My conversion into the Orthodox Church took nearly 10 years. On the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women (’19), my family and I finally took the plunge – but not in the baptismal font. Our Protestant baptisms were accepted, and we received the sacrament of Chrismation. An important part of my journey into Orthodoxy was theological reading, specifically from the Fathers of the first 1,000 years of the Church. Along the way, a fundamental shift took place in my understanding of baptism. Coming to realize that all the Fathers believed in and taught baptismal regeneration (even if the teaching was variously nuanced) truly revolutionized my reading of the New Testament and my understanding of Christianity in general.
The Church has always confessed that God works powerfully through water baptism to spiritually cleanse us of our sins. That’s what the Creed means by “one baptism for the remission of sins.” And if it’s in the Creed, it would seem that a belief in baptismal rebirth is essential to Christian orthodoxy, even if the latter is only generally-conceived (see, for example, C. S. Lewis’s teaching on baptism in Mere Christianity). The teaching could be stated like this: The normative way that God desires to save men and women, boys and girls, is through faith and baptism, by the power of the Holy Spirit. This theological statement about the power of water baptism is deeply rooted in Scripture, and it seeks to take into account all the passages listed below (and more).
Most modern people view the Church’s teaching on baptism as superstitious or magical, particularly since the 18th century Enlightenment. This philosophical movement emphasized reason and individualism, while disparaging tradition, authority, and mystery. Many Christian movements were influenced by this shift in thinking. People became skeptical of Church doctrines and practices which had been treasured for centuries.
Along with the Evangelical Protestants who taught me, I denied the teaching of baptismal regeneration for a long time. The following New Testament passages, however, brought me to the opposite conviction…but only when I read them in light of the doctrinal consensus of the first-millennium Church. My private interpretations were just too enslaved to the ecclesial presuppositions I had inherited. It now seems clear to me that these texts speak for themselves. But I had to at least begin to submit to the Church’s authority before I could see that. “Obey your leaders and submit to them” (Heb 13.17). Could the entire Church, speaking with one voice, have gotten this teaching wrong? I hope not, and I sincerely doubt it: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16.18).
So, through the lens of the Church’s unified reading of Scripture, here is some biblical evidence for what is traditionally called baptismal regeneration, the Christian belief that God begins the process of human salvation though the waters of holy baptism. The descriptive tags, of course, are my own.
- John’s baptism, the precursor: John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1.4).
- Christ’s baptism, the pattern: In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove (Mark 1.9-10).
- Salvation: Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16.16).
- New birth: Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3.5).
- Forgiveness of sins/gift of the Spirit: 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 will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2.38).
- Washing away sins: And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name (Acts 22.16).
- Dying and rising with Christ: 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, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Rom 6.3-4).
- Justification and sanctification: 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 by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6.11).
- Inclusion in Christ’s Body: For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit (1 Cor 12.13).
- Spiritual clothing: 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 (Gal 3.26-27).
- Spiritual cleansing: 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 (Eph 5.25-26).
- Spiritual circumcision: In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead (Col 2.11-12).
- Regeneration: He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3.5).
- Salvation: In [Noah’s ark] a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely 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 good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 3.20-21).
- Spiritual sprinkling: 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 (Heb 10.22).