We have a new question from Anonymous:
I read your article “One Baptism” concerning water baptism; it was helpful in many areas: the baptized nominal Christians being on Christ (John 15) but not giving fruit.therefore will be cut off. But since I have further inquiries about water baptism, I found it helpful to post the questions as another entity (and not as comments).
1) Historically what are the viewpoints on “baptism with water”. I mean men of God (Church Fathers, Men of Reformation…) how they regarded “water baptism”. Was it only a SIGN representing the Essence of Spirit birth/cleansing of sins (John 1:12-13; 1 john 5:1; 1 Cor 6:11) (clear quotations are needed especially from Church Fathers and Luther the father of reformation) or there was something ACTUALLY happening in baptism (infants were reborn spiritually/washed from their sins in comparison with John 3:5; Acts 22:16) as it is apparent in the majority of the writings of the Church Fathers.
2) By my short knowledge, the writings of the majority of the Church Fathers taught that every baptized was born from God. Why should the Christian masses need to receive Jesus and be born of God (John 1:12-13) if they were already born of God in baptism while infants?
Why they need to believe and become a new creation (Eph 2:8-10) if they were created anew in baptism while infants?
Why their old nature need to be crucified with Christ (Rom 6) if their old nature was already crucified in baptism while infants?
But the problem is that this same baptized people are not showing the SIGNS of TRUE believers (they are not showing they are a new creation, their flesh crucified…) And the Bible says very clearly every one born of God WILL WALK in holiness (1 John 3:9; 5:8). Yet we don’t see the baptized “christian” masses walk in holiness. Practically they are not showing they are born of God. If it is so, why were the Church Fathers so deliberately insisting that the baptized are born of God in baptism. Were the christian masses at their time all walked in holiness ? If no, how did they tackled this challenge? (clear quotations needed)
( Note: sorry for asking quotations. In patristics you are better learned than all of us)
Also it is interesting to know how Church Fathers explained the verses EMPHASIZING being born of God UPON receiving Jesus by faith (John 1:12-13; 1 John 5:1). Clearly not the case of infants.
3) Can we say that all these operations of the Spirit (regeneration, washing, crucifixion of the old nature…) really happened while the infants were baptized but when grown up they are not taking them by faith ? Just as a slave who was freed by the constitution, but he didn’t know about it, much less believed it. Therefore he continued to act as a slave. So our part is to preach the Word, and faith comes thereafter. Faith on what was already and ACTUALLY happened in baptism. Can we say such?
Thanks in advance.
James and Grace love each other very much. They were bound to each other by the betrothal ring, as James asked Grace’s parents for her hand… One year later, they made their marriage vows before the church, and thus the wedding ring bound them to each other for their whole life…
Guess what! That ring didn’t do anything… And James didn’t ask for Grace’s hand only, but he asked for her as a whole… But this was a short parable to make the contemporary man get an idea about the biblical way of expressing truths with signs. Those signs are called by the name of the fact, but they are not the fact itself. Indeed, in this parable, the binding is said to be done by the rings, although anyone of us today understands that this means that the binding is done by the vows that those rings represent and signify… Many years later, if someone reads these lines and concludes that I teach that the ring itself is what makes people become one in marriage, he will be a superstitious person who doesn’t understand my way of expression… In biblical language, the ring is called a sign. The biblical language is different from our modern ways of expression or the analytic and systematic ways that theology teachers use to explain biblical truths today. For example, you can’t find in the Bible any passage where baptism or the Lord’s Supper or the Trinity is explained in an analytic way. When the Bible talks about the signs that God gives as the seals of His promises, it doesn’t say “this sign is not the truth itself, but it only signifies the assurance of the promise”; it naturally links the promise to the sign, calling the sign by the name of the effect or the promise itself, because the sign is given by God for this very purpose, i.e. to make the sign truly express that promise and its unshakable and sure nature. For instance, after the Flood, God said to Noah: “I set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be for a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass when I bring clouds over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud, and I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living soul of all flesh; and the waters shall not henceforth become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living soul of all flesh that is upon the earth.” (Genesis 9:13-16) Here is an interesting passage where we see how the Bible expresses things that the modern man misunderstands. Note that the rainbow is not a bow that God would use in His wars, although He calls it “my bow”… Skeptics, when reading this passage, conclude that the Bible presents a god who forgets and needs to be reminded of things… But that’s because they don’t know what the signs are according to the biblical language. Indeed, before God gave this sign to Noah, He already had the eternal purpose not to destroy all flesh anymore again as long as the earth remains: “And Jehovah said in his heart, I will no more henceforth curse the ground on account of Man, for the thought of Man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will no more smite every living thing, as I have done. Henceforth, all the days of the earth, seed [time] and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:21-22) So God would never smite every living thing as long as the earth remains, and that rainbow was not the reason why He would not do that. But why did He say those things to Noah while giving him the sign of the rainbow? It’s because the sign was given as an assurance for Noah that God would never forget His promise, and thus the promise was sure! In other words, the sign expressed the following truth, but without words: “Noah, later on some strong floods will still happen on earth. When they happen, and even if the weakness of your faith or of the faith of any believer may make you think that God may have forgotten His promise and that that flood will destroy the whole earth again as it did in the days of Noah, just look to the rainbow, and you will get assured that the flood will not destroy the whole earth, because God has given you that sign as an assurance of His promise not to destroy the whole earth again”. You see how a misunderstanding of the signs makes you understand the exact opposite of what is said. Indeed, in this passage God is saying that He may never forget His promise and that He has even given a sign of assurance, while the skeptic understands from it that God may forget… Actually, if God may forget, then how can we be sure that He will not even forget what the rainbow signifies?… Another example is the lamb of the Passover. Well, look what Jesus said: “say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is My guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?”‘” (Mark 14:14) To eat the Passover?? Well, the Passover is not something that can be eaten… The Passover is the fact that the Angel of the Lord passed over (and thus the name) the houses of the sons of Israel when He smote the Egyptians… So how could Jesus eat this Passover?… Here is how: “‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.” (Exodus 12:27) So Jesus ate the Passover sacrifice or lamb! But how did He call that sacrifice? He called it by the name of the thing signified by that sacrifice, and thus He simply said that He would eat the Passover. Does this mean that the Passover lamb could save the children of Israel if they didn’t believe the promise? Not at all! For indeed God said that if anyone of the sons of Israel didn’t stay at home and eat that lamb, he would be destroyed with the Egyptians. So one needs to believe what God expresses by the given sign, or else the sign does not help him in anything. But when someone believes the signified truth of the sign, then this sign becomes for him a visible Word of God and an assurance of the certainty of His promise. The sons of Israel who obeyed God and ate the Passover lamb and put of its blood a sign on their doors could be assured that their firstborn males would not die that night! This is how the sign helps the weakness of our faith. Further, it is a sign that expresses a covenant between God and His people, as it expresses a promise of God to His people. Note that all covenants are based on a promise.
Having clarified these important things, let’s pass to the subject of Christian baptism. Indeed, the water of baptism is a sign similar to what we have seen above. God has given this sign to be received by faith as signifying the assurance of the new birth and of Salvation. It is the sign of the New Covenant, as it expresses the promise linked to the New Covenant. And just like the lamb of Passover, the water of baptism is called by the name of the fact that it signifies. Just as Jesus didn’t eat the Passover but the Passover lamb, we also are not born again by the mere water of baptism but by what that water signifies and which we receive by faith. Indeed, faith receives the promise or the Word of God, and thus it is a living faith; and the sign of water in baptism is a visible Word of God as we have seen above. This in fact is what we call a sacrament. During time, the Church has reached this common way of expressing this biblical truth of signs and the truth that they signify. This common expression is “sacrament”. A sacrament is a sign and a promise linked to it by God in order to give us the assurance of the thing signified by the sign, as we have seen above.
Brief: Sacrament = a sign from God + a promise from God.
So let’s see now what is the thing signified in baptism, and what is the relation of the sign with the thing signified, and let’s see what the Church always believed about all these things.
1. What is the new birth?
God told Adam that the day he eats from the forbidden tree he would die. This was the spiritual death. As soon as Adam ate from the forbidden tree, he was separated from God spiritually. In the Bible, this separation is called death, because in the Bible “death” never means an annihilation, but a separation. Just as the separation of the soul from the body is a physical or a biological death, in the same way the separation of a man from God is a spiritual death, because God is the Life. And this spiritual death causes also the physical death which is linked to it. All humans who are born naturally from a natural relation between a man and a woman are born with the nature of Adam who is in separation from God, so all humans are sinners by nature; they are dead spiritually, and therefore they all die physically. They naturally seek to live for themselves, and they naturally disagree with the mind of God and with the Spirit of holiness. Naturally, all humans seek to control their destiny and they don’t want God to be their Lord and King whom they love and obey. This is what the Bible explains when it says that all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God (cf. Romans 3:23). The Bible also describes this natural man as being unable to receive the things of the Spirit of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:14) and unable to please God (cf. Romans 8:5-8). For this reason Jesus said that no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again (cf. John 3:3,6,7). As He was explaining to Nicodemus the truth of the new birth, Jesus explained that it is the Holy Spirit that regenerates us to the new life, and that this is done by the means of the Word of God received by faith (cf. John 3:5-20). I remind you that we have seen above that the sacraments also are the visible Word of God as they are signs that reveal a truth of God; we will see details about this later in this article. This Word of God presents to us Jesus Christ as the Savior Lord, the Life, and thus whoever receives Him has the eternal life (cf. 1 John 5:11-12). Note that the expression “eternal life” doesn’t only imply a duration of time, but also a quality of life: it is the spiritual life of holiness. We have seen details about this in our article The Resurrection and the Life. This is the spiritual life which we have in Christ as we are reconciled with God and we love Him as our Father in Christ. All those who are born of God by faith in Christ receive a new nature that pleases God. So the new birth is done by God, and it is solely by His Grace that we receive this new life. There is nothing we can do to have this life as a reward; we need to receive it as a free Gift from God.
Now, note that this new birth is a necessity for all humans from Adam until the last man who will be born, because all are sinners and need to be born of God and to receive the new nature. This alone destroys the argument of those who say that baptism is the new birth, because if baptism were the new birth, then all Old Testament saints are lost, as none of them was baptized… But the Bible clearly says that all those Old Testament saints will be with God forever. Remember for instance what Jesus said: “I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11) So Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were born again and will see the Kingdom of Heaven… Let me remind you that neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Jacob were baptized, so baptism is not the new birth in effect… Baptism is the new birth as a sign, as we will see later. God expressed the truth of the new birth to the Old Testament saints when he told them to circumcise their hearts (cf. Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Ezekiel 44:9). Does this not remind you of the circumcision of the flesh in the Old Testament? Well, yes: the circumcision of the flesh was the sign that God had given to the Old Testament saints as a seal of the promise of the circumcision of their hearts and as the sign of the Old Covenant. One would wonder why such a high truth as the new birth would be expressed by this circumcision of the flesh. But it’s the most appropriate sign, because it expresses that the whole seed of man is corrupted and that it can’t be reformed but that it should be cut and it should die. Thus this sacrament of circumcision used to signify the circumcision of the heart. But does this mean that all those who were circumcised in flesh were circumcised in heart? Paul answers no in Romans 2:28-29. This sign was given to the godly man who believed its signification in order to strengthen his faith and to give him the assurance of the promise of the circumcision of the heart in the coming Christ. The Jew who didn’t receive this sign by faith was not a Jew in heart, and thus was lost even while having that sign on his flesh, and thus he was like an uncircumcised person (cf. Romans 2:25). Colossians 2:11-12 says that the Christian circumcision of the heart is the baptism of Christ (made without hands), so the Christian circumcision of the flesh is the water of baptism which is the sign of the New Covenant.
2. What is Christian baptism?
We have seen the answer to this question in details in our article to which Anonymous referred in his question: “… one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Anonymous says it’s an article about water baptism, although we clarified in that article that there is nothing called “water baptism” for Christians and that water baptism was the baptism of John… Anyway, let’s summarize what we have seen in that article about Christian baptism, adding the needed comments related to this article’s subject. We have seen that the baptism of John was a baptism with water, while the baptism of Jesus is the baptism with the Holy Spirit. Water baptism is not the baptism of Jesus, but the baptism of John. Although the baptism of John also expressed the truth of repentance, but it didn’t signify that the one baptized had become one with Christ by the Holy Spirit. And although Jesus also used in His baptism the same sign of water that John used in his baptism, but Christ’s baptism is not the baptism with water. Many received this sign of Christ’s baptism (which is water), but they never received the baptism of Jesus. Those who only have the sign of this baptism of Jesus (i.e. water) are Christians by name, and yet they don’t have the essence in them which is the life of Christ; they are branches that do not give fruits and therefore they are cut and thrown in fire (cf. John 15:1-11). Only those who are baptized with the Holy Spirit are true Christians who have the life of Christ in them. In other terms, one could have received the sign of the baptism of Jesus (i.e. water) and thus have become a disciple of Jesus, and yet never be a true disciple of Jesus (cf. John 8:30-32), and thus be lost forever in Hell! This clearly appears in John 6:60-66 where many of the disciples of Jesus who were baptized as His disciples (cf. John 3:22-23 and John 4:1-2) left Him; in that passage of John 6:60-66, Jesus said that those disciples were not really believers (cf. John 6:64). So those false disciples had only the sign of Christ’s baptism, but were not born of God and would never receive the baptism of Christ unless they were born of God by faith. A Christian servant of God can only give us the sign of Christ’s baptism, and he does that by the authority given by Christ to the Apostles and through them to the Church; but he can’t give us the baptism of Christ, because only Christ can baptize us with the Holy Spirit. This baptism with the Holy Spirit happened almost 2000 years ago, on the first Pentecost after the Resurrection of the Lord, and we receive that same baptism today when we are born of God by faith. This new birth itself happened almost 2000 years ago on the cross, and it is not by our faith that we make it happen; by our faith we only receive that new life. In the biblical language, this whole truth is expressed with the sign itself, and thus Peter says that the sign saves us (cf. 1 Peter 3:20-21), but he quickly explains himself and says that this is not done by the sign itself (i.e. the water), but by the essence that this sign signifies, i.e. the demand as before God of a good conscience, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as the waters of the Flood could not save Noah unless he entered the Ark, in the same way the water of baptism cannot save us unless we are in the Ark, Jesus Christ, by living faith. For those who were not in the Ark with Noah, the waters became a means of death and not of life. When you truly believe in Christ and are born again, the sign of water (in baptism) declares to you that you are united with Christ, and thus you are a member of His body, you are one body with all true believers, the one spiritual body of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13, Romans 6:2-14). But if you are not born of God by faith, then this sign of water is for you like the waters of the Flood were for those who were not in the Ark. In the Old Covenant, the sign that was given to Abraham and later to the Jews to signify all these truths was the circumcision of the flesh which signified the circumcision of the heart which the Old Testament saints would only receive fully in the coming Christ. In the New Covenant, this circumcision of the heart happened in Christ when the true believers were united to Christ as one body by the baptism with the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13). Colossians 2:11-12 says that the Christian circumcision of the heart is the baptism of Christ (made without hands), so the Christian circumcision of the flesh, i.e. the sign, is the water of baptism. This is the sign of the New Covenant.
The Bible explains all these truths with the sign of the baptismal water, thus giving the true believer the assurance that he has all these truths (see for example Romans 6). Whenever a true believer’s faith is weak, he should look to that sign to remember the promise of eternal life in Christ, and thus to be assured and to overcome any temptation by a living faith based on the living Word of God expressed visibly by that sign which God has given to him as the seal of all those signified truths. But this doesn’t mean that the sign in itself, and without the faith that receives the promise signified by the sign, can make anyone be born again (cf. Romans 10:8-17). We have seen that many of Christ’s disciples were already baptized, but they were not born of God, and even one of them was a devil (I mean Judas Iscariot), as Jesus said . Again, although the Bible expresses all these truths with the sign of baptism and although all these promises are linked to the water of baptism as their sign, and yet this doesn’t mean that the new birth cannot happen without baptism. We have seen in the example of the Old Testament saints how they were born of God without getting baptized with the Christian baptism. We also have some examples in the new Testament; one of them is the thief who was crucified on the cross and who was saved even without getting the sign of the water; and another example is the example of Cornelius and those who were with him, who were born again and received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and only then they received the sign of water as the seal of those promises which they had received. But if anyone refuses to get the sign, this man proves to be a disobedient and rebellious man, and proves that he never received what is signified with the sign, i.e. the new birth and the baptism with the Holy Spirit.
Let’s see now if this is what the Church always believed: that the sign of water saves us, not because it has a magical power to change the nature of the one who receives this sign even without a living faith, but because of the promise linked to it and which is received by faith.
But first, let’s see what baptismal regeneration is.
3. What is baptismal regeneration?
Nobody knows the answer…
Indeed, this expression “baptismal regeneration” was especially used by those who, after the Reformation began in Europe, had some issues even with the Reformation itself and wanted to do a radical change that was based on their particular interpretations of God’s Word concerning the sacraments. These groups, especially the Anabaptists (a term meaning “those who baptize again” and which is used about them by their opponents) and later the Baptists, accused the Reformation leaders of refusing a radical separation from all of the wrong practices of the Roman Catholics. They called the Roman Catholic doctrine about baptism by the expression “baptismal regeneration”, and they then accused the Reformation leaders of believing in another form of “baptismal regeneration”… Their opinion about the water of baptism was that it is simply a sign that doesn’t have any grace attached to it, like a badge that a policeman bears… We have seen that this is not what the Bible teaches.
But if we examine both the doctrine of the Reformation and that of the Roman Catholics about baptism, we quickly notice the important difference. The Roman Catholics built their doctrine about baptism on a long pattern of wrong interpretations coming from the medieval definitions of what a sacrament is, and especially the definition of Thomas Aquinas who taught that a sacrament is a sign that gives the grace that it signifies regardless of whether there is faith in the receiver’s heart or not… According to this definition, the new birth happens as long as baptism is done without an obstacle, as if Jesus had said “whoever does not put any obstacle and is baptized, is saved”… Thus, an infant who is not even able to put any obstacle, is saved by baptism, according to them, but he certainly needs to earn his Salvation later by his faith (which is a merit according to them) and by his good works… This definition of Thomas Aquinas introduced a long pattern of wrong interpretations of the Scripture concerning the sacraments; this pattern was characterized by a sacramental opinion of Salvation, and according to this pattern the sacraments worked ex opere operato. What does this Latin expression mean? Ex opere operato literally means “by the work worked” or “from the doing of the thing done”, i.e. “as soon as you do the sign without any obstacle, the signified effect happens”. This false doctrine means that anyone who receives the sign of baptism (i.e. water), and even if he has no faith, is born again… We have seen how this is contrary to the teaching of God’s Word, as signs have no effect if not received by faith, and we will see later in this article how this teaching is contrary to all what the Church Fathers taught. Today, the Roman Catholics justify this error by embellishing it with some biblical additions. For example, they say that although the sign works ex opere operato, but the receiver doesn’t receive the effect unless he believes and works according to what that sign signifies. But you notice how this is a subtle way to put the Word of God aside and to make faith a merit in man that is not built on the sole Grace of God given to us by His Word. For a Roman Catholic, an infant who is baptized is really born again, and yet he should later believe and work good works, or else he dies again, as if baptism could regenerate that infant without the reception of the Word attached to the sign of water… You certainly notice how all Roman Catholics oppose any call to a radical repentance and new birth, considering it a teaching of “fundamentalists”; that’s because they teach that the new birth already happened in baptism… Later on, this pattern was opposed by some Church teachers, but the majority followed this wrong pattern just like it was in the days when the Arians became a majority but the truth prevailed at last… The followers of this wrong pattern began to re-interpret the Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers in a way that agreed with their ex opere operato until the Church arrived to a day when the Reformation was inevitable. Indeed, it was basically on a sacramental issue that the Reformation began in Europe. The Roman Church which followed the pattern of Aquinas’s definition of the sacraments reached a place where it believed in a sacrament called “the sacrament of penance”, and it based on it the heretical practice of “indulgences”. The Pope began to sell indulgences to those who paid money… An Augustinian monk called Martin Luther, who was a professor of theology, opposed this heretical practice, and based his attack on it on the biblical teaching concerning the sacraments. His Ninety-Five Theses give a clear evidence of what I am saying. Later, Martin Luther wrote an important book entitled “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” in which he studied all the corruptions in the sacramental system of the Roman Catholics. I advise every true disciple of Jesus to read this important work of Luther. The content of this book proves my point that the Reformation’s most primitive cause was in fact sacramental. Later in this article, we will see how Luther clarified in this book that the issue concerning baptism is not really about baptism itself, as Roman Catholics and Baptists and other groups alike are trying to misrepresent today, but that the issue was in the separation of the Word from the sign of water to which it is attached and thus the invention of a new and anti-biblical sacrament called “the sacrament of penance”… Later, in the counter-reformation of Trent, the Roman Catholics revised their definition of the sacraments, but still refused to attach the Word of God to the sign and to refuse any effect of the sign without the Word believed (and not a “New Law” obeyed)…
Let me elaborate all this in another way, as I know that it’s a little complicated for people who do not know the theological history of the Church. The Roman Catholics believe that baptism makes you be born again, even before you have faith, but you don’t have the effect of the new birth unless you continue to believe and to do good works. “Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1213). The simple conclusion is that Roman Catholics believe the sign can make you be born again without the reception of the Word attached to it. If this is what is meant by “baptismal regeneration”, i.e. that the sign really makes you be born again (not in signification, but in effect), then baptismal regeneration is against the teaching of the Bible as we have seen, and also against the teachings of the Church Fathers, as we will see. But if by “baptismal regeneration” is meant that the sign signifies the Word attached to it, and that by the reception of this Word one is born of God, and that thus the sign makes us be born again by signification or by the effect of the Word attached to it, then baptismal regeneration is biblical. And this is what the Reformation tried to bring back to the Church after that long erroneous pattern of Thomas Aquinas’s definition. Taking again the parable that we saw at the beginning of this article: “The union of a man and a woman in marriage is done by the wedding ring” is a false expression if we mean by it that as soon as we put the rings they become one, regardless of the vows of marriage. But if by this expression we mean that the rings signify the union done by the vows, then this expression is right. [Of course, I don’t mean that this example of the rings and marriage is the perfect example to explain baptism, as marriage is not a sacrament in the biblical sense, but, as I said at the beginning of this article, this parable helps people understand the biblical language.] The issue of the Reformation with the Roman Catholics was not about baptism itself, but about the separation of the Word and of faith from this sacrament, thus contradicting even the true definition of what a sacrament is… This false teaching of the Roman Catholics led people to believe that as soon as they sinned after their baptism, then they had no other choice to get pure again (as baptism is done once for all when they are infants…), and thus the theologians of the Roman Catholics invented the “sacrament of penance” which was considered the second option after one loses the first option which is baptism… The Reformation leaders argued that baptism itself is the true sacrament of penance, and that its effect lasts for the whole life, as it is not the sign itself that has a power in it to regenerate, but the Word of God which is attached to it and which is to be believed not only once, but during the whole life of a repentant believer.
Let me make it still easier for you. Practically, if you believe the Roman Catholic doctrine of baptism, you think that you were born again when you were baptized as an infant, and that you don’t need to repent and receive the sole Grace of Christ which is linked to the sign of baptism in order to be saved, because you already received the Grace of Christ when you were baptized… You believe that receiving the Grace of God is not enough; you need to add to it your good works… You believe that what you need now is to keep repenting (i.e. penance…), giving money to the Church, doing good works, etc., in order to earn your Salvation, because once you sinned after your baptism, you fell from Grace and you died again… Now the sacrament of penance is needed… Note that Jesus said that he who believes in Him will never die… Anyway, I am sure that many of the readers do not need to be great theologians in order to notice how this teaching is clearly against what the Bible says. We will also see how the Church Fathers didn’t teach this false teaching. But if you agree with the Reformation and you believe that this sacramental system needs to be restored to what the Church originally believed, then you believe that the sign of water in baptism is the seal that God gives to you as the assurance of His promise of new birth and Salvation which happens by God’s Grace alone through faith alone in the Word of God linked to the sign of water in the sacrament of baptism. In other terms, you believe that the sacrament of repentance and new birth is baptism, and that you don’t need another human-made sacrament called “the sacrament of penance” to replace baptism, and that unless you turn from sin to Christ in a radical repentance and change of life, then you have no benefit from the sign of baptism, because the Grace which is freely given in baptism has no benefit for those who refuse it. Even the Word of God itself, if not received by faith, cannot give you any benefit. If you sin after you receive this sign, you don’t need to receive it again and again in order to have the real purification of Christ’s blood, because the Grace given in baptism is sufficient to purify you once for all, as Jesus offered one sacrifice and purified once for all those who are sanctified (cf. Hebrews 10:10,14). You neither need to do penance and offer money to the Pope and to do many good works in order to earn back your “lost” Salvation… If you sin after you receive the sacrament of baptism and after you repent, then you repent again, relying on the same promise given to you through the sign of water in baptism, i.e. the assurance that if we sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous (cf. 1 John 2:1), and that He is able to save forever those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25). Your whole life thus becomes a life of repentance, relying on the sole Grace of God presented to you in baptism, and NOT on any merit in you called a “penitent heart”… Thus, you believe you were born of God in baptism, even if you were baptized as an infant, because that grace of the new birth was presented to you there, and you never earned that new birth by your faith and repentance. But the sign of water was never the new birth, because it is the Word of God linked to it that is the seed by which we are born again (cf. 1 Peter 1:23), and not the water itself. The water only represents that reality linked to it. If water were the reality, then how would baptism be a sacrament? Have we not seen that a sacrament is a sign and the signified essence linked to it? If the sign is already the reality or the signified essence, then it is not a sacrament anymore… But what if you follow the opinion of the Anabaptists and other similar Christian groups? Well, in that case you believe that baptism is only a sign that doesn’t present with it any grace, and that it is not something that God presents to you as a grace, but you believe that baptism is a commandment that God wants you to obey after you repent and believe the Gospel, thus making a public confession before men that you belong to Christ… Thus, according to this belief, it will indeed be very wrong to say that baptism saves, as the Bible and the Church Fathers say… And then the Roman Catholics use your false opinion about baptism to make it seem as if they hold the truth, and they quote the Church Fathers to show how wrong the teachings of the Reformation are… And then you read the Church Fathers and you get confused how they taught the Roman Catholic doctrine, although the fact is that they didn’t…
So now, let’s see what the Church Fathers taught, and let’s see whether they taught the Roman Catholic doctrine or the biblical doctrine of baptism.
4. What did the Church Fathers teach about baptism?
When we study any doctrine in the writings of the early Church Fathers, we need to keep an important fact in mind: During those early times, the Church only had the Bible as doctrine, so all of the doctrines were expressed by the early Church Fathers in the language of the Bible. We have seen that the language of the Bible is a concrete language, calling the signs with the name of the essence which they represent. For instance, we have seen how the Bible says that Jesus ate the Passover, although a careful study of the Bible makes us understand that it is the Passover lamb that Jesus ate… The Bible is not like a dictionary, i.e. it doesn’t define truths or words like the dictionary, but it reveals the truths in a very practical way, and you need to seriously study the whole Word of God in order to see how God explains each truth in other parts of His Word. I am sure you have noticed this fact if you read the Bible carefully and honestly. God talks in the Bible to all people in all ages of history, and He doesn’t use any particular human philosophy or human wisdom to reveal Himself, but He says the truths in His way. For example, Paul does not try to use any human wisdom to tell the Corinthians about the truth and about God: “And I, when I came to you, brethren, came not in excellency of word, or wisdom, announcing to you the testimony of God. For I did not judge [it well] to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2) You never see any Apostle revealing to us the deep divine truths in a humanly philosophical way. For instance, the Apostles do not try to explain the relation between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in terms and pictures borrowed from the Greek philosophy. The Bible never uses the term “Trinity”. Of course, this doesn’t mean that throughout the first century the Apostles didn’t know what the Nature of God is… The Apostles surely knew who God is, but they didn’t use a philosophical or metaphysical language to express that truth. The Apostles simply didn’t want to do metaphysics, but they continued the biblical tradition: presenting God in action in history in a very concrete way. In the same way, the early Church Fathers never used the term “Trinity”… Does this mean that this doctrine of the Trinity was later introduced to the Church as our enemies accuse the Church? Of course not! We have already treated this question in one of our answers to a Mormon document entitled Was the Church ignorant about the Nature of God? In that article, we have seen that during time, the Church Fathers had to struggle to find the best human way to express their biblical Faith to the Greek culture in which they lived, and thus they reached the common way of expression with the word “Trinity”. Some of them made some errors in the process. For instance, Origen made it seem in some places that the Son is inferior to the Father… Some of them made some additions which were not in the Bible, in a trial to explain the truth in a better way. Hippolytus even made today’s Word-Faith Movement’s blasphemy when he wrote: “If, therefore, man has become immortal, he will also be God.” (Discourse on the Holy Theophany 8) What a blasphemy!… In all cases, the Church Fathers were humans and they could make errors, because they were fallible. So the Church had to keep of their writings the doctrines that agreed with the Bible, and to reject whatever didn’t agree with the Faith that we received once for all from the Apostles (cf. Jude 3). For instance, the Roman Catholics who accuse the Christians of not following the teachings of the Church Fathers need to explain why they themselves do not follow many of the teachings and the practices of the Church Fathers… For instance, the Church Fathers taught that the one who would be baptized had to be immersed three times in the water, while Roman Catholics teach that it is enough to pour water on the head of the candidate of baptism… According to the majority of the Church Fathers, the candidate of baptism had to remove all of his clothing and stand naked in the water… Do Roman Catholics suggest to apply this with Muslims who turn to Christ today, for example?… This is simply not supported by Scripture, and this doesn’t agree with the principle of modesty in the Church… According to those Church Fathers, the newly baptized should not take a bath for a whole week… Superstition, would I say?… Another example is the legend of Abgar V of Edessa. The Armenian Church Fathers consider this a historical fact, and the same is with the Syriac Church… So the question is: Why do Roman Catholics refuse this legend as a fact, and why do they refuse the so-called “Correspondence of Abgar with Jesus” as a part of the Scripture?… Some of the Church Fathers also taught that once you are baptized, then you should not sin; and if you sin, then you can repent only one more time, after which you can’t repent anymore… I would like to hear the opinion of the Roman Catholics about this wrong teaching, especially that they have invented the “sacrament of penance” in which people who got baptized and sinned again and again, repent again and again, and are still accepted… This is clearly contrary to what the Church Fathers taught… Besides this, Church Fathers contradicted each other in many instances… Some Church Fathers quoted some Apocryphal books that even the Roman Catholics refuse today as not being canonical… Some Church Fathers accepted the Old Testament Apocrypha as a part of the Bible (ex.: Augustine), and others said it’s not a part of the Bible (ex.: Athanasius who is well known in the Arian controversy, and Gregory of Nazianzus, the very well known theologian)… In our article The Canon of Scripture, we have seen how the Church based her faith on what God said when she wanted to know what is Scripture and what is not, and not on what the Church Fathers said… So, when considering the writings of the Church Fathers, please remember that they are not our authority, and that their writings are to be judged by the Scripture, and it is not the Scripture that should be judged by their writings. The Church Fathers are Christian believers like you and me. Just as we study the Scripture, they also studied the Scripture. When they didn’t fully rely on the Bible, they made mistakes and introduced some false ideas in their interpretations. When the Roman Catholics quote the Church Fathers in their apologetic of baptism, they only misquote them, and they only present to you the parts of those writings that seem to agree with them. Of course, they also misrepresent the doctrine of the Reformation, as we have seen, so that you get confused how the Roman Catholics agree with the whole testimony of the Church Fathers, while the Reformation disagrees with that testimony… But the fact is different.
So you should keep in your mind that not only the early Church Fathers made mistakes, but even in the days of the Apostles many false teachers were found even among the true churches (cf. Acts 20:30, 2 Timothy 2:17-18, 1 Corinthians 15:12, Galatians 1:6, 3 John 9-10, etc…) It is the Scripture that should judge in all matters of doctrine and practice.
Now, although the Scripture speaks of the actions of God in history and uses signs to express mysteries (sacraments) and never uses human philosophy to reveal the truth about baptism, as I explained above, and yet the Scripture does not forbid the believer to explain those truths to each person in each culture in the way he may understand them better, with the condition of not changing the Faith that was once for all received, but only with the purpose of clarifying things to those who ask. For instance, in Acts 17:16-34 Paul explained to the philosophers of Athens the Nature of God and the Resurrection in a way they should have understood it: he did NOT tell them that he’s preaching to them a god whom they already knew, but he told them clearly that he was preaching to them the true God who was UNKNOWN to them (cf. Acts 17:23-28). He presented to them God as the Creator, explaining to them that the Divine Nature is not like gold or silver or stone as they thought. To explain these things, you see how Paul used the concepts that they already understood; for example he quoted their poets. And using all these means, Paul explained to them how this God is Holy and how He calls all men to repentance in the Name of Jesus Christ. When the majority of them couldn’t understand him and began to mock or didn’t want to listen, Paul didn’t try to change the truth in order to convince them. During time, just like Paul, the Church Fathers and apologists needed to present and explain to all people this biblical Faith that they had received once for all from the Apostles. In each culture, they needed to give an answer to people or philosophers in a way that those people could understand it, and yet without changing the truth that they had received. Now, during the first centuries of the Church, we all know that the dominant culture was the Greek culture, so the Church had to explain things in the way Greek philosophers could understand it, without compromising the truth. As the Scripture has concrete forms of expression and does not speak in the humanly philosophical way, so the Church had the challenge to find a way to communicate those truths that she already knew in a way that could be understood in the language of the Greek philosophy which, contrary to the Scriptural accounts, centered its attention on the question of metaphysical being or what is “real”. So there was a shift in thought pattern from the Scriptural way of expression to the way a Greek philosopher could understand. Of course, the Church Fathers always tried to keep the balance between the need to communicate the scriptural truth in an intelligible way and the principle of keeping the biblical truth pure and without human mixture. In this hard work, some of them may have failed sometimes to find the exact or most accurate words or expressions to express the truth that they all knew, and this is normal as they were not writing inspired Scripture and their writings were not inerrant and infallible. But as soon as any teacher or bishop passed beyond the limit of errors in words or expressions to the clear area of errors in doctrine, he was considered as a heretic by the Church. Thus, during time, the biblical doctrines were expressed in terms that could be understood by the surrounding culture. For instance, it took almost 3 centuries to express the Nature of God with the expression “Trinity”… But why did some doctrines take a much longer time to be expressed in such ways? Because the Church reached those common ways of expression under the pressure of theological controversies. For example, the Arian controversy helped the Church to reach the common way of expression which is “the Trinity”. As for the doctrine of baptism that we are studying now, in the early times of the Church history there was not a real controversy about that, so you can’t expect the early Church Fathers to have expressed the doctrine of baptism in a theological and metaphysical way. Indeed, they continued to use the biblical concrete language, attributing to the sign the name of the essence signified. The most flagrant problem that could be compared to a baptismal controversy was the controversy of the Donatists who were opposed mainly by Augustine. Even here, the main issue was not baptism itself, but baptism was an issue related to the main problem which was about who is a true Christian. So if we would expect to find some important theological details about baptism, we should look for them in the writings of Augustine. And in fact, it is Augustine who has treated this topic in the largest way. But the issue of baptism would not be fully put under consideration until the day the Reformation began, when the controversy was fully a sacramental and soteriological issue.
So let’s begin with some examples of the early Church Fathers, and continue to quote about baptism until we reach the leaders of the Reformation. This will show how all those writings agree with the biblical teaching about baptism, and not with the Roman Catholic doctrine of ex opere operato baptism…
a. Justin Martyr
In his First Apology, chapter 61, writing about Christian baptism, Justin Martyr introduces the subject in the following way:
I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making.
Note what he says: baptism is the manner in which Christians dedicate themselves to God. When do Christians dedicate themselves to God? Justin Martyr says they dedicate themselves to God when they are made new through Christ! Note that they are made new through Christ, and therefore they dedicate themselves! Note also that Roman Catholics do not quote this introductory sentence when they quote this passage of Justin Martyr, because it doesn’t agree with their agenda… In the following lines of the same chapter, Justin Martyr explains how they had been made new in Christ, and how they dedicated themselves in baptism while they had been made new:
As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
So they had been made new when they were persuaded and believed that what we teach is true, and undertook to be able to live accordingly and asked for the forgiveness of their sins (i.e. repentance). Then they receive the sign of this regeneration when they dedicate themselves in baptism when they had already been made new through Christ! Note that Justin Martyr uses the same biblical language in which the sign is called by the name of the signified essence, therefore he says that they were regenerated by receiving the sign of baptism. But note that the sign is not said to be effective unless the candidate of baptism had been made new in Christ by faith and repentance! And note that Justin Martyr quoted what Jesus said about the new birth as an explanation of why it was essential that the candidate be made new in Christ. In the next lines of the same chapter, Justin Martyr explains what I just said: that repentance is essential for baptism to have a meaning for the receiver. So I would ask the Roman Catholics: How do your infants repent and believe the true teaching before getting baptized?… Although Justin Martyr is not saying that repentance and real faith could not come after baptism, and yet he stresses the importance of repentance and real faith for the receiving of the new nature to happen.
In the 34th fragment of the lost writings of Irenaeus, we read:
“And dipped himself,” says [the Scripture], “seven times in Jordan.” It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [it served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions; being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared: “Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Note what he says about the way we are made clean: the sign is the sacred water of baptism in which we receive the Grace of God by the invocation of the Lord. Please, show me how this means that the sign works ex opere operato… Irenaeus is clearly saying that one needs to invoke the Lord while receiving the sign of water, or else he is not made clean by that water. And note that he quotes the passage where Jesus uses the term “water” to express the cleansing power of God’s Word, because He wanted to make clear that the sign of this cleansing power of the Word would be the water of baptism under the New Covenant. I have explained this in the article to which I referred above when I was explaining the meaning of baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. Just as the fire in this sentence doesn’t mean that we should today get in some fire and be burned, the water in the expression “of water and of Spirit” doesn’t mean that we are born again just by entering the water. Let me quote the passage from the mentioned article:
Let me just make a summarized comment about the fire in the expression “with the Holy Spirit and fire”, as I will not go into the details of Christ’s baptism in the limit of this article. It is not unusual in the Word of God to find words used about the Holy Spirit describing His power and the kind of work He does. This is very clearly seen in the following passage:
“In the last, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried saying, If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He that believes on me, as the scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. But this he said concerning the Spirit, which they that believed on him were about to receive; for [the] Spirit was not yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.” (John 7:37-39)
As you can see, the Lord described the Holy Spirit with the word “water”, and that describes the purifying and life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. That’s one reason why the sign of Christ’s baptism is the water. It is in this way also that Jesus told Nicodemus:
“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except any one be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)
Here again, the Lord describes the purifying and life-giving power of the Holy Spirit with the word “water”, thus implying that the Holy Spirit makes us be born again by the Word of God, as He continues to explain to Nicodemus in John 3. Indeed, the Word of God that the Holy Spirit uses to make us born again is described as this “water” and “seed” by which God makes us be born again:
“in order that he might sanctify it, purifying [it] by the washing of water by [the] word“ (Ephesians 5:26)
“being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by [the] living and abiding word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23)
So the water is the sign of purification for the people of God. But the same sign of purification is a sign of judgment for those who refuse Christ, just as it was the case with the waters of the Flood. Those waters of the Flood came as judgment upon the unrepentant sinners, but were the means by which the Ark was carried with the believers who were in it:
“heretofore disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in [the] days of Noah while the ark was preparing, into which few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water: which figure also now saves you, [even] baptism, not a putting away of [the] filth of flesh, but [the] demand as before God of a good conscience, by [the] resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:20-21)
“through which [waters] the then world, deluged with water, perished.” (2 Peter 3:6)
So for those who really receive the baptism of Christ, the sign of water is a sign of life, while for those who refuse Him the sign of water is a sign of judgment. The Ark of Noah represents Christ. The waters of baptism come as a sign of judgment on you if you’re not in the Ark, Jesus Christ.
And Irenaeus meant these facts when he quoted Jesus about the new birth of water and of the Spirit, but he didn’t detail all this, because, as we have seen above, there was no controversy about this issue. Irenaeus was using the biblical language in which signs are called by the name of the signified essence. Just as Jesus didn’t eat the Passover but the Passover lamb, so also we are not born again and washed by the water of baptism, but by the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit through His Word which is signified by the sign of water in baptism.
Tertullian is considered the founder of Latin Christianity’s theology… When we quote Tertullian to show the errors in the Roman Catholic doctrines, Roman Catholics usually argue that Tertullian was not a Church Father but a simple theologian who later followed the heresy of the Montanists… Indeed, Tertullian later followed that heresy, so I wonder why Roman Catholics quote him about baptism… Note that Tertullian had some wrong ideas about baptism, one of them being that a man is saved by baptism from all his past sins and that he should not sin after receiving baptism, and therefore he thought that baptism should be postponed at least until the age of seven… Anyway, as Roman Catholics quote those “wrong teachings” of Tertullian about baptism, so let us oppose their agenda by quoting the biblically right passages of Tertullian.
Tertullian talks about baptism in a section of his Ethical entitled “On repentance”, thus showing that baptism is the sacrament of repentance, and not the “sacrament of penance” that the Roman Catholics invented later… Look what he writes in this section of repentance (chapter 6):
That baptismal washing is a sealing of faith, which faith is begun and is commended by the faith of repentance. We are not washed in order that we may cease sinning, but because we have ceased, since in heart we have been bathed already. For the first baptism of a learner is this, a perfect fear; thenceforward, in so far as you have understanding of the Lord faith is sound, the conscience having once for all embraced repentance.
Could any words speak more loudly against the ex opere operato of the Roman Catholics? I guess you have already noticed the subtle agenda of the Roman Catholics when they quote some parts of the writings of these Fathers, and they misrepresent the doctrine of the Reformation concerning baptism…
You see how Tertullian is clearly saying that a radical once for all repentance is necessary for the sign of baptism to have any meaning for us! He clearly uses the word “sealing” concerning the water of baptism, explaining that this sign of water seals our repentant faith which receives the Grace of God. The ceasing of sin doesn’t happen after receiving the sign of water, but it should happen before the sign is received and is considered to have given the essence signified, because the sign is not what gives us the cleansing of our hearts, but our hearts have been already bathed by faith in the promise of God! The first and real baptism (i.e. the essence of what is presented by the sign of water) is the perfect fear of God, i.e. living and repentant faith. Tell me: Is there anything clearer than this? This is clearly what the Reformation taught!
d. Gregory of Nazianzus
Once again, another Father of the Church makes it clear that the water of baptism is just a type or the typical representation of the new birth. In his Oration on Holy Baptism, we read:
And since we are double-made, I mean of body and soul, and the one part is visible, the other invisible, so the cleansing also is twofold, by water and the spirit; the one received visibly in the body, the other concurring with it invisibly and apart from the body; the one typical, the other real and cleansing the depths.
In this passage, Gregory of Nazianzus makes it clear that the cleansing with water is not the hidden essence signified, but it is only the type of that cleansing of the depths. The cleansing with water (the sign of water in baptism) is the typical new birth, and not the new birth itself.
As I explained above, Augustine was the chief opponent of the heresy of the Donatists who believed that only true Christians could give and receive baptism… So we should expect to see in the writings of Augustine the most detailed explanations about who a true Christian is and the relation of baptism with that. And indeed, here is what we read in his Homilies on the Gospel of John, Chapter 15:1-3:
“Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Why does He not say, Ye are clean through the baptism wherewith ye have been washed, but “through the word which I have spoken unto you,” save only that in the water also it is the word that cleanseth? Take away the word, and the water is neither more nor less than water. The word is added to the element, and there results the Sacrament, as if itself also a kind of visible word. For He had said also to the same effect, when washing the disciples’ feet, “He that is washed needeth not, save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit.” And whence has water so great an efficacy, as in touching the body to cleanse the soul, save by the operation of the word; and that not because it is uttered, but because it is believed? For even in the word itself the passing sound is one thing, the abiding efficacy another. “This is the word of faith which we preach,” says the apostle, “that if thou shalt confess with thy mouth that Jesus is the Lord, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” Accordingly, we read in the Acts of the Apostles, “Purifying their hearts by faith;” and, says the blessed Peter in his epistle, “Even as baptism doth also now save us, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience.” “This is the word of faith which we preach,” whereby baptism, doubtless, is also consecrated, in order to its possession of the power to cleanse. For Christ, who is the vine with us, and the husbandman with the Father, “loved the Church, and gave Himself for it.” And then read the apostle, and see what he adds: “That He might sanctify it, cleansing it with the washing of water by the word.” The cleansing, therefore, would on no account be attributed to the fleeting and perishable element, were it not for that which is added, “by the word.” This word of faith possesses such virtue in the Church of God, that through the medium of him who in faith presents, and blesses, and sprinkles it, He cleanseth even the tiny infant, although itself unable as yet with the heart to believe unto righteousness, and to make confession with the mouth unto salvation. All this is done by means of the word, whereof the Lord saith, “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.” (emphases added)
Have you read it carefully??! Just follow with me carefully, as I read it with you again: In John 15:1-3, Jesus tells His disciples that they are clean already because of the Word that He spoke to them. Augustine rhetorically asks why Jesus didn’t say “you are clean through the baptism by which you have been washed”. And then he explains why: it’s because even in the sign of the water, it is the attached Word or promise that cleanses, and not the sign itself. Take away the Word, and the water is nothing more than mere water that can do nothing. Augustine explains that a sacrament is an element+the Word added to it. He also explains that this makes the sacrament a kind of visible Word, as we have seen above. So the water has the power to cleanse, not because of the element (i.e. water), but because of the operation of the Word of God which is the seed by which we are born again, as we have seen above. And note what Augustine adds here, because it’s very important: he says that the Word does not make us clean just because it is pronounced, but because it is believed. In other words, Augustine is simply saying that baptism cannot make you be born again unless you believe the Word attached to it! So where is the ex opere operato of the Roman Catholics in all this?? Just as the words written in the Bible cannot change you unless you believe them, baptism also cannot save you unless you believe the Word attached to it. Many people have and read the Bible, but this doesn’t mean that they all are born again just because the Word is pronounced; they need to believe that Word. The same is with baptism. Thus, Augustine explains what he means by believing the Word added to the element by quoting the passage from Romans 10:9 where the Apostle says that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and you believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved. By quoting this, Augustine implies that, when he talks about believing the Word attached to the element, he is talking about personal faith in Christ. Indeed, the context of Romans 10:9 speaks of personal faith and of the impossibility of Salvation without faith that comes by hearing and receiving the Word of God (read Romans 10:8-17, and concentrate on Romans 10:17 where Paul says that faith comes from receiving the Word of God). To clarify his point even more, Augustine quotes the passage from the Acts of the Apostles where it is said that God purified the hearts of the believers BY FAITH. Augustine quotes also Peter when he said that baptism now saves as signified by the type of the Flood waters, and he quickly quotes the rest of the passage where Peter explains clearly that it is not the water itself that saves us, but the Word received by faith which is the answer of a good conscience. So it is when you receive by faith the Word of God presented to you in baptism that you are born of God. The new birth is presented to you freely in the Word of God, both in the Word preached as a sound and the Word preached with signs, but you don’t have any benefit of it without faith. So Augustine concludes that the power of cleansing should not be attributed to the element, but to the Word of God received by faith. Even infants, when they are given this sign of the promise (i.e. water), are really given the essence, i.e. the new birth and the baptism with the Holy Spirit brought by the Word attached to the sign. But one thing is to be given the Grace, and another is to really receive it, as we will see in the writings of Augustine himself. Later in this article, I will explain in brief the case of infants in relation to this sign, and what the Church Fathers taught about this. You see in the above text that Augustine says that the infant, who was really given the cleansing power of the Word in baptism, should later believe unto righteousness (or else he’s not righteous) and he should make confession with his mouth unto Salvation (or else he’s not saved).
Now that you know what Augustine means when he says that baptism has the power to save (i.e. the Word attached to it has that power and it applies that power when believed), then read the following lines from Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings (Book III, Chapter 5):
Baptism, therefore, washes away indeed all sins—absolutely all sins, whether of deeds or words or thoughts, whether original or added, whether such as are committed in ignorance or allowed in knowledge; but it does not take away the weakness which the regenerate man resists when he fights the good fight, but to which he consents when as man he is overtaken in any fault
In the light of what we read above, we understand that when Augustine, or any Church Father, says that Baptism washes away or does anything, then he means that it is the Word attached to the sign that does that, and that we don’t have that effect unless this Word is received by personal faith. So don’t be deceived by the Roman Catholics who misquote the Church Fathers and present those quotes out of context.
If you want to make more certain about this, you can read the opinion of Augustine concerning whether a person is always sanctified and cleansed by the sacrament or not. In his work On Baptism, Against the Donatists, Book V, Chapter 24, Augustine clarifies the following:
I remember that I have already discussed at sufficient length the question of “the temple of God,” and how this saying is to be taken, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” For neither are the covetous the temple of God, since it is written, “What agreement hath the temple of God with idols?” And Cyprian has adduced the testimony of Paul to the fact that covetousness is idolatry. But men put on Christ, sometimes so far as to receive the sacrament, sometimes so much further as to receive holiness of life. And the first of these is common to good and bad alike; the second, peculiar to the good and pious. Wherefore, if “baptism cannot be without the Spirit,” then heretics have the Spirit also,—but to destruction, not to salvation, just as was the case with Saul. For in the Holy Spirit devils are cast out through the name of Christ, which even he was able to do who was without the Church, which called forth a suggestion from the disciples to their Lord. Just as the covetous have the Holy Spirit, who yet are not the temple of God. For “what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?” If therefore the covetous have not the Spirit of God, and yet have baptism, it is possible for baptism to exist without the Spirit of God. (Emphases added)
As you can see, Augustine is explaining how many covetous men, who are idolaters according to the Bible, are baptized, and yet are not born of God and do not have the baptism with the Holy Spirit signified by the sign of baptism. Augustine clearly says that some men put on Christ only outwardly, only so far as to receive the sacrament, i.e. the sign (as it is happening with all those nominal Christians who are baptized and yet are not born of God and do not show any fruit of life, as Anonymous also commented in his question), and some other men put on Christ in real baptism, being born of God, and they do not only receive the sacrament, but also the holiness of life (the new nature). Augustine notes that those who receive the sign are both the good and the bad, while those who receive the holiness of life are the pious (the believers) only. Thus baptism may exist without the positive presence of the Spirit of God! That is a mere external sign, in which the signified essence is not received by faith, as Augustine explained in the above quoted passage. What Augustine said here is just another way to explain what the real baptism of Christ is (not the baptism with water, but the baptism with the Holy Spirit) which I have explained in details in our article “… one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Thus Augustine explains the difference when he says that in the elect alone the sacraments accomplish what they represent (Augustin. de Bapt. Parvul.) And in another place, while explaining the first part of 1 Corinthians 10, Augustine adds:
“For,” saith the Apostle, “they did drink of the Spiritual Rock following them, but the Rock was Christ.” In a mystery therefore theirs was the same meat and drink as ours, but in signification the same, not in form; because the same Christ was Himself figured to them in a Rock, manifested to us in the Flesh. “But,” he saith, “not in all of them God was well pleased.” All indeed ate the same spiritual meat and drank the same spiritual drink, that is to say, signifying something spiritual: but not in all of them was God well pleased. When, he saith, “not in all:” there were evidently there some in whom was God well pleased; and although all the Sacraments were common, grace, which is the virtue of the Sacraments, was not common to all. Just as in our times, now that the faith hath been revealed, which then was veiled, to all men that have been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, the Laver of regeneration is common; but the very grace whereof these same are the Sacraments, whereby the members of the Body of Christ are to reign together with their Head, is not common to all. For even heretics have the same Baptism, and false brethren too, in the communion of the Catholic name.
(Exposition on Psalm 78, emphases added)
How could Augustine make it clearer than this?? He explains that although all Christians, whether true believers or false believers, receive the sacraments, and yet the essence of the sacraments (i.e. the grace signified by the sign) is not common to all those who receive the sign. Note that in the writings of the Church Fathers, the expression “Laver of regeneration” means baptism. So Augustine says that baptism (i.e. the sign of water) is common to all, but the grace signified by that sign is not common to all, but only the true believers have it. And here comes the clearest part where Anonymous receives an answer to his question whether all Christians were real believers in the times of the Church Fathers: Augustine says that there are even false brethren (i.e. false believers) bearing the catholic name (i.e. belonging to the catholic Church of Christ) and having the same baptism that we have as Christians, and yet not having the grace of regeneration! What could be clearer than this?…
So the sacrament itself is good and bears with it the essence which is the promise of life. When you are baptized, the Grace of new birth is given to you once for all, whatever is your age. But if you receive it without faith, then it means nothing to you, and you do not receive the grace signified. This is what Augustine explained.
In his Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Homily III, 1 John 2:18-27, Augustine explains how the apostates were not born of God, although they received the sign of baptism:
“They went out from us; but,” be not sad, “they were not of us.” How provest thou this? If they had been of us, they would doubtless have continued with us. Hence therefore ye may see, that many who are not of us, receive with us the Sacraments, receive with us baptism. receive with us what the faithful know they receive, Benediction, the Eucharist, and whatever there is in Holy Sacraments: the communion of the very altar they receive with us, and are not of us. Temptation proves that they are not of us. When temptation comes to them as if blown by a wind they fly abroad; because they were not grain. But all of them will fly abroad, as we must often tell you, when once the fanning of the Lord’s threshing-floor shall begin in the day of judgment. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us.” (Emphases added)
They received baptism, but they were not grain, they were not of us, and they were not born of God.
Tell me: When reading these lines in the writings of the Church Fathers, don’t you feel that you’re reading the leaders of the Reformation? Indeed, the subtle misquotes of the Roman Catholics deceive people to think that the writings of the Church Fathers agree with their anti-Bible doctrines, but a full quotation proves them wrong.
This article is not a study of the writings of Augustine, so I can’t quote all of what Augustine said about baptism in the limit of this article. We may see more quotes from Augustine in the writings of the Reformation leaders. But let me close the quotations from Augustine with this very beautiful and very interesting passage from Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Homily V, 1 John 3:9-18:
But this, as we have said, brethren, is perfect charity. He that is born of God hath it. Mark, my beloved, see what I say. Behold, a man has received the Sacrament of that birth, being baptized; he hath the Sacrament, and a great Sacrament, divine, holy, ineffable. Consider what a Sacrament! To make him a new man by remission of all sins! Nevertheless, let him look well to the heart, whether that be thoroughly done there, which is done in the body; let him see whether he have charity, and then say, I am born of God. If however he have it not, he has indeed the soldier’s mark upon him, but he roams as a deserter. Let him have charity; otherwise let him not say that he is born of God. But he says, I have the Sacrament. Hear the Apostle: “If I know all mysteries, and have all faith, so that I can remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” (Emphases added)
Augustine says that the new birth brought by the sign alone is just a new birth done in the body, i.e. an external sign of new birth. If you have not that love which is given with the new nature in new birth, then you are not born of God, even if you have the sign of water! A man who has the sign of baptism and yet has not received the new birth is like a soldier who has the soldier’s mark on him, and yet he roams as a deserter. The sign has the power in the Word attached to it; but if you don’t receive that Word of promise by faith, then you have nothing of what is signified by the sign.
This much should be enough to show that the Church Fathers, when they called the sign by the name of the signified effect, they only meant that the effect happened typically by the sign, and that the essence really happened only when received by faith. So although I didn’t quote all of the Fathers of the Church, but they all said things similar to what I quoted above. So before you automatically get confused by the subtle way in which Roman Catholics quote the Church Fathers about this matter, keep in mind two important things while reading any passage from any Father of the Church:
1. The Church Fathers are not infallible and they are not the authority on which we should build our faith. It is the Word of God that is the authority, and unless the Church Fathers agree with the Bible, then they are just telling us about their imaginations and inventions.
2. Whenever you read any Church Father calling baptism with the name of the thing signified, remember that he is using the biblical language that calls the sign with the name of the thing signified and gives to the sign the character of the thing signified. Besides this, remember what we have seen above: that the Church Fathers themselves, when they explained what baptism is, they clearly said that the water is a type or a sign of the real thing that happens, and that the real thing doesn’t happen unless you receive it by faith. You notice of course how much this is contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholics…
Now, although Anonymous asks about the baptism of infants, but I would like to tell the readers that there is nothing that could really be called “infant baptism”. There is one baptism, and not a separate baptism for infants and another for adults. The same baptism has the same signification that we have seen together above. Now, considering the fact that the Church Fathers used the biblical concrete language and expressed the signified essence by the sign itself, you should understand why they say an infant is born again in baptism, as we have seen an example from the writings of Augustine. It’s just like when Jesus said that He would eat the Passover. Jesus meant that He would eat the Passover sacrifice, and the Church Fathers meant the Word of promise which is attached to the sign of water gives the new birth to the infant. But as we have seen above, that infant will not have any benefit of that freely given grace of baptism unless he receives it by faith. Note also that infants do not even need baptism as a sacrament of repentance, as they don’t have personal sins of which to repent; but our purpose in this article is not to study the errors that the Church Fathers made concerning this point. As there was no real controversy about the baptism of infants, so you can’t find in the writings of the Church Fathers details about what I just explained. Actually, during the first centuries of the Church, you can’t find anything in the writings of the Church Fathers about infants getting baptized! We have seen how Justin Martyr and Irenaeus say that repentance and invocation of the Lord are essential to receive the sign of baptism. This is because there was no controversy in those times about the issue of infants in relation with baptism. It is only later that we find some Church Fathers treating this matter. And actually, to be more accurate, the problem that Anonymous is expressing in his question results from the new teaching of the Anabaptists and of the Baptists who taught that baptism is an ordinance that the true believer should obey, and they thus separated the promise from the sign of water. As an infant cannot make such a decision and cannot have such a repentant faith, so they separated the infants from this blessing… This later practically led to the false idea that a man makes himself be born again by believing in Christ, and thus deserves by his faith to get baptized… But the biblical truth that the Church Fathers expressed is that baptism (and whatever is presented to us in baptism) is purely a grace from God, and that we can never deserve it. The new birth has happened once for all on the cross, and it is presented to us in a visible way in the sign of baptism. When we receive it with a repentant faith, we have that new life for free, thus not deserving our baptism which is given to us by God as a grace. Of course, the Church Fathers, just like any human theologian, made some mistakes concerning some aspects of the baptism of infants and the theological issues related to it, as I said above, and they contradicted each other in some important points. But that’s normal, as they were fallible humans, and their opinions should be judged in the light of Scripture, as I have said above. In the limit of this article, we don’t need to go into the details about the errors that the Church Fathers made in this area, but it was important to say a brief word about what they believed concerning the baptism of infants, and that’s what I did here. The Church Fathers were consistent with their definition of the sacraments when they baptized infants, although they made mistakes in their interpretations of what was really happening to the baptized infant. So the true practice was always present in the Church, although some theologians misinterpreted it. For us the essential is that the right practice was there. I leave other comments about this issue to the last section of this article. Just don’t be confused when you read the Church Fathers saying that an infant is born again in baptism, remembering that they mean by that that the infant is born again typically by baptism, and needs to repent and believe the Gospel to receive the benefit of the sign. As we have seen above, that’s what the Church Fathers explained. But I wish to ask the Roman Catholics a simple question that will show how much their doctrine has a medieval unloving taste: Are the infants of Muslims, for example, lost in Hell forever if they die as infants without getting baptized? The answer to this question will show how wrong their doctrine is, and how they introduce new doctrines into the Bible in order to get out of this theological dilemma…
Now, after the times of those Church Fathers, and as we have seen above, during the medieval times, the definition of Aquinas dominated on the theology of many teachers in the Church, especially that the Roman Pope wanted to expand his authority on the souls of men by binding them with the ropes of Sacraments separated from the Word that is attached to them and that alone could give life. The empire of death that the Popes led feared life… Although many Christians, such as the Waldensians, wanted to walk according to the Faith which was received once for all from the Apostles (cf. Jude 3), but all of those groups were labelled as heretics and sects, and were persecuted in the fiercest ways by the Roman Catholics… But those groups were the first seeds of the Reformation in Europe. Even the Eastern Orthodox churches that didn’t fully follow the heresy of Rome, were groups where some of the earliest traditions of the Church were kept and contradicted the Western traditions…
And then the Reformation began in the West…
5. What did the Reformation teach about baptism?
As I previously said, the heresy of the false teachings about the sacraments reached a place where Roman Catholics forgot that baptism is the sacrament of repentance, and they invented a new sacrament for repentance called the sacrament of penance. Thus the once for all repentance whose sacrament is baptism was replaced by penance that is repeated throughout the life of the penitent sinner, without ever receiving the real purification of his sins. What does this practically mean? Let’s explain it in the form of a parable:
Jacob was baptized as an infant in a local church. The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church says that Jacob was born again when he was baptized as an infant. So the original sin of Jacob was washed and Jacob was cleansed of all sins when he got baptized as an infant, although Jacob didn’t even understand what was happening to him… Later, when Jacob became a little older, he began to commit personal sins resulting from the sinful nature that he still has (the original sin), although the Pope said that Jacob got rid of this original sin (i.e. the sinful nature) while he was an infant… Anyway, whatever is the inconsistency in this theology, Jacob has committed some sins… Now Jacob goes to confess his sins to the Roman Catholic Priest (the sacrament of penance), and this latter tells Jacob that his sins have been forgiven and that he can now have the communion with the Church and receive the Eucharist. And according to the judgment of the Priest, Jacob may have to cry for his sins, and may have to do the works that the Priest prescribes for him to do in order to have the forgiveness of those sins. Sometimes, the Priest may ask Jacob to pay money to the church… Well, thus Jacob is said to have received the forgiveness of his sins (absolution)… But guess what… After all this, when you ask Jacob if he has eternal life, now that he confessed his sins, he tells you: “Nobody knows…” And if you watch the life of Jacob, you don’t see any real obedience to the Word of God… The next Sunday, Jacob goes again to the Priest to confess other sins and to receive the forgiveness of his sins… But note it well: no radical change is happening in the life of Jacob, and the Priest never tells Jacob to repent once for all and to believe the Gospel. Well, you know… the Gospel and radical repentance were the portion of baptism, and Jacob has already burned that paper while an infant…
[Thus the Roman Catholics changed the meaning of real repentance, and they made it a life of sin in which the sinner keeps repenting and continuing to sin as soon as he comes out of the Mass, or even while there… And this is an insolent disrespect towards the grace and the lovingkindness of God who is patient and wants all men to repent and to come to the real knowledge of the truth. The Reformation came to restore the true definition of repentance, noting that baptism is the sacrament of repentance that can neither be repeated nor replaced by another sacrament, and that once you repent and believe the Gospel, you receive all what is represented by baptism (i.e. the washing of regeneration), and that all later sins should be washed by the same washing of regeneration, through repentance that relies on the sole Grace of God presented in baptism, and not some penitence in which the sinner tries to deserve the forgiveness of God and yet continues to live in sin. (You should note that all those who do not follow this latter definition, go from an error to another until they reach a place where they live in open sin and still think they are saved…)]
Later, the Roman Catholics invented a way to make the punishments of the penitent lighter: indulgences. So the sinner could pay some money and get indulgences from the Pope for the results of his forgiven sins… Meanwhile, the false teaching about Purgatory was invented, so people were punished for their sins after their death in order to deserve Heaven… The insolence of the Popes reached a place where they began to sell indulgences even for those who were being tormented in that imaginary Purgatory, and thus the Pope could collect imaginary sums of money!! The parents of the deceased could pay to the Pope so that he may grant the deceased indulgence and thus get him out of Purgatory… You see how all of this was related to the sacrament of penance… In 1517, Pope Leo X offered indulgences for those who gave alms to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome… These practices were opposed by Martin Luther who considered them a purchase and a selling of Salvation. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and a theology professor at the University of Wittenberg, was a person who was looking for Salvation, and as he taught the Epistles of Paul, he was thinking deeply about the verse: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”” (Romans 1:17) Luther later explains how he couldn’t understand this while following the wrong teachings of the Roman Catholics… So Martin Luther opposed the selling of indulgences, and he wrote his famous Ninty-Five Theses. We will see the parts related to baptism in those theses. And later on, he wrote many other books in which he studied the different doctrines of the Church in the light of what the Scripture teaches and what the Church Fathers believed. One of the most famous works related to our topic is “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” in which Luther studied the sacraments. We will see the parts related to our topic. Other reformers followed Martin Luther, such as John Calvin and Zwingli. We will see what they said about baptism. This mainstream Reformation was challenged by another branch that sought a radical so-called reformation and gave a new character to the reformation sought by the mainstream branch. These were opposed by the Reformation leaders, so we will also read passages in the writings of those leaders that are addrassed against the false definition of those fanatics concerning baptism.
So let’s begin our quotation from the leaders of the Reformation about baptism.
a. Martin Luther
In his Ninty-Five Theses, Luther explained what repentance is:
1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
2. The word cannot be properly understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, i.e. confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
This is the basis for a right understanding of baptism.
Later, in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther writes:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who according to the riches of His mercy has preserved in His Church this sacrament at least, untouched and untainted by the ordinances of men, and has made it free to all nations and every estate of mankind, nor suffered it to be oppressed by the filthy and godless monsters of greed and superstition. For He desired that by it little children, incapable of greed and superstition, might be initiated and sanctified in the simple faith of His Word. Even today baptism’s chief blessing is for them. But if this sacrament were to be given to adults and older people, I think it could not possibly have retained its power and its glory against the tyranny of greed and superstition which has everywhere laid waste to divine things. Doubtless the wisdom of the flesh would here too have devised its preparations and worthinesses, its reservations, restrictions, and I know not what other snares for taking money, until water fetched as high a price as parchment does now.
You notice how much Luther was sad for the selling of indulgences which turned repentance to a kind of source for material gain… But, he says, baptism was not affected by such superstitions, as it was not administered to adults in Europe where all were Christians and not converts. Then he continues and tells us what the problem is:
But Satan, though he could not quench the power of baptism in little children, nevertheless succeeded in quenching it in all adults, so that scarcely anyone calls to mind their baptism and still fewer glory in it. So many other ways have they discovered of ridding themselves of their sins and of reaching heaven. The source of these false opinions is that dangerous saying of St. Jerome’s – either unhappily phrased or wrongly interpreted – which he terms penance “the second plank” after the shipwreck, as if baptism were not penance. Accordingly, when men fall into sin, they despair of “the first plank,” which is the ship, as though it had gone under, and fasten all their faith on the second plank, that is, penance. This has produced those endless burdens of vows, religious works, satisfactions, pilgrimages, indulgences, and sects, from this has arisen that flood of books, questions, opinions and human traditions, which the world cannot contain. So that this tyranny plays worse havoc with the Church of God than any tyrant ever did with the Jewish people or with any other nation under heaven.
So Luther says that baptism is the sacrament of repentance, and that it should not be replaced by a false sacrament of penance just for the sake of taking money from people… You see how Luther brings up one of the errors resulting from a wrong opinion concerning what was forgiven in baptism about which I was telling you above.
And then Martin Luther explains what baptism is:
Now, the first thing in baptism to be considered is the divine promise, which says: ” He that believes and is baptised shall be saved.” This promise must be set far above all the glitter of works, vows, religious orders, and whatever man has added to it. For on it all our salvation depends. We must consider this promise, exercise our faith in it and never doubt that we are saved when we are baptised. For unless this faith be present or be conferred in baptism, we gain nothing from baptism. No, it becomes a hindrance to us, not only in the moment of its reception, but all the days of our life. For such lack of faith calls God’s promise a lie, and this is the blackest of all sins. When we try to exercise this faith, we shall at once perceive how difficult it is to believe this promise of God. For our human weakness, conscious of its sins, finds nothing more difficult to believe than that it is saved or will be saved. Yet unless it does believe this, it cannot be saved, because it does not believe the truth of God that promises salvation. (Emphases added)
So without personal faith, baptism profits for nothing.
This message should have been persistently impressed upon the people and this promise diligently repeated to them. Their baptism should have been called again and again to their mind, and faith constantly awakened and nourished. Just as the truth of this divine promise, once pronounced over us, continues to death, so our faith in the same ought never to cease, but to be nourished and strengthened until death, by the continual remembrance of this promise made to us in baptism. Therefore, when we rise from sins, or repent, we are only returning to the power and the faith of baptism from this we fell, and find our way back to the promise then made to us, from which we departed when we sinned. For the truth of the promise once made remains steadfast, ever ready to receive us back with open arms when we return. This, if I am not mistaken, is the real meaning of the obscure saying, that baptism is the beginning and foundation of all the sacraments, without which none of the others may be received.
Luther says again that baptism is the sacrament of repentance, and that the repentant sinner should look to the promise linked to baptism.
What is the good, then, of writing much on baptism and yet not teaching this faith in the promise? All the sacraments were instituted for the purpose of nourishing faith, but these godless men so completely pass over this faith that they even assert a man dare not be certain of the forgiveness of sins, that is, of the grace of the sacraments. With such wicked teachings they delude the world, and not only take captive but altogether destroy the sacrament of baptism, in which the chief glory of our conscience consists. Meanwhile they madly rage against the miserable souls of men with their contritions, anxious confessions, circumstances, satisfactions, works and endless other absurdities. Read, therefore, with great caution the Master of the Sentences in his fourth book, or, better yet, despise him together with all his commentators, who at their best write only of the material and form of the sacraments, that is, they discuss the dead and death-dealing letter of the sacraments, but pass over in utter silence the spirit, life and use, that is, the truth of the divine promise and our faith.
So the Roman Catholics are wrong, as they never talk about faith in the promise linked to baptism, and they make it a sign that works ex opere operato…
The second part of baptism is the sign, or sacrament, which is that immersion into water from this also it derives its name. For the Greek baptize means “I immerse,” and baptisma means “immersion.” For, as has been said, signs are added to the divine promises to represent that which the words signify, or, as they now say, that which the sacrament “effectively signifies.”
You see how Luther explains what I said above: Baptism is a sign+a promise.
The great majority have supposed that there is some hidden spiritual power in the word or in the water, which works the grace of God in the soul of the recipient. Others deny this and hold that there is no power in the sacraments, but that grace is given by God alone, Who according to His covenant aids the sacraments He has instituted. Yet all are agreed that the sacraments are effective signs of grace, and they reach this conclusion by this one argument: If the sacraments of the New Law merely “signified,” it would not be apparent in what respect they surpassed the sacraments of the Old Law. Hence they have been driven to attribute such great power to the sacraments of the New Law that in their opinion they benefit even such men as are in mortal sins, and that they do not require faith or grace. It is sufficient not to oppose a “bar,” that is, an actual intention to sin again.
But these views must be carefully avoided and shunned, because they are godless and faithless, being contrary to faith and to the nature of the sacraments. For it is an error to hold that the sacraments of the New Law differ from those of the Old Law in the effectiveness of their “signifying.” The “signifying” of both is equally effective. The same God Who now saves me by baptism saved Abel by his sacrifice, Noah by the rainbow, Abraham by circumcision, and all the others by their respective signs. So far as the “signifying” is concerned, there is no difference between a sacrament of the Old Law and one of the New – provided that by the Old Law you mean that which God did among the patriarchs and other fathers in the days of the law. (Emphases added)
Luther is telling us about the false doctrine of ex opere operato… See the parts that I underlined in the above quotation.
This, then, is the difference between the legal types and the new and old signs is that the types do not have attached to them any word of promise requiring faith. Hence they are not signs of justification, for they are not sacraments of the faith that alone justifies, but only sacraments of works. Their whole power and nature consisted in works, not in faith, and he that observed them fulfilled them, even if he did it without faith. But our signs, or sacraments, as well as those of the fathers, have attached to them a word of promise, which requires faith, and they cannot be fulfilled by any other work. Hence they are signs or sacraments of justification, for they are the sacraments of justifying faith and not of works. Their whole efficacy, therefore, consists in faith itself, not in the doing of a work. For whoever believes them fulfils them, even if he should not do a single work. From this has arisen the saying, “Not the sacrament but the faith of the sacrament justifies.” Thus circumcision did not justify Abraham and his seed, and yet the Apostle calls it the seal of the righteousness of faith, because faith in the promise, to which circumcision was added, justified him and fulfilled that which circumcision signified. For faith was the spiritual circumcision of the foreskin of the heart, which was symbolised by the literal circumcision of the flesh. And in the same manner it was obviously not Abel’s sacrifice that justified him, but it was his faith, by which he offered himself wholly to God and which was symbolised by the outward sacrifice.
Even so it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in the word of promise, to which baptism is added. This faith justifies, and fulfils that which baptism signifies. For faith is the submersion of the old man and the emerging of the new. (Emphases added)
So the sign has no effect unless the promise is received by faith. Ex opere operato is wrong. So, as I explained above, if you mean by “baptismal regeneration” that baptism regenerates you ex opere operato (or in the doing of a work, as Luther calls it in the above text), then Luther does not teach baptismal regeneration.
It cannot be true, therefore, that there is in the sacraments a power efficacious for justification, or that they are effective signs of grace. All such assertions tend to destroy faith, and arise from ignorance of the divine promise. Unless you should call them effective in the sense that they certainly and efficaciously impart grace, where faith is unmistakably present. But it is not in this sense that efficacy is now ascribed to them. Witness the fact that they are said to benefit all men, even the godless and unbelieving, provided they do not put an “obstacle” in the path of grace – as if such unbelief were not in itself the most obstinate and hostile of all obstacles to grace. That is how firmly they are bent on turning the sacrament into a command, and faith into a work. For if the sacrament confers grace on me because I receive it, then indeed I obtain grace by virtue of my work and not of faith. I lay hold not on the promise in the sacrament, but on the sign instituted and commanded by God. Do you not see, then, how completely the sacraments have been misunderstood by our theologians of the Sentences? They do not account for either faith or the promise, in their discussions on the sacraments. They only cling to the sign and the use of the sign, and draw us away from faith to the work, from the word to the sign. Thus they have not only carried the sacraments captive (as I have said), but have completely destroyed them, as far as they were able. (Emphases added)
This is a rich paragraph! You find in it the majority, if not all of what I explained in this article. The Roman Catholic lie is that the signs themselves have a power in them, thus they separate the promise from the sign and destroy faith. Luther who, I remind you, was an Augustinian, remembers the passage of Augustine that we read together and that says that the sign is of no value unless the Word is received by faith, therefore he says that the only true way to understand the Church Fathers when they say that the sign does anything is to see that as the grace attached to the sign, received by faith. Luther explains how not putting an obstacle is such a hypocrite excuse that the Roman Catholics give for their false doctrine. And, as I said above, with this false doctrine Roman Catholics turn faith to a work! The part that I emphasized says that the grace of the sacrament is given to me even before I believe it, or else it becomes something that I deserved, but that grace should be received by faith. The ex opere operato doctrine of the Roman Catholics says that the sacrament makes you new even before you receive it, but that later you should believe and work accordingly! Thus they turn the grace of baptism to a work, and they turn faith to another work by which we receive the grace of the sacrament.
Therefore, let us open our eyes and learn to give more heed to the word than to the sign, and to faith than to the work, or the use of the sign, remembering that wherever there is a divine promise there faith is required, and that these two are so necessary to each other that neither can be efficacious apart from the other. For it is not possible to believe unless there be a promise, and the promise is not established unless it be believed. But where these two meet, they give a real and most certain efficacy to the sacraments. Hence, to seek the efficacy of the sacrament apart from the promise and apart from faith, is to labor in vain and to find damnation. Thus Christ says: “He that believe and is baptised, shall be saved. He that does not believe shall be damned.” He shows us in this word that faith is so necessary a part of the sacrament that it can save even without the sacrament. For which reason He did not see fit to say: “He that does not believe, and is not baptised…” (Emphases added)
I guess this makes it more than clear that Luther never taught that the sign can do anything unless the promise attached to it is received by faith. This also shows that Luther does not link the promise to the sign in a way that makes it impossible for someone to be saved before receiving the sign, as he says that “faith is so necessary a part of the sacrament that it can save even without the sacrament”.
In the same book, Luther also explains how it is said that a child is born again:
Baptism, then, signifies two things –death and resurrection – that is, full and complete justification. When the minister immerses the child in the water, baptism signifies death. When he draws the child forth again, baptism signifies life. Thus Paul expounds on this in Romans 6, “We are buried together with Christ by baptism into death. As Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life.” This death and resurrection we call the new creation, regeneration, and the spiritual birth. And this must not be understood only in a figurative sense, of the death of sin and the life of grace, as many understand it, but of actual death and resurrection. The significance of baptism is not an imaginary significance, and sin does not completely die, nor does grace completely rise, until the body of sin that we carry about in this life is destroyed. This the Apostle teaches in the same chapter. For as long as we are in the flesh, the desires of the flesh stir and are stirred. When we begin to believe, we also begin to die to this world and to live to God in the life to come. Faith is truly a death and a resurrection, that is, it is that spiritual baptism in which we are submerged and from which we rise. (Emphases added)
You see how he links faith to the sign again. So all what is said about the sign (i.e. that it regenerates) is not efficacious unless believed by the child. Note that no one can know when the child believes this with a living faith. And this is why it is called a sacrament (i.e. mystery), because no one can know when and how the signified grace is applied. Today, many people who give you the date of their new birth are giving you a wrong date, because no one can know when the new birth happened in the heart; we can know when we repented and received the new birth, but not the exact time. The new birth actually happened on the cross, and it is presented to us in baptism.
Hence it is indeed correct to say that baptism washes sins away, but that expression is too weak and mild to bring out the full significance of baptism, which is rather a symbol of death and resurrection. For this reason I would have the candidates for baptism completely immersed in the water, as the word says and as the sacrament signifies. (Emphasis added)
Now you see in which sense it is said that the sign washes sins away…
You see of course how rich is this book entitled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. I advise you to read it carefully. We don’t have time and space in this article to quote all what Luther said in that book about baptism. The above quoted passages are sufficient to show you that Roman Catholics are misleading you when they say that even the leaders of the Reformation agree with them…
You see in the above passage that Luther talks also about children being baptized. So I will quote one more passage from The Babylonian Captivity of the Church about the baptism of infants, and then I pass to another work of Luther.
Luther also was a fallible man, and he thought that the faith of the Church could convert the child. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church he says:
Perhaps someone will oppose what I have said by pointing to the baptism of infants. Infants do not understand God’s promise and cannot have baptismal faith. So either faith is not necessary or else infant baptism is useless. Here I say what everyone says: the faith of others, namely, the faith of those who bring them to baptism aids infants. For the Word of God is powerful, when it is uttered. It can change even a godless heart, which is no less unresponsive and helpless than any infant. Even so the infant is changed, cleansed and renewed by faith poured into it, through the prayer of the Church that presents it for baptism and believes. All things are possible for this prayer. Nor should I doubt that even a godless adult might be changed, in any of the sacraments, if the same Church prayed and presented him. We read in the Gospel of the paralytic, who was healed through the faith of others. I should be ready to admit that in this sense the sacraments of the New Law confer grace effectively, not only to those who do not resist, but even to those who do resist it very obstinately. Is there any obstacle that the faith of the Church and the prayer of faith cannot remove? We believe that Stephen by this powerful means converted Paul the Apostle, don’t we? But then the sacraments accomplish what they do not by their own power, but by the power of faith, without which they accomplish nothing at all, as has been said.
But he later shows, in his Large Catechism, that he doesn’t really know when the child is really converted:
Thus we do also in infant baptism. We bring the child in the conviction and hope that it believes, and we pray that God may grant it faith; but we do not baptize it upon that, but solely upon the command of God. Why so? Because we know that God does not lie. I and my neighbor and, in short, all men, may err and deceive, but the Word of God cannot err.
So here is what Luther meant when he talked about the faith of the Church: that the Church believes the promise and hopes that the infant believes. But when does this faith come in the child? Luther does not really know.
All this should not make any problem for us, as long as Luther made it clear that the sign has no effect unless the promise is received by faith. So whenever the child begins to believe, it is then that he has whatever is signified by the sign.
Actually, in the Large Catechism, under the title of infant baptism, Luther makes all these points clear, and he clarifies that the time when the baptized person believed with a living faith is of no significance for baptism. Let’s quote the important parts of that Catechism related to our subject:
Further, we say that we are not so much concerned to know whether the person baptized believes or not; for on that account Baptism does not become invalid; but everything depends upon the Word and command of God. This now is perhaps somewhat acute but it rests entirely upon what I have said, that Baptism is nothing else than water and the Word of God in and with each other, that is when the Word is added to the water, Baptism is valid, even though faith be wanting. For my faith does not make Baptism, but receives it. Now, Baptism does not become invalid even though it be wrongly received or employed; since it is not bound (as stated) to our faith, but to the Word. (Emphasis added)
Thus you see that the objection of the sectarians is vain. For (as we have said) even though infants did not believe, which however, is not the case, yet their baptism as now shown would be valid, and no one should rebaptize them; just as nothing is detracted from the Sacrament though some one approach it with evil purpose, and he could not be allowed on account of his abuse to take it a second time the selfsame hour, as though he had not received the true Sacrament at first; for that would mean to blaspheme and profane the Sacrament in the worst manner. How dare we think that God’s Word and ordinance should be wrong and invalid because we make a wrong use of it?
Therefore I say, if you did not believe then believe now and say thus: The baptism indeed was right, but I, alas! did not receive it aright. For I myself also, and all who are baptized, must speak thus before God: I come hither in my faith and in that of others, yet I cannot rest in this, that I believe, and that many people pray for me; but in this I rest, that it is Thy Word and command. Just as I go to the Sacrament trusting not in my faith, but in the Word of Christ; whether I am strong or weak, that I commit to God. But this I know, that He bids me go, eat and drink, etc., and gives me His body and blood; that will not deceive me or prove false to me.
So whenever is the time when you believed with a living faith, it is then that you received the grace which was presented to you in your baptism, whether or not you believed with a living faith while receiving it. Faith does not make baptism, but receives it, as Luther said. We do not rely on our faith, but on the promise of God.
Therefore they are presumptuous, clumsy minds that draw such inferences and conclusions as these: Where there is not the true faith, there also can be no true Baptism. Just as if I would infer: If I do not believe, then Christ is nothing; or thus: If I am not obedient, then father, mother, and government are nothing. Is that a correct conclusion, that whenever any one does not do what he ought, the thing in itself shall be nothing and of no value? My dear, just invert the argument and rather draw this inference: For this very reason Baptism is something and is right, because it has been wrongly received. For if it were not right and true in itself, it could not be misused nor sinned against. The saying is: Abusus non tollit, sed confirmat substantiam, Abuse does not destroy the essence but confirms it. For gold is not the less gold though a harlot wear it in sin and shame.
So your baptism is right even if you received it with a dead faith. But if your faith is dead and does not receive the promise, then you have no benefit from your baptism. You need to receive the promise with a living faith.
Lastly, we must also know what Baptism signifies, and why God has ordained just such external sign and ceremony for the Sacrament by which we are first received into the Christian Church. But the act or ceremony is this, that we are sunk under the water, which passes over us, and afterwards are drawn out again. These two parts, to be sunk under the water and drawn out again, signify the power and operation of Baptism, which is nothing else than putting to death the old Adam, and after that the resurrection of the new man, both of which must take place in us all our lives, so that a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued. For this must be practised without ceasing, that we ever keep purging away whatever is of the old Adam, and that that which belongs to the new man come forth. But what is the old man? It is that which is born in us from Adam, angry, hateful, envious, unchaste, stingy, lazy, haughty, yea, unbelieving, infected with all vices, and having by nature nothing good in it. Now, when we are come into the kingdom of Christ, these things must daily decrease, that the longer we live we become more gentle, more patient more meek, and ever withdraw more and more from unbelief, avarice, hatred, envy, haughtiness. (Emphases added)
Therefore the external sign is appointed not only for a powerful effect, but also for a signification. Where, therefore, faith flourishes with its fruits, there it has no empty signification, but the work [of mortifying the flesh] accompanies it; but where faith is wanting, it remains a mere unfruitful sign. (Emphases added)
And here you see that Baptism, both in its power and signification, comprehends also the third Sacrament, which has been called repentance, as it is really nothing else than Baptism. For what else is repentance but an earnest attack upon the old man [that his lusts be restrained] and entering upon a new life? Therefore, if you live in repentance, you walk in Baptism, which not only signifies such a new life, but also produces, begins, and exercises it. For therein are given grace, the Spirit, and power to suppress the old man, so that the new man may come forth and become strong.
Therefore our Baptism abides forever; and even though some one should fall from it and sin, nevertheless we always have access thereto, that we may again subdue the old man. But we need not again be sprinkled with water; for though we were put under the water a hundred times, it would nevertheless be only one Baptism, although the operation and signification continue and remain. Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to Baptism, that we repeat and practise what we began before, but abandoned.
Is baptism “essential to Salvation”? (We will see what this means). Martin Luther answers in the chapter which is about baptism in his Large Catechism:
In these words you must note, in the first place, that here stand God’s commandment and institution, lest we doubt that Baptism is divine, not devised nor invented by men. For as truly as I can say, No man has spun the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer out of his head, but they are revealed and given by God Himself, so also I can boast that Baptism is no human trifle, but instituted by God Himself, moreover, that it is most solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we cannot be saved, lest any one regard it as a trifling matter, like putting on a new red coat. (Emphasis added)
This much should be enough to show you what Luther believed about baptism. And you see how he agrees both with the Bible and with what the Church Fathers mainly taught about baptism.
Now, let’s pass to John Calvin.
b. John Calvin
While Martin Luther was the principle Reformation leader in Germany, John Calvin was the principle Reformation leader in Geneva. I will first quote Calvin about the sacraments and about their signification in general, and then I pass to quotations about baptism in particular, and you will see how he agrees with the Bible and with the Church Fathers in general and with Martin Luther, contrary to what many people have been misled to think.
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter 14, Of the sacraments, Calvin writes:
First, we must attend to what a sacrament is. It seems to me, then, a simple and appropriate definition to say, that it is an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith, and we in our turn testify our piety towards him, both before himself and before angels as well as men. We may also define more briefly by calling it a testimony of the divine favour toward us, confirmed by an external sign, with a corresponding attestation of our faith towards Him. You may make your choice of these definitions, which, in meaning, differ not from that of Augustine, which defines a sacrament to be a visible sign of a sacred thing, or a visible form of an invisible grace, but does not contain a better or surer explanation. As its brevity makes it somewhat obscure, and thereby misleads the more illiterate, I wished to remove all doubt, and make the definition fuller by stating it at greater length.
So, as you can see, Calvin, just like Luther, agrees with the Church Fathers, especially with Augustine who detailed the issue of the sacraments. Calvin clearly says that a sacrament is an external sign plus a promise from God. Calvin says that by this sign God seals on our consciences his promises and sustains the weakness of our faith, just as we have seen above, and that He also made this sign so that by it we may testify our faith towards Him, both before Himself and before angels as well as men. Calvin explains why people in his days were misled by the Roman Catholics (just as it is happening today) to think that the Church Fathers and Augustine agree with them: it’s because Augustine does not define the sacraments with a better and surer explanation (he is brief in his definition), and he quickly passes to the practical implications of the definition of the sacraments in relation to the Donatist doctrines. As we have seen above, even in Augustine’s time, the controversy was not about the sacraments as much as about the definition of who a real Christian is, as that was the main issue with the Donatists.
The reason why the ancients used the term in this sense is not obscure. The old interpreter, whenever he wished to render the Greek term “musterion” into Latin, especially when it was used with reference to divine things, used the word sacramentum. Thus in Ephesians, “Having made known unto us the mystery (sacramentum) of his will;” and again, “If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God, which is given me to you-wards, how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery” (sacramentum,) (Eph. 1: 9; 3: 2.) In the Colossians, “Even the mystery which has been hid from ages and from generations, but is now made manifest to his saints, to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery,” (sacramentum,) (Col. 1: 26.) Also in the First Epistle to Timothy, “Without controversy, great is the mystery (sacramentum) of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh,” (1 Tim. 3: 16.) He was unwilling to use the word arcanum, (secret,) lest the word should seem beneath the magnitude of the thing meant. When the thing, therefore, was sacred and secret, he used the term sacramentum. In this sense it frequently occurs in ecclesiastical writers. And it is well known, that what the Latins call sacramental the Greeks call “musteria” (mysteries.) The sameness of meaning removes all dispute. Hence it is that the term was applied to those signs which gave an august representation of things spiritual and sublime. This is also observed by Augustine, “It were tedious to discourse of the variety of signs; those which relate to divine things are called sacraments,” (August. Ep. 5. ad Marcell.)
I should note that when Calvin says “the ancients”, he means the Church Fathers in general.
From the definition which we have given, we perceive that there never is a sacrament without an antecedent promise, the sacrament being added as a kind of appendix, with the view of confirming and sealing the promise, and giving a better attestation, or rather, in a manner, confirming it. In this way God provides first for our ignorance and sluggishness and, secondly, for our infirmity; and yet, properly speaking, it does not so much confirm his word as establish us in the faith of it. For the truth of God is in itself sufficiently stable and certain, and cannot receive a better confirmation from any other quarter than from itself. But as our faith is slender and weak, so if it be not propped up on every side, and supported by all kinds of means, it is forthwith shaken and tossed to and fro, wavers, and even falls. And here, indeed, our merciful Lord, with boundless condescension, so accommodates himself to our capacity, that seeing how from our animal nature we are always creeping on the ground, and cleaving to the flesh, having no thought of what is spiritual, and not even forming an idea of it, he declines not by means of these earthly elements to lead us to himself, and even in the flesh to exhibit a mirror of spiritual blessings. For, as Chrysostom says, (Hom. 60, ad Popul.) “Were we incorporeal, he would give us these things in a naked and incorporeal form. Now because our souls are implanted in bodies, he delivers spiritual things under things visible. Not that the qualities which are set before us in the sacraments are inherent in the nature of the things, but God gives them this signification.”
Calvin explains what I said at the beginning of this article: that the sign is given AFTER the antecedent promise. We have seen at the beginning of this article how the skeptics misunderstand the sign given to Noah, because they do not know the meaning of signs in the Bible, and we have seen how God declared in His Word His antecedent eternal purpose of not smiting all living flesh, and only later gave the sign to Noah as the seal of His promise. This is what Calvin is explaining in this passage. And he quotes Chrysostom, one of the Church Fathers, who, as you can see, gives the same definition and implication to the sacraments.
This is commonly expressed by saying that a sacrament consists of the word and the external sign. By the word we ought to understand not one which, muttered without meaning and without faith, by its sound merely, as by a magical incantation, has the effect of consecrating the element, but one which, preached, makes us understand what the visible sign means.
So it’s not ex opere operato… It’s not enough to say the words, as if they were magical words, but the words explain the meaning of the sign, and they should be received by faith.
The thing, therefore, which was frequently done, under the tyranny of the Pope, was not free from great profanation of the mystery, for they deemed it sufficient if the priest muttered the formula of consecration, while the people, without understanding, looked stupidly on. Nay, this was done for the express purpose of preventing any instruction from thereby reaching the people: for all was said in Latin to illiterate hearers. Superstition afterwards was carried to such a height, that the consecration was thought not to be duly performed except in a low grumble, which few could hear.
Calvin explains what the false practice of the Roman Catholics was. Although later the Roman Catholics replaced the Latin with local languages in many cultures, but the problem didn’t change: they still don’t preach the Gospel to those who receive the sacraments. A simple example of this is the Eucharist which the common Roman Catholic individual takes thinking that he will have the forgiveness of his sins and eternal life just by taking it, even if he doesn’t have real faith in the thing signified by the sign of that sacrament. And even in this case, in each culture, the followers of this false doctrine of the Roman Catholics still think that this sacrament will not be done perfectly unless they use their particular “sacred language” while consecrating it… For instance, the Maronite in Lebanon consecrate the bread and the wine in Syriac, and the majority of the people, if not all of them, do not understand a word of what is said… This is a practical result of that false doctrine. The superstition has reached such an extent that they even think that the consecration should be done in a low voice; you notice this in their Mass, when the Priest begins to say things in a low voice that you can’t hear while the chorus sings… This is a practical result of that false doctrine of ex opere operato…
Very different is the doctrine of Augustine concerning the sacramental word. “Let the word be added to the element, and it will become a sacrament. For whence can there be so much virtue in water as to touch the body and cleanse the heart, unless by the agency of the word, and this not because it is said, but because it is believed? For even in the word the transient sound is one thing, the permanent power another. This is the word of faith which we preach, says the Apostle, (Rom. 10: 8.) Hence, in the Acts of the Apostles, we have the expressions “Purifying their hearts by faith,” (Acts 15: 9.) And the Apostle Peter says, “The like figure whereunto even baptism does now save us, (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience,”) (1 Pet. 3: 21.) “This is the word of faith which we preach: by which word doubtless baptism also, in order that it may be able to cleanse, is consecrated,” (August. Hom. in Joann. 13.)
You see how he requires preaching to the production of faith. And we need not labour to prove this, since there is not the least room for doubt as to what Christ did and commanded us to do, as to what the apostles followed and a purer Church observed. Nay, it is known that, from the very beginning of the world, whenever God offered any sign to the holy Patriarchs, it was inseparably attached to doctrine, without which our senses would gaze bewildered on an unmeaning object. Therefore, when we hear mention made of the sacramental word, let us understand the promise which, proclaimed aloud by the minister, leads the people by the hand to that to which the sign tends and directs us.
Indeed, as you can see, Calvin has explained these things in details in relation to what the Church Fathers said.
On the other hand, it is to be observed, that as these objectors impair the force, and altogether overthrow the use of the sacraments, so there are others who ascribe to the sacraments a kind of secret virtue, which is nowhere said to have been implanted in them by God. By this error the more simple and unwary are perilously deceived while they are taught to seek the gifts of God where they cannot possibly be found, and are insensibly withdrawn from God, so as to embrace instead of his truth mere vanity. For the schools of the Sophists have taught with general consent that the sacraments of the new law, in other words, those now in use in the Christian Church, justify, and confer grace, provided only that we do not interpose the obstacle of mortal sin. It is impossible to describe how fatal and pestilential this sentiment is, and the more so, that for many ages it has, to the great loss of the Church, prevailed over a considerable part of the world. It is plainly of the devil: for, first, in promising a righteousness without faith, it drives souls headlong on destruction; secondly, in deriving a cause of righteousness from the sacraments, it entangles miserable minds, already of their own accord too much inclined to the earth, in a superstitious idea, which makes them acquiesce in the spectacle of a corporeal object rather than in God himself. I wish we had not such experience of both evils as to make it altogether unnecessary to give a lengthened proof of them. For what is a sacrament received without faith, but most certain destruction to the Church? For, seeing that nothing is to be expected beyond the promise, and the promise no less denounces wrath to the unbeliever than offers grace to the believer, it is an error to suppose that anything more is conferred by the sacraments than is offered by the word of God, and obtained by true faith.
You see how dangerous is the false doctrine of ex opere operato. I explained this above. Note that all what Calvin says here about the sacraments in general is true about baptism also in particular. In other words, just getting baptized with water doesn’t make you be born again, but the Word linked to the sign of water should be received by faith by the receiver of the sign, or else it is a superstition to think that the receiver was born again. Augustine also explains this, as we have seen above: if you don’t have love, then you’re not born again even though you have received the sacrament.
From this another thing follows, viz., that assurance of salvation does not depend on participation in the sacraments, as if justification consisted in it. This, which is treasured up in Christ alone, we know to be communicated, not less by the preaching of the Gospel than by the seal of a sacrament, and may be completely enjoyed without this seal. So true is it, as Augustine declares, that there may be invisible sanctification without a visible sign, and, on the other hand, a visible sign without true sanctification, (August. de Quest. Vet. Test. Lib. 3.) For as he elsewhere says, “Men put on Christ, sometimes to the extent of partaking in the sacrament, and sometimes to the extent of holiness of life,” (August. de Bapt. Cont. Donat. cap. 24.) The former may be common to the good and the bad, the latter is peculiar to the good. (Emphasis added)
So it’s not the sign that gives justification, but the Word received by faith. Thus, one can have received the grace before receiving the sign, as was the case with Cornelius who received the grace before getting baptized. But of course Calvin doesn’t mean by this that the receiving of the sign is optional and unimportant, as we will see.
Augustine speaks of the separation when he says that in the elect alone the sacraments accomplish what they represent, (Augustin. de Bapt. Parvul.) Again, when speaking of the Jews, he says, “Though the sacraments were common to and the grace was not common: yet grace is the virtue of the sacraments. Thus, too, the laver of regeneration is now common to all, but the grace by which the members of Christ are regenerated with their head is not common to all,” (August. in Ps. 78.) Again, in another place, speaking of the Lord’s Supper, he says “We also this day receive visible food; but the sacrament is one thing, the virtue of the sacrament another. Why is it that many partake of the altar and die, and die by partaking? For even the cup of the Lord was poison to Judas, not because he received what was evil, but being wicked he wickedly received what was good,” (August. in Joann. Hom. 26.) A little after, he says, “The sacrament of this thing, that is, of the unity of the body and blood of Christ, is in some places prepared every day, in others at certain intervals at the Lord’s table, which is partaken by some unto life, by others unto destruction. But the thing itself, of which there is a sacrament, is life to all, and destruction to none who partake of it.” Some time before he had said, “He who may have eaten shall not die, but he must be one who attains to the virtue of the sacrament, not to the visible sacrament; who eats inwardly not outwardly; who eats with the heart, and not with the teeth.” Here you are uniformly told that a sacrament is so separated from the reality by the unworthiness of the partaker, that nothing remains but an empty and useless figure. Now, in order that you may have not a sign devoid of truth, but the thing with the sign, the Word which is included in it must be apprehended by faith. Thus, in so far as by means of the sacraments you will profit in the communion of Christ, will you derive advantage from them.
You see how he goes in agreement with Augustine.
Therefore, you will ask, Do the wicked, by their ingratitude, make the ordinance of God fruitless and void? I answer, that what I have said is not to be understood as if the power and truth of the sacrament depended on the condition or pleasure of him who receives it. That which God instituted continues firm, and retains its nature, however men may vary; but since it is one thing to offer, and another to receive, there is nothing to prevent a symbol, consecrated by the word of the Lord, from being truly what it is said to be, and preserving its power, though it may at the same time confer no benefit on the wicked and ungodly. This question is well solved by Augustine in a few words: “If you receive carnally, it ceases not to be spiritual, but it is not spiritual to you,” (August. Hom. in Joan 26.)
So a sacrament really has the grace attached to it, but you don’t have that grace just by receiving the sign; you need to receive the attached grace, or else you have no benefit at all. This is also what Augustine says. So if you are baptized, then the new birth (the new life) was given to you; but if you didn’t receive that new life, then you are not born again and you are still in your sins. Thus, one can be said to have been born again by getting baptized, but this practically means that he was born again symbolically, outwardly, in the body, and this baptism doesn’t benefit him in anything unless he is really born of God in his heart by the same grace given to him in baptism.
But as Augustine shows in the above passages that a sacrament is a thing of no value if separated from its truth; so also, when the two are conjoined, he reminds us that it is necessary to distinguish, in order that we may not cleave too much to the external sign. “As it is servile weakness to follow the latter, and take the signs for the thing signified, so to interpret the signs as of no use is an extravagant error,” (August. de Doct. Christ. Lib. 3 c. 9.)
And indeed, the Roman Catholics have made this error: they followed the sign, and they took the signs for the thing signified. While the Anabaptists and the Baptists have interpreted the signs as of no use other than ordinances to be obeyed and by which we make public confession…
Here, also, we ought to observe, that what the minister figures and attests by outward action, God performs inwardly, lest that which God claims for himself alone should be ascribed to mortal man. This Augustine is careful to observe: “How does both God and Moses sanctify? Not Moses for God, but Moses by visible sacraments through his ministry, God by invisible grace through the Holy Spirit. Herein is the whole fruit of visible sacraments; for what do these visible sacraments avail without that sanctification of invisible grace?”
So it’s clear: sacraments are nothing without the attached grace that we receive by faith.
Now, read this carefully to see how Calvin explains how people may be confused by the way the Church Fathers (“the ancients”) used to express themselves:
Those wretched sophists are perhaps deceived by the extravagant eulogiums on our signs which occur in ancient writers: for instance, the following passage of Augustine: “The sacraments of the old law only promised a Saviour, whereas ours give salvation,” (August. Proem. in Ps. 73.) Not perceiving that these and similar figures of speech are hyperbolical, they too have promulgated their hyperbolical dogmas, but in a sense altogether alien from that of ancient writers. For Augustine means nothing more than in another place where he says, “The sacraments of the Mosaic law foretold Christ, ours announce him,” (Quest. sup. Numer. C. 33.) And again, “Those were promises of things to be fulfilled these indications of the fulfilments” (Contra Faustum, Lib 19 c. 14;) as if he had said, Those figured him when he was still expected, ours, now that he has arrived, exhibit him as present. Moreover, with regard to the mode of signifying, he says, as he also elsewhere indicates, “The Law and the Prophets had sacraments foretelling a thing future, the sacraments of our time attest that what they foretold as to come has come,” (Cont. Liter. Petit. Lib. 2. C. 37.) His sentiments concerning the reality and efficacy, he explains in several passages, as when he says, “The sacraments of the Jews were different in the signs, alike in the things signified; different in the visible appearance, alike in spiritual power,” (Hom. in Joann. 26.) Again, “In different signs there was the same faith: it was thus in different signs as in different words, because the words change the sound according to times, and yet words are nothing else than signs. The fathers drank of the same spiritual drink, but not of the same corporeal drink. See then how, while faith remains, signs vary. There the rock was Christ; to us that is Christ which is placed on the altar. They as a great sacrament drank of the water flowing from the rock: believers know what we drink. If you look at the visible appearance there was a difference; if at the intelligible signification, they drank of the same spiritual drink.” Again, “In this mystery their food and drink are the same as ours: the same in meaning, not in form, for the same Christ was figured to them in the rock; to us he here been manifested in the flesh,” (in Ps. 77.)
Though we grant that in this respect also there is some difference. Both testify that the paternal kindness of God, and the graces of the spirit, are offered us in Christ, but ours more clearly and splendidly. In both there is an exhibition of Christ, but in ours it is more full and complete, in accordance with that distinction between the Old and New Testament, of which we have discoursed above. And this is the meaning of Augustine, (whom we quote more frequently, as being the best and most faithful witness of all antiquity,) where he says that after Christ was revealed, sacraments were instituted, fewer in number, but of more august significance and more excellent power, (De Doct. Christ. Lib. 3:; et Ep. ad Januar.)
It is here proper to remind the reader, that all the trifling talk of the sophists concerning the opus operatum, is not only false, but repugnant to the very nature of sacraments, which God appointed in order that believers, who are void and in want of all good, might bring nothing of their own, but simply beg. Hence it follows, that in receiving them, they do nothing which deserves praise, and that in this action (which in respect of them is merely passive) no work can be ascribed to them.
This much is enough about what Calvin said about the sacraments in general. You see the agreement with the Church Fathers, unlike what the Roman Catholics say…
Baptism is the initiatory sign by which we are admitted to the fellowship of the Church, that being ingrafted into Christ we may be accounted children of God. Moreover, the end for which God has given it (this I have shown to be common to all mysteries) is, first, that it may be conducive to our faith in him, and secondly, that it may serve the purpose of a confession among men. The nature of both institutions we shall explain in order. Baptism contributes to our faith three things, which require to be treated separately. The first object, therefore, for which it is appointed by the Lord, is to be a sign and evidence of our purification, or (better to explain my meaning) it is a kind of sealed instrument by which he assures us that all our sins are so deleted, covered, and effaced, that they will never come into his sight, never be mentioned, never imputed. For it is his will that all who have believed be baptised for the remission of sins (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38).
Hence those who have thought that baptism is nothing else than the badge and mark by which we profess our religion before men, in the same way as soldiers attest their profession by bearing the insignia of their commander, have not attended to what was the principal thing in baptism; and this is, that we are to receive it in connection with the promise, “He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved,” (Mark 16: 16.)
So baptism is not just an empty sign, but it has a promise linked to it, and faith rests on that promise.
In this sense is to be understood the statement of Paul, that “Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,” (Eph. 5: 25, 26;) and again, “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost,” (Titus 3: 5.) Peter also says that “baptism also does now save us,” (1 Peter 3: 21.)
For he did not mean to intimate that our ablution and salvation are perfected by water, or that water possesses in itself the virtue of purifying, regenerating, and renewing; nor does he mean that it is the cause of salvation, but only that the knowledge and certainty of such gifts are perceived in this sacrament. This the words themselves evidently show. For Paul connects together the word of life and baptism of water, as if he had said, by the gospel the message of our ablution and sanctification is announced; by baptism this message is sealed. And Peter immediately subjoins, that that baptism is ” not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, which is of faith.” Nay, the only purification which baptism promises is by means of the sprinkling of the blood of Christ, who is figured by water from the resemblance to cleansing and washing. Who, then, can say that we are cleansed by that water which certainly attests that the blood of Christ is our true and only laver? So that we cannot have a better argument to refute the hallucination of those who ascribe the whole to the virtue of water than we derive from the very meaning of baptism, which leads us away as well from the visible element which is presented to our eye, as from all other means, that it may fix our minds on Christ alone.
This is the same explanation that Augustine gave.
Nor is it to be supposed that baptism is bestowed only with reference to the past, so that, in regard to new lapses into which we fall after baptism, we must seek new remedies of expiation in other so-called sacraments, just as if the power of baptism had become obsolete. To this error, in ancient times, it was owing that some refused to be initiated by baptism until their life was in extreme danger, and they were drawing their last breath, that they might thus obtain pardon for all the past. Against this preposterous precaution ancient bishops frequently inveigh in their writings. We ought to consider that at whatever time we are baptised, we are washed and purified once for the whole of life. Wherefore, as often as we fall, we must recall the remembrance of our baptism, and thus fortify our minds, so as to feel certain and secure of the remission of sins. For though, when once administered, it seems to have passed, it is not abolished by subsequent sins. For the purity of Christ was therein offered to us, always is in force, and is not destroyed by any stain: it wipes and washes away all our defilements.
This was an important passage where you find some very important points:
1. Calvin uses here the biblical language by giving the sign the characters of the thing signified. For instance, he says that when we are baptized, “we are washed and purified once for the whole life”… One would think he’s saying that the sign does anything, but as we have seen above he means that the promise attached to the sign does this washing as we receive the sign by faith in the promise.
2. The power of baptism is not only for past sins, as some taught among the Church Fathers. This was an error that led them to think that they should postpone their baptism until their life was in extreme danger, so that they get a purification from all their past sins before they die…
3. As the power of baptism is for the whole life, for the past and present and future sins, so when we later sin, we should not look for other remedies like the Roman Catholic “sacrament of penance”…
4. Faith rests on what is signified by the sign of water in baptism, and thus we are assured that we have the forgiveness of our sins, as God cannot lie and He has given us a seal of His forgiveness in baptism. True faith rests on this, and not on itself, as many are teaching today. In other words, for the assurance of Salvation you can’t rely on the fact that you believed; you should rely on the fact that Christ died for you and that God has given to you the assurance of this promise in baptism and in the Eucharist.
Nor must we hence assume a license of sinning for the future, (there is certainly nothing in it to countenance such audacity;) but this doctrine is intended only for those who, when they have sinned, groan under their sins burdened and oppressed, that they may have wherewith to support and console themselves, and not rush headlong into despair. Thus Paul says that Christ was made a propitiation for us for the remission of sins that are past, (Rom. 3: 25.) By this he denies not that constant and perpetual forgiveness of sins is thereby obtained even till death: he only intimates that it is designed by the Father for those poor sinners who, wounded by remorse of conscience, sigh for the physician. To these the mercy of God is offered. Those who, from hopes of impunity, seek a license for sin, only provoke the wrath and justice of God.
So this sign is not for the assurance of those who want to continue to sin, but for the repentant sinners who put their faith on Christ alone, so that they may not fall in despair when they see their sinfulness, but so that they may rely on the promise of justification in Christ and thus stand up and have victory over the temptation and over any sin. The insolent sinner, by receiving the sign of repentance and new life and yet refusing to repent, provokes the wrath and justice of God on himself. We have seen all of this in this article.
Now, follow with me this important passage where Calvin once again uses the biblical language about baptism, and explains how repentance was separated from baptism by Roman Catholics when they invented the sacrament of penance:
I know it is a common belief that forgiveness, which at our first regeneration we receive by baptism alone, is after baptism procured by means of penitence and the keys, (see chap. 19 sec. 17.) But those who entertain this fiction err from not considering that the power of the keys, of which they speak, so depends on baptism that it ought not on any account to be separated from it. The sinner receives forgiveness by the ministry of the Church; in other words, not without the preaching of the gospel. And of what nature is this preaching? That we are washed from our sins by the blood of Christ. And what is the sign and evidence of that washing if it be not baptism? We see, then, that that forgiveness has reference to baptism.
This error had its origin in the fictitious sacrament of penance, on which I have already touched. What remains will be said at the proper place. There is no wonder if men who, from the grossness of their minds, are excessively attached to external things, have here also betrayed the defect, – if not contented with the pure institution of God, they have introduced new helps devised by themselves, as if baptism were not itself a sacrament of penance. But if repentance is recommended during the whole of life, the power of baptism ought to have the same extent. Wherefore, there can be no doubt that all the godly may, during the whole course of their lives, whenever they are vexed by a consciousness of their sins, recall the remembrance of their baptism, that they may thereby assure themselves of that sole and perpetual ablution which we have in the blood of Christ.
Now, note what Calvin says about the timing of baptism:
Then, again, when they ask us what faith for several years followed our baptism, that they may thereby prove that our baptism was in vain, since it is not sanctified unless the word of the promise is received with faith, our answer is, that being blind and unbelieving, we for a long time did not hold the promise which was given us in baptism, but that still the promise, as it was of God, always remained fixed, and firm, and true. Although all men should be false and perfidious, yet God ceases not to be true, (Rom. 3: 3, 4;) though all were lost, Christ remains safe. We acknowledge, therefore, that at that time baptism profited us nothing, since in us the offered promise, without which baptism is nothing, lay neglected. Now, when by the grace of God we begin to repent, we accuse our blindness and hardness of heart in having been so long ungrateful for his great goodness. But we do not believe that the promise itself has vanished, we rather reflect thus: God in baptism promises the remission of sins, and will undoubtedly perform what he has promised to all believers. That promise was offered to us in baptism, let us therefore embrace it in faith. In regard to us, indeed, it was long buried on account of unbelief; now, therefore, let us with faith receive it.
Wherefore, when the Lord invites the Jewish people to repentance, he gives no injunction concerning another circumcision, though (as we have said) they were circumcised by a wicked and sacrilegious hand, and had long lived in the same impiety. All he urges is conversion of heart. For how much soever the covenant might have been violated by them, the symbol of the covenant always remained, according to the appointment of the Lord, firm and inviolable. Solely, therefore, on the condition of repentance, were they restored to the covenant which God had once made with them in circumcision, though this which they had received at the hand of a covenant-breaking priest, they had themselves as much as in them lay polluted and extinguished.
So just as a Jew didn’t have to be circumcised again when he repented, so also we don’t have to get baptized again when we repent, if indeed previous to baptism our faith was only a dead faith or the faith of our parents that we followed without real knowledge of the truth. Baptism has the power in it, because it has the linked promise, whether or not I believe that promise. But I receive the benefit from that power only when I repent and believe the Gospel.
But there is a danger that he who is sick may be deprived of the gift of regeneration if he decease without baptism! By no means. Our children, before they are born, God declares that he adopts for his own when he promises that he will be a God to us, and to our seed after us. In this promise their salvation is included. None will dare to offer such an insult to God as to deny that he is able to give effect to his promise. How much evil has been caused by the dogma, ill expounded, that baptism is necessary to salvation, few perceive, and, therefore, think caution the less necessary.
For when the opinion prevails that all are lost who happen not to be dipped in water, our condition becomes worse than that of God’s ancient people, as if his grace were more restrained than under the Law. In that case, Christ will be thought to have come not to fulfil, but to abolish the promises, since the promise, which was then effectual in itself to confer salvation before the eighth day, would not now be effectual without the help of a sign.
This is very important. This passage contains the following very important points:
1. The new birth is not linked to the sign of baptism in such a way that makes it impossible for someone to be born again without receiving the sign.
2. The dogma that baptism is necessary to Salvation (which we find in the writings of the Church Fathers) is ill expounded (not well explained), and therefore it has caused a large misunderstanding and has led people to many wrong superstitions. At the end of this article, we will see what is the right understanding of that expression “baptism is necessary to Salvation” when used by the Church Fathers and by the leaders of the Reformation. For Calvin himself, who made the objection against the false explanation of this expression “necessary to Salvation”, uses the same expression, because he explains what it means: “It is true that, by neglecting baptism, we are excluded from salvation; and in this sense I acknowledge that it is necessary; but it is absurd to speak of the hope of salvation as confined to the sign.” (Commentary on John 3:5)
3. If one cannot be saved under the New Covenant without the help of a sign, then our case is worse than the case of the ancient people, and Christ has not fulfilled the promises… Which is not true.
Now, we pass to chapter 16 of the same book IV of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Paedobaptism (infant baptism):
A. Baptism and circumcision
Now, since prior to the institution of baptism, the people of God had circumcision in its stead, let us see how far these two signs differ, and how far they resemble each other. In this way it will appear what analogy there is between them. When the Lord enjoins Abraham to observe circumcision, (Gen. 17: 10,) he premises that he would be a God unto him and to his seed, adding, that in himself was a perfect sufficiency of all things, and that Abraham might reckon on his hand as a fountain of every blessing. These words include the promise of eternal life, as our Saviour interprets when he employs it to prove the immortality and resurrection of believers: “God,” says he, “is not the God of the dead, but of the living,” (Matth. 22: 32.) Hence, too, Paul, when showing to the Ephesians how great the destruction was from which the Lord had delivered them, seeing that they had not been admitted to the covenant of circumcision, infers that at that time they were aliens from the covenant of promise, without God, and without hope, (Eph. 2: 12,) all these being comprehended in the covenant. Now, the first access to God, the first entrance to immortal life, is the remission of sins. Hence it follows, that this corresponds to the promise of our cleansing in baptism. The Lord afterwards covenants with Abraham, that he is to walk before him in sincerity and innocence of heart: this applies to mortification or regeneration. And lest any should doubt whether circumcision were the sign of mortification, Moses explains more clearly elsewhere when he exhorts the people of Israel to circumcise the foreskin of their heart, because the Lord had chosen them for his own people, out of all the nations of the earth. As the Lord, in choosing the posterity of Abraham for his people, commands them to be circumcised, so Moses declares that they are to be circumcised in heart, thus explaining what is typified by that carnal circumcision. Then, lest any one should attempt this in his own strength, he shows that it is the work of divine grace. All this is so often inculcated by the prophets, that there is no occasion here to collect the passages which everywhere occur. We have, therefore, a spiritual promise given to the fathers in circumcision, similar to that which is given to us in baptism, since it figured to them both the forgiveness of sins and the mortification of the flesh. Besides, as we have shown that Christ, in whom both of these reside, is the foundation of baptism, so must he also be the foundation of circumcision. For he is promised to Abraham, and in him all nations are blessed. To seal this grace, the sign of circumcision is added.
B. The difference between circumcision and baptism is in externals only
There is now no difficulty in seeing wherein the two signs agree, and wherein they differ. The promise, in which we have shown that the power of the signs consists, is one in both, viz., the promise of the paternal favour of God, of forgiveness of sins, and eternal life. And the thing figured is one and the same, viz., regeneration. The foundation on which the completion of these things depends is one in both. Wherefore, there is no difference in the internal meaning, from which the whole power and peculiar nature of the sacrament is to be estimated. The only difference which remains is in the external ceremony, which is the least part of it, the chief part consisting in the promise and the thing signified. Hence we may conclude, that every thing applicable to circumcision applies also to baptism, excepting always the difference in the visible ceremony. To this analogy and comparison we are led by that rule of the apostle, in which he enjoins us to bring every interpretation of Scripture to the analogy of faith, (Rom. 12: 3, 6.) And certainly in this matter the truth may almost be felt. For just as circumcision, which was a kind of badge to the Jews, assuring them that they were adopted as the people and family of God, was their first entrance into the Church, while they, in their turn, professed their allegiance to God, so now we are initiated by baptism, so as to be enrolled among his people, and at the same time swear unto his name. Hence it is incontrovertible, that baptism has been substituted for circumcision, and performs the same office.
C. Infants of believers are participants in the Covenant
Now, if we are to investigate whether or not baptism is justly given to infants, will we not say that the man trifles, or rather is delirious, who would stop short at the element of water, and the external observance, and not allow his mind to rise to the spiritual mystery? If reason is listened to, it will undoubtedly appear that baptism is properly administered to infants as a thing due to them. The Lord did not anciently bestow circumcision upon them without making them partakers of all the things signified by circumcision. He would have deluded his people with mere imposture, had he quieted them with fallacious symbols: the very idea is shocking. I is distinctly declares, that the circumcision of the infant will be instead of a seal of the promise of the covenant. But if the covenant remains firm and fixed, it is no less applicable to the children of Christians in the present day, than to the children of the Jews under the Old Testament. Now, if they are partakers of the thing signified, how can they be denied the sign? If they obtain the reality, how can they be refused the figure? The external sign is so united in the sacrament with the word, that it cannot be separated from it; but if they can be separated, to which of the two shall we attach the greater value? Surely, when we see that the sign is subservient to the word, we shall say that it is subordinate, and assign it the inferior place. Since, then, the word of baptism is destined for infants why should we deny them the signs which is an appendage of the word? This one reason, could no other be furnished, would be amply sufficient to refute all gainsayers. The objection, that there was a fixed day for circumcision, is a mere quibble. We admit that we are not now, like the Jews, tied down to certain days; but when the Lord declares that though he prescribes no day, yet he is pleased that infants shall be formally admitted to his covenant, what more do we ask?
These three paragraphs clarify the whole position of John Calvin. But one may make the objection: “Infants cannot believe!” Well, let’s see how Calvin answers this (he gives many arguments; I will quote the one that shows his agreement with the Church Fathers and with Martin Luther on this issue):
The charge of absurdity with which they attempt to stigmatise it, we thus dispose of. If those on whom the Lord has bestowed his election, after receiving the sign of regeneration, depart this life before they become adults, he, by the incomprehensible energy of his Spirit, renews them in the way which he alone sees to be expedient. Should they reach an age when they can be instructed in the meaning of baptism, they will thereby be animated to greater zeal for renovation, the badge of which they will learn that they received in earliest infancy, in order that they might aspire to it during their whole lives.
So the timing of your baptism is not the essential point; the essential point is whether or not you received the promise by faith.
By the way, this passage reminds me of our article: Where do babies go when they die?
Now, another argument from Calvin:
Thus the Lord, when he chose Abraham for himself, did not commence with circumcision, in the meanwhile concealing what he meant by that sign, but first announced that he intended to make a covenant with him, and, after his faith in the promise, made him partaker of the sacrament. Why does the sacrament come after faith in Abraham, and precede all intelligence in his son Isaac? It is right that he who, in adult age, is admitted to the fellowship of a covenant by one from whom he had hitherto been alienated, should previously learn its conditions; but it is not so with the infant born to him. He, according to the terms of the promise, is included in the promise by hereditary right from his mother’s womb. Or, to state the matter more briefly and more clearly, If the children of believers, without the help of understanding, are partakers of the covenant, there is no reason why they should be denied the sign, because they are unable to swear to its stipulations. This undoubtedly is the reason why the Lord sometimes declares that the children born to the Israelites are begotten and born to him, (Ezek. 16: 20; 23: 37.) For he undoubtedly gives the place of sons to the children of those to whose seed he has promised that he will be a Father. But the child descended from unbelieving parents is deemed an alien to the covenant until he is united to God by faith. Hence, it is not strange that the sign is withheld when the thing signified would be vain and fallacious. In that view, Paul says that the Gentiles, so long as they were plunged in idolatry, were strangers to the covenants (Eph. 2: 11.) The whole matter may, if I mistake not, be thus briefly and clearly expounded: Those who, in adult age, embrace the faith of Christ, having hitherto been aliens from the covenant, are not to receive the sign of baptism without previous faith and repentance. These alone can give them access to the fellowship of the covenant, whereas children, deriving their origin from Christians, as they are immediately on their birth received by God as heirs of the covenant, are also to be admitted to baptism. To this we must refer the narrative of the Evangelist, that those who were baptised by John confessed their sins, (Matth. 3: 6.) This example, we hold, ought to be observed in the present day. Were a Turk to offer himself for baptism, we would not at once perform the rite without receiving a confession which was satisfactory to the Church.
Let this much be sufficient from Calvin about baptism in the limit of this article.
Now, let’s quote some passages from the Confessions (or creeds) of the Reformation.
c. The Augsburg Confession (Lutheran, 1530)
Of Baptism they teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that through Baptism is offered the grace of God, and that children are to be baptized who, being offered to God through Baptism are received into God’s grace. (The Augsburg Confession, Of Baptism)
Once again I note that we have seen with John Calvin how this expression “necessary to Salvation” should be explained, and we will see a more detailed explanation at the end of this article.
Now, in the Defense of the Augsburg Confession, we read:
Therefore it is necessary to baptize little children, that the promise of salvation may be applied to them, according to Christ’s command, Matt. 28:19: Baptize all nations. Just as here salvation is offered to all, so Baptism is offered to all, to men, women, children, infants. It clearly follows, therefore, that infants are to be baptized, because with Baptism salvation [the universal grace and treasure of the Gospel] is offered. (Emphasis added)
So in baptism the promise is offered. And we have seen with Martin Luther how this offered promise should be believed, or else the sign of baptism has no benefit for us. I remind you that the Augsburg Confession is part of the Lutheran Book of Concord that contains all of the confessions of the Lutherans, one of which is the Large Catechism of Martin Luther where we have seen a detailed explanation of what baptism is and how the sign has no meaning for us unless the promise is received by faith.
d. The Belgic Confession (Reformed, 1561)
In the Belgic Confession, Article 34, Of Holy Baptism, we read:
We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law, has made an end, by the shedding of his blood, of all other sheddings of blood which men could or would make as a propitiation or satisfaction for sin and that he, having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood has instituted the sacrament of baptism instead thereof; by which we are received into the Church of God, and separated from all other people and strange religions, that we may wholly belong to him, whose ensign and banner we bear: and which serves as a testimony to us, that he will forever be our gracious God and Father. Therefore he has commanded all those, who are his, to be baptized with pure water, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”: thereby signifying to us, that as water washes away the filth of the body, when poured upon it, and is seen on the body of the baptized, when sprinkled upon him; so does the blood of Christ, by the power of the Holy Ghost, internally sprinkle the soul, cleanse it from its sins, and regenerate us from children of wrath, unto children of God. Not that this is effected by the external water, but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God; who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass, to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, that is, the devil, and to enter into the spiritual land of Canaan. Therefore the ministers, on their part, administer the sacrament, and that which is visible, but our Lord gives that which is signified by the sacrament, namely, the gifts and invisible grace; washing, cleansing and purging our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts, and filling them with all comfort; giving unto us a true assurance of his fatherly goodness; putting on us the new man, and putting off the old man with all his deeds. Therefore we believe, that every man, who is earnestly studious of obtaining life eternal, ought to be but once baptized with this only baptism, without ever repeating the same: since we cannot be born twice. Neither does this baptism only avail us, at the time when the water is poured upon us, and received by us but also through the whole course of our life; therefore we detest the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with the one only baptism they have once received, and moreover condemn the baptism of the infants of believers, whom we believe ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised, upon the same promises which are made unto our children. And indeed Christ shed his blood no less for the washing of the children of the faithful, than for adult persons; and therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of that, which Christ has done for them; as the Lord commanded in the law, that they should be made partakers of the sacrament of Christ’s suffering and death, shortly after they were born, by offering for them a lamb, which was a sacrament of Jesus Christ. Moreover, what circumcision was to the Jews, that baptism is to our children. And for this reason Paul calls baptism the circumcision of Christ.
e. The Genevan Confession (Reformed, 1536)
Baptism is an external sign by which our Lord testifies that he desires to receive us for his children, as members of his Son Jesus. Hence in it there is represented to us the cleansing from sin which we have in the blood of Jesus Christ, the mortification of our flesh which we have by his death that we may live in him by his Spirit. Now since our children belong to such an alliance with our Lord, we are certain that the external sign is rightly applied to them. (The Genevan Confession)
f. The Westminster Confession (Reformed, 1647)
This Confession is considered to be the most complete confession of the Reformed churches. The Presbyterians adopt this confession.
In the chapter about baptism, we read:
Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, or his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world.
Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized.
Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.
The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.
The sacrament of Baptism is but once to be administered to any person.
These were in brief the important sayings of the Reformation leaders and of the Reformation confessions. If you want to read more about this, please read our article: Interesting Quotes about Baptism. In that article, we have some interesting quotes from Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and his friends, Jonathan Edwards (linked page), Benjamin B. Warfield (linked page), John Wesley, and J.N. Darby.
Just as the Bible teaches, the Church has always believed that the signs that God has given with a promise are real means by which God gives us His graces. Thus the signs are called by the name of the thing signified to give us an assurance of the certainty of the thing signified. Thus, for example, you are said to be born again through baptism to mean that this grace of new birth is given to you in baptism to be received by faith. Keep in mind that the sacraments are visible words of God; so just as the Word of God is said to make you born again, although you are not born again unless you receive that Word by faith (see Romans 10:17 and 1 Peter 1:23), in the same way baptism is said to make you be born again, although you’re not born again unless you have received by faith the thing signified by baptism. When we receive those signs by faith, we put our faith not in the external element that is used (ex. water), but in the internal promise linked to that element. This is how faith is a living or a saving faith, because real faith rests on the promises and on the grace of God, and not on itself. You have a comparison with baptism in the Lord’s Supper: when you receive the bread and the wine believing the linked Word that says that this is the flesh and the blood of Jesus Christ, then you have the grace signified by those external elements, and you really eat the flesh of Christ and drink the blood of Christ by faith. Indeed, real faith is that spiritual eating and drinking; all other kinds of faith are dead faith. Thus, if you receive that bread and that wine without real faith in the signified grace, you bring judgment on yourself, as the Bible teaches (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27-29). The same is with baptism. During the medieval times, this truth has been obscured by the false doctrine of ex opere operato which taught that the sign, when applied without obstacles, always gives the signified grace, even without a personal faith that receives that grace. And thus, the teachings of the Bible and of the Church Fathers were reinterpreted to mean that the signs are the things signified. For instance, it is this false doctrine that made people think that baptism is the new birth signified by the sign of water in which we symbolically die with Christ to the Old Adam to rise up with the Last Adam, Jesus Christ. Of course, when we receive it by faith, this sign is not just symbolical anymore, but we really receive from it the linked grace which is the new birth. So this false doctrine of ex opere operato abolished the sacrament by making the sign become the thing signified, while a sacrament is a sign PLUS a thing signified that we receive by faith. The Reformation of the 16th century came to make a reform and to restore the true teaching about baptism that the Bible and the Church Fathers taught. But there was also a movement of radical reformation that thought that the signs are mere signs by which we confess Christ before men, thus obeying a mere ordinance of Christ. But this also was an obscuration of the real meaning of those sacraments, because those signs are not something we do, but something that God did and gave to us as the seals of His promises, as we have seen above. It is only as we receive those seals of God’s promises that we give a public testimony that we are Christians and that we belong to Christ, thus obeying Christ’s ordinance by faith. Real faith does not make the new birth (the new life), but it receives it. In fact, it is by receiving this life that our faith becomes a living faith. Those who say that baptism is something we do in obedience to Christ’s commandment make the sign a human work. This false teaching is very popular these days, especially among the cults like the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses: that we should obey God and get baptized as a work of obedience, and thus be saved. They thus make baptism a work of legalistic obedience, and not a grace of God that we receive by faith. So keep in mind that baptism is not something we do, but something that God has done and that we receive by faith. We have also seen that baptism is the sign of the New Covenant that replaced the circumcision of the Old Covenant. Thus whoever has faith in Christ (without examination of whether or not this faith is a living faith) is part of this New Covenant externally and/or internally. Those who only receive the sign of baptism, but have no real repentant faith, are those who only participate to this New Covenant externally by receiving the sign of baptism and thus being called “Christians”. Augustine, just like the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:26, said that these are false brethren. They have a name that they are alive, but in fact they are dead (cf. Revelation 3:1 and similar passages). Some of our articles treat their case, such as Some questions about Hebrews 6:4-6 (Can a true believer lose his Salvation and never be able to repent again?) and Just believe?… We have seen these facts with the Church Fathers and with the Reformation. And in our article “… one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5) we have also seen this with those disciples of Jesus who were baptized as His disciples but were not true disciples and thus they later left Him. The Lord explained this with the example of the branches that are on the Vine (on Christ) but do not give the fruits of life, and therefore they are cut and thrown in fire (cf. John 15). As for those who receive by faith the grace linked to those signs, they are part of the New Covenant both externally and internally. In Matthew 25:1-13, five of the virgins had only the external sign of the Holy Spirit (they had oil in their lamps, and oil is the symbol of the Holy Spirit and of life), and the other five had both the external sign and the internal fact (they had oil both in their lamps and in their flasks along with their lamps). Many things can be said about the external and the internal significations of baptism, but we can’t do that in this article which already became a book… So in baptism we receive the sign that we belong to Christ; but whether or not we really belong to Christ depends of the existence of a living faith, i.e. of whether or not we have “oil in our flasks along with our lamps”… Thus, and according to the definition of baptism, especially as the sign of the New Covenant that replaced the Old Covenant sign of circumcision, the children of Christian parents should also get baptized, because they also are Christians who need to receive the sign of the New Covenant. We don’t examine whether the child has a living faith or not, because that has nothing to do with whether a person does or does not deserve baptism. We never read in the Bible that a person deserves baptism with a living faith, as baptism is a grace that God gives and not a work that we do as a merit. We have seen how many of Christ’s disciples had faith and were baptized and became his disciples, but they later left Him, and Jesus said that they didn’t have a living faith. So a living faith is not the condition that should exist before a person is baptized, as we can’t know who has a living faith; only faith in Christ is the condition that should exist before a person is baptized. No one can know when the child will begin to have a living faith. And after all, it is by receiving the thing signified in baptism that the child will have a living faith. Therefore, the child is baptized, because his faith is the faith of his parents, i.e. faith in Christ. This child will grow in this New Covenant, believing in Christ, so he should have the sign of this New Covenant. Now, whether this faith is a living faith or not, and when this faith has become a living faith, only God knows, but we only see the fruits. The fruit will be a life of repentance and self-denial and denial of the worldly system of sin and walking in righteousness and love. Love is the fruit of the Holy Spirit whom we receive when we are born again by faith, thus receiving the internal seal of the Holy Spirit (cf. Ephesians 1:13). The sign of water in baptism is only the external seal. This is what Anonymous was asking about when he wondered whether all Christians in the times of the Church Fathers had fruits of life. We have seen how Augustine said they didn’t. So we don’t examine whether or not the child has a living faith, because that’s not our work, but the work of God who knows the hearts. Our work is to preach the Word, and it is this Word that will save the person, whether baptized or not, when he receives it by faith when he repents. And indeed, we see in the Bible households getting baptized and becoming Christian. Whether or not all of the members of those households were true Christians is only seen through the fruits that they give, and only the Lord knows His own. It is in this way that we read in the Bible about Christians who fall from Grace, as they were part of this New Covenant by baptism, but they refused it and they didn’t have a living faith. Read in this context our article Some questions about Hebrews 6:4-6. Note that if we take the definition of the Anabaptists for what baptism is, real apostasy will be impossible, because no one who is truly born of God can fall of Grace. Brief, the child of Christian parents has faith in Christ and should be baptized. We can’t know when this faith will be a repentant and a living faith. Martin Luther thought that the child has faith in Christ, but he didn’t explain the details that I explained here about how and when this faith becomes a living faith. John Calvin gave us an idea about how the child has faith, by comparing baptism with circumcision: the child of Christian parents has Christian faith, just as the child of Jewish parents has the Jewish faith. The Old Covenant included the children of the Jewish parents, and God calls them all “My people”. Is it normal that the New Covenant does not include the children of Christian parents? Is it normal that the children of Christian parents should not receive the sign of the Covenant and thus be called Christians, at least externally, when Jesus said that children should be allowed to come to Him? Anyway, we can’t write the detailed arguments of the baptism of all believers (and not just of saved believers as the Anabaptists and the Baptists taught…) in the limit of this article.
Now, before I close this article, let me just say a conclusive word about whether baptism is essential for Salvation or not. We have seen in this article that the Church Fathers talked about this subject without explaining what they mean by “essential to Salvation”. We have read Calvin saying: “How much evil has been caused by the dogma, ill expounded, that baptism is necessary to salvation, few perceive, and, therefore, think caution the less necessary.” (Emphasis mine) This doctrine was not well expounded or explained by the Church Fathers. Well, when people ask about whether baptism is necessary to Salvation or not, they mean to ask whether or not receiving the sign of water in baptism is necessary for Salvation… The answer to this question is very evident in Scripture and to some extent in the writings of the Church Fathers, as we have seen: man may be born again and saved without receiving the sign of baptism. Thus the thief on the cross was saved, and Cornelius was saved even before receiving the sign of water, and all Old Testament saints were saved without receiving the sign of baptism. In the same sense, a person who dies while still an infant cannot be sent to Hell with a medieval logic just because he was not baptized… Please, read the article: Where do babies go when they die? So in this sense baptism is not necessary to Salvation. But if by the question we seek to know whether we can just refuse to get baptized and still be saved, then this also is evidently and clearly answered by the Scripture and by the Church Fathers: No one who refuses the Grace of God and the sign of His Covenant can be saved. Thus we saw that the children of Israel would lose their firstborn if they didn’t stay in their houses and eat the Passover lamb and if they didn’t put the sign of blood on their doors. Thus also we see Paul saying: “you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh“ (Colossians 2:13). If receiving the sign of the Covenant were optional, then how would these people be dead in the uncircumcision of their flesh?… Many things can be said about these things, but they need a separate article. So, in order to be clear about what we mean by “necessary to Salvation”, I prefer to use two expressions: 1. Necessary for Salvation; 2. Necessary in Salvation. Baptism is NOT necessary for Salvation, as it is not essential that one receive the sign in order to be saved. But baptism IS necessary in Salvation, as one cannot refuse to receive the grace signified in baptism and still be saved. Just as in Salvation we also have works that God has prepared beforehand so that we walk in them, and more precisely we are created in Christ for those good works, and thus we can’t just not walk in them and still be saved (cf. Ephesians 2:10), in the same way one cannot refuse baptism and still be saved. So baptism IS essential in Salvation, just as all the graces that God gives to us and help us in our sanctification are necessary in Salvation, i.e. they are necessary parts of that Salvation which we receive by faith alone.
This is what could be said in short about baptism as taught in the Bible and by the Church Fathers and by the Reformation leaders, as an answer to Anonymous’ question. If we would want to write all the details, we would need to write volumes, which is not practical. So we may expound more about the different aspects of this subject in interactive conversations (as in the comments to this article) or in different articles that talk about baptism in relation to Salvation and real faith.
Grace be with you!
Disciple of Jesus Christ