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Christian baptism

Baptism as practiced by the
early and present-day Church

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Significance and age of baptism in present-day denominations:

Most Christian faith groups agree that baptism is the method by which an individual is welcomed into the church. But denominations disagree on the precise significance of the act, and the age when baptisms are done. 

bullet Significance:
bullet Some denominations teach that baptisms are regenerative: i.e. they have the power to cancel any sins that the person has, including original sin that some Christian faith groups believe that they have inherited from ancestors.
bullet Others consider baptism to be a form of exorcism which rids the recipient of indwelling demonic spirits.
bullet Other faith groups teach that baptism is merely an affirmation of decisions that have been made previously. The ritual itself has no power to forgive sins or affect the individual's salvation status.
bullet Age:
bullet Some denominations generally baptize infants.
bullet Others only baptize youths and adults -- people who have reached the age of accountability -- and then only after they have been "saved." 

All four possible variations of baptism have been taught by the early Christian church or by present-day denominations:


Age for baptism

Regenerative power?

Significance of baptism

Early Christian movement 



Forgiveness of past sins. Causes indwelling of the Holy Spirit

Conservative Protestant

Youth, adult


Public affirmation of having previously been "saved"

Mainline, liberal Protestant

Infant to adult


Welcomes infant into the congregation

Roman Catholic

Infant to adult


Total forgiveness of past sins.

There are some exceptions:

bullet A few denominations do not baptize at all.
bullet At least one denomination, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) baptizes individuals by proxy after their death.

Some baptize by full immersion in water; others sprinkle or daub water over the face of the person to be baptized.

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Baptism, as practiced by the primitive Christian church:

Baptism was performed by totally immersing the convert, in water -- typically in a stream, river or lake. Baptism of a new Christian was a major watershed in their life. Many individuals are described in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) who heard the Gospel, were immediately converted and quickly baptized.

There are dozens of passages in the Christian Scriptures that mention baptism. Although some verses appear conflict with others, a general picture emerges:

bullet Infants and children were probably not baptized. There are references to families being baptized together; however it is not clear whether this applied to children as well. Baptisms appear to have been performed only on youths or adults -- individuals who had reached the age of accountability -- who had already converted to Christianity, and accepted Jesus as Lord.
bullet Baptisms were generally done in the name of Jesus only, not in the names of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
bullet Early Christians believed that people could be possessed by spirits, including both demons and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was believed to enter and dwell within each person after baptism, (assuming that He was not already in place before the ritual).
bullet Baptism was regenerative. That is, the person's sins were wiped clean by the ritual itself.
bullet In biblical passages that describe baptism, the author often implied that the ritual was necessary in order for a person to be saved and enter Heaven after death. But elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures, other criteria for salvation are implied that do not include baptism -- such as good works, belief in Jesus as the Son of God, belief in Jesus' Resurrection, etc.

Although Jesus' disciples frequently baptized converts, it is not clear whether Jesus himself performed baptisms. The Bible is ambiguous on this point.

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The early Christian movement was composed of many different faith groups: Three of the largest were Jewish Christianity, Pauline Christianity, and Gnostic Christianity.

bullet Baptism among Gnostics: They taught secret knowledge that they believed was needed to understand Jesus' message and, after death, to reach heaven. They were a major competitor to Pauline Christianity in the first few centuries CE. Among their more startling beliefs is that Jehovah is a defective, inferior Creator-God, also known as the Demiurge. He created the earth and its life forms, and is viewed by the Gnostics as fundamentally evil, jealous, rigid, lacking in compassion and prone to genocide. Jesus was a revealer or liberator, rather than a savior or judge. His purpose was to spread knowledge which would free individuals from the Demiurge's control and allow them to return to their spiritual home with the Supreme Father God at death.

There are many references to the Gnostics in the Christian Scriptures. Simon, described in Acts 8:9-24 may have bee one. There are also dozens of references to false witnesses, false prophets, false apostles and deceitful workers. Jude, Verses 4 to 9 apparently condemns Gnostics as "...certain men" who " have secretly slipped in among you,".

Although various Gnostic leaders had diverse beliefs, a common teaching was that converts would be saved through knowledge. They cannot be reborn or regenerated through water baptism.  1 One of the most respected of the Church Fathers, Irenaeus (circa 130? - circa 200? CE), condemned the Gnostics as heretics. He wrote:

"And when we come to refute them, we shall show in its fitting-place, that this class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole [Christian] faith...For the baptism instituted by the visible Jesus was for the remission of sins" 2

Some Gnostic beliefs about baptism live on today among Evangelical and other conservative Protestant faith groups. They teach that baptism is a public acknowledgement of having been earlier saved and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The rite of baptism has no saving, regenerative power by itself.

The Gnostics were oppressed and almost exterminated by the church in Rome and by the Roman Empire. Gnostic Christianity is currently undergoing a rebirth and is rapidly expanding in numbers.

bullet By Pauline Christians: This was the movement founded by Paul who established a network of churches around the Mediterranean Sea. In order to become a Christian, an individual passed through the following sequence:
bullet He/she became a convert to Christianity
bullet They studied Christianity for a lengthy period
bullet They were baptized. This ritual had two main results:
bullet their sins were washed away, and
bullet they became indwelt by the Holy Spirit

The early 1st and 2nd century church's belief that baptism ritual washed away the Christian's sins was based on a number of biblical passages: Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, Titus 3:5, 1 Peter 3:21, and others. The belief that baptism led to salvation and an indwelling of the Holy Spirit was based on John 3:5, Acts 2:38, Galatians 3:26-28, Titus 3:5, 1 Peter 3:21 and other verses. These beliefs of the early church were confirmed by the direct teachings of the Apostles, or by individuals like Polycarp of Smyrna (~69 - ~155 CE) who had been directly taught by one or more apostles, or by individuals like Ireneaus (~130 - ~200 CE), a pupil of Polycarp. Many theologians feel that the 2nd century church continued with reasonable accuracy the beliefs and practices of primitive Pauline Christianity of the 1st century.

Some statements confirming the belief in the regenerative nature of baptism and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a result of baptism are seen in the writings of the early church Fathers:
bullet Justin Martyr (~100 to ~165 CE): Discussing how a Christian obtains God's promises: "There is no other [way] than this - to become acquainted with Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of since, and for the remainder, to live sinless lives." 3
bullet Ireneaus (~130 - ~200 CE): "As we are lepers in sin, we are made clean from our old transgressions by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord. We are thus spiritually regenerated as newborn infants, even as the Lord has declared: 'Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.' " 4 The "invocation of the Lord" may refer to the phrase "Jesus is Lord" which the initiate said during baptism.
bullet Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (~200 - 258 CE): "But later, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of former years was washed away, and a light from above -- serene and pure -- was infused into my reconciled heart. Then through the Spirit breathed from heaven, a second birth restored me to a new man." 5 He describes that baptism canceled his sins, the Holy Spirit indwelt his body, he was born again, and changed his behavior.

Pauline Christianity eventually became the main Christian church, centered in Rome.

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  1. D.W. Bercot, "Will the real heretics please stand up: A new look at today's Evangelical Church in the light of early Christianity," Scroll Publ., (1989) Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Irenaeus, "Against Heresies," Book 1, Chapter 21, at:
  3. Justin Martyr, "Trypho," Chapter 44.
  4. Irenaeus, "Fragments from lost writings," #34
  5. Cyprian, "To Donatus," Sec. 3
  6. "Baptism: Initiation and Regeneration," at:
  7. Dan Corner, "Scriptural study refuting baptismal regeneration," at:

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Copyright 2000 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAR-21
Latest update: 2008-MAR-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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