Is Baptism Essential?

One of the biggest issues that have divided modern Christianity is the question of “Baptism”, whether it has an actual part to play in salvation, whether it is only a symbolic gesture or public confession of faith, or is it simply a work of man.

There are many verses in the Bible saying we must be baptized, just as there are many verses that say we are saved through faith and not works. So is Baptism a work of man or a work of God through men, just as the Lord parted the Red Sea through Moses or the Lord raised the dead or healed the sick through the apostles. If it is a work of God, then could it have a part in salvation?

Within the Christian world, this debate generally only arises amongst what we call the Protestants, some of which hold “Baptism” is not essential while others agree with the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Churches that it does have a specific part to play in salvation, but both cannot be correct when their claims directly conflict with one another.

If it should be that Baptism is not essential, then by faith, both sides are saved. However, what of the alternative, if it is essential, then those that deny this sacrament are potentially lost, due to their rejection of this work of God, done through members of His "Body" the Church and the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling within them.

All agree the scriptures are the standard by which we should base our faith because they are the Holy Spirit inspired Word of God, however the problem lies not in the scriptures, but our interpretation of them. This is relevant because both sides of this debate justify their beliefs according to their personal interpretations of the Word of God.

So what is the true interpretation, what is the faith as it was in the beginning. How were these verses understood by those of the early Church. We can argue scripture for scripture, but both sides will still read them according to their own understanding so quite often nothing is achieved.

For those that may be interested, the following is a small number of quotes demonstrating the faith of the early Church, according to some of the documentation left to us.

These first examples are from Ignatius, a student of the apostle John and Bishop of the Church of Antioch, thus a teacher of the faith.

“Be ye subject to the bishop as to the Lord, for “he watches for your souls, as one that shall give account to God.” Wherefore also, ye appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order that, by believing in His death, ye may by baptism be made partakers of His resurrection.” The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, Chap. 2

“See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles. Do ye also reverence the deacons, as those that carry out [through their office] the appointment of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as where Christ is, there does all the heavenly host stand by, waiting upon Him as the Chief Captain of the Lord’s might, and the Governor of every intelligent nature. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize, or to offer, or to present sacrifice, or to celebrate a love-feast. But that which seems good to him, is also well-pleasing to God, that everything ye do may be secure and valid.” Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, Chap 8

“For if there is one God of the universe, the Father of Christ, “of whom are all things;” and one Lord Jesus Christ, our [Lord], “by whom are all things;” and also one Holy Spirit, who wrought in Moses, and in the prophets and apostles; and also one baptism, which is administered that we should have fellowship with the death of the Lord; and also one elect Church; there ought likewise to be but one faith in respect to Christ. For “there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is through all, and in all.” Epistle of Ignatius to the Philippians, Chap 1

The following quote is by Justin, a Christian Martyr who lived around 100-165 AD. He is noted as writing a number of works promoting the Christian faith to pagans and combating against heretical views.

“But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation.” First Apology of Justin, Chap. 65

The following are taken from a work known as “Against Heresies” by Irenaeus, a student of Polycarp who had learned the Christian faith from John and had been anointed as the Bishop of the Church of Smyrna.

“In like manner he also who retains unchangeable in his heart the rule of the truth which he received by means of baptism, will doubtless recognize the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures, but will by no means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them.” Chap 3

“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.” Chap 21

From the scriptures we know that the Word shall be established,

“But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” Matthew 18:16

“This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” 2 Corinthians 13:1

Ignatius, Justin and Irenaeus then represent to us the fulfillment of these scriptures calling for two or three witnesses, however so this can be shown to be representative of the corporate faith, not solely their personal opinions, I offer the following for further consideration.

One early Church writing is known as the “Didache”, probably written around 100-120 AD, which was a basic compilation of the teachings of the apostles.

Within the early Church, this was generally accepted as Truth, the only debate that arose years later was whether it should be considered part of the New Testament.

Ultimately, it was not included as part of the Canon of Holy Spirit inspired scripture, but was often used by many of the Church Fathers as a teaching aid to supplement the Word of God much like we may use a commentary, lexicon or concordance today.

“Now about baptism: this is how to baptize. Give public instruction on all these points, and then baptize in running water, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. If you do not have running water, baptize in some other. If you cannot in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, then pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, and any others who can. And you must tell the one being baptized to fast for one or two days be forehand.” Chap 7

These next 3 examples are from the “Apostolic Constitutions”, also known as “The Constitutions of the Apostles”. This work was probably written around the end of the 4th century as a compilation of the teachings of the apostles as recorded by their contemporaries, primarily Clement who is said in the scriptures to be in the “Book of Life”.

The writing itself was generally a manual or guide for the clergy to outline their ecclesiastical duties and the overall running of the Church. Although not scripture, this work does provide an accurate historical account of the corporate beliefs and operation of the Church up until that period of time.

"….For the Lord says: "Except a man be baptized of water and of the Spirit, he shall by no means enter into the kingdom of heaven." And again: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." But he that says, When I am dying I will be baptized, lest I should sin and defile my baptism, is ignorant of God, and forgetful of his own nature. For "do not thou delay to turn unto the Lord, for thou knowest not what the next day will bring forth." Do you also baptize your infants, and bring them up in the nurture and admonition of God. For says He: "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not." Canon XV

"…..We also, our Father, thank Thee for the precious blood of Jesus Christ, which was shed for us and for His precious body, whereof we celebrate this representation, as Himself appointed us, "to show forth His death." For through Him glory is to be given to Thee for ever. Amen. Let no one eat of these things that is not initiated; but those only who have been baptized into the death of the Lord. But if any one that is not initiated conceal himself, and partake of the same, "he eats eternal damnation;" because, being not of the faith of Christ, he has partaken of such things as it is not lawful for him to partake of, to his own punishment. But if any one is a partaker through ignorance, instruct him quickly, and initiate him, that he may not go out and despise you." Canon XXXV

"…But if he afterward repents, and turns from his error, then, as we receive the heathen, when they wish to repent, into the Church indeed to hear the word, but do not receive them to communion until they have received the seal of baptism, and are made complete Christians." Canon XXXIX

The final example I shall offer here is the Nicene Creed, composed by Athanasius and unanimously accepted by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, where corporately all the Church was represented.

“I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light, true God of true God begotten not made of one essence with the Father through Whom all things were made.
Who for us all and for our salvation came down form heaven and was incarnated of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary and became man.
Crucified for our salvation under Pontius Pilate, He suffered and was buried And on the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures
And ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father And He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead Whose Kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord the Giver of Life Who proceeds from the Father Who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke through the prophets I believe in one holy catholic(universal, not Roman) and apostolic Church I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins I await the resurrection of the dead
And the life of the age to come. Amen.”

Based on this, and the countless other examples that can be found if any should wish to verify what I have posted here, decide for yourselves who is in unity of spirit with the original faith as the Lord first ordained it. Those that accept baptism as essential or those that deny it and in doing so, clearly demonstrate that whatever inspires this belief, is not that same Holy Spirit that indwelled in the apostolic Church since the day of Pentecost?


Ancient Baptismal font, Grotto of St. Joseph, Nazareth.

Baptimal fonts like this one are just one more evidence to support Baptism were, and are, part of the true Christian faith as it was first delivered.

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