Debate: Does Baptism regenerate or is it symbolic?

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This page is a debate page created to explore the question, "What is Baptism?" Is it, as Catholic and Orthodox Christians hold, (1) a Sacrament or Mystery in which the Grace of Christ's Blood is applied to wash us for the remission of our sins, or is it, (2) as most Protestant Christians[1] hold, a symbolic confession of faith wherein a person declares that he has given his life to Our Lord Jesus Christ. We will first look at texts from the Holy Scriptures of both Old and New Testament. Later on, we can consider the historical interpretation of those texts in the Church Fathers and the Creeds.

Zech 13:1 - The Prophesied Fountain to cleanse from sin and impurity

The Prophet Zechariah declares that God will open up a fountain to cleanse His people from all their sins and impurity: "In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness." (Zech 13:1).

It is fitting that the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world, should be the one to open this fount. Zech 13:6-7 are also manifestly Messianic Prophesies, which speak of the Wounds of Christ, the Wounds with which He was pierced in the House of His Friends, and of the Shepherd being struck, and the Sheep scattered: "6And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends. 7Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the LORD of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones." It was quoted by Jesus Christ Our Lord in Mat 26:31 of Himself. We have clear signs Baptism is the foretold Fountain wherein all can be cleansed from sin, by the washing of water and the Word, in the Name of the Holy Trinity.

Acts 22:16 - St. Paul bears witness that Baptism washes away sins!

St. Paul the Apostle, recounting his testimony for the Lord, relates that Ananias told him, "And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord." (Acts 22:16).

Here, we learn in plain language, that in Baptism, sins are washed away, because of the Name of the Triune Lord, i.e. the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in which Name, in obedience to Christ the Lord (Mat 28:19), Trinitarian Christians are baptized. If the Name of Jesus has power to heal bodies from sickness, as all believing Christians admit, will not the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost (the only place in the Bible we are used to use the One Name of all Three Persons Who are One God) have power to heal souls from sin, which is spiritual sickness? Certainly, it will; when, in obedience to the Prophet Elisha, Naaman at last (though he did not originally want to, but later overcame his stubborn will, in surrender to God's will made known through the Prophet) admitted he had to be baptized or washed in the Jordan to be cleansed from his leprosy, then and only then he received healing from it. God values obedience and in this way foreshadowed the power of the Water of Baptism, which has efficacy through the Blood of Christ, to heal the soul from sin: "So Naaman went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored and became like that of a little child, and he was clean." (2 Kings 5:14).

Eph 5:26 - The Church is sanctified by the washing of Water and the Word

In this amazing verse, Christians learn that the Church is made holy and cleansed in the Washing of Water and the Word: "That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word" (Eph 5:26).

What is the Water? Baptism! What is the Word? The Name of the Holy Trinity! That Name is spoken over the Baptized person, and the Word spoken cleanses the person to be baptized from original sin or personal sin. This debate basically comes down to one thing: can God's Word be taken literally? If Jesus Christ Our Lord and His Apostles testify to us over and over that "Baptism does also now save us" (1 Pet 3:21) and that it sanctifies us, makes us holy, and cleanses us from sin, as in the above passages, then we have to come to terms with the reality that the Scriptures do indeed teach the same thing as the historical confession of the Apostolic Churches. In the Nicene Creed, all Christians confessed "We confess One Baptism for the remission of sins" and this was universally accepted for centuries.

Acts 2:38 - St. Peter declares that the Spirit is promised to the Baptized!

To one of the most important questions in soteriology, the basic question, "what must we do to be saved?" (Acts 2:37), St. Peter the Apostle, on the day of Pentecost, speaking by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, did not declare Baptism merely symbolic and inefficacious, but said, "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost."

This statement is clear. They were to repent of their unbelief. They were to be baptized in the Name given by the Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of their sins. And when they did this, they would receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. These statements of the Chief Apostle, given the Keys to open the Kingdom of God to unbelievers, by, among other things, declaring its mysteries (Mat 16:19), show to us that Baptism truly regenerates the soul. It has efficacy, as the same St. Peter the Apostle would later write, "by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet 3:21). That means Baptism effects something. It is not just a bare and empty sign. It effects the resurrection of the believer from sin and death to grace and life.

John 3:5 - Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself teaches to be born again of water!

Our Lord Jesus, the Prince of Theologians, is Himself the best Teacher. He said to be born again of Water and of the Holy Spirit, not of water only or of the Spirit only. By this Word, He declared that regeneration ordinarily happens by means of water: "Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." (Jn 3:5)

Therefore, in order to pass from death to life, we should hurry to the Baptismal fount, if we are non-Christians. As Christians, we must preach on the efficacy and power of Holy Baptism to be more effective in our evangelism. The world will more easily believe in a visible sign that has invisible efficacy. That is why Our Lord Jesus even linked the Great Commission to Baptism, which He would not have done, if Baptism was non-essential: "18And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. 19Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen." (Mat 28:18-20). Again, in the Gospel of St. Mark, He said, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16) showing that Baptism is part of salvation. We are baptized into Christ's death. So that as Christ was raised from the dead, our souls also are raised from death to life, and have new life in Christ. St. Paul explains this in Rom 6:5-7.

Rom 6:3-7 St. Paul explains that we are baptized into Christ's salvific Death!

When we understand Baptism makes us the children of God (entering the State of Grace) and "as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" , as St. Paul writes in Gal 3:27, and "being baptized into His Death" (i.e. being washed in His blood, dying with Him, crucifying the old man, and rising to new life), we understand Baptism is not symbolic but is life-giving by the action of Christ and of His Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life: "3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: 6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. 7 For he that is dead is freed from sin." (Rom 6)

The texts are largely self-explanatory. In Baptism, we died with Christ and so were freed from sin. We were buried with Him by baptism, so that as Christ was raised in the dead, we too might rise to new life in Christ. As many as were baptized have put on Christ. As many as were baptized into Jesus Christ are baptized into His Life-Giving Death, we may say, are baptized by His Life-Giving Spirit, "by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body"(1 Cor 12:13), from which we also learn that by Baptism, we become members of the Church; in Baptism, the Spirit makes us one Body in Jesus Christ. Because we were planted with Christ in the likeness of His death, we also become in the likeness of His Resurrection, viz. by spiritually being raised from sin and death to eternal life and sanctifying grace.

1 Pet 3:21 - St. Peter says it plainly in Four Simple Words: "Baptism now saves us"!

St. Peter the Apostle possibly makes the clearest declaration in Sacred Scripture about the regenerating power of Holy Baptism. The Apostle says, "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:" (1 Pet 3:21).

What could be clearer? Baptism now saves us. Not, "Baptism is only a symbol that has exactly zero efficacy" as some modern Christians appear to teach and seem to think. Baptism effects the transition from the old man of death, to becoming the new man in Christ, from being a child of Adam to becoming a child of God. This is confirmed a second time by the end of the passage. Baptism saves us by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ Powerless? Is it not the "power of God unto salvation", being the heart of the Gospel? How then will something that saves us by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ be powerless. No, Baptism is not powerless inefficacious, but effects a powerful deliverance of the soul of the ransomed sinner from being in death to rising to new life.

Tit 3:5 - St. Paul the Apostle confirms Christ saves us by His Merciful Washing of Regeneration!

Baptism is not man's work. It is God's work. No man can baptize himself just like no man can save himself. Christ baptizes us through His Priests and Ministers, just like Christ saves us by making us members of His Body, the Church. In this passage, we read: "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". (Tit 3:5)

A marvelous description of a wonderful washing of regeneration, which can be nothing other than the washing of Baptism. Jesus Christ has instituted water for Baptism, to signify the internal renewing of the Holy Ghost that He effects in the washing of regeneration at the baptismal fount. Not by our own works are we saved, but by Christ's work, which is applied to us in Baptism, the washing of regeneration. Baptism is also called the "circumcision made without hands (Col 2:11) because it is painless and easy, and does not require the person undergoing it to be held by another. Circumcision signified that Christ was yet to come, to make painful expiation for our sins. Baptism signifies that Christ has already come, and has now given us an easy means of regeneration, the washing of regeneration that is Baptism. It has efficacy by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and because of the interior renewing of the Holy Ghost operative during it. It is the washing of Water and of the Word.

Mk 1:4 - Even St. John the Baptist bears witness that baptism is for the remission of sins

In the beginning of the Gospel of St. Mark, we read, "John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins." Compare it with St. Peter's declaration in Acts 2:38 about Baptism in the Name of the Lord, "be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost". Baptism most plainly in the Sacred Scriptures is for the remission of sins. And Baptism in the Lord's Name also confers the reception of the gift of the Holy Ghost, as St. Peter witnesses.

The number of Scriptural Testimonies for this Scriptural Truth are simply overwhelming. Baptism is for the remission of sins. When the Holy Fathers of the Council of Nicaea were truly guided by the Holy Ghost to author the Nicene Creed to declare and defend the Faith in the Divinity of Christ and in the Most Holy Trinity, they were also guided to declare that Baptism is for the remission of sins, in accordance with Scripture.

The idea that Baptism is just an empty symbol and bare ordinance was hardly heard of until some 1300 years later, over 15 centuries from the time that Christ the Lord came and that John the Baptist preached. It is a most certain Truth that "he who believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mk 16:16).

Ez 36:25 - God confirms His Word another time. Clean water to make the People of God clean

The Prophet Ezechiel foretold: "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you." (Ez 36:25) The Lord Jesus expected Nicodemus, a Teacher of Israel, to already know the things about which He spoke. This proves it was prophesied in the Old Testament Scriptures. Where can those who claim Baptism is only a symbolic ordinance find this in the OT?

Nowhere. But in the New Testament, we clearly read in Acts 22:16, that Baptism is that foretold fountain, where sins are washed away, that sprinkling with clean water, where not bodies, but souls are made clean. That of which St. Peter says, not because of the putting away of dirt from the body, but because of the pledge of a good conscience toward God, Baptism now saves us by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures are abundantly clear.

Christ's Baptism has more power than John's Baptism and even John's Baptism was for the remission of sins. Hence, so much the more is Christ's Baptism for the remission of sins, but it confers in addition the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the person baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, i.e. the Name of the Lord God, the Holy Trinity. It is the Washing of Water and the Word in Eph 5:26. It is the Washing of Regeneration in Tit 3:5.

If you have not been baptized, dear reader, please hurry to believe and be baptized. Your sins will be forgiven, and you will receive the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Gal 3:26-27 All the Baptized are Children of God by faith in Jesus - the Baptized have put on Christ

St. Paul the Apostle says: Gal 3:[26] "For you are all the children of God by faith, in Christ Jesus. [27] For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ."

What could be clearer? We are the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. How? For all those who have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ. It means when we have been baptized, we become children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. Baptism and Faith are inseparable. Baptism is the means by which we are saved. Faith is the power that gives efficacy to Baptism. No adult is baptized unless he has faith, and no child is baptized unless his or her parents promise to raise them in the Faith. Hence, Baptism and Faith are inseparable. Unless it was in Baptism that they had really put on Christ, and had really become children of God by faith in Christ Jesus, St. Paul the Apostle would never have said what he did here.

Col 2:11-13 We are buried and raised from the dead in Christ in Baptism. Baptism forgives us all offenses!

Col 2:[11] "In whom also you are circumcised with circumcision not made by hand, in despoiling of the body of the flesh, but in the circumcision of Christ: [12] Buried with him in baptism, in whom also you are risen again by the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him up from the dead. [13] And you, when you were dead in your sins, and the uncircumcision of your flesh; he hath quickened together with him, forgiving you all offences:"

Once more, plain as day, St. Paul the Apostle extols "the circumcision not made by hand", but "the circumcision of Christ", which is to be "buried with Him in baptism". For in Baptism "you are risen again by the faith of the operation of God". Earlier, we saw that in Baptism, we died with Christ. Here, like St. Peter who had said, Baptism now saves us, St. Paul says that in Baptism we also rose again in Christ. To be risen, we should have died. We were dead in sins and we died to sin in Baptism. And therefore we received the new life of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and were forgiven all offenses in it. Baptism is a Priceless Gift for the Children of God in the Kingdom of God. It should be courageously preached, and all non-Christians invited to come and wash away their sins, believing by faith that Jesus Christ is Lord and God and Savior, Who has washed us of our sins by His Blood in Holy Baptism.

References

  1. Notably, the Churches of Christ hold to the view that baptism is for the "remission of sins", and thus hold to a view similar to the Catholic and Orthodox.