Baptism Theology


H. Wayne House

Article ID:



Jul 31, 2022


Apr 6, 2009

The following is an excerpt from article DB055-1 by H. Wayne House. The full PDF can be viewed by following the link below the excerpt.

The Christian church today is divided between Christians who believe that baptism is necessary for salvation and those who view it only as an ordinance symbolizing the inward work of salvation. To put it another way, the theological camps differ on whether God performs a divine work in baptism or whether baptism is a human response to a divine work.5

Views of Christian baptism are too diversified to set forth all of the variations. I will, therefore, depict baptism in broader strokes, examining many of the major divisions and groups within the Christian religion as well as two groups that fall short of orthodoxy.

Baptism Theology- Roman Catholicism.

Baptism is a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).6 Though others use the word sacrament, the RCC and Eastern Orthodox (EO) perspective is different in that they believe the sacraments are effective simply by the completion of the sacrament (known as ex opere operato).7 Ludwig Ott explains the meaning of this view of grace: “The formula ‘ex opere operato’ asserts, negatively, that the sacramental grace is not conferred by reason of the subjective activity of the recipient, and positively, that the sacramental grace is caused by the validly operated sacramental sign.”8 One should not understand from this RCC teaching that the faith of the adult person is excluded in the act of baptism, only that it is not “an efficient cause of grace.”9 Thus, the sacrament of baptism can save a person (as in the case of an infant) apart from faith.10

Against the teachings of the Reformation, the Council of Trent declared that “there could be no justification without Baptism or the desire for the same….”11 This alternative to water baptism includes baptism by blood or of desire. The former relates to martyrdom on the part of an unbaptized person by reason of his or her confession of Christian faith or that person’s practice of Christian virtue.12 The latter relates to the desire of a person to be baptized who is somehow hindered in being baptized.13 RCC dogma has extended this baptism of desire since Vatican II to allow even those outside the pale of Christianity to be saved if they would have been baptized if they had known the truth.14

In RCC theology, baptism takes away all sins, original sin and all personal sins, as well as punishment for sin. Baptism also restores sanctifying grace to the soul. It does not, however, take away all the consequences of original sin such as death, suffering, ignorance, and the inclination to sin.15

Baptism Theology- Eastern Orthodox

Similar to the RCC, the Eastern Orthodox churches (EO)16 (e.g., Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Rumanian, and Serbian) believe baptism causes forgiveness of sins: “Through Baptism we receive a full forgiveness of all sin, whether original or actual; we ‘put on Christ,’ becoming members of His Body the Church.”17 The EO affirm that through baptism sins are washed away and the baptized share in the death and resurrection of Christ and also in His nature.18 For adults, however, there must be awareness and repentance of sins.19

When one is immersed20 into water, the believer “communes with God in a mystical way; thus the Church uses the word ‘Mysteries’ to designate the sacraments by which the grace humans need in life to commune with God, is given to them. The sacraments are the means by which man experiences salvation in this world as a taste of the eternal life and kingdom which is to come.”21

Baptism Theology- Anglican/Episcopalian

The Church of England (CE) and the Episcopal Church (EC) consider baptism as the time when one renounces the sources of sin (devil, world, and flesh), confesses faith, and receives forgiveness of sins, according to The Book of Common Prayer.22 The Anglican 39 Articles indicates that baptism is not only a sign of profession but is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth. Baptism serves as an instrument that grafts the baptized into the church and is the means by which the promises of forgiveness of sin and adoption as sons of God by the Holy Spirit are visibly signed and sealed.23

Baptism Theology- Lutheran

For Lutherans, baptism is a sacrament that conveys forgiveness of sins and gives eternal salvation to those who believe.24 The reasoning, however, differs from that of the RCC and the EO. Each certainly believes the Holy Spirit works through the act of baptism (not the water in itself) to effect salvation, but Lutherans stress the importance of the combination of the Word with the sacrament to cause this spiritual work to occur. 25

Lutherans, therefore, do not consider the act of baptism to be a human work of merit bringing forgiveness but a work of God, through human hands, whereby He conveys grace to the believing and repentant soul: “To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men but by God himself. Although it is performed by men’s hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act. From this fact everyone can easily conclude that it is of much greater value than the work of any man or saint. For what work can man do that is greater than God’s work?”26

Consequently, even though the Spirit uses baptism to convey forgiveness, the water apart from the Word is no different than bath water.27 It is required that the work be God’s work, but faith is necessary to receive God’s work, which is necessary for salvation.28 C. F. W. Walther clarifies this doctrine: “It is of paramount importance that I believe, that I regard, not the water in Baptism, but the promise which Christ has attached to the water. It is this promise that requires the water; for only to it has the promise been attached.”29

When one thinks of Lutheranism, one turns to the great doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide) as advocated by Martin Luther and the Lutheran church. Lutherans do not believe, then, that baptism saves in addition to faith. In the words of Walther in his comment on Mark 16:16: “He does not say: ‘He that is baptized and believeth,’ but the reverse. Faith is the primary necessity; Baptism is something to which faith holds. Moreover, the Lord continues: ‘But he that believeth not shall be damned.’ This shows that even if a person could not have Baptism administered to himself, he would be saved, as long as he believed.”30 The person’s response to the act of baptism, then, is the same as the person’s response to the spoken gospel. The Word of God enters the ears and baptism enters the eyes. It is, as Augustine said, “a visible word.” Neither the Word nor the sacrament is a work in addition to faith but the means by which faith is created and in which the unredeemed believes unto salvation.31

Baptism Theology- Reformed Churches

The sixteenth-century Reformers who did not follow the Lutherans on the sacraments are generally the originators of Reformed Theology. Though these men used the term “sacrament” for baptism, they nonetheless perceived the meaning of baptism differently from both the RCC and the Lutheran Church.

While Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli agreed on much regarding baptism while in opposition to the RCC, they also differed on important points. For example, they agreed that the forgiving grace of God imparted in the sacraments related to the guilt of sin due to Adam’s fall and not the inherited sin nature. Moreover, they agreed that the sacraments are signs and seals attached to the Word, having no virtue apart from the Word. Lastly, they concurred that the sacrament did not have any fruit apart from faith in the recipient (in contrast to ex opere operato).32

The difference pertained to Luther’s struggles with the Anabaptists, which led him to put greater emphasis on the nature of the divine institution of the sacrament than on the subjective state of the recipient. Moreover, Calvin and Zwingli both agreed that baptism was a sign and proof of faith, but they differed in emphasis. The former saw the benefit of baptism as an instrument of God to provide nourishment to the believer. The latter saw the sacrament as a memorial of profession, in which a person could look to baptism for a reminder of God’s saving work apart from human effort.33

The Reformed thinkers also saw baptism as an initiation into the community of the faithful, similar to the function of circumcision in the Old Testament. James Bordwine succinctly states the Reformed view found in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

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, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life….Although it is a great sin to contemn [sic] 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.34

Baptism Theology- Anabaptists

The Anabaptists were a threat to Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and the Reformed alike in post-Reformation Europe. Among other doctrinal matters, they challenged infant baptism and the sacramental nature of baptism, even in the mild form found in Reformed theology. They viewed baptism as important in that it publicly identifies a new believer’s spiritual transformation and publicly affirms that the believer has placed himself or herself under Jesus Christ. The baptism of Jesus is viewed as a model: “Following the Lord in baptism.”35

Anabaptists favored the term ordinance over sacrament. They believed sacrament carries some kind of magical understanding, while ordinance (from ordain) suggests the rite is ordained by Jesus and therefore participation expresses obedience to the Lord.36

Baptism Theology- Churches of Christ/Christian Church

The Churches of Christ (COC) and the Christian Church (CC) have been among the most adamant in holding that baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins.37 These two groups are composed of individual congregations that may vary on a number of issues but have historically tended to join on the importance of baptism in salvation. Unlike others discussed earlier, who view baptism as a divine work wrought through human hands, the COC and the CC have viewed baptism as a human act of obedience embracing the meaning of faith. Jack Cottrell says, “It is so important to note the close conjunction of faith and baptism….It should cause us to re-examine our preconceptions about baptism and to realize that it is not so different from faith after all.”38 Speaking of the focus of saving faith on Christ’s death and resurrection, he adds, “Faith has a natural affinity with baptism, viz., because baptism in its very action symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ….God’s word of promise, which we believe, is visualized in Christian baptism, so that baptism itself becomes a kind of visualization of faith.”39

The perspective of the Churches of Christ and the Christian Church has been evolving through the years with more latitude often being expressed toward the possibility of a person being saved without baptism. (This was true when I attended Abilene Christian University for a graduate degree in Greek: even though I disagreed with their position, I was accepted as a believer by the professors.) For example, Cottrell comments regarding a possible interpretation of Mark 16:16:

A second possible explanation has been suggested, however, distinguishing between what is absolutely necessary for salvation as compared with what is only relatively necessary. The idea is that even if baptism has been appointed by God as a necessary part of the salvation process in the New Testament age, it still has only a relative necessity and can be dispensed with in extraordinary circumstances. The only absolutely and inherently necessary condition for salvation is faith; thus it alone is mentioned in the second clause. It is conceivable that one could be saved without baptism, but not without faith.40

Baptism Theology- International Churches of Christ

The International Churches of Christ (ICC), also known as the “Boston movement” because of the central role of the Boston Church of Christ, is different from the COC and the CC, even though it originated out of the COC. Along with the United Pentecostal Church, to be discussed below, it holds to a very rigid view of the necessity of baptism for the forgiveness of sin — even more than that found in the RCC and EO. The writings of the ICC are relatively sparse. It is, therefore, difficult to present a comprehensive statement of their beliefs. Jerry Jones emphasizes this point in his study of the movement: “Throughout the Churches of Christ, there is a reluctance to commit anything doctrinal to writing. The rationale is that ‘we follow the Scripture, not the doctrine of men.’”41 He recounts the story of Eugene Borland, a pastor who has had many confrontations with ICC: “As I have met with leaders in the group oftentimes they would say, ‘Well, we don’t put anything into writing because once you put it into writing then it is man’s works. Anything that has to do with man’s works, whether it’s his work or denominationalism, is false and it quickly degenerates into heresy.’”42

Nonetheless, their views on baptism may be found in their personal discipleship booklets Making Disciples and the Boston Church of Christ Acts Study Series. The comments reveal unambiguous statements affirming baptismal regeneration. Note a few of those comments by editor Randy McKean on the subject of baptism:

Jesus shed this blood when he died. In Baptism we share by faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Thus we contact the blood in baptism and are forgiven of our sins and SAVED. (emphasis in original)43

Acts 2:38 teaches that sin is forgiven at baptism — one is saved at the point sin is forgiven.44

Romans 6:2-4 states that baptism is an actual participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. It is not merely a sign, seal, or symbol.45

1 Peter 3:21 says that baptism DOES save you through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (emphasis in original)46

Refuting false doctrines…”the thief on the cross was not baptized.”…Jesus had not even died yet, and baptism is participating in his death (Romans 6:2-4); also on earth, he had the power to forgive sins (Matthew 9:2-6).47

In their guide to the Book of Acts, regarding baptism, we find the following statements:

The blood of Jesus saves us….When we share His death by faith in baptism it is at that point in time we contact His blood and thus our sins are forgiven. (emphasis added)48

Colossians 2:12 teaches we are saved by FAITH in the working of God at baptism. (emphasis in original)49

There is little question, therefore, that the ICC adheres to the view that baptism is a necessary component of salvation.

Baptism Theology- United Pentecostal Church/Oneness Churches

Similar to the baptismal regeneration emphasis of the International Churches of Christ is the United Pentecostal Church. In reality, there are several “Oneness-type” Pentecostal groups, but the UPC is by far the largest and most significant. David Bernard, possibly the best-known theologian in the UPC, speaking of the purpose of water baptism, says, “We should remember that water baptism is administered because of our past life of sin; it is for the ‘remission of sins’ (Acts 2:38).”50 He identifies the nature of the repentant person’s baptism with that of Christ’s: “First, we must ask what was the purpose of Jesus’ baptism. Certainly He was not baptized for remission of sin as we are, because He was sinless (I Peter 2:22). Instead, the Bible says He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). He is our example and He was baptized to leave us an example to follow (I Peter 2:21).”51 Unlike the Lord, however, the sinner must repent, but it is insufficient apart from baptism: “Scripture portrays repentance and baptism as being inextricably bound together in the process of remitting sins (Mk 16:16; Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38).”52

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