Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.
Matthew 3:13-17; 28:19-20; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 3:23; Acts 2:41-42; 8:35-39; 16:30-33; Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12.
Baptism is the washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; it signifies and seals our adoption into Christ, our cleansing from sin, and our commitment to belong to the Lord and to his church.What is Baptism?, New City Catechism: Question 44
Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration and union with Christ, one of two sacraments ordained by Christ to be practiced in the church until he returns.
Along with the Eucharist or Holy Communion, baptism is one of two sacraments instituted by Christ and recognized by virtually every Christian body. Baptism is established as an ordinance for the church by the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20, although many point to the example of Christ’s acceptance of baptism by John the Baptist, attested in all four canonical gospels, as a secondary foundation for the practice (Matt 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22; John 1:29–34).
Baptism may be defined as the sacrament of regeneration, as the biblical images used to describe it all link it to new life in Christ. The effect of baptism is disputed, with perhaps the majority of historic and contemporary Christians seeing it as the instrument through which regeneration is conferred upon the baptized. A number of Protestants see the effect of baptism as ambiguous, conferring grace only in some instances, while others see it as purely symbolic of the regeneration that occurs by faith.
Classical treatments of baptism distinguish between the matter and form of baptism, with the matter being water and the form being the invocation of the name of the Trinity in the rite. Both elements are understood as necessary, so that any baptism lacking in either matter or form would be invalid. For example, the use of beer rather than water to baptize Norwegian Christians was declared invalid by Pope Gregory IX. Non‐Trinitarian baptisms are regarded by most Christian bodies as invalid.
All major Christian bodies regard credobaptism, baptism that is based upon a convert’s confession of faith, as the normative practice of the church, but they differ on whether paedobaptism, baptism of the infants of Christian parents, is also permitted. Although infant baptism became the ordinary practice of admission to the church and was even at various points linked to citizenship in Christian territories, it is clear that even in the patristic period the baptism of adult converts was the normative way in which people were admitted to the church.
The New Testament envisages interior illumination, repentance, and confession of Jesus as Lord as the normative background to baptism (Acts 2:38; Rom 10:9), and the establishment of elaborate and rigorous catechumenal processes in various ecclesial contexts in the third and fourth centuries develop this pattern. Initial evangelization was followed by enrollment in the catechumenate for a period of one to three years for instruction in faith and morals prior to baptism.
Paedobaptists generally accept the normativity of credobaptism but also argue that Paul establishes a typological relationship between circumcision and baptism in Colossians 2:11–12, describing baptism as a “circumcision made without hands,” which he also describes as circumcision “which is of the heart, by the Spirit” (Rom 2:28–29). Paul seems to be linking baptism to the command in the Old Testament that physical circumcision be accompanied by circumcision of the heart (Deut 10:12–17; 30:6; Jer 4:4). The extension of circumcision to the covenant children of Israel on this understanding legitimates the parallel extension of baptism to the children of Christian believers.
Paedobaptists also point to the practice of household baptisms in the New Testament (Acts 10:24–48; 16:15, 30–34; 1 Cor 1:16), sometimes linking these household baptisms typologically to the circumcision of all the males in Abraham’s family (Gen 17:9–12) through Paul’s declaration that “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29).
Paedobaptists also note that the baptism of infants was a seemingly uniform practice in the church by no later than the early third century. A number of third-century theologians, such as Origen, argue that the church had a tradition given to it by the apostles to baptize not just adults but infants. The clear acceptance of the practice in the historic church is evidence appealed to by paedobaptists in establishing a warrant for infant baptism.
Baptism is described through a number of typological images in Scripture. It is not only a kind of “spiritual circumcision,” or circumcision of the heart; it is also understood to be a kind of new birth or spiritual birth in John. Paul adds to this theme union with Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism (Rom 6:3–4), themes which are developed to great effect in the early church’s preaching and iconography.
Early reflections on baptism liken it to both to tomb and to womb: in baptism the sinful nature is put to death and life in Christ is put on (cf. Gal 3:27; Rom 13:14). This dual thematic emphasis, which was nearly universal among the early fathers, meant that immersion was the principal, if not the exclusive, means by which baptism was administered. Later, “infusion,” pouring of the water over the baptizand’s head while saying the baptismal formula, and “affusion,” sprinkling water on the head of baptizand (cf. Ezek 36:25; Ps 51:7–9), also became acceptable modes of administering baptism, particularly for infants.
Baptism is also understood as a washing for regeneration (Titus 3:5), an image that likely draws upon the architecture of the Jewish tabernacle and temple. As the priests bathed in the bronze basin in the outer court of the temple prior to approaching the altar (Exod 30:18), so baptism is the washing that purifies us so that we may enter the heavenly holy of holies in Christ (Heb 9).
Baptism is also typified by Noah’s ark and the parting of the Red Sea, images designed to highlight the judgment upon sin that we must pass through in baptism, as well as the salvation from destruction that we are given through baptism. By meditating upon this venerable image, the Christian tradition has come to think of the church itself as the ark in which humanity is saved, whose point of embarkation is baptism.
In many liturgical traditions, this theological point is reflected in the architecture of the sanctuary itself. The part of the sanctuary where the laity sit is called the “nave” from the Latin navis, which means boat. The baptismal font is usually located at the entry to the nave to symbolize that baptism is the means by which one enters the church.
Jonathan Warren P. (Pagán), “Baptism,” in Lexham Survey of Theology, ed. Mark Ward et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).