Baptism in the Church

Baptism is the divinely-ordained method of becoming a disciple of Jesus. It incorporates the convert into Christ, establishing a union between the Lord and the new convert. And since Jesus had been crucified, buried, raised, and glorified to sit at the Father’s right hand, the convert also experiences those spiritual realities through his union with Christ. That is why St. Paul taught that to be baptized into Christ was to be baptized into his death (Rom 6:3)—and not just his death, but all of the experiences He underwent on behalf of us for our salvation.

Thus, in Galatians 2:19, St. Paul speaks of us being “co-crucified” with Christ (Greek sustauroo); in Romans 6:4 of us being “co-buried” with him (Greek sunthapto); in Colossians 2:12 of being “co-raised” with him (Greek sunegeiro); in Romans 8:17 of being “co-glorified” with him (Greek sundoxadzo); and in Ephesians 2:6 of us being made to “co-sit” with him in the heavenlies (Greek sunkathidzo). Thus, through our union with Christ, the powers of his death to sin and of the new life of his resurrection, and of his heavenly glory are all given to the new convert through baptism, the time when the union of convert with his Lord is established.

That is why in baptism we are granted the forgiveness of sins, the gift of adoption to sonship, and the Holy Spirit. Christ is the true Son of the Father, and He shares his sonship with us—which involves the forgiveness of our sins, since Christ is sinless. Christ has received the fulness of the Holy Spirit, and so He pours the Spirit upon us when we are baptized. He shares his holiness with his Body through the union of the divine and heavenly Head with its earthly members.

We see this glorious reality described in many New Testament passages. Proleptically Christ spoke to Nicodemus of a new birth through baptismal water1 and the Spirit (John 3:1–8) and spoke openly of the time when those who believed in him would experience the fullness of the Spirit (John 7:37–39). In Acts 2:38 St. Peter invited his hearers to repent and be baptized, assuring them that if they did so they would receive “the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In Acts 22:16 Paul is invited by Ananias to “arise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His Name.” In Romans 6:1f, St. Paul declared that those being baptized into Christ would “walk in newness of life,” being united to Christ in his resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 6:11 Paul spoke of baptism washing, sanctifying, and justifying the new converts. In Ephesians 5:26 he spoke about the reality of Christians being “washed in water and the Word” of the Gospel. In Titus 3:5 he described baptism as a “washing of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” The connection of physical baptismal immersion with these realities and baptism as the divinely-chosen instrument of their bestowal could hardly be clearer.

The Structure of Baptism

The baptismal service has several elements to it. The word “baptism” (Greek baptisma) is cognate with the Greek bapto, meaning “to dip, to immerse.” As seen above, baptism was a total immersion, such as was used in Jewish purification rites and proselyte baptism. Very quickly (if not from the outset) it also included the laying on of hands (compare Acts 19:6) and the anointing with oil (compare 2 Cor 1:21–22; 1 John 2:27). In Syria the anointing seems at first to have preceded the immersion (thus the homilies in the Baptismal Instructions of St. John Chrysostom), while in North Africa the anointing bestowing the Spirit came after the immersion (thus Tertullian in his Concerning Baptism). The baptismal ordo is less important than the fact that it is in the entire complex of baptismal rituals that the candidate receives the divine gifts of forgiveness, sonship, and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit.

Baptism, with its rites of immersion and anointing, brings the candidate from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to Christ (Acts 26:18), and it involves the total and permanent consecration of the candidate to Christ. After baptism, the candidate is to live a life of radical discipleship, considering that he or she no longer belongs to the “Gentile” world or this age, but was now a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and therefore a stranger and sojourner on earth (Phil 3:20; 1 Pet 2:11).

Requirements for Baptism

St. Paul reminds us of the character of this life of consecration: is our participation in the death and burial of Christ (Rom 6:3-4a). There is a cost and requirement in baptism, Christ Himself laid down these conditions. He said that anyone who did not renounce all that he had could not be his disciple. To be accepted as his disciple, one must be prepared to pick up their cross (Luke 14:27, 33) and follow him The image of picking up one’s cross is a radical one, and one not often understood today in a culture which does not practice public execution by crucifixion.

In Jesus’ day, everyone knew what picking up a cross involved. The Romans were careful to intimidate and subjugate the populations over which they ruled, and one of their most effective ways of accomplishing this was by executing defiant rebels by crucifying them in public.

The condemned criminal would be scourged, and then forced to pick up his cross (i.e., the patibulum, the horizontal cross beam) and carry this out to the place of execution. He would then lay it down and be nailed or tied (or both) to the wood, his hands being affixed to the ends of the patibulum and his feet affixed to the bottom of the vertical pole onto which the patibulum was fixed. There he would remain night and day, until he died, usually screaming for release. Death usually took days. Jesus’ hearers knew that one who picked up his cross had been condemned and would soon be hanging from it in blood and pain.

It is therefore all the more stunning that Christ chose this image as the one which represented what He required of his disciples. Specifically, He declared that no one could be his disciple who did not love him more than life itself and who was not willing to die for him. Not every Orthodox Christian need die a martyr’s death, but each must be willing to do so if necessary. One must be so dedicated to Christ that one is willing to be crucified rather than deny him.

Baptism is meant to initiate the candidate into this life of dedication to Christ. Of course, not all baptized Christians have this dedication to Christ, but the Lord’s requirement for discipleship stands nonetheless. The Gospel declares that we may share the holiness and life of God, enjoying forgiveness, sonship, and the promise of eternal life if—and only if—we become such dedicated disciples of Jesus. That is the Gospel message; diluting it and watering it down, though it may pay dividends in this age, will bring no reward in the age to come when we must all stand before the dread judgment seat of Christ.

The Baptism of Infants

Though baptism is a sacrament of decision and conversion, the Church has always been prepared to baptize the infant children of dedicated believers if they are brought to the Church for baptism. Origen (d. ca. 253) said that this was an apostolic precept, and the Apostolic Tradition2 allows for the baptism both of children able to answer for themselves and children too young to give such answers.

In those early days of the Church, infant baptism was quite rare, convert baptism being the norm. This was especially true in the western church, where there was more angst attending the premature deaths of unbaptized infants. It was less so in the east. In fact, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390) suggested in his Oration 40 that if an infant was in no danger of death, the baptism might be delayed until the end of their third year “when they may be able to listen and to answer something about the mystery (i.e., the sacrament); that, even though they do not perfectly understand it, yet at any rate they may know the outlines.” Some people in the east in the fourth century remained catechumens throughout most of their lives, only choosing to be baptized when near life’s end. Some Fathers (such as St. Gregory) advised against this, urging them not to delay baptism like this.

But despite convert baptism being the norm, eventually infant baptism became the norm, and the catechumenate as an institution faded away, leaving only vestigial marks in the Liturgy. The challenge for the Church, and for Christian parents is to do their best to ensure that those baptized in infancy know what kind of life they were initiated into and live as dedicated disciples of Jesus, for baptism remains a sacrament of conversion. That is why questions about renouncing Satan and uniting with Christ are still addressed to the infant candidates, even though they must now be answered by their sponsors on their behalf. A baptized person of whatever age is one who has left the World to follow Jesus, and who now belongs to the Kingdom of God. That is why it is so important that children baptized as infants be raised to become dedicated mature disciples. The temptation to baptize indiscriminately, regardless of the faith commitment of the parents or the actual chances of the infant being brought up as a true disciple of Jesus, should be resisted. Otherwise, we misunderstand the nature of baptism, and consequently, of the nature of Christian faith, and of the Church.


Footnotes

  1. The larger context of Jesus being part of John’s baptizing movement makes the reference to the water as baptismal certain.

  2. Representing the liturgical tradition of Rome at the beginning of the third century.