Born of Water and the Spirit

Born of Water and the Spirit

The Apostolic Teachings and Practices of Baptismal Regeneration and Infant Baptism

As I’ve mentioned in my previous articles, I was reared in an Evangelical tradition (specifically Southern Baptist). When I began my inquiry into the practices of the early Church, two of the most often mentioned practices and beliefs were baptismal regeneration—that is, the idea that a man is truly “born again” when he is baptized in water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—and infant baptism. I was obviously troubled by the affirmation of both of these practices; Southern Baptists not only believe that water baptism is a mere declaration before men of the salvation that has already been completed through an inner working of faith within the believer’s heart, but also that, due to the necessity of that personal, inner faith, baptism of children unable to understand the gospel message and thus place their faith in Christ at the moment of baptism is not only nonsensical, but also dangerous, as said practice only serves to lure those baptized as infants into a false sense of security wherein personal belief in Christ later on in life is not necessary. After examining the unanimous testimony of the early Fathers, however—as well as re-examining the testimony of Holy Scripture in light of said Fathers’ interpretation—I came to realize that not only do both teachings find their roots in the authority of the Apostles’ doctrine itself, but also provide for a much more holistic view of salvation that fulfills perfectly the Old Testament type and shadow from whence it came. This essay will not delve into the patristic arguments—they are, by and large, discourses on the scriptural passages that will be mentioned here—rather, it will deal solely with the Scriptures which, when taken in the light of the early Church’s reception of the tradition of the Apostles, point to these teachings.

To begin talking about the nature of salvation through baptism it behooves us to go back to the very beginning of humanity, when God created man in His image, to grow into His likeness. When mankind fell, however, the sons of Adam were no longer in the image of God, but in that of fallen Adam (Gen. 5:3). The very fact that we are physically linked to the source of our fallen nature necessitates that we join ourselves to a new nature—a new Adam is needed. St. Paul declares that Jesus Christ is that new Adam:

“The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven (1 Cor. 15:45-9).

How is it, then, that we acquire the nature of the new Adam? St. Paul once again proclaims: “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). We see this as an excellent starting point: God made a way for our fallen nature—deprived as it was of the image of our Creator—to reunite with said image. Through our baptism we unite with the God-Man, and thus regain our lost, divine image.

This is all well and good, the Evangelical would say, but did not John the Baptist (whom we Orthodox usually call “the Forerunner”) state that, unlike him, Christ would not baptize with water but with the Spirit and with fire? Would this not signal to us that the important baptism was an inner, intangible one that would thus invalidate the need for a physical rite of water baptism? To answer this question, let us look at yet another parallel drawn between an Old Testament patriarch and water baptism: that of Noah and the flood, as drawn for us by St. Peter:

There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him (1 Pet. 3:21-2).

While an Evangelical often immediately draws a distinction between physical removal of filth and an inner answer of conscience, let us notice two things:

1) Believer’s baptism cannot be separated from the “answer of a good conscience toward God” as described in this passage; indeed it is defined as the answer of said conscience—in other words, “water baptism” equals “good answer of conscience,” and vice versa.

2) Not only can we not have a truly pleasing response to God’s grace, according to this verse, without water baptism, but that act of answering to God’s grace via water baptism specifically is that which saves us, according to the very words of St. Peter!

As a last reference to baptism, let us heed the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans:

“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (5:3-4).

It is through baptism, therefore—“the likeness of His death”—that we are “united together” with Christ; this is not accomplished solely through an intangible, inner repentance. The passage states that if we were baptized into Christ, it is to say that we were really baptized into His death. If we were baptized into His death, we shall also see His resurrection, as the verses following the citation state. He says our old man was crucified with Him. When? When we participated in the likeness of His death, and that was in baptism. The Evangelical should not fear, however, that this is somehow a “works salvation” apart from faith, for this act of being buried with Christ in baptism was always meant to take place in the context of faith, whether that of the individual (in the case of the adult convert) or of the individual’s parents/guardians (in the case of infant baptism).

Yet it is that latter affirmation—that the faith of a child’s parents can suffice for grace to be given to said child at the moment of baptism—which offends Evangelicals, often even more so than the initial idea of baptism’s being the moment of being born again. Certainly, says the Evangelical, the witness of Scripture is solely one of adults who, exercising their own, independent free will, themselves elected to follow Christ in baptism. Yet we Orthodox would point readily to many Scriptures that in our view teach the contrary—verses that were pointed to in like manner by those who were trained by the very authors of those Scriptures as supporting the baptism of infants.

The most commonly cited passage is St. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost:

Then Peter said to them, Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call (Acts 2:38-39).

Notice a few things here. As has already been established, the baptism is for remission of sins and the reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit, not just repentance. But the baptism was not only for the adults who heard him that day, but for their children as well. St. Peter gave this imperative of baptism, and included the children in this. It’s useful to remember at this point that, in the culture of the apostles’ day, both children and slaves (and even women!) were considered the property of the man. As went the man, so went the whole family; individual choice had very little to do with whether or not a child—or even a full-grown female or slave!—would have chosen to have been baptized. This is not to say that we ought to reinstate the patriarchy of previous centuries, but the practice indeed colors St. Peter’s statement, to be sure. Given this historical context, it is entirely unreasonable to think that the Apostles would have been uncomfortable with baptizing an infant, since the very practice is mentioned in the first sermon of Christianity.

The clearest reference to the legitimacy of infant baptism, however, is in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead (2:11-12).

Here we see baptism being compared to circumcision—“the circumcision made without hands.” Since we know that circumcision was done primarily to eight-day old boys at the consent of their parents in order to bring them into the nation of Israel, and baptism is the initiation rite into the Christian Church (the present-day continuation and fulfillment of the People of Israel), it stands to reason that, just as circumcision was not withheld from infants, neither is baptism. This is corroborated not only by St. Paul elsewhere—who baptized whole households, children and slaves included at the decision of the father/master—but also by St. Peter at Pentecost. Indeed, as a Jewish father would have brought his male infants to be circumcised, so the Christian father brings all his children to Christ—in whom there is no male or female—via the life-giving waters of baptism.

What, then of individual faith? If it is not necessary that an individual give his or her consent regarding initial baptism, is it therefore necessary for the believer to have individual faith later in life? Can an adult be baptized apart from individual confession of faith? Can a baptized Orthodox Christian live an impure life post-baptism and expect to benefit from said life in the Orthodox Church? We would answer with a resounding “No” to all of these questions, without hesitation. It should be said that we Orthodox, in the case of adult conversions, absolutely require that a person make a public statement of faith before being baptized (a section of our rite of baptism of adults exists expressly for the renunciation of Satan and the former delusion in which the one to be baptized formerly dwelt). Likewise, the baptized Christian child should be brought up to observe the Orthodox faith (primarily via the example of devout, observant Orthodox parents, it should be noted), just as a circumcised Jewish boy would be expected to grow up participating in the spiritual life of the Old Testament Israel. After such an upbringing, he or she would (may God grant) make the faith of the Church his or her own personal faith.

When it is argued, then, that baptism, like circumcision, is not to be seen as effectual outside of “faith,” we Orthodox would agree, though hasten to restate that, for both institutions, the faith of the parents could be the initial faith exercised, and that the individual’s faith would grow to replace the parents’ faith as he or she grows in the grace given at baptism. Just as circumcision united infants to the saving people of God, so baptism does the same, giving them grace to help them work out their salvation from the start of their lives, since they’ve already been united to Christ. If they still choose one day to reject that, then their choice will have been made, but every grace was given to them to help them regardless.

It is indeed tempting to see the sacraments as “magical” because they can be given to humans who are not intellectually capable of understanding what’s going on. We would say that not only will we never understand what goes on in the mysteries of the Orthodox Church (even as adults), but also that a lack of intellectual assent on the part of the recipient does not make the sacrament “magical,” but rather incarnational. God’s union with human nature meant our salvation regardless of His state at the time; Christ’s saving presence on earth was just as powerful when He was an inarticulate infant lying in a manger as when He preached the Beatitudes as an adult or screamed His last words and shed His final drops on the Cross. The Church, through its sacraments, understands this very thing, and allows even the infants to come to Him, for He would bless them as well. Indeed, He wills that we become even as they are—innocent, united to Him, born again in water and in Spirit.