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Baptism is a water purification ritual practiced in certain religions such as Christianity, Mandaeanism, Sikhism, and some historic sects of Judaism. 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 or bathe", but more precisely means to plunge something entirely into the water, so that the water closes over it.

Today, baptism is most famously 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. The Christian ritual of baptism traces back to John the Baptist, who the Bible says baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. Baptism among Christians is performed by sprinkling, pouring or full immersion. The choice to be baptized is made by a confessing believer (believer baptism, or credobaptism), regardless of age, as a confession of his faith; or for a child by his or her parents (paedobaptism) according to the parent's confession of faith. Some churches practice credobaptism and some practice paedobaptism. Some practice immersion, some practice pouring, and some practice sprinkling. There are differences in opinion about the nature and practice of Christian baptism. Some denominations, such as Baptists, practice believer baptism, and believe that baptism does not save, but rather publicly demonstrates that a person has been saved through his union with Christ.

Other people, including Martin Luther, have placed a much greater importance on baptism. Luther states in The Large Catechism of 1529AD,

"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."

For Christians, pouring or washing with water demonstrates being cleansed of one's sins, while immersion demonstrates both cleansing of sin and burial with Christ. Practicing baptism in a public setting is a testimony of the person's faith, and an expression of their covenantal union with Christ.


Background in Jewish ritual

The ritual of baptism is prefigured in the purification rites of Jewish law and tradition. In the Tanakh and tradition of the teachers of the Torah, a ritual bath for purification from uncleanness used to be required under specified circumstances in order to be restored to a condition of ritual purity. For example, women after menses, and after a number of blood-free days following child-birth, were washed in a ritual bath, called a mikvah. Those who became ritually defiled by contact with something infectious, would also use the mikveh as part of their healing. Washing was also required for converts. Through practices such as these, immersion in the mikveh came to represent purification and restoration, and qualification for full religious participation in the life of the community. (See Book of Numbers Chapter 19)

Traditional conversion to Judaism also requires a mikvah, so for converts Jewish initiation is in some ways similar to Christian initiation, although the term baptism is not used to describe the Jewish conversion.


The Christian explanation of baptism as the definitive rite, by which the baptized person is indicated to wish to become 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 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 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."

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. It should be noted, however, that 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).

Ecumenical statement

One ecumenical statement 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. Luke chapter 24, verses 47-49. It is typically viewed as a means by which a person is joined to Jesus and his body, the Church, after which the newly baptized person receives the Holy Ghost and is considered to be a Christian.

Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox baptism

The liturgy of baptism in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition 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 Jesus. 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 for them. The Orthodox also practice infant baptism on the basis of various texts such as Matthew 9:14 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. Catholics generally baptize by pouring; Orthodox by immersion. Both practice a triple baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity.

Baptism and salvation

In Catholic teaching, baptism plays an important role in salvation. The Church teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation and entry into heaven - although some theologians make various exceptions to this requirement in special circumstances, and liberal Catholics tend to believe that non-Catholics can still be saved. Some of these special circumstances are called by some theologians "baptism" even though they do not involve water -- i.e. "baptism of blood" (martyrdom for the Faith of an unbaptised person) and "baptism of desire" (death of a person who desires baptism). See extra ecclessia nulla salus for more discussion.

Conditions of the validity of a baptism

Since the Catholic and Orthodox 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 render the baptism illicit (i.e. a violation of the church's laws, and a sin for those who willingly and knowingly participate in it), and yet still valid. For example, if a Priest introduces some variation in the unauthorised variation in the ceremony, the baptism is still valid so long as certain key criteria are still met, even though the Priest has violated the church's law and thus sinned, and so have the other participants if they know the Priest's behaviour is illict.

One of the criteria for validity is that the correct form of words be used. Catholics use the form "I baptise you..", 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 considerations (which might well invalidate the baptism even if that formula is valid). 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.

Another requirement is that the baptiser intends to perform what the Catholic Church performs. 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, here we see the great problem - 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 effect validity: whether immersion, infusion or aspersion is used; whether there is a single immersion or a triple immersion. Some theologians have also argued that sprinkling on a part of the body other than the head in an emergency would also be valid.

A person, once baptised, 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 and Orthdox churches accept baptism performed by other denominations as valid, subject to certain conditions. It is only possible to be baptised once, thus people with valid baptisms from other denominations may not be baptised again on conversion. Instead, for these converts the sacrament of conversion is performed. However, in some cases it can be difficult to decide if the original baptism was in fact valid, so, 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).

Who can perform a valid baptism?

In normal circumstances, a baptism must be performed by a priest. However, in cases of a genuine emergency, anyone may perform the baptism - 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.

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 or sprinkling by another denomination. Immersion of confessing believers is regarded as the only legitimate, biblical baptism. 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, whether or not an actual conversion experience can be discerned.

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.

Latter-day Saint baptism

Priesthood authorities in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church; see also Mormon) baptize only by immersion. The earliest age at which a person may be baptized is eight years, which is considered the age at which children know right from wrong and become accountable for their actions. Latter-day Saints (LDS) believe that baptism is only the first of several ordinances required for exaltation and that faith and repentance precede baptism. Typically soon after a person is baptized into the LDS Church a Priesthood authority lays their hands on the head of the newly baptized person and confirms the person a member of the Church and confers upon the person the "gift of the Holy Ghost". Furthermore, LDS believe that: legitimate baptism can only be performed by one with legitimate Priesthood authority; only baptism by immersion is legitimate; and infant baptism is seen as a corruption. See Latter-day Saint condemnation of infant baptism.

Membership into the LDS Church is granted only by baptism whether a person has been raised in the Church or not. The LDS Church also practices baptism for the dead along with all other Church ordinances members of the LDS Church perform "vicariously" or "by proxy" in their temples for everyone who has not received these ordinances while living.

Baptisms inside and outside the temples are usually done in a font although they can be perfomed in any large body of water. In the temples the fonts are usually laid out on the sculptures of twelve oxen representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Great care is taken in the execution of the baptism; if the baptism is not executed properly it must be redone. The person administering the baptism calling the baptisee by name and must state these words exactly: "Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen." Every part, limb, hair and clothing of the baptisee must then be fully submersed into the water or the baptism must be redone. Two Priesthood authorities stand by as witnesses in part to make sure that the baptism is conducted properly.

The LDS Church also believes that through repentance and baptism a baptisee is cleansed of all previous sin. The process of repentance and sanctification continues by partaking of the Sacrament every Sunday which Latter Day Saints consider to be a renewing of the baptismal covenant. They also believe that baptism is symbolic both of Jesus's death, burial and resurrection and of the baptisee's death and burial of the natural or sinful man and rebirth as a disciple of Jesus.

Baptism in Churches of Christ

Claiming to date back to the establishment of the Church in the first century on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), 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 Acts 2:38, baptism is performed in the name of "The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit".
  • Upon baptism the believer receives the "Gift of the Holy Spirit."
  • 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.

Members of the Churches of Christ believe the Bible makes a distinction between Christian baptism (Acts 2:38) and John's baptism (Matt 3:13-16). People baptized with John's baptism are required to fulfill the command of Christian baptism in order to be added to the Church (Acts 2:38).

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.

Non-Christian baptism

Although the rite is usually associated with Christianity, evidence of forms of baptism has appeared in many cultures, including ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, Jewish, Babylonian, Maya and Japanese cultures, although such evidence is typically archaeological and descriptive in nature, rather than currently performed.

  • The Sikh baptism ceremony, dating to 1699, was established when the religion's tenth leader (Guru Gobind Singh) baptised 5 followers of his faith and then was baptised himself by his followers, similar to Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist. The Sikh baptism ceremony is called Amrit Sanskar or Amrit Sanchar. The Sikh is said to have taken Amrit once they have been baptised. In Sikhism, the baptised Sikh is also called an Amritdhari literally meaning Amrit Taker or one who has Taken on Amrit.

See also


  • Ware, Timothy (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia). (1993) The Orthodox Church (2nd ed.) pp 277-278. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-014656-3.

External links

Last updated: 08-04-2005 20:15:35
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