Born Again: Baptism in the Early Fathers
Jesus told Nicodemus, "You must be born again" (John 3:7). What did our Lord mean?
Modern Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians, while agreeing with Catholic Christians that a spiritual regeneration by the Holy Spirit (or the "new birth") is necessary for salvation (e.g. John 3:3-8; 2 Cor 5:17; Titus 3:5), generally disagree that the Sacrament (or what some call "ordinance") of Baptism is the means by which the Holy Spirit regenerates and saves the person, and all sins committed prior to Baptism are forgiven and washed away by the power of Christ (John 3:5; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom 6:1ff; 1 Cor 6:11; Gal 3:27; Eph 5:26f; Col 2:11ff; 1 Peter 3:21; etc). There are exceptions of course (such as Evangelical Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Church of Christ groups who hold some form of "baptismal regeneration" -- and certain of these practice infant Baptism, as do most Reformed or Calvinist Christians).
Many of these modern Fundamentalists and Evangelicals suggest that accepting or "receiving Christ" as one's "personal Lord and Savior" by faith alone is what our Lord meant in John chapter 3. The Sacrament of Baptism is seen as merely a "symbolic" gesture with no inherent spiritual efficacy.
Catholics, while not denying the importance of the "personal relationship" with Jesus Christ (you cannot get much more personal than receiving Christ in the Holy Eucharist) and clearly emphasizing a holy life after Baptism, understand the Gospel text on "born again" as a reference to the Sacrament of Baptism. Catholics note our Lord's words that one must be "born of WATER AND THE SPIRIT" as clearly equated by Jesus himself with the phrase "born again" (compare verses John 3:3,5,7). The surrounding context of the first four chapters of John's Gospel also show that by "water and the Spirit" that water BAPTISM is what our Lord meant (cf. John 1:29ff; 3:22ff; 4:1ff), which Sacrament was instituted by Christ himself at the Great Commission where he commanded Baptism in the name of the Blessed Trinity (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16). This is shortly followed by St. Peter the Apostle's command to be baptized in order to receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Catholics accept the plain and literal meaning of the biblical texts.
The Catholic understanding of Baptism is also the unanimous teaching of the earliest Christians who immediately followed the apostles. Every Christian, all the Church Fathers, bishops, and saints who lived after the apostles (and some while the apostles were still alive) interpreted our Lord's words in John chapter 3 that to be "born again" and "born of water and the Spirit" refers to the Sacrament of Baptism. There are no exceptions. And Protestant scholars frankly admit this fact (note the relevent sections on Baptism in Reformed/Presbyterian scholar Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church, Anglican scholar J.N.D. Kelly's Early Christian Doctrines, and Lutheran scholar Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition).
Philip Schaff (Presbyterian/Reformed) --
"This ordinance [Baptism] was regarded in the ancient church as the sacrament of the new birth or regeneration, and as the solemn rite of initiation into the Christian Church, admitting to all her benefits and committing to all her obligations....Its effect consists in the forgiveness of sins and the communication of the Holy Spirit.
"Justin [Martyr] calls baptism 'the water-bath for the forgiveness of sins and regeneration,' and 'the bath of conversion and the knowledge of God.' "It is often called also illumination, spiritual circumcision, anointing, sealing, gift of grace, symbol of redemption, death of sins, etc. Tertullian describes its effect thus: 'When the soul comes to faith, and becomes transformed through regeneration by water and power from above, it discovers, after the veil of the old corruption is taken away, its whole light. It is received into the fellowship of the Holy Spirit; and the soul, which unites itself to the Holy Spirit, is followed by the body.' ...."From John 3:5 and Mark 16:16, Tertullian and other fathers argued the necessity of baptism to salvation....The effect of baptism...was thought to extend only to sins committed before receiving it. Hence the frequent postponement of the sacrament [Procrastinatio baptismi], which Tertullian very earnestly recommends...." (History of the Christian Church, volume 2, page 253ff)
"The views of the ante-Nicene fathers concerning baptism and baptismal regeneration were in this period more copiously embellished in rhetorical style by Basil the Great and the two Gregories, who wrote special treatises on this sacrament, and were more clearly and logically developed by Augustine. The patristic and Roman Catholic view on regeneration, however, differs considerably from the one which now prevails among most Protestant denominations, especially those of the more Puritanic type, in that it signifies not so such a subjective change of heart, which is more properly called conversion, but a change in the objective condition and relation of the sinner, namely, his translation from the kingdom of Satan into the kingdom of Christ....Some modern divines make a distinction between baptismal regeneration and moral regeneration, in order to reconcile the doctrine of the fathers with the fact that the evidences of a new life are wholly wanting in so many who are baptized. But we cannot enter here into a discussion of the difficulties of this doctrine, and must confine ourselves to a historical statement." [patristic quotes follow] "In the doctrine of baptism also we have a much better right to speak of a -consensus patrum-, than in the doctrine of the Holy Supper." (History of the Christian Church, volume 3, page 481ff, 492)
Paul Enns (Dispensational/Baptist, Th.D. Dallas Theological Seminary) --
"Justin Martyr suggests Isaiah 1:16-20 refers to Christian baptism, apparently suggesting that this rite produces the new birth (1 Apol 61).....Very early in the Christian church, prominence was given to the rite of baptism so that many, in effect, taught baptismal regeneration. Justin Martyr taught that, to obtain the remission of sins, the name of the Father should be invoked over the one being baptized (1 Apol 61)...Although this concept was not as emphatic among the apostolic Fathers, it became increasingly so in the following centuries. Augustine, for instance, taught that original sin and sins committed before baptism were washed away through baptism. For that reason he advocated baptism for infants." (The Moody Handbook of Theology , page 415, 427)
J.N.D. Kelly (Anglican patristic scholar) --
"From the beginning baptism was the universally accepted rite of admission to the Church; only 'those who have been baptized in the Lord's name' may partake of the eucharist [Didache 9:5]....As regards its significance, it was always held to convey the remission of sins....the theory that it mediated the Holy Spirit was fairly general....The Spirit is God Himself dwelling in the believer, and the resulting life is a re-creation...."
"Speculation about baptism in the third century revolves around its function, universally admitted hitherto, as the medium of the bestowal of the Spirit. Infant baptism was now common, and this fact, together with the rapid expansion of the Church's numbers, caused the administration of the sacrament to be increasingly delegated by bishops to presbyters....We observe a tendency to limit the effect of baptism itself to the remission of sins and regeneration, and to link the gift of the Spirit with these other rites [Chrismation, Confirmation, and the laying on of hands -- detailed analysis from the ante-Nicene Fathers on Baptism follows].....
"From these general considerations we turn to the particular sacraments. Cyril of Jerusalem provides a full, if not always coherent, account of the conception of baptism which commended itself to a fourth-century theologian in
Jaroslav Pelikan (Lutheran patristic scholar) --
"Although references to the doctrine of baptism are scattered throughout the Christian literature of the second and third centuries, only one extant treatise from the period is devoted exclusively to the subject, that of Tertullian. And the most succinct statement by Tertullian on the doctrine of baptism actually came, not in his treatise on baptism, but in his polemic against Marcion....Tertullian argued that none of the four basic gifts of baptism could be granted if that dualism [of Marcion] were maintained. The four gifts were: the remission of sins, deliverance from death, regeneration, and bestowal of the Holy Spirit...It is noteworthy that Tertullian, regardless of how much a Montanist he may have been at this point, was summarizing what the doctrine of the church was at his time -- as well as probably before his time and certainly since his time. Tertullian's enumeration of the gifts of baptism would be difficult to duplicate in so summary a form from other Christian writers, but those who did speak of baptism also spoke of one or more of these gifts. Baptism brought the remission of sins; the doctrine of baptism was in fact the occasion for many of the references to forgiveness of sins in the literature of these centuries [references to Cyprian, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Hermas]."
"With deliverance from death came a new life and regeneration. The phrase 'washing of regeneration' in Titus 3:5 was synonymous with 'the baptism of regeneration.' [references to Methodius of Olympus, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Origen]."
"Tertullian's summary of these four gifts makes it clear 'that by the end of the second century, if not fifty years earlier, the doctrine of baptism (even without the aid of controversy to give it precision) was so fully developed that subsequent ages down to our own have found nothing significant to add to it' [citing Evans]." (The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition 100-600, pages 163ff)
William Webster, a former Catholic turned Evangelical, in his 1995 book The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, freely admits the unanimous position of the Church Fathers as to what is called "baptismal regeneration" :
"The doctrine of baptism is one of the few teachings within Roman Catholicism for which it can be said that there is a universal consent of the Fathers....From the early days of the Church, baptism was universally perceived as the means of receiving four basic gifts: the remission of sins, deliverance from death, regeneration, and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit." (Webster, page 95-96)
Let us take a look at the writings of the earliest Christians on the Sacrament of Baptism, baptismal regeneration, and infant baptism. All the major Church Fathers are covered through the fifth century.
THE EPISTLE OF BARNABAS (c. A.D. 70)
Now let us see if the Lord has been at any pains to give us a foreshadowing of the waters of Baptism and of the cross. Regarding the former, we have the evidence of Scripture that Israel would refuse to accept the washing which confers the remission of sins and would set up a substitution of their own instead [Jer 22:13; Isa 16:1-2; 33:16-18; Psalm 1:3-6]. Observe there how he describes both the water and the cross in the same figure. His meaning is, "Blessed are those who go down into the water with their hopes set on the cross." Here he is saying that after we have stepped down into the water, burdened with sin and defilement, we come up out of it bearing fruit, with reverence in our hearts and the hope of Jesus in our souls. (11:1-10)
THE SHEPHERD OF HERMAS (c. A.D. 140)
"I have heard, sir," said I, "from some teachers, that there is no other repentance except that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins." He said to me, "You have heard rightly, for so it is." (The Shepherd 4:3:1-2)
They had need [the Shepherd said] to come up through the water, so that they might be made alive; for they could not otherwise enter into the kingdom of God, except by putting away the mortality of their former life. These also, then, who had fallen asleep, received the seal of the Son of God, and entered into the
ST. JUSTIN MARTYR (inter A.D. 148-155)
Whoever is convinced and believes that what they are taught and told by us is the truth, and professes to be able to live accordingly, is instructed to pray and to beseech God in fasting for the remission of their former sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are led by us to a place where there is water; and there they are reborn in the same kind of rebirth in which we ourselves were reborn: In the name of God, the Lord and Father of all, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they receive the washing with water. For Christ said, "Unless you be reborn, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." ...The reason for doing this, we have learned from the Apostles. (The First Apology 61)
ST. THEOPHILUS OF
Moreover, those things which were created from the waters were blessed by God, so that this might also be a sign that men would at a future time receive repentance and remission of sins through water and the bath of regeneration -- all who proceed to the truth and are born again and receive a blessing from God. (To Autolycus 2:16)
ST. IRENAEUS (c. A.D. 190)
"And [Naaman] dipped himself...seven times in the
TERTULLIAN (inter A.D. 200-206)
A treatise on our sacrament of water, by which the sins of our earlier blindness are washed away and we are released for eternal life will not be superfluous.....taking away death by the washing away of sins. The guilt being removed, the penalty, of course, is also removed.....Baptism is itself a corporal act by which we are plunged in water, while its effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from sins. (On Baptism 1:1; 5:6; 7:2)
...no one can attain salvation without Baptism, especially in view of the declaration of the Lord, who says: "Unless a man shall be born of water, he shall not have life." (On Baptism 12:1)
ST. CLEMENT OF
When we are baptized, we are enlightened. Being enlightened, we are adopted as sons. Adopted as sons, we are made perfect. Made perfect, we become immortal...."and sons all of the Most High" [Psalm 82:6]. This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing. It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins; a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted; an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation -- that is, by which we see God clearly; and we call that perfection which leaves nothing lacking. Indeed, if a man know God, what more does he need? Certainly it were out of place to call that which is not complete a true gift of God's grace. Because God is perfect, the gifts He bestows are perfect. (The Instructor of Children 1:6:26:1)
RECOGNITIONS OF CLEMENT (c. A.D. 221)
But you will perhaps say, "What does the baptism of water contribute toward the worship of God?" In the first place, because that which has pleased God is fulfilled. In the second place, because when you are regenerated and born again of water and of God, the frailty of your former birth, which you have through men, is cut off, and so ...you shall be able to attain salvation; but otherwise it is impossible. For thus has the true Prophet [Jesus] testified to us with an oath: "Verily, I say to you, that unless a man is born again of water....he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Recognitions 6:9)
ORIGEN (post A.D. 244)
Formerly there was Baptism, in an obscure way....now, however, in full view, there is regeneration in water and in the Holy Spirit. Formerly, in an obscure way, there was manna for food; now, however, in full view, there is the true food, the flesh of the Word of God as He Himself says: "My flesh is truly food, and My blood is truly drink" [John 6:55]. (Homilies on Numbers 7:2)
The Church received from the Apostles the tradition of giving Baptism even to infants. For the Apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of divine mysteries, knew that there is in everyone the innate stains of sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit. (Commentaries on Romans 5:9)
ST. CYPRIAN OF
But afterwards, when the stain of my past life had been washed away by means of the water of re-birth, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart; afterwards through the Spirit which is breathed from heaven, a second birth made of me a new man... Thus it had to be acknowledged that what was of the earth and was born of the flesh and had lived submissive to sins, had now begun to be of God, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit was animating it. (To Donatus 4)
[When] they receive also the Baptism of the Church...then finally can they be fully sanctified and be the sons of God...since it is written, "Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the
[It] behooves those to be baptized...so that they are prepared, in the lawful and true and only Baptism of the holy Church, by divine regeneration, for the kingdom of God...because it is written, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." (Letters 72:21)
SEVENTH COUNCIL OF
And in the gospel our Lord Jesus Christ spoke with his divine voice, saying, "Except a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." ...Unless therefore they receive saving Baptism in the Catholic Church, which is one, they cannot be saved, but will be condemned with the carnal in the judgment of the Lord Christ.
APHRAATES THE PERSION SAGE (inter A.D. 336-345)
For from Baptism we receive the Spirit of Christ. At that same moment in which the priests invoke the Spirit, heaven opens, and He descends and rests upon the waters; and those who are baptized are clothed in Him. For the Spirit is absent from all those who are born of the flesh, until they come to the water of re-birth; and then they receive the Holy Spirit....in the second birth, that through Baptism, they receive the Holy Spirit. (Treatises 6:14)
ST. CYRIL OF
If any man does not receive Baptism, he does not have salvation. The only exception is the martyrs, who, even without water, will receive the kingdom....for the Savior calls martyrdom a Baptism (cf. Mark 10:38) ...Bearing your sins, you go down into the water; but the calling down of grace seals your soul and does not permit that you afterwards be swallowed up by the fearsome dragon. You go down dead in your sins, and come up made alive in righteousness. (Catechetical Lectures 3:10,12)
Since man is of a twofold nature, composed of body and soul, the purification also is twofold: the corporeal for the corporeal and the incorporeal for the incorporeal. The water cleanses the body, and the Spirit seals the soul....When you go down into the water, then, regard not simply the water, but look for salvation through the power of the Holy Spirit. For without both you cannot attain to perfection. It is not I who says this, but the Lord Jesus Christ, who has the power in this matter.
And He says, "Unless a man be born again" -- and He adds the words "of water and of the Spirit" -- "he cannot enter into the
A bold saying, but not mine; for it is Jesus who has declared it.
(Catechetical Lectures 3:4)
ST. BASIL THE GREAT (c. A.D. 330 - 379)
For prisoners, Baptism is ransom, forgiveness of debts, death of sin, regeneration of the soul, a resplendent garment, an unbreakable seal, a chariot to heaven, a protector royal, a gift of adoption. (Sermons on Moral and Practical Subjects: On Baptism 13:5)
This then is what it means to be "born again of water and Spirit" : just as our dying is effected in the water [Rom 6:3-4;
ST. AMBROSE OF
The Lord was baptized, not to be cleansed Himself but to cleanse the waters, so that those waters, cleansed by the flesh of Christ which knew no sin, might have the power of Baptism. Whoever comes, therefore, to the washing of Christ lays aside his sins. (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 2:83)
The Church was redeemed at the price of Christ's blood. Jew or Greek, it makes no difference; but if he has believed, he must circumcise himself from his sins [in Baptism -- Col 2:11-13] so that he can be saved...for no one ascends into the kingdom of heaven except through the sacrament of Baptism...."Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." (On Abraham 2:11:79,84)
You have read, therefore, that the three witnesses in Baptism are one: water, blood and the Spirit [1 John 5:8]: and if you withdraw any one of these, the sacrament of Baptism is not valid. For what is the water without the cross of Christ? A common element with no sacramental effect. Nor on the other hand is there any mystery of regeneration without water: for "unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the
ST. GREGORY OF NAZIANZ (c. A.D. 330 - 389)
Baptism is God's most beautiful and magnificent gift....We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, seal, and most precious gift. It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water; anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed; enlightenment because it radiates light; clothing since it veils our shame; bath because it washes; and seal as it is our guard and the sign of God's Lordship. (Orations on Holy Baptism 40:3-4; PG 36, 361C cited in CCC )
Do you have an infant child? Allow sin no opportunity; rather, let the infant be sanctified [i.e. baptized] from childhood. From his most tender age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Do you fear the seal because of the weakness of nature? O what a pusillanimous mother, and of how little faith! ....Give your child the Trinity, that great and noble Protector. (Orations on Holy Baptism 40:17)
Behold, they thoroughly enjoy the peacefulness of freedom who shortly before were held captive. They are citizens of the Church who were wandering in error. They have their lot in righteousness who were in the confusion of sin. For not only are they free, but holy also; not only holy, but righteous too; not only righteous, but sons also; not only sons, but heirs as well; not only heirs, but brothers even of Christ; not only brothers of Christ, but also co-heirs; not only co-heirs, but His very members; not only His members, but a temple too; not a temple only, but likewise the instruments of the Spirit.
You see how many are the benefits of Baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins; but we have enumerated ten honors. For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by sin [or though they do not have personal sins] so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be His members.(Baptismal Catecheses quoted by Augustine in Contra Iulianum 1:6:21)
APOSTOLIC CONSTITUTIONS (c. A.D. 400)
Be ye likewise contented with one Baptism alone, that which is into the death of the Lord [Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:11-13]...he that out of contempt will not be baptized shall be condemned as an unbeliever and shall be reproached as ungrateful and foolish. 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." (6:3:15)
This much you must know, that Baptism forgives past sins, but it does not safeguard future justice, which is preserved by labor and industry and diligence, and depends always and above all on the mercy of God. (Dialogue Against the Pelagians 3:1)
By this grace baptized infants too are ingrafted into [Christ's] body, infants who certainly are not yet able to imitate anyone. Christ, in whom all are made alive....gives also the most hidden grace of His Spirit to believers, grace which He secretly infuses even into infants....It is an excellent thing that the Punic [North African] Christians call Baptism itself nothing else but "salvation" and the sacrament of Christ's Body nothing else but "life."
Whence does this derive, except from an ancient and, as I suppose, apostolic tradition, by which the Churches of Christ hold inherently that without Baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal? This is the witness of Scripture too.
If anyone wonders why children born of the baptized should themselves be baptized, let him attend briefly to this....The Sacrament of Baptism is most assuredly the Sacrament of regeneration.
(Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:9:10; 1:24:34; 2:27:43 c. A.D. 412)
It is this one Spirit who makes it possible for an infant to be regenerated....when that infant is brought to Baptism; and it is through this one Spirit that the infant so presented is reborn. For it is not written, "Unless a man be born again by the will of his parents" or "by the faith of those presenting him or ministering to him," but: "Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit." The water, therefore, manifesting exteriorly the sacrament of grace, and the Spirit effecting interiorly the benefit of grace, both regenerate in one Christ that man who was generated in one Adam." (Letters 98:2 c. A.D. 408)
Those who, though they have not received the washing of regeneration, die for the confession of Christ -- it avails them just as much for the forgiveness of their sins as if they had been washed in the sacred font of Baptism. For He that said, "If anyone is not reborn of water and the Spirit, he will not enter the kingdom of heaven," made an exception for them in that other statement in which He says no less generally, "Whoever confesses Me before men, I too will confess him before My Father, who is in heaven" [Matt 10:32]. (City of God 13:7 c. A.D. 420)
ST. FULGENCE OF RUSPE (c. A.D. 524)
From that time at which our Savior said: "If anyone is not reborn of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven," no one can say, without the sacrament of Baptism, except those who, in the Catholic Church, without Baptism pour out their blood for Christ, receive the kingdom of heaven and eternal life. Anyone who receives the sacrament of Baptism, whether in the Catholic Church or in a heretical or schismatic one, receives the whole sacrament...
[But one outside the Church] must, therefore, return to the Church, not so that he might receive again the sacrament of Baptism, which no one dare repeat in any baptized person, but so that he may receive eternal life in Catholic society, for the obtaining of which no one is suited who...remains estranged from the Catholic Church. (The Rule of Faith 43)
These articles originally appeared in the August 1992 and October 1994 issues of THIS ROCK magazine (under the column "The Fathers Know Best") with commentary by Church historians edited and added by Phil Porvaznik.