the water and the cross in the same figure. His meaning is, ‘Blessed are those who go down into the water with their hopes set on the cross.’ Here he is saying that after we have stepped down into the water, burdened with sin and defilement, we come up out of it bearing fruit, with reverence in our hearts and the hope of Jesus in our souls.” –Letter of Barnabas, 11:1–10 [A.D. 74]

Hermas of Rome                                                                                                                “I have heard, sir,’ said I, ‘from some teacher, that there is no other repentance except that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins.’ –The Shepherd, 4:3:1 [c. A.D. 80/155]

“They had need [the shepherd] said, “to come up through the water, so that they might be made alive; for they could not otherwise enter the kingdom of God, except by putting away the mortality of their former life . . . “For,” he said, “before a man bears the name of the Son of God, he is dead.  But when he receives the seal, he puts mortality aside and again receives life.  The seal therefore is water.  They go down into the water dead, and come out of it alive.” –The Shepherd, 9:16:2 [c. A.D. 80/155]

St. Ignatius of Antioch                                                                                                      “Let none of you turn deserter. Let your baptism be your armor; your faith, your helmet; your love, your spear; your patient endurance, your panoply” –Letter to Polycarp, 6 [A.D. 110]

St. Justin Martyr                                                                                                            “Whoever are convinced and believe that what they are taught and told by us is the truth, and professes to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to beseech God in fasting for the remission of their former sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are led by us to a place where there is water, and they are reborn in the same kind of rebirth in which we ourselves were reborn: ‘In the name of God, the Lord and Father of all, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit,’ they receive the washing of water. For Christ said, ‘Unless you be reborn, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven’” –First Apology, 61:14–17 [A.D. 151]

Theophilus of Antioch                                                                                                “Moreover, those things which were created from the waters were blessed by God, so that this might also be a sign that men would at a future time receive repentance and remission of sins through water and the bath of regeneration—all who proceed to the truth and are born again and receive a blessing from God” –To Autolycus, 12:16 [A.D. 181]

St. Clement of Alexandria                                                                                                “When we are baptized, we are enlightened. Being enlightened, we are adopted as sons. Adopted as sons, we are made perfect. Made perfect, we become immortal . . . ‘and sons of the Most High’ [Ps. 82:6]. This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing. It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins, a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted, an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation.” –The Instructor of Children, 1:6:26:1 [A.D. 191]

Tertullian                                                                                                                             “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. . . . [But] a viper of the [Gnostic] Cainite heresy, lately conversant in this quarter, has carried away a great number with her most venomous doctrine, making it her first aim to destroy baptism—which is quite in accordance with nature, for vipers and asps . . . themselves generally do live in arid and waterless places. But we, little fishes after the example of our [Great] Fish, Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water. So that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes—by taking them away from the water!” –Baptism, 1 [A.D. 203]

“Baptism itself is a corporal act by which we are plunged into the water, while its effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from our sins” –Baptism 7:2 [A.D. 203]

St. Hippolytus                                                                                                                     “And the bishop shall lay his hand upon them [the newly baptized], invoking and saying: ‘O Lord God, who did count these worthy of deserving the forgiveness of sins by the laver of regeneration, make them worthy to be filled with your Holy Spirit and send upon them thy grace, that they may serve you according to your will” –The Apostolic Tradition, 22:1 [A.D. 215]

St. Cyprian of Carthage                                                                                                    “While I was lying in darkness . . . I thought it indeed difficult and hard to believe . . . that divine mercy was promised for my salvation, so that anyone might be born again and quickened unto a new life by the laver of the saving water, he might put off what he had been before, and, although the structure of the body remained, he might change himself in soul and mind. . . . But afterwards, when the stain of my past life had been washed away by means of the water of rebirth, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart; afterwards, through the Spirit which is breathed from heaven, a second birth made of me a new man.” –To Donatus, 3–4 [A.D. 246]

Origen                                                                                                                        “Formerly there was baptism in an obscure way . . . now, however, in full view, there is regeneration in water and in the Holy Spirit. Formerly, in an obscure way, there was manna for food; now, however, in full view, there is the true food, the flesh of the Word of God, as he himself says: ‘My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink’ [John 6:55]” –Homilies on Numbers 7:2 [A.D. 248]

Aphraahat the Persian Sage                                                                                            “From baptism we receive the Spirit of Christ. At that same moment in which the priests invoke the Spirit, heaven opens, and he descends and rests upon the waters, and those who are baptized are clothed in him. The Spirit is absent from all those who are born of the flesh, until they come to the water of rebirth, and then they receive the Holy Spirit. . . . [In] the second birth, that through baptism, they receive the Holy Spirit.” –Treatises, 6:14:4 [A.D. 340]

St. Cyril of Jerusalem                                                                                                             “If any man does not receive baptism, he does not have salvation. The only exception is the martyrs, who, even without water, will receive baptism, for the Savior calls martyrdom a baptism [Mark 10:38]. . . . Bearing your sins, you go down into the water; but the calling down of grace seals your soul and does not permit that you afterwards be swallowed up by the fearsome dragon. You go down dead in your sins, and you come up made alive in righteousness.” –Catechetical Lectures, 3:10,12 [A.D. 350]

St. Basil the Great                                                                                                               “For prisoners, baptism is ransom, forgiveness of debts, the death of sin, regeneration of the soul, a resplendent garment, an unbreakable seal, a chariot to heaven, a royal protector, a gift of adoption.” –Sermons on Moral and Practical Subjects, 13:5 [A.D. 379]

Council of Constantinople I                                                                                                “We believe . . . in one baptism for the remission of sins…” – Nicene Creed [A.D. 381]

St. Ambrose of Milan                                                                                                          “The Lord was baptized, not to be cleansed himself but to cleanse the waters, so that those waters, cleansed by the flesh of Christ which knew no sin, might have the power of baptism. Whoever comes, therefore, to the washing of Christ lays aside his sins.” –Commentary on Luke 2:83 [A.D. 389]

St. Augustine of Hippo                                                                                                            “It is an excellent thing that the Punic [North African] Christians call baptism salvation and the sacrament of Christ’s body nothing else than life. Whence does this derive, except from an ancient and, as I suppose, apostolic tradition, by which the churches of Christ hold inherently that without baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal? This is the witness of Scripture too.” –Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:24:34 [A.D. 412]

“The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration” (ibid., 2:27:43).

“Baptism washes away all, absolutely all, our sins, whether of deed, word, or thought, whether sins original or added, whether knowingly or unknowingly contracted” –Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 3:3:5 [A.D. 420]

“This is the meaning of the great sacrament of baptism, which is celebrated among us: all who attain to this grace die thereby to sin—as he himself [Jesus] is said to have died to sin because he died in the flesh (that is, ‘in the likeness of sin’)—and they are thereby alive by being reborn in the baptismal font, just as he rose again from the sepulcher. This is the case no matter what the age of the body. For whether it be a newborn infant or a decrepit old man—since no one should be barred from baptism—just so, there is no one who does not die to sin in baptism. Infants die to original sin only; adults, to all those sins which they have added, through their evil living, to the burden they brought with them at birth.” –Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love 13[41] [A.D. 421]

<< Back to Catholicism of the Bible & Early Church