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  • Writer's pictureElaine Kelly

Original Sin: What Is the Meaning of Baptism?

Updated: Dec 26, 2022

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? and the final one puts it all together in Part 4: Original Sin: Constructing your Faith Interactive Activity.

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.

Baptism: Symbolic

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