The Contaminated Waters of Baptism

We’re in a room of different people, and you ask the question, “Who all has been baptized? Raise your hands, please.” Hands go up en masse. Then, as you ask these people to detail their accounts, you give a questionnaire to use for this purpose. One question may be, “How old were you when you were baptized?” Some people put a few weeks old, others nine years old, and others put they were in a specific decade. Another question is how you were baptized. There are multiple choices with a box to check beside their answer: sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. You ask what else they did at the time of their baptism, what the baptizer said as they were baptized, and on and on the questions go. Then, you ask everyone to keep their sheets with their answers, and then you open your Bible and begin studying the topic.

Baptism in the New Testament and Beyond

Since we in churches of Christ use the Bible as our guide, we look to specific passages about how the earliest Christians practiced their baptisms. We note that those who were baptized understood what they were doing and consented to such (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:41; 8:37). The only thing that would hinder a person from being baptized would be nonbelief (Acts 8:36–39). Certain people are incapable of faith through no fault of their own (e.g., mentally handicapped, infants). Alongside belief is the confession of Jesus as God’s Son (Acts 8:37; 22:16; Rom. 10:9–13). Since most people in a Bible study lack a working knowledge of Greek, we use our English Bibles and note that baptism was a burial (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12) and that whoever administers baptism pronounces Jesus’ words in the Great Commission for the invocation (Matt. 28:19). The result of this, therefore, is forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16), a renewal of one’s spiritual self (Rom. 6:3–4; Titus 3:5), sanctification (1 Cor. 6:11), and the putting on of Jesus (Gal. 3:27). Assuming the person has faith in Jesus as God’s Son and His work on the cross, the medium through which this is accomplished is baptism itself (1 Peter 3:21). The end of that process is called “salvation,” but the key to this salvation is our faith in God (Col. 2:12). Without faith, baptism is meaningless, and with faith, baptism is so meaningful because of Jesus’ work.

This was the understanding of the church in the days of the apostles, the earliest leaders of the church. However, even the second generation of Christians understood this. There was no forgiveness of sins without baptism.

Concerning the water, indeed, it is written, in reference to the Israelites, that they would never accept that baptism which leads to the remission of sins. (Epistle of Barnabas 11.1; c. 132–35)

Some teachers maintain that there is no other repentance than that which takes place, when we descended into the water and received remission of our former sins. He said to me, “That was sound doctrine which you heard; for that is really the case.” (Shepherd of Hermas 2.4.3; c. 150)  

[We] may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, [where] 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. (Justin Martyr, First Apology 61; c. 153–55)

For centuries, Christianity taught that baptism washed away our sins. It wasn’t until Ulrich Zwingli (c. 1484–1531) that a view contrary to this began being taught.[1]

Contaminated Waters

 A Jewish-Christian source dating to the sixties, Didache, gave instructions for when the optimal environment was unavailable.

Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: after you have reviewed all these things [chs. 1–6 instructions], baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in running water. But if you have no running water, then baptize in some other water; and if you are not able to baptize in cold water, then do so in warm. But if you have neither, then pour water on the head three times in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. (7.1–3)

Considering that this may have been composed in western Syria, where there may have been areas where water was scarce, explains the exceptions. This in no way mentions sprinkling but pouring. The thrice pouring of water may have been enough to recreate total immersion and count as sufficient for baptism. It wouldn’t be surprising that it corresponded to the thrice-invoked name of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Sprinkling is mentioned in the New Testament, mainly in Hebrews, but invariably concerning the imagery of sacrifice since the priest would sprinkle the animal’s blood upon that which was being sanctified (Heb. 9:19, 21; 11:28; 12:24). The usage also appears metaphorically (Heb. 10:22; 1 Peter 1:2). However, it’s never used about baptism. These are two separate Greek terms, but sprinkling is predominant in some traditions today despite not being so in the early church.

By the third century, some believed it more appropriate to delay baptism until one neared death. That way, they could be the purest upon dying when they met God. This led some people to wait too long to receive baptism as immersion, which the word actually means. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 250–58) defended sprinkling if one was on their sickbed. He also advocated that sprinkling and pouring were adequate measures of imparting the grace of baptism, citing Old Testament passages as justification (e.g., Ezek. 36:25–26; Num. 19:8). As long as this was done in the church, and the faith of the giver and receiver were sound, it was perfected by the Lord (Letters 69).

His view was relatively new given an occasion that arose where a man on his sickbed received this sort of “baptism.” Novation, a presbyter in the Roman church—oddly enough, one wonders how a person could become a presbyter without first becoming a Christian—was the first to receive a sickbed baptism by sprinkling. Of course, by this time, so much had changed. Only priests administered baptism, and they were to have cleansed the water beforehand so remission of sins could occur. More and more, the clergy came to define the faith rather than the rule of faith itself.

Cyprian also wrote extensively about baptizing infants in his works. He’s one of the earliest explicit sources that attest to this practice but not the earliest to mention it outright. That notoriety belongs to Tertullian, who opposed the practice (Baptism 18; c. 200). Other references have been inferred as suggesting infant baptism earlier, such as Justin Martyr (1 Apology 15.6) and Polycarp (Mart. Poly. 9.3). Nevertheless, the other references are stretches at best. By Tertullian’s time, he referred to it as something already being done “for which a practical and scriptural rationale was advanced (themselves indications of a new practice that needed justification).”[2]

On the one hand, you have infant baptism, sprinkling those on deathbeds, and various other methods of administering this one fundamental grace God imparted. The change came by way of well-meaning clergymen. Yet, in the fifth century, Augustine would refine and propose the doctrine of original sin. The custom of infant sprinkling/pouring would become the standard practice for centuries. The third century certainly had its difficulties with baptism. Still, we must decide whether to work within the confusion of the church’s leaders then or those inspired by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. Is our baptism apostolic or traditional?


[1] Jack Warren Cottrell, “Covenant and Baptism in the Theology of Huldreich Zwingli,” (Dissertation, Princeton Theological University, 1971).

[2] Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 363.

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