These are good questions. And all good questions deserve a serious answer.
We must begin by considering briefly just what the Orthodox Church says about baptism. In his excellent little book, Comparative Theology, His Holiness Pope Shenouda considered the differences between the Protestant and Orthodox Faith, reminding his readers that the Scriptures speak only of One Lord, One Faith and One Baptism. Indeed he began his study by examining the differences in the understanding of baptism. This is a necessary place to begin, since in our Orthodox Faith we understand that it is by baptism that we are united with Christ and reborn into new life with him. As our Lord Jesus teaches us…
He who believes and is baptised shall be saved. Mark 16:16
And elsewhere in the Gospels our Lord also says of the link between baptism and salvation…
Most assuredly I say unto you, unless one is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. John 3:5
The Orthodox Church believes that it is necessary for a person to be baptised in water, in the name of the Holy Trinity, and anointed with the Holy Chrism, to be able to become a member of the Church, the Body of Christ. St Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the 4th century, produced a series of lectures for those about to be baptised, and those who had just been baptised, in which he describes the Orthodox Faith. He says of baptism…
At the self-same moment you were both dying and being born; and that Water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother… O strange and inconceivable thing! We did not really die, we were not really buried, we were not really crucified and raised again; but our imitation was in a figure, and our salvation in reality. Christ was actually crucified, and actually buried, and truly rose again; and all these things He has freely bestowed upon us, that we, sharing His sufferings by imitation, might gain salvation in reality. O surpassing loving-kindness! Christ received nails in His undefiled hands and feet, and suffered anguish; while on me without pain or toil by the fellowship of His suffering He freely bestows salvation… Baptism purges our sins, and ministers to us the gift of the Holy Ghost, so also it is the counterpart of the sufferings of Christ.
We could turn to any of an almost countless number of Fathers of our Orthodox Church who teach the same, as do our right-believing bishops of this present age. Baptism is truly the new birth to life in Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We can consider the writings of St Justin Martyr, a leading figure of the second century Church who was born in about 100 AD and was martyred in Rome in 165 AD. In his First Apology, a document he sent to the Emperor Antoninus Pius and the Roman Senate to explain the character of the early Christian community in the face of imperial persecution, he says something about the earliest and Apostolic teachings on baptism. It is worth reading what he says in full. He writes…
As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven…
And for this rite we have learned from the apostles this reason. … in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe… And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.
What do we find that St Justin Martyr, reporting the Apostolic teaching, tells us about baptism? He says that baptism is for the remission of sins. This is to be expected since in the Scriptures this is explicitly taught by St Peter when he says to the crowd who have gathered to hear him preach and who ask him, “What must we do?”…
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Acts 2:38
We must repent of course. It is the necessary precondition for becoming a Christian. But we receive remission of sins through baptism, and afterwards the gift of the Holy Spirit. St Justin Martyr describes what he has received from the Apostles, and those who had known the Apostles. He says the same thing….
We have learned from the Apostles…that we may obtain in the water the remission of sins.
Elsewhere St Justin Martyr writes…
And we, who have approached God through Christ, have received not carnal, but spiritual circumcision, which Enoch and those like him observed. And we have received it through baptism, since we were sinners, by God's mercy; and all men may equally obtain it.
Here we see that baptism is a spiritual circumcision, but it is received only through baptism, therefore those who have not been baptised have not received this spiritual circumcision, and baptism is necessary to receive it.
We can also look at the Letter of St Ignatius of Antioch to the Trallians. St Ignatius of Antioch lived through much of the first century and had been made the second bishop of Antioch by the Apostle Peter. He was surrounded by those who had even seen Christ and had known those who followed him. He says of baptism…
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.
What does he say? It is that we must believe in the death of Christ of course. Who could doubt that? But more than that we become partakers of his resurrection through baptism. Not by believing, which is the precondition for baptism, but by baptism itself.
In this brief text we can also look at the writings of St Irenaeus of Lyons. He was a disciple of Polycarp, the famous bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor. This Polycarp had been a disciple of the Apostle John, and Irenaeus tells us that Polycarp was careful only to teach what he had learned from the Apostle. Being born at the beginning of the second century he knew many of those who had known the Apostles. He says…
Now faith occasions this for us; even as the Elders, the disciples of the Apostles, have handed down to us. First of all it bids us bear in mind that we have received baptism for the remission of sins, in the name of God the Father, and in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was incarnate and died and rose again, and in the Holy Spirit of God. And that this baptism is the seal of eternal life, and is the new birth unto God, that we should no longer be the sons of mortal men, but of the eternal and perpetual God.
Here again we see that another of those most closely connected with the Apostles is insistent that baptism, as the Scriptures teach, is the means by which we receive the remission of sins. More than that, baptism is the means by which we receive the seal of eternal life and is itself the means of the new birth unto God.
Elsewhere he writes…
These were the apostles, who after receiving the power of the Holy Spirit were sent forth by Him into all the world, and wrought the calling of the Gentiles, showing to mankind the way of life, to turn them from idols and fornication and covetousness, cleansing their souls and bodies by the baptism of water and of the Holy Spirit; which Holy Spirit they had received of the Lord, and they distributed and imparted It to them that believed; and thus they ordered and established the Churches.
St Irenaeus describes the Apostles as those who cleansed the souls and bodies of the Gentiles by the means of baptism and the Holy Spirit. But also he speaks of them giving the Holy Spirit to those who believed as the means of ordering and establishing the Churches. There is no cleansing without baptism, and there is no Holy Spirit without its impartation by the Apostles.
Finally there is a writing called, On Baptism, by Tertullian, another early Christian theologian. He says…
All waters, therefore, … after invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of sanctification; for the Spirit immediately supervenes from the heavens, and rests over the waters, sanctifying them from Himself; and being thus sanctified, they imbibe at the same time the power of sanctifying…. since we are defiled by sins, as it were by dirt, we should be washed from those stains in waters. But as sins do not show themselves in our flesh … Therefore, after the waters have been in a manner endued with medicinal virtue through the intervention of the angel, the spirit is corporeally washed in the waters, and the flesh is in the same spiritually cleansed.
Not that in the waters we obtain the Holy Spirit; but in the water, under the witness of the angel, we are cleansed, and prepared for the Holy Spirit… After this, when we have issued from the font, we are thoroughly anointed with a blessed unction… Thus, too, in our case, the unction runs carnally, (i.e. on the body,) but profits spiritually; in the same way as the act of baptism itself too is carnal, in that we are plunged in water, but the effect spiritual, in that we are freed from sins.
This is a lengthy quotation but is necessary to show that there is a consistency among these authors of the first few centuries, all understanding the meaning of the Scriptures in the same way. Tertullian shows us that we are freed from sins by baptism, and that the waters of baptism become a means of sanctification by the descending of the Holy Spirit. Just as in the Orthodoxy of our own times baptism is understood as a sacrament, the very means by which the spiritual benefits promised are effected by the presence of the Holy Spirit in and with the water and oil. These benefits are not received without the participation in the sacrament.
Now someone might deny that this is what baptism is all about and might hold some other view. This is what we need to consider. But it cannot be denied that this is entirely and exactly what Orthodox Christians teach and believe about baptism. It is the means, the means provided by God, in which remission of sins, new life in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit are received. It is not a reminder or witness of the reception of these gifts, it is the very means itself by which these gifts are received.
When we turn to most modern Evangelical and Pentecostal groups we do not find the same teaching about baptism and its necessary role in being the means with faith of salvation. Whether recognised or entirely unknown, most modern groups of Christians derive their views on the sacraments from Zwingli, one of the most important of Protestant reformers together with Luther and Calvin. It was Zwingli who introduced for the first time in Christian history the idea that all that was needed for salvation was faith. He said…
In this matter of baptism – if I may be pardoned for saying it – I can only conclude that all the Doctors (teachers) have been in error from the time of the Apostles… All the Doctors (teachers) have ascribed to the water a power which it does not have and which the Apostles did not teach.
This is quite remarkable. Zwingli is perfectly happy to admit that every teacher in the Church from the earliest centuries has been in clear agreement that the waters of baptism are effective, that is they do something, and yet he considers that he can ignore that universal testimony about baptism and treat his own opinions as having ultimate authority.
Before Zwingli none had considered that baptism was not a sacrament and did not effect those gifts which were promised by the action of the Holy Spirit in faith. Zwingli admits this. In the 16th century he was introducing an entirely new and previously unheard of doctrine that disagreed with every previous Christian teacher, and also disagreed with the views of Luther.
Elsewhere he says…
They are wrong, therefore, by the whole width of heaven, who think that sacraments have any cleansing power.
Water baptism cannot contribute in any way to the washing away of sin.
Now since Zwingli did not believe that baptism made any real difference to a person’s life it is not surprising that he should consider it an optional extra, especially suited to those simple folk who needed something practical to illustrate what had happened only by faith. He says…
If someone is so strong that his assurance and certainty are independent of time, place, person and such like then he has no need for sprinkling with water.
So as far as Zwingli was concerned, though he admitted freely he was rejecting the teaching of every Christian writer, baptism was not necessary for salvation because it effected nothing and was useful only for simple people as a token of what happened in their heart by faith and not by any sacrament.
At the same time the Anabaptists were also propagating entirely new views about baptism. Hubmaier, in The Sum of a Christian Life, 1525, points out that baptism occurs after a man “has inwardly and in faith surrendered himself to the new life.” “In doing so, he indicates to the Christian Church, that is to all the sisters and brothers who live in the faith in Christ, that he has been so taught inwardly in the Word of Christ and that he is so minded, that he has already surrendered himself according to the Word, will, and rule of Christ to live henceforth for him”.
This is again clearly a rejection of the ancient and universal view of baptism as a sacrament. The Anabaptists separated the reception of new life from the practice of baptism so that baptism was only a witness to others of what had already taken place apart from baptism. It is a means of showing that you wish to belong to a certain group and is absolutely not the means by which new life is received.
To a very great extent these views have prevailed in modern Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism. I was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren and we taught as did Zwingli, that baptism had no sacramental effect at all, and was a means by which the person who was already a Christian could witness to their faith before other Christians. We also held with Zwingli and the Anabaptists that baptism was a means of joining a community and becoming a member of a local Church, but it had nothing to do with becoming a member of Christ’s body. I became a believer in Christ before I can remember. Certainly when I was six years old I argued with my teacher about the reality of Noah’s flood, and when I was ten years old I knew that I did not need to become a Christian because I already was one.
Yet I was not baptised until I was 17 years of age. My baptism was absolutely not considered a sacrament by myself, by the elder who baptised me, nor by any present in the congregation that day. I was already a Christian and this was no more than a public witness to what had already happened years before, and a means of becoming a functioning member of this particular congregation. We did not believe for a moment that baptism was the means by which I received remission of sins, or new life in Christ, or the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Even while I was still a member of this evangelical community I came to see that my baptism was no baptism at all when compared with the clear teaching of the Scriptures and the consistent teaching of Church leaders through the centuries until the 16th. Indeed I can remember, as an evangelical, leading a Bible Study in which we concluded that we needed to be baptised according to this Biblical pattern, even though we did not really know what the sacraments were. We could see that it was not Biblical to consider it a witness to something that had already happened.
If I perform a random Google and pull up the first UK Baptist Church that speaks about Baptism I find…
There is a new life now. Paul teaches that our dying, burial and new life all take place in union with Jesus own death, burial and rising again. This is symbolised by baptism. It portrays what has taken place in our experience. It shows that we are united with Jesus and. we have left our old life behind. Baptism is also the initiation rite for joining the church…. It is a rich symbol, not an act that is powerful in itself.
This is no more than my Brethren Church taught, and is the teaching of Zwingli and of the Anabaptists. This local church website describes baptism as a symbol, not a sacrament, and a portrayal of something that has already taken place in our experience. It is also the means of joining the church, not the body of Christ, but this particular community. There is a clear and absolute rejection of any sense that baptism does anything.
Some other Baptist websites say…
If you have come to new life in Christ, as Baptists we believe that the very next step you have to take is to be baptised… Baptism is not dependent upon feelings but rather is, in the first place, an act of obedience…. Baptism is a dramatic way of declaring your solidarity with Jesus… Baptism is the way that someone shows they have decided to follow Jesus… When someone decides to follow Jesus they are given a new life. Coming up out of the water is a symbol of rising to new life… Water baptism is certainly important, and required of every believer. However, the New Testament does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation.
Now the intention of this brief examination is not to criticise or even examine in great detail views such as these which are held very widely. But we can see that the essence of baptism from such a perspective is that it is a symbol, it is a step subsequent to becoming a Christian, it is a way of declaring and showing what has already taken place and it is entirely separate to receiving new life.
There are certainly many serious Evangelicals and Protestants who consider baptism a means of blessing and grace, and surely taking the Christian faith seriously always leads to blessing. But what is described here and practiced in most Evangelical and Pentecostal churches up and down the UK is NOT the same as that which Orthodoxy teaches and practices.
As far as Orthodoxy is concerned:
- Baptism is the means by which we receive remission of sins
- Baptism is the means by which we truly die to self and rise to life in Christ
- Baptism is the means by which we become part of the Body of Christ
- Baptism is the necessary preliminary to being filled with the Holy Spirit.
As far as most Evangelicals and Pentecostals are concerned:
- Forgiveness of sins occurs when a person asks Christ to become their Saviour
- We receive life in Christ at that moment when we exercise faith in Him
- We become a member of the local congregation by baptism
- Baptism is a witness to what has already happened.
- We are a Christian before we are baptised and it is not absolutely necessary
- A person can be filled with the Holy Spirit simply on the exercise of faith in Christ
The issue is not at all who is most devout, or even which view is most correct. But as a matter of fact these are not compatible views and Orthodoxy, in common with all Christians in all places until the 16th century is sacramental while modern Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism tends to represent the views of Zwingli, which he admitted were unknown before his time.
Therefore, as I understood long before I became Orthodox myself, the baptism practiced and taught by Evangelicals and Pentecostals is not the same as that practiced and taught by Orthodox. They are different things. If we call the first Testimony Baptism and the second Sacrament Baptism then it becomes easier to distinguish the two. I had participated in Testimony Baptism but I had not experienced Sacrament Baptism before I became Orthodox.
As an Orthodox priest and pastor I would want to suggest that those coming to Orthodoxy are not being asked to repudiate their Testimony Baptism, in which they witnessed to their faith in Christ. Rather we are being asked to fulfil that faith by receiving Sacrament Baptism which Orthodox and all Christians to the 16th century believed is the means of receiving all that we aspire to as those coming from an Evangelical and Pentecostal background – true remission of sins, the reality of union with Christ in new life, and the fullness of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. It is the completion of your Testimony Baptism not the rejection of it. That Testimony Baptism will always remain as a witness itself to our continuing pilgrimage towards Christ. But there is more, and we receive it in Sacrament Baptism which is offered to all those who are finding abundant life in Christ in the Orthodox Way.