Christianity Knowledge Base
River baptism in New Bern

"Wade in the Water.". Postcard of a river baptism in New Bern, North Carolina near the turn of the 20th century

Baptism is any water purification ritual practiced in many of various religions including Christianity, Mandaeanism, and Sikhism, and has its origins with the Jewish ritual of mikvah. The word baptize derives from the Greek word βάπτειν (the infinitive; also listed as the 1st person singular present active indicative βαπτίζω), which loosely means "to dip, bathe, or wash". To some groups it is a matter of religious conviction to assert that baptism is precisely equivalent to, to plunge something entirely into the water, so that the water closes over it.

Today, baptism is most readily identified with Christianity, where it symbolizes the cleansing (remission) of sins, and the union of the believer with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection so that he becomes one of Christ's Faithful. The Christian ritual of baptism traces back to the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, who the Bible says baptized Jesus, as well as many Jewish Israelites and Gentiles in the Jordan River. Baptism among Christians is performed by aspersion (sprinkling water over the head), infusion (pouring water over the head) or full immersion (lowering the entire body into a pool of water). The choice to be baptized is made by a 'confessing believer' (believer baptism, or credobaptism), regardless of age, as a 'confession' or public profession of his or her faith in Christ; or on behalf of the child by his or her parents (paedobaptism) if the parents had themselves been baptized, and professed faith. Some churches practice credobaptism and some practice paedobaptism, and some churches practice both. Some practice immersion, some practice pouring, and some practice sprinkling. There are differences in views about the nature and practice of Christian baptism.

Martin Luther, for example, placed great importance on baptism. Luther states in The Large Catechism of 1529,

"To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save. No one is baptized in order to become a prince, but as the words say, to 'be saved.' To be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil and to enter into the kingdom of Christ and live with him forever."

In contrast, some Baptist groups deny that baptism has any such power, but rather only testifies outwardly to the operation of God's power, which is invisible, internal, and completely 'separate' from the rite itself. Other Baptist groups teach and preach that the baptism 'ceremony' is 'meaningful and necessary'.

For Christians who baptize by pouring or sprinkling, the washing with water from above pictures the cleansing of one's sins by the blood of Christ, by the Holy Spirit, who unites the baptized person to Christ in his death, and in His resurrection from the dead. It is administered from above to point to that gift of the life-giving Spirit, and to portray baptism as an act not of man, but of God. In contrast, a person baptized by immersion is enclosed under the water and brought out, to signify cleansing through death and burial with Christ, and consequent raising again in newness of life by the Holy Spirit. Baptism is a public rite, in testimony to others of the grace of God bestowed upon the person, and as a seal of God's promises in Christ to those who believe.

Background in Jewish ritual[]

Main article: Mikvah

Although the term baptism is not used to describe the Jewish rituals, the purification rites (or Mikvah - ritual bath) in Jewish laws and tradition are where the ritual of baptism can find its origins. In the Tanakh, and other Jewish texts, bathing for ritual purification was established for specified circumstances – in order to be restored to a condition of 'ritual purity'. For example, Jews who become ritually 'defiled' by contact with a corpse (according to the Law of Moses), had to use the mikvah before being alowed to participate in the Holy Temple. Immersion is required for converts to Judaism as part of their conversion. Through practices such as these, immersion in the mikveh represent purification and restoration, and qualification for full religious participation in the life of the community. (See Numbers Chapter 19)

In modern times, the adherence and observance of the laws, rituals, and customs regarding the mikvah differ greatly among the Jewish denominations. Due to the destruction of the Holy Temple, these days, immersion in a Mikvah has no practical purpose; but many Orthodox and Haredi Jews do so anyway, in order to 'increase purity'. The only modern exception is that after menses, women need to immerse in a mikvah in order to be permitted to her husband. For more details see niddah.


The Christian explanation of baptism as the definitive rite, by which the baptized person is indicated to be fully- qualified for participation in the life of the Church, begins with the career of John the Baptist, who was the cousin of Jesus. Those who believe that John was a prophet identify baptism with his message concerning repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.

"He [John] went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God's salvation.'" Luke 3:3-6, NIV
"Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." Luke 3:8, NIV

John declared that repentance was necessary, prior to forgiveness. There must be a return to God. This implies that the stain of sin is not ineradicable, but can be removed by putting off polluting acts and returning to "the way of the Lord", all of which was symbolized in his baptism.

Christians believe that John also taught that his baptism was not finally sufficient, and that repentance would not attain to its goal of separation from sin, apart from a greater baptism which it was not in his power to give. According to the Gospel of Luke, John taught, "I baptize you with water; but one comes who is stronger than I, of whom I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire; his winnowing fork is in his hand to clean out his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his storehouse, but the chaff he will burn with inextinguishable fire." (Luke 3,16-17) Christians believe that John's baptism shows that the effort to make oneself acceptable to God by repentance would be superseded, made complete by the coming of the Lamb of God that 'takes away' (not 'covers over') sins.

According to the Gospel of John, after John baptized Jesus, he testified concerning him,

"I have seen the Spirit coming down as a dove from heaven, and it remained upon him. And I had not known him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water, that one said to me, On whomever you see the Spirit coming down and remaining upon him, this is the one baptizing with the Holy Spirit. And I have seen, and I have testified that this is the son of God." (John 1,32-34)
"Behold the Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world."

From this point on, water baptism became identified with the followers of Jesus, who preached "Repent, for the kingdom of God is near," and explicitly identified the coming of the kingdom with his own appearing.

At the end of his recorded ministry, Jesus charged the Apostles to baptize "in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit" in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19), which has become the common formula for baptizing. The Apostles are recorded baptizing only in the name of Jesus in the Book of Acts (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5) - a fact which figures prominently among groups who reject the trinitarian formula.

Ecumenical statement[]

The ecumenical paper Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, prepared by representatives across a spectrum of Christians, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestants traditions of Christianity attempts to express a common understanding of baptism, as it is derived from the New Testament.

" ... according to Acts 2:38, baptisms follow from Peter's preaching baptism in the name of Jesus and lead those baptized to the receiving of Christ's Spirit, the Holy Ghost, and life in the community: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (2:42) as well as to the distribution of goods to those in need (2:45). Those who heard, who were baptized and entered the community's life, were already made witnesses of and partakers in the promises of God for the last days: the forgiveness of sins through baptism in the name of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost on all flesh (2:38). Similarly, in what may well be a baptismal pattern, 1 Peter testifies that proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and teaching about new life (1:3-21) lead to purification and new birth (1:22-23). This, in turn, is followed by eating and drinking God's food (2:2-3), by participation in the life of the community — the royal priesthood, the new temple, the people of God (2:4-10) — and by further moral formation (2:11 ff.). At the beginning of 1 Peter the writer sets this baptism in the context of obedience to Christ and sanctification by the Spirit (1:2). So baptism into Christ is seen as baptism into the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13). In the fourth gospel Jesus' discourse with Nicodemus indicates that birth by water and Spirit becomes the gracious means of entry into the place where God rules (John 3:5)." [1]

The most commonly cited reference for the command justifying the continuing practice of baptism by Christians, is the "Great Commission," found in the book of St. Matthew chapter 28, verses 18-20. It is typically viewed as the rite by which a person is joined to Jesus and his body, the Church, in connection with which the baptized person who has received the Holy Spirit is considered to be a Christian.

Baptism in Most Christian traditions[]

The liturgy of baptism in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodist traditions makes clear reference to baptism as not only a symbolic burial and resurrection, but an actual supernatural transformation, one that draws parallels to the experience of Noah and the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea divided by Moses. Thus baptism is literally and symbolically not only cleansing, but also dying and rising again with Christ. Catholics believe that baptism is necessary for the cleansing of the taint of original sin, and for that reason infant baptism is a common practice. The Orthodox also practice infant baptism on the basis of various texts such as Matthew 19:14 which are interpreted to condone full Church membership for children, and so baptism is immediately followed by Chrismation and Communion at the next Divine Liturgy regardless of age. Anglicans believe that Baptism is also the entry into the Church and therefore allows them access to all rights and responsibilities as full members, including the privilege to receive Holy Communion. Most Anglicans agree that it also cleanses the taint of original sin, though those Anglicans who agree with a more Eastern understanding of original sin think it exactly the same was as the Eastern Orthodox.

Latin Rite Catholics generally baptize by infusion (pouring); Orthodox and Eastern Catholics usually by immersion. However immersion is gaining in popularity within the Catholic Church. In newer churches, the baptismal font may be designed to expressly allow for baptism by immersion. Older church building may feature this as well by either building a new baptismal font or expanding an existing one. Anglicans practice a myriad of ways to be baptized, from immersion to sprinkling.

According to Holy Tradition, if baptism through immersion cannot be done, it should be done through pouring (and if that isn't possible, through sprinkling). In addition, cold water is preferred over warm. The water must be in a state of motion (living water implies motion), so immersion in stagnant water is thought less than pouring or even sprinkling.

The Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches practice a triple baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity.

Baptism and salvation[]

In Catholic teaching, baptism plays an essential role in salvation. The Church teaches that "baptism is necessary for salvation" (Catechism, 1257) and entry into heaven; and therefore, a person who knowledgeably, willfully and unrepentedy rejects baptism has no hope of salvation. Three forms of baptism are acknowledged by the Church. Baptism by water refers to the traditional baptism where the individual is immersed or infused with water in the name of the Trinity.

The Church also recognizes two other forms of baptism: "baptism of blood" and "baptism of desire." Baptism of blood refers to unbaptized individuals who are martyred for the Faith, while baptism of desire refers to catechumens who die before they can be baptized. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes these two forms:

The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament. (1258)

For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament. (1259)

As for unbaptized infants, the Church is unsure of their fate; "the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God" (Catechism, 1261).

Conditions of the validity of a baptism[]

Since the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglicans believe that baptism is a sacrament having actual spiritual and salvific effects, certain criteria must be complied with for it to be valid (i.e. to actually have those effects.) These criteria are actually broader than the ordinary practice. Violation of some rules regarding baptism renders the baptism illicit (in violation of the church's laws) but still valid. For example, if a Priest introduces some variation in the authorised rite for the ceremony, the baptism will be valid (provided certain key criteria are met).

One of the criteria for validity is that the correct form of words be used. Roman Catholics use the form "I baptise you.."; some Eastern-Rite Catholics and the Orthodox use the form "Let this servant of Christ be baptised..." or "This person is baptised by my hands...". However, both churches recognise the other's form as valid. The Catholic church teaches that the use of the verb "baptise" is essential.

It is also considered essential that the Trinitarian formula is used; thus they do not accept as valid baptisms of non-Trinitarian churches such as Oneness Pentecostals. There was an ancient controversy over baptism using the formula that Oneness Pentecostals use, with some ancient authorities holding it to be valid. However, this was motivated by the apparent use of that formula at some places in scripture, not by anti-Trinitarian intentions (which would certainly be considered an invalidation of the baptism, regardless of the superficial validity of the formula). The most significant part, some theologians have argued, is not so much the Trinitarian wording, as the Trinitarian intention, and the recognition that the baptism involves all three Persons.

Another condition is that water be used. Some Christian groups historically have rejected the use of water for baptism, for example the Albigensians. These baptisms would not be valid, nor would a baptism in which some other liquid was used. However, the Church has determined that emergency baptism performed with a liquid other than water (only where water is not available) is vaild. In one such case, antifreeze from a car radiator was used under extraordinary necessity, and declared valid.

Another requirement is that the celebrant intends to perform baptism. This requirement entails that the theology of baptism that the baptiser holds be sufficiently similar to that of the Catholic Church, although an exact identity is not required. However, where another denomination has a somewhat different, somewhat similar, theology of baptism, it can be difficult to be sure whether the requirement of intention is met. This is why conditional baptisms are often performed in these cases.

Some conditions expressly do not affect validity; for example, whether immersion, infusion or aspersion is used. Some theologians have also argued that sprinkling on a part of the body other than the head in an emergency would also be valid. In many communions it does not affect validity for a single immersion to be performed rather than a triple, but in Orthodoxy this is controversial.

According to the church, the act of baptism imparts an indelible "seal" upon the soul of the baptized. Thus, once baptised, an individual cannot be baptised again. There was an ancient practice in some areas of rebaptising those who had returned to the church from heresy, but that practice has been rejected.

Baptism by other denominations[]

The Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist churches accept baptism performed by other denominations as valid, subject to certain conditions. It is only possible to be baptized once, thus people with valid baptisms from other denominations may not be baptized again upon conversion or transfer. Instead, for these individuals, either the sacrament of confirmation or a reaffirmation of faith is performed. However, in some cases it can be difficult to decide if the original baptism was in fact valid; if there is any doubt, a conditional baptism is employed, in which the officiant says something of the form of "if you are not yet baptised, I baptise you...". The need for conditional baptisms is motivated not only by factual uncertainties regarding the original baptism, but also by the uncertainty of some of the baptismal theology regarding the precise conditions for the validity of baptism (the Church holds one cannot be certain that opinions offered by pious theologians, but on which the Church has not made an authoritative pronouncement, are in fact correct, and even authoritative pronouncements can have multiple interpretations which the Church has neither definitively endorsed or rejected).

Practice in the Orthodox Church for converts from other communions is not uniform, but the original baptism is not necessarily regarded as valid even when no new baptism is performed. Situations where a new baptism is not done might arise where the form of the original baptism was acceptable, consisting of a triple immersion in the name of the Holy Trinity. Instead, whatever form is used to receive the convert is taken as retroactively filling with grace a correct form that is held to have been graceless. If the original baptism was lacking in form then it is more likely, although not certain, that a new baptism will be required. Otherwise, a convert might be received by chrismation or confession. The exact procedure is dependent on local canons.

Baptism was delineated as necessary for infants by Saint Augustine in the fourth century. Baptism, which is intended to wash away sin, must be administered to the newborn, as they are in fact stained with Original Sin. This, simply put, is the sin of Adam and Eve, who disobeyed God, and disseminated this sin upon all mankind to inherit. A child, though seemingly innocent, is born into such guilt, and is damned should it suddenly die prior to baptism.

Who may administer a baptism[]

In normal circumstances, a licit baptism must be performed by a priest (for the Orthodox) or by a priest or deacon (for Roman Catholics and Anglicans) or by a duly ordained or appointed pastor for Methodists and many other Protestant denominations). However, in cases of a genuine emergency, anyone may perform the baptism - if, for example, an unbaptised person, in danger of imminent death, desires baptism, but a priest is not available to perform one, and there is a real danger the person may die before a priest can baptise them. However, if a baptism by a layperson is performed, it will often be followed if possible by a conditional baptism by a priest, in case there was any deficiency in the performance of the sacrament by the layperson.

The Catholic Church teaches that even when a baptism is illicit, it may be valid if done by the proper form, with intent to baptize, by any person, even a non-Christian. In the Orthodox Church, the baptism must be performed by another Orthodox Christian under the theory that a person cannot convey that which he himself does not possess, in this case membership in the Church.

Anabaptist and Baptist baptism[]

Baptist groups derive their name either from the restrictions that they traditionally place on the mode and subjects of the ordinance of baptism or from a shortening of the term Anabaptist which means to rebaptize. Anabaptists were labeled such because they rebaptized people who had received infant baptism, sprinkling, or baptism of any sort by another denomination. Modern Baptists do not believe baptism by immersion is the only legitimate form of baptism, they simply require that you be baptised by immersion to join the Baptist church. It does not imply any previous form of baptism, like sprinkling, is invalid. It is just a requirement of membership. Similar to any other organization which has an initiation ritual, only with theological meaning.

People of other faiths often assume that baptism is not administered to children, but this is an error. Baptists instead require that a person make a credible confession of saving faith in Christ prior to being baptized, regardless of the confessor's age. Such a person is understood to be born again (John 3:1-8). Baptists believe that salvation is an actual event both at the cross of Christ in history and in the confessing believer's life.

Those who hold views influenced by the Baptists, may perform the ceremony indoors in a baptismal, a swimming pool, or bathtub, or outdoors in a creek or river: as long as there is water, nothing prevents the performance of Baptism. Protestant groups influenced by these convictions usually emphasize that it memorializes the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6), which according to the grace of God has become the basis of repentance and new life for those who have professed belief in Him, symbolizing spiritual death with regard to sin and a new life of faith in God. They typically teach that baptism does not accomplish anything in itself, but is an outward sign or testimony, a personal act, indicating the invisible reality that the person's sins have already been washed away by the cross of Christ, and applied to their life according to their profession of faith. It is also understood to be a covenantal act, signifying entrance into the New Covenant of Christ (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:8-12, Romans 6). For Baptists, baptism is a requirement for church membership, rather than a necessary requirement for salvation.

The above description applies not just to those denominations using Baptist in their title, but also to a wide variety of other Protestant denominations deriving from the Anabaptist tradition, including some Mennonites and Pentecostals.

Reformed and Covenant Theology view[]

Main article: Covenant Theology#Baptism

Paedobaptist Covenant Theologians see the administration of all the biblical covenants, including the New Covenant, as including a principle of familial, corporate inclusion or "generational succession." The biblical covenants between God and man include signs and seals that visibly represent the realities behind the covenants. These visible signs and symbols of God's covenant redemption are administered in a corporate manner (for instance, to households), not in an exclusively individualistic manner.

Baptism is considered by Covenant Theologians as the visible sign of entrance into the New Covenant and therefore may be administered individually to new believers making a public profession of faith. Paedobaptists further believe this extends corporately to the households of believers which typically would include children, or individually to children or infants of believing parents (see Infant baptism). In this view, baptism is thus seen as the functional replacement and sacramental equivalent of the Abrahamic rite of circumcision and symbolizes the internal cleansing from sin, among other things.

Baptist Covenant Theologians (such as John Gill) hold that baptism is only for those who can understand and profess their faith, and they argue that the regulative principle of worship, which many paedobaptists also advocate and which states that elements of worship (including baptism) must be based on explicit commands of Scripture, is violated by infant baptism. Furthermore, because the New Covenant is described in Jeremiah 31:31-34 as a time when all who were members of it would have the law written on their hearts and would know God, Baptist Covenant Theologians believe only those who are born again are members of the New Covenant.

Baptism in Churches of Christ[]

Maintaining that Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone and their associates restored the true church of Christ after the pattern of the first century church, as founded on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the churches popularly known as Churches of Christ believe they are following the exact practice as established in the first century Church and as commanded in the New Testament. They teach the following about baptism:

  • Baptism, as commanded in the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is a full immersion in water (Acts 8:38) and is for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38).
  • Baptism is valid only after the belief and confession that "Jesus is the Son of God" and repentance of sin.
  • As stated in Matthew 28:19, baptism is performed in the name of "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit". This does not, however, mean that this phrase must be recited verbatim at baptism, but that it is done "by the authority of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." Reciting the phrase "in the name of Jesus Christ" is also Biblical and has the same meaning, since the Son shares the same authority as the Father and the Holy Spirit.
  • Upon baptism the believer receives the "Gift of the Holy Spirit." This wording from Acts 2:38 is believed by some to mean that the Holy Spirit as given to the new Christian either literally or symbolically as a gift, and believed by others to refer to salvation as the gift from the Holy Spirit. The Church of Christ does not teach that believers receive miraculous gifts, such as speaking in tongues.
  • When one is baptized he or she is saved and added by the Lord to the church.

According to Church of Christ interpretation, Acts 2:38 teaches that repentance and baptism precede the remission of sins. This belief is further explained by 1 Peter 3:21 in which Peter says that "Baptism doth also now save us", seemingly indicating that it is essential to salvation. Romans 6:3 also states that baptism puts one "into Christ". Valid baptism may be administered by any member of the Church as long as it is administered according to the scriptures and church teaching. Some members would assert that even a non-Christian may perform baptism, leading to the possibility that two isolated non-Christians could baptize each other, or even that a single non-Christian might baptize himself. Most would concur that the important actor in baptism is God, not the person doing the baptizing.

Baptism is therefore a salvific ordinance in the Churches of Christ, though no mention is made of "baptismal regeneration" as is known in the Roman Catholic Church.

There is a movement within Churches of Christ recently which acknowledges that while God did in fact command baptism, He saves us at the point of faith. To understand baptism in the 'classic' Church of Christ sense is painfully close to a works based salvation and that view is beginning to fade.

Other baptisms[]

Methaphorical Baptisms[]

Baptism of objects[]

The term is sometimes applied, technically improperly, to other ceremonies, inclding pious Christian, but non-sacramental ceremonies:

  • The name Baptism of Bells has been given to the blessing of (musical, especally church) bells, at least in France, since the eleventh century. It is derived from the washing of the bell with holy water by the bishop, before he anoints it with the oil of the infirm without and with chrism within. A fuming censer is then placed under it. The bishop prays that these sacramentals of the Church may, at the sound of the bell, put the demons to flight, protect from storms, and call the faithful to prayer.
  • Baptism of Ships: at least since the time of the Crusades, rituals have contained a blessing for ships. The priest begs God to bless the vessel and protect those who sail in it, as He did the ark of Noah, and Peter, when the Apostle was sinking in the sea. The ship is then sprinkled with holy water
  • See also baptised by fire

See also[]

Related articles and subjects[]

People and ritual objects[]


  • Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (Faith and order paper). World Council of Churches, 1982. ISBN 2825407097
  • Jungkuntz, Richard. The Gospel of Baptism. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968.
  • Kolb, Robert. Make Disciples Baptizing: God's Gift of New Life and Christian Witness. Fascicle Series, Number 1. St. Louis: Concordia Seminary Publications, 1997. ISBN 0-911770-66-6
  • Scaer, David P. Baptism. Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, Vol. XI. St. Louis: The Luther Academy, 1999. ISBN 0-9622791-2-1
  • Schlink, Edmund. The Doctrine of Baptism. Herbert J. A. Bouman, trans. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972. ISBN 0-570-03726-3
  • Stookey, L.H. Baptism: Christ's Act in the Church. Nashville: Abingdon, 1982. ISBN 0687023645
  • Ware, Timothy (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia). The Orthodox Church (2nd ed.). London: Penguin Books, 1993, pp 277-278. ISBN 0140146563
  • Willimon, William. Remember Who You Are: Baptism and the Christian Life. Nashville: Upper Room, 1980. ISBN 0835803996

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