Is Baptism Important?

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Acts, The Bible


Why is baptism so important? I'm trying to decide whether or not to be baptized.


First and foremost, baptism doesn't mean the same thing across all religions. Many have different teachings on baptism. Doctrines range from a cleansing of sin to a step in a believer's life. Some traditions baptize infants; others only baptize adults.

The word "baptism" comes from the Greek noun baptisma, which describes "ritual washing." Rites involving washing were common in the Old Testament. They generally involved immersion in a body of water. They were typically used to restore oneself to purity before God or to show devotion to God. These acts could be done repeatedly. In the New Testament, John the Baptist instituted a new understanding of baptism when he came "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin." (See Mark 1:4) He baptized all the people who came out to him and confessed their sins. It is not stated whether this involved immersion in the Jordan River or the pouring of water upon their heads. Historically, it is believed that people were naked and completely immersed, but paintings depict the candidate standing in water with water being poured upon his/her head. In either event, John's baptism involved the forgiveness of sins, a practice that heretofore had been restricted to the priests at the temple.

Most scholars agree that John probably baptized Jesus and that event was the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Their reasoning goes something like this: John the Baptist came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Since the Church preached that Jesus was without sin, they would not have made this up because it suggests that Jesus did, indeed, have sins prior to receiving this baptism. It also puts John in a somewhat superior role to Jesus. Such difficulties imply authenticity. However, scholars are less likely to agree on whether or not Jesus intended baptism to be part of an organized church because organizing a church didn't seem to be a priority for him.

It's likely that baptism has always been a part of Christianity. In Acts, people were baptized as part of their conversion, and scholars think this generally was done by immersion. Within a few centuries after Jesus, baptism included catechetical instruction. This probably developed in response to the many heresies that were being advocated at that time. By the fourth and fifth centuries, baptismal instruction was well defined. It could last for many weeks and was oftentimes conducted by the bishop during Easter celebrations. Catechumens were expected to renounce the devil and declare their faith in the holy trinity. Then they donned special robes of white and were welcomed into the congregation.

Most of this early baptism was focused on adult believers. Because little is written about infant baptism, scholars are unsure when the practice began. There are references about young children being "children of God," but whether that included baptism has yet to be determined. Several church Fathers addressed the issue of child baptism. Irenaeus mentioned children being "born again to God;" Origen wrote about child baptism; Tertullian encouraged people to wait until the child was older. Hippolytus of Rome said parents could speak on behalf of their children.

Baptism can involve sprinkling of water, pouring of water over the head, dipping in water, or total immersion. Along with the different methods, there are also differences of beliefs as to the effect of baptism. Many protestant Churches maintain that baptism is required for salvation. Catholics see baptism as a sacrament and an initiation into a life with Christ. That life compels people to share in the apostolic ministry of the Church. Some Evangelical Protestants preach that baptism is an outward expression of the believers' experience of grace.

The idea that baptism washes away all sin is stated in several biblical passages (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Eph 5:25) including texts in the Old Testament. A prophecy by Ezekiel probably refers to baptism: "I will pour upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness…" (See 36:25) This is also one of the doctrines of the Catholic Church, reaffirmed by Popes and saints and councils.

In addition to washing away one's sins, baptism also takes away the need for punishment of the sin. The idea was that if someone were to be baptized and then immediately pass away, he would have nothing to answer for. The slate would have been wiped clean. This gets into the whole notion of grace. It's called washing away sin for a reason. Along with the absence of sin is any need for punishment.

Another result of baptism is that grace and virtue infuse the one being baptized. In so doing, baptized people become the adopted sons of God and are eligible for all the benefits and rights of an adopted heir. These are the rights and benefits that bring one to salvation at the end of time. This, of course, also requires that the person being baptized is amenable to receiving such grace. Children receive it automatically. Adults have to make a conscious choice. Simply going through the motions is not enough to receive this gift of grace.

Some see baptism as a symbolic dying and resurrection with the Christ and an actual transformation. Others believe its cleansing properties are necessary for the removal of original sin. And, for some, it is required for entrance into the Church. Some see it as an active act of faith; others think it is a passive submission to God. Unlike the ritual washings of Judaism, baptism is a one-time event. It is believed that baptism impresses a mark on the soul, "a holy and indelible seal." This imprinting changes one's character forever.

Some people baptize "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Others only use Jesus' name. Still others forego the experience of baptism altogether. In other words, some people will say your eternal salvation requires that you be baptized. Others will say you will have a better character. Still others will say it doesn't matter at all.

This truly is a situation in which you must listen to the dictates of your own heart.

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