Christian Baptism: An Overview and Paradigm 
Jackson Snyder
, February 8, 1988

Snyder Bible Home

 This paper serves a twofold purpose. First and foremost it is written to fulfill a requirement for the completion of a college class. But soon into the paper, I recognized that it could also be a vehicle for learning the essential meaning of Christian baptism.

 This subject has been an object of my speculation for many years. I have been "baptized" three times: sprinkled as an infant (as a result of my parents' good intentions), immersed in "believer's baptism" as an adolescent (which required a confession of faith), and finally was immersed once again as an adult, when I thought I had more insight into the purpose of the rite.

 All Bible quotations in this paper are from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted. My perspective on Christianity in general is evangelical with emphasis on the need to re-discover the roots of first century Christian practice.  


 The concept of physical washing and purification or baptism is not unique to Christian practice. Ceremonial, cultic washings were practiced in the Elysian Mysteries, Greek polytheistic cults, Babylonian mystery religions, and Judaism (Miller, p. 60). Ablution, or washing, was common in "ancient nations" as a prelude to prayers or sacrifices, especially in the humid climates, since physical pollution, including body excretions, was thought to be typical of spiritual pollution (Smith, pp. 70 - 72).

 Leviticus 15 indicates the importance of ritualistic cleanliness, commanding those with bodily discharges of one kind or another to wash in water, then remain unclean for various periods of time, perhaps until the washings had time to be efficacious. Washing with water was a prerequisite to the animal sacrifice in the ordination of men into the Aaronic priesthood (Exodus 29:4, 40:12, Leviticus 8:6). Gentile conversion to Judaism also required immersion as the culmination of the circumcision ritual (Sandmel,p. 231).

 It is interesting to note that the Qumran community, a first century apocalyptic commune at Khirbet ("ruin") Qumran, practiced ritual baths precluding a sacred meal of bread and wine (Perrin and Duling, pp. 464-465). Unlike the current practice of "Christian" baptism, these baths were repeatable (Spivey, p. 236).

 Even though immersion or washing in water is an almost universal religious symbol for purification, the ritual and/or effectiveness of Christian baptism should not be minimized. Rather, baptism should be seen as a most natural and "lawful" response to inward feelings of uncleanliness or sin-guiltiness: handed down not from religion to religion, but from person to person, with sincere partakers of the ritual being those desiring to "appeal to God for a clear conscience" (I Peter 3:21). 


 John the Baptist was a Jewish prophet, a Nazarite, who devoted his life to fulfilling the role of the "messenger" of Malachi 3:1. He was the forerunner and kinsman of Jesus Christ, and concerned with the Messiah's immanent appearance on the world scene. John came "baptizing in water, that [the Messiah] might be revealed to Israel" (John 1:31). His message was successful, and many were baptized for "the remission of sins," as he had adapted the ritual purification of the Jews and made it a symbol of individual repentance and commitment (Eller, 249-251). He did not preach that his baptism was an end in itself, but that it was to be the beginning of a commitment to moral conversion in anticipation of the one who would "baptize in the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Luke 3:16, see also Acts 19:4).

 John's baptism was not Christian baptism as such. It was a transitional baptism (Smith, pp. 70 - 72) between the priestly purification of the Jews and the baptism practiced in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. I feel this viewpoint is justified in the distinction made between John's baptism and Acts' baptism "in the name of Jesus" in the cases of Apollos (Acts 18:26,27) and the Ephesian disciples (Acts 19). But John's mission and baptism was approved by Jesus himself in that he submitted to John's immersion, sighting that it was necessary to "fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15) and identified John with the prophesied resurrection of Elijah the prophet (Mark 9:13).

 Can we describe the baptism of John as "believer's baptism," a term that is so popular today? Perhaps so, for surely "believer's baptism" is non-sacramental, but merely an "outward sign of an inward change" of attitude and, hopefully, works.  


 "And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him;..." (Matthew 3:16) Rudolf Karl Bultmann distinguishes the sacrament from other ritualistic acts in that "supranatural powers can be bound to natural objects of the world and to spoken words as their vehicles and mediators" (p. 135). What was lacking in John's baptism was displayed in Jesus', the supernatural infusion of the Spirit of God, which descended on Jesus while he was yet in the baptismal waters, signifying him as Messiah, the one who would "baptize...with the Holy Spirit and fire" and providing the power of deity to do just that. Mark describes an event immediately following John's baptism of Jesus, that "The Spirit immediately drove him (Jesus) out into the wilderness" (Mark 1:12), signifying Jesus The Human's possession by this same Spirit and providing a foretaste of the sacramental nature of future Christian baptism in Jesus' name: a new baptism of repentance and superhuman power.  


 According to the Gospel of John, Jesus himself did not baptize with water (John 4:2) nor did he immediately baptize with the Holy Spirit (not until Pentecost, see Acts 1 and 2). Baptism was not among the instructions that he gave to the twelve or seventy that he sent out (to heal the sick, cast out devils, cleanse lepers, raise the dead), although we can only assume that they did baptize, especially since some of Jesus' disciples were former disciples of John the Baptist.

 After the Holy Spirit was given to the few (John 20:22), then the many (Acts 2:4), water baptism took on a sacramental function. Throughout the book of Acts, converts are immediately baptized "in the name of the Lord Jesus." The nature of the sacrament is revealed in this notable, yet typical passage from Acts 8:

 "Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands...."

Summed up, the passage says that (1) the Samaritans previously "received" the gospel, (2) they had been baptized in the name of Jesus (in water), (3) although they had been baptized, the Holy Spirit had not "fallen," (4) they received (were baptized in) the Holy Spirit at the laying on of the hands of the apostles, and (5) Simon perceived that the power came from the laying on of hands (although the writer said "it had not fallen). In other baptism passages in Acts, the convert is baptized in water in the name of Jesus, has hands laid on him/her by (presumably) the baptizer, then manifests some supernatural evidence of the sacramental nature of the rite of baptism/laying on of hands such as speaking in tongues, testimony, boldness in witnessing, etc. (the order is reversed in some cases - water baptism is not denied to those who manifest Spirit baptism!).

 Paul reiterates the meaning of baptism as commitment to new life and empowerment in Romans 6:3-11,

 "...all of us who have been baptized into  Jesus Christ were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that...we too might walk in  newness of life."

"For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27). As Jesus died in weakness and was raised in power, so we die in flesh and are raised completed (to use Paul's pronoun). The "dying and rising" theme (Spivey, p.358) is consistent with the words of Jesus concerning his death: "I have a baptism to be baptized with" (Luke 12:50 KJV).

 Dying and rising with Christ through water-baptism-in-Jesus-name/laying-on-of-hands-renewal was indeed the "formal signification of membership in the community" (Perrin & Duling, p. 212). Bultmann goes a bit further: "an individual gets into the congregation through baptism and that means that in this way he enters into relation with the Lord." (Bultmann, p. 133) Justin's Apology, a mid-second century work, states that the celebration of Holy Communion was not allowed without "the washing that is for remission of sins and unto a second birth" (Dowley, p. 127).

 The importance of baptism in the early church is too easily underestimated. The power of the dispensation of grace was a reality; a privilege to be coveted and cherished.  


 "No other name under heaven given among men by which we may be saved" (Acts 4:12). In the book of Acts, the Name is not separated from the Being. Every good work is done in the Name: " the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk...," "...they ordered them to give up speaking in the name of Jesus...," "they had been found worthy to suffer indignity for the sake of the Name...," "... good news about the kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus..." (all NEB).

 James attests to the speaking of the name in baptism, "the honorable name which has been spoken over you" must not be blasphemed (James 2:7). Numerous passages throughout the New Testament and other early Christian literature witness to the power and personification of the Name. The Didache and Hermas say that nobody enters the "Reign of God" unless they have received the Name of the Son of God. Bultmann equates this "receiving of the Name" as a part of the baptism ritual (p. 135).

 The traditional and most often used formula for baptism is found in Matthew 28:19b: " the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." If the Paul and the writer of Acts knew this commandment of Jesus, they interpreted the "name" of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be "Jesus Christ." Jesus told his disciples in John 14:13 that "Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son...." Can we not suppose that Jesus meant that his name be applied to baptism as well?

 Bultmann suspects the triune formula of Matthew 28:19b to be a later interpolation from Didache 7:1 or Justin's Apology 61:3,11,13, but I do not find a contradiction in terms nor feel a need to call the triune formula a later addition. Rather, I prefer to accept the Apostlic interpretation of the "name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" to be the name of Jesus Christ (Yahshua the Messiah).

 The very essence of the baptism formula is that Name, in that only the power of Deity could possibly erase the distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female (Galatians 3:28). If humankind had the innate power to do it, the thing would already be done. Baptism must be more than "an outward sign," a mere token of repentance. Baptism without the dispensation of grace destroys the complete viability of any consequent Christian experience.  


 Optimally, baptism/laying-on-of-hands was performed by immersing the novitiate "in living [flowing] water" (Miller, p. 60, from Walker, p. 23). Flowing water was probably not always available or advisable. In the instance of the 3000 baptized by Peter and associates in Acts 2 and the baptizing of Cornelius and his household of Acts 10, pouring may have been the method. The sprinkling method used so often today may be derived from the allusion to baptism in Ezekiel 36:25 and 26:

"I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses.... A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you...."

 There is no direct evidence in the Bible for infant baptism. Mark 10:14 has oft been sighted in favor of it: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them...." Another passage cited is the fore-mention baptism of the household of Cornelius, the centurion. Still, nothing is specifically mentioned. But it seems logical, even necessary, that those eligible for the rite would be able to make the confession of "Jesus is Lord."

 In about the middle of the 3rd century, infant baptism began to be practiced (Dowley, p. 10). In the generations following, pressure was exerted to baptize as near to birth as possible, perhaps due to the high birth mortality rate, but also due to the belief that the act of infant baptism was simply a method of dispensing saving grace to the subject, despite that one's will or ability to comprehend. This doctrine was later confirmed by Lombard, then Aquinas (Dowley, p.257). By the 5th century, "believer's baptism" (which would include youth and adult converts) almost entirely died out (Dowley, p. 10,149).

 As a member of an infant-baptizing Christian denomination (United Methodist), I may cite The Book Of Discipline paragraph 221 to get a modern church commandment on the subject:

 "...the pastor of each charge shall earnestly exhort all Christian parents or guardians to present their children to the Lord in Baptism at an early age."

Why the early age? "...Because Jesus explicitly included the children in his kingdom." This is not a specific theological reason, but merely a reference to Mark 10. One teacher of theology in the denominational licensing school responded to my inquiry about child baptism with the "irresistible dispensation of grace" (my term) doctrine mentioned above as confirmed by Aquinas and now standard Catholic dogma.

 Of course, at the present time there is as great a diversity in opinion on the subject as there are denominations and sects. Two opinions are at the forefront of disputation in the ranks of the main denominations: the "irresistible dispensation of grace" and the non-sacramental "believer's baptism." In my research, I have found evidence for both, but not one without the other. 


 The threefold nature of baptism may be accommodated from Acts 2: 38, which is reported to be the words of Peter: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." To enumerate the factors: (1) repent, (2) be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, (3) receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

 The candidate for baptism must be made aware of the meaning of the ritual, and expect two supernatural workings of divine grace: that past sins would be forgiven and that the Holy Spirit might be received (the "baptism of the Holy Spirit"). Repentance is the act of the will, whereas forgiveness is by divine decree. It is not merely confession, but confession with resolve to action. Grace is imparted through the act, but it is not irresistible.

 The formula might be: "(candidate's name), I baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ." The water should then be applied, and the candidate should respond to "dying and rising" with a confession of faith, such as "Jesus is Lord" (I Corinthians 12:3). The baptizer should then lay hands on the candidate and impart Holy Spirit baptism with words such as "Receive the Holy Spirit" (John 20:22b). Some immediate manifestation of infilling should be expected and encouraged, but not required. Finally, an act of love is called for, such as hugging, applause, etc. (see Acts 19:1-8).

 A few particulars should be considered in conjunction with this paradigm. The act of water baptism is not complete without the act of Spirit baptism and vice-versa (Acts 8:16-17). Both acts are necessary for complete Christian baptism. The Acts model does provide for the possibility that a candidate that had not received one or the other parts might receive that missing part later. Rebaptism might also be a fitting response to a candidate's better understanding of the sacrament.

 The laying on of hands, or "confirmation," was deemed unnecessary by Aquinas (Dowley, p. 257), but Acts 8:14-17, 10:44-48, 19:6, and several other passages confirm the practice in regards to receiving the Holy Spirit. It is clear that the spiritual baptism does not happen in and of itself, or as a regular course of events in water baptism as it has been purported, but rather as a separate act of grace within the framework of Christian baptism (water-baptism-in-Jesus-name/laying-on-of-hands-renewal).

 Rebaptism should not be discouraged in cases where a candidate feels unforgiven or unfilled and the baptizer concurs with those feelings (Acts 19:3-5). And Christian baptism need not be a congregational event in that the "performance" of the ritual might well inhibit the candidate's attitude of repentance and acceptance of grace. Rather than have baptisms in the course of the church service, it might be better to present the new Christian to the congregation soon after.  


 The New Testament gives us solid models of Christian baptism that have been modified, traditionalized, extra- and un-spiritualized down through time and church history. The importance of the rite is self-evident in scripture and must not be underestimated. Dismissing the sacramental nature of Christian baptism may cause the exclusion of the Christian from the power derived from Deity. Expecting the grace of God in the sacrament to be "irresistible" may completely nullify the act at worst, cause false security at best. The best elements of both viewpoint are found in the Acts paradigm and my paradigm above. Using the New Testament as a guide to practice is perhaps the key to receiving the promise of God, as the writer of Colossians aptly penned (1:11-14):

 "May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance with patience and joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints of light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."  


Bultmann, Rudolf Karl.  1970 Theology of the New Testament. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Dowley, Tim.  1977 Eerdman's Handbook to The History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman Publishing Co.

Eller, Meredith.  1958: The Beginnings of the Christian Religion. New Haven: College and University Press.

Miller, Madeline S. and J. Lane.  1973 Harper's Bible Dictionary. New York: Harper and Row.

Perrin, Norman, Dennis C. Duling.  1982 The New Testament: An Introduction. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Sandmel, Samuel.  1978: Judaism and Christian Beginnings. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, William.  1977 Smith's Bible Dictionary. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Spivey, Robert A. and D. Moody Smith.  1974 Anatomy of the New Testament: A Guide to Its Structure and Meaning. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.

1984 The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House.

Walker, Williston, Richard Norris, David Lotz, Robert Handy.  1985 A History of the Christian Church. Fourth Edition. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.