Baptism For Remission
By Matthew Shaw
Water baptism is the most ancient rite in Christianity, and the New Testament is replete with examples of baptism by immersion from John’s baptism of repentance in the River Jordan to the proselytes of the Apostles to the epistlary metaphors of baptism as burial with Christ (Rom. 6:4) and Noah’s ark (I Pet. 3.20-21). While most Christian denominations observe some ordinance of baptism, the majority of Protestants reduce the act to a mere public profession of faith, decrying the doctrine of remission of sins in baptism as “salvation by works” rather than “salvation by grace.” In fact, neither biblical exegesis nor history divides baptism from salvation. Patristic writings, which are non-canonical, post-Apostolic epistles and apologetics, provide ample evidence that early Christians universally accepted water baptism as the sole mode for remitting sins.
St. Clement, purportedly the same Clement named by Paul in Philippians, asks in a letter to the Corinthians: “Shall we, if we keep not our baptism pure and undefiled, come into the kingdom of God?” (Hoole 57). Clearly, Clement identifies Christian baptism as the moment of cleansing. St. Barnabas examines foreshadowing of baptism and the cross in the Old Testament: “Concerning the water, it is written with respect to Israel, how that they will not receive the baptism that bringeth remission of sins, but will establish one for themselves” (Hoole 86). Further, he writes: “Learn ye: having received the remission of our sins, and having hoped upon the name of the Lord, we have become new, having been again created entirely” (Hoole 97). These passages explicitly connect the erasure of sins with water baptism, and Barnabas explains that this accompanies hoping on the name of the Lord, the most primitive apostolic baptismal formula.
The Shepherd of Hermas, a 2nd century apocalyptic work, supports both the notion of baptism by immersion and for spiritual cleansing: ” . . . we went down into the water and obtained remission of our former sins” (Lightfoot 425). Hermas, like Barnabas, refers to invocation of the name of Jesus in the rite: “‘For before a man,’ saith he, ‘has borne the name of [the Son of] God, he is dead; but when he has received the seal, he layeth aside his deadness, and resumeth life. The seal then is the water: so they go down into the water dead, and they come up alive” (Lightfoot 472). Baptism in the name of Jesus is, in Hermas, regenerative.
Justin Martyr expanded the biblical baptismal formula to “in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit,” but he retained the apostolic teaching of baptism for the remission of sins: “[We] may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings” (Roberts and Donaldson 60).
While the New Testament doctrine of water baptism by immersion solely in the name of Jesus degenerated with the increasing schisms and encroaching apostasy of the early Church, the nascent Catholic communion retained the biblical connection between baptism and the remission of sins. The Roman Creed, which dates from the 3rd century, includes a generic belief in the “remission of sins,” and the 4th century Nicene Creed says: “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” Though most Protestants eschew the idea of spiritual regeneration in the baptismal ceremony, the scriptural view espoused by modern Oneness Pentecostals is greatly supported both by the primary text of God’s Word and the most ancient bishops and apologists for the Christian faith. Baptism is an indisputable element of the new birth; and by faith in the redemptive work of the blood of Jesus Christ, our sins are truly washed away in the fountain of His forgiveness.
Hoole, Charles H., trans. The Apostolic Fathers, the Epistles of S. Clement, S. Ignatius, S. Barnabas, S. Polycarp together with the Martyrdom of S. Ignatius and S. Polycarp. London: Irvingtons, 1872.
Lightfoot, Joseph Barber, trans. The Apostolic Fathers. London: Macmillan and Co., 1898.
Roberts, Alexander Rev. and James Donaldson, trans. Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Edinburgh: L & T Clark, 1867.