Original Sin: What Is the Meaning of Baptism?
Updated: Sep 8
As I examined past and present views of the doctrine of original sin, I saw how deeply these views impact the different meanings of baptism. As Christians, we are called to work out our salvation, so I am providing bite-sized summaries of Christian theologies through history to help you clarify your own beliefs and respect the beliefs of other Christians.
In an earlier blog, I examined Part 1: Original Sin: Are We Born Bad?
Today we look at Part 2: Original Sin: What is the Meaning of Baptism? The next post discusses Part 3: Original Sin: What Is Its Impact on Salvation?
Baptism: A Sacrament
The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches view baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity as more than a symbol; it is a sacrament, which is a religious ceremony through which the Holy Spirit gives divine grace and mercy. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, we are forgiven and freed from slavery to sin and regenerated or born again and adopted into God’s family.
Baptism: Initiation into God's family
Christian parents baptized babies and children as early as the 3rd century, bringing the child into the family of God. Biblical references to whole households being baptized infer that children were baptized and included in the body of believers. These whole households followed the new way: the royal official (John 4:53), Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48), Lydia (Acts 16:15), Philippian jailer (Acts 16:34), Crispus (Acts 18:8), Stephanus, (1 Corinthians 1:16). Paul compares baptism of as an initiation into the community of Christian believers to circumcision which initiated Jewish baby boys into the community (Colossians 2:11-14). The symbol of the covenant, or vows, between God and Abraham was for males to be circumcised. Women were represented through the ‘paterfamilias’ or father of the family. The symbol of obedience to God’s new covenant agreement requires all individuals, male and female to respond to the covenant and be baptized.
The church encouraged infant baptism, where believing parents and the church community respond for their child, taking responsibility for the child’s Christian upbringing and including the child in the body of believers. The child benefits from the faith of those who bring it for baptism (1 Kings 17:17-24 and John 4: 47-50, Matthew 15: 25-28, Mark 7:28-30). While the baptized child is adopted into God's family by their guardian's decision, the church taught that once the child grows to maturity, they must confirm the decision to receive the blessing of the Sacrament.
The 2nd-century Bishop of Antioch, St Ignatius, believed Jesus had purified the birth waters, so babies do not inherit the guilt of Adam and therefore do not require forgiveness for it. He viewed baptism as a symbol that you die to your former life and through faith in God you are born into a new life, just as Jesus died, was buried and resurrected.
Baptism: a Requirement
In approx. 200 AD, Tertullian wrote that when Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:3 that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they were born again, he was referring to baptism. Further, the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 instructs that when you make new disciples, baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Tertullian says that baptism washes away our sins, sets us free from sin, and admits us into eternal life. The Church Sacrament of Baptism is the approved way for the Holy Spirit to operate to give birth to your new life. While Tertullian acknowledges many people were baptizing infants, he advised that new believers be baptized and that children should not be baptized until they can personally believe in Christ.
In the 3rd century, the theologian Origen pointed out that those who had John's baptism of repentance (Acts 19:1-6) had to be baptized again by Apostle Paul to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit.
Infant Baptism: Forgiveness for Original Sin
Even though an infant has not yet personally committed a sin, the church declared at the Council of Carthage in 418 AD that an infant carries sins and guilt of Adam and must be baptized to have their sins washed away. Baptism is required for infants, since they have the guilt of original sin, and without the Sacrament of Baptism there is no remission of sins. The church said its Sacrament of Baptism was God’s chosen way of delivering forgiveness for Adam’s original sin and the Holy Spirit giving birth to new life, regenerating the baptized person as a child of God.
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, taught that our sins are paid for in baptism, and by the sacrament of baptism, believers are made spotless and clean from the Holy Spirit's regeneration but must pray daily for forgiveness of new sins (the Lord's prayer Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:4). Just as Augustine believed God elected certain people to salvation, he believed the Holy Spirit moved some parents to request baptism for their baby based on God’s predestination that those babies would be saved (Jer. 1:5, Luke 1:15). Baptizing babies, who have not done anything to deserve it, was a way to show that salvation is based only on God’s grace and favour, not on any human effort. After Augustine, it was in the church's favour to state that the church Sacrament of Baptism was required for salvation.
Baptism: A Command / Ordinance
Martin Luther said infant baptism was valid as a work of God, commanded by God, and not a human ceremony. Baptism is a sacrament and means for the Holy Spirit to bring salvation to a child, but through prayer, God is able to save an unbaptized child. Infant baptism may be done by believing parents or guardians in the hope and prayer that the child will be given faith.
John Calvin taught that baptism was not necessary for salvation because the salvation of both infants and adults depends not on whether they are baptized but on whether they are God's elect. Salvation is wholly based on God’s grace and not on any human act, decision or ceremony. Baptism was not a sacrament or means for the Holy Spirit to effect salvation, but a symbol of God’s work of salvation, done in obedience to a biblical command. Baptism could be by sprinkling or by immersion as a symbol of Christ’s blood sprinkled on us for the removal of sins. Calvin wrote that when a male head of the family is received into God’s fellowship, salvation is given to him and his children (Deut. 12:25-28, Genesis 17:7). Infants of believers are baptized, which adopts them into God’s family and seals God’s promise. All babies or children who are part of the elect are saved, regardless of their baptism status.
Calvinists believe that God prompts parents of infants who are God’s elect to baptize their children and to raise them according to Christ’s teaching. Where Jesus invites the children to him and says the kingdom of God belongs to such as these children, the doctrine of the elect reads “some such as these’ not ‘all such as these’. Some Calvinists also believe in double predestination, that infants and adults who are not the elect are condemned.
Some Arminians believed babies would be condemned for not accepting God’s offer of salvation. However, many Arminians would say that since infants are too young to make a decision, they can not be held accountable and all infants go to heaven.
Baptism: Necessary for Salvation
At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Catholic Church condemned the new Protestant doctrines and confirmed its stance that God ties personal salvation to the church Sacrament of Baptism. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16). The Catholic Church upholds seven sacraments, believing God acts through these religious ceremonies: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist (the Lord's Supper), Confession (Reconciliation), Anointing the Sick, Marriage, Holy Orders (ordination as a priest, bishop).
Infants Are Not Damned
Through the centuries many believed the untruth that infants will be damned for the guilt of original sin if they are not baptized. Slowly, Christians are realizing that God saves all infants, miscarried babies, children, and those who are not mentally able to accept or reject God.
The Bible does not say that unbaptized infants will be damned. The Bible says that no adult or child is accountable for the sins of other people or guilty of Adam's sin (Ezekiel 18:20, Deuteronomy 24:16, 2 Kings 14:6, Jeremiah 31:29-30). God judges us by our own faith and actions (Matthew 25:45-46, Romans 2:6, Galatians 6:7-9). All people who reject God’s word are without excuse and condemned (Romans 1:18-20), but infants do not fall into that category since they have not understood God’s word. Children are born not knowing right from wrong and must be taught to reject evil and obey God (Isaiah 7:15-16, Proverbs 22:6). God offers salvation to any who accepts it, and God wants all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4-6). Jesus's death and resurrection were sufficient to save all people, not only a limited elect number. Jesus calls all children to him, not some children (Matthew 18:2-10, 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16). The idea that infants could be damned is not consistent with God's character.
Pelagianism taught that baptism was not necessary for a child’s salvation because infants and children have not yet reached the age of accountability and are unable to reject God.
Augustine argued against Pelagianism and said infants are born guilty because they carry Adam’s original sin. He pointed to childish impulses to prove the human tendency to sin and disobey God. Only through the Church Sacrament of Baptism can God wash away original sin from the infant and regenerate them as new creatures. For many years, some Christians believed unbaptized infants are damned because of Augustine's teaching. However, Augustine's writings also say that a soul is not held guilty for ignorance and incapacity. We are not damned unless we willfully do wrong, and a child cannot be guilty until reaching an age of accountability.
Unable to reform the Roman Catholic Church, the protesters clarified new Protestant theologies in church confessions. The Calvinist (Reformed), Lutheran, and Anglican churches became Magisterial Protestants, partnering with monarchies or government leaders to have religious policies regulated by the state. Early Reformers Luther and Calvin did not oppose infant baptism.
Protestant Reformer Huldrych Zwingli had a milder view of original sin and a wide hope of salvation. He rejected human sacraments as a means of obtaining God's grace. Zwingli opposed infant baptism believing the only true baptism is done by individuals of the age of reason who freely choose to profess their faith in Christ and be baptized. He taught that this believer's baptism sealed a covenant with God. However, Zwingli deferred to the civil authorities for church reform and submitted to the legal requirement that people baptize their infants.
Baptism: Separate Church and State
By the 16th century, the combined religious and state authority of the Magisterial Protestants and Roman Catholics centralized power and led to corruption. They ruled that all infants must be baptized and that re-baptism as an adult was against the law.
A new, radical reformation began with reformers, such as Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock, who believed the Bible was the only authority needed for church reform and that infant baptism was unbiblical. Conrad Grebel refused to baptize his infant daughter, believing babies do not inherit Adam’s guilt (Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 18), and humans are only accountable for their own sins. He and fellow radical reformers taught that all infants go to heaven, that their own baptism as infants was invalid, and that biblical baptism required individuals to freely chose to make a confession of faith. In 1525 a small group of adult reformers became re-baptized with a believer's baptism. In 1527, Manz became the first Anabaptist martyr and in 1529 Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Emperor, decreed that re-baptism was forbidden on pain of death. Anabaptists were heavily persecuted.
Other Baptist denominations have a history that is separate from Anabaptist history. Most Baptists believe the Holy Spirit comes as soon as you decide to believe. Baptism is an outward symbol showing a person's inward transformation. Unlike in earlier traditions, the Holy Spirit comes on a person first, and then they are baptized. Adult believer's baptism symbolizes the death of the old life and the birth of new life in the spirit, which develops as a person grows in godliness over time. Babies are never baptized, but believers bring their children to be dedicated to God and blessed, just as Jesus blessed the children. Parents and the church community may commit to giving the child a Christian upbringing with the hope that as the child grows, they will make their own faith decision. Pentecostals and charismatic churches also follow the practice of believer's baptism by full immersion.
Baptism: Unnecessary Obstruction
The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) developed in the 17th century, was different in the way they advocated seeing all people equally, and oppose hierarchal human structures and oaths of loyalty to human leaders. They have no hierarchy of ordained priests, pastors, or clergy to mediate between God and humans, both women and men can speak, teach, and prophesy during worship. Quakers do not practice Baptism or Communion, believing that religious liturgies, sacraments, and ordinances are an obstruction between the believer and God, not a means to receive God's blessing. Instead of church rituals, Quakers aim for continuous renewal in the Holy Spirit.
Infant Baptism in Breakaway Groups
Puritans broke away from the Anglican church, believing the Anglican church held onto too many of the Roman Catholic rituals and liturgies. For Puritans, baptism was not a means for the Holy Spirit to give new life and was not necessary for the forgiveness of sins and does not contribute to salvation. Puritans did infant baptism as an ordinance, in obedience to God's commands. Covenant Theology teaches that baptism is a symbol of God’s covenant promise, comparable to Jewish circumcision, adopting the child into the community of believers. Children could be baptized as infants, brought into the family of God, but did not become full members eligible to take the Lord’s Supper (Communion) until they gave evidence of a conversion experience.
After the War of Independence, the Episcopalian church organized as the American counterpart to the Church of England (Anglican), but followed Anglican governance and doctrines on baptism and communion. The Methodist reform movement broke away from the Anglican Church in the 1790s when the Bishop of London refused to ordain Anglican preachers in the United States. John Wesly, believing the Bible allowed an elder to ordain church leaders, circumvented the Bishop and ordained American Methodists with authority to conduct Communion and Baptism. John Wesley founded the Methodist movement to reform the Anglican Church to focus less on liturgy and more on methodical devotion, study, and personal salvation. Early Methodists held revival camp meetings, opposed slavery, and appealed to blacks, women, and the working class. Both Episcopalians and Methodists followed the practice of infant baptism similar to the Catholics and Anglicans.
Where Do We Stand Today?
Of those who identify as Christians, 80% belong to denominations that accept infant baptisms, such as Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Episcopalian, Methodist, Reformed, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist.
Pew Research Centre surveyed Americans in 2015 and found that 46.5% of adults described themselves as Christian Protestants (down from 51.3% in 2007). The share belonging to Roman Catholic Church was 20.8%, mainline protestant churches were 14.7%, and evangelical protestants were at 25%. The study categorized evangelical denominations as including the Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God and many nondenominational churches.
Across Western Europe, over 90% of people report they were baptized in a Christian church, but fewer than that report being raised as Christians or retaining their affiliation with a church. When the survey asked why baptized people did not stay affiliated with their religion, half or more responded:
- gradually drifted away from religion
- stopped believing in the teachings of their childhood church
- disagreed with their religion's positions on social issues (homosexuality, abortion)
- Church scandals
Churches may use the number of baptisms to measure their faithfulness in reaching people with God's offer of salvation. However, many adults who are baptized are not new believers; over half of them report having been baptized before, were rededicating their lives to Christ, or were being re-baptized in order to move their membership to another church denomination. Some continue to think that baptism will assure them salvation.
Baptism Initiation vs. Discipleship, Engagement, Retention
Baptism may not be a good indicator of church growth if baptized people do not stay affiliated with the church. Churches will need to focus on keeping people engaged in church after they are baptized; to disciple them and involve them after they come to the faith. Churches may do this by offering social programs, discipleship, committees or ministries to involve members.
Church members may be more engaged if churches take a few notes from the business world, which has researched how to keep employees and volunteers engaged.
Engagement can be increased by recognizing your employees or volunteers, acknowledging their achievements, showing appreciation for their work, and building a positive culture where people feel happy, comfortable, respected, and unthreatened. Employees value a collaborative culture where thoughts and ideas can be exchanged. Employees are more engaged and committed if they can have a bit of flexibility in how they execute tasks and control their time. Employees want their work to make a positive difference, to work for a company that shares their vision and mission in the world, where their contributions are making a valuable contribution to the shared purpose. Church members will be more engaged if leaders listen, discuss, and address questions about church beliefs, doctrines, teachings, and positions on social issues. Churches need to repent of scandals and set accountability policies to ensure members feel safe and unthreatened.
Church members may also be retained after baptism if churches look at client retention policies of businesses. As a business person, this reminds me of the statistic that acquiring a new client is more difficult, costly, and time-consuming than retaining an existing one. Businesses put efforts into staying in touch with their clients, building relationships, providing events, and facilitating participation. Organizations know that hearing a complaint is a good thing; it shows the client cares about your institution; it provides an opportunity and ideas to improve. If churches want to retain their members, they need to listen to those who have questions or concerns about their church or its stance and address them.
Christian baptism has been hugely controversial throughout history. There is a strong following of historical traditions observing infant baptism, but it has widely varying meanings to them. Fortunately, people are no longer forced to baptize their baby or punished for choosing an adult believer's baptism.
Research is showing that baptism does not necessarily result in a life-long commitment to growing in spiritual maturity. Perhaps in Western Europe and North America, church communities need to focus less on baptism and more on discipleship to engage and retain members.
Historical theologians have shown a biblical rationale for both believer's baptism and infant baptism. As Christians, we can be united in knowing that baptism has brought us all into the family of God. Check the lists in the box to clarify what you think about baptism.