Instruction about baptisms (washings) – Baptism

Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” John 3:5 

The Meaning of “Baptism”

There are actually three “washings” described by the word baptism – two baptisms of water, and the baptism of Holy Spirit. Jesus spoke of all three “baptisms” when He told His disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” (Matthew 28:19). This is clear in Paul’s statement, “but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

To begin, we will focus on the baptism most commonly referred to as “baptism.” 

The Importance of Baptism

When the Apostle Paul met some believers at Ephesus, he asked them, “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” When they replied “no,” Paul said, “into what then where you baptized?” (Acts 19:2-3)

They did not receive the Holy Spirit because they had only been baptized with the baptism of John. John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me…will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

We need to receive the complete “baptism” of water and Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the “seal” of our inheritance as sons of God.

The Spirit of God is the spirit of truth. So, receiving the Holy Spirit is dependant on a number of conditions. These include keeping the commandments of Christ, the commandments of God, and following the instructions of the Apostles, as the Apostle John informs us in 1 John 4:6.

The Instructions of the Apostles

The writer of Hebrews referred to “instructions about baptisms.”  In 1873, a supposed copy of an early anonymous writing called, “the Didache” was found. The proper title is “the Lord’s teachings through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations.” Whether or not the copy that we posses has been altered, is in great question. The other question is who wrote it? This manuscript, written in 1056, presents a very liberal view of baptism, saying that “living water” was preferred but pouring warm water three times on the head was also acceptable. Such a casual view of baptism does not agree with any of the earliest and most authentic Christian writings, or the practice of the Apostles.  

The imitation of the baptism of Jesus by the early Christians in rivers was well documented in 1881 by the Catholic expert Jules Corbert, in his Histoire Dogmatique. He told us that early Church fathers such as Justin, Clement, Victor I, and Tertullian remark that seas, lakes, and springs are equally proper sites.1

All the writings of the Apostles tell us there was only one method of baptism. Jesus Himself told the Apostles, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized” (Mark 10:39).

One Baptism

Illustration of John The Baptist baptising man in River Jordan, others waiting on riverbank, Gospel of Luke
Illustration of John The Baptist baptising man in River Jordan, others waiting on riverbank, Gospel of Luke

The message of “one baptism,” is the message of unity. God desires in these last days that all believers would be united by one gospel, and one baptism, according to the example of Christ: “in like manner.” This is one of the seven “ones” we find in Ephesians 4:4-6; “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” These seven ones representing perfect unity, the desire of Jesus’ prayer, “may they be perfect in one.”

We begin our path, as we would end it, in the imitation of Christ. We follow His example “in like manner” in baptism, the washing of feet, and remembrance of His death, as did the Apostles.

Just as Jesus said, “These things the Son also does in like manner . . .” (John 5:19).

The example of baptism Jesus gave his followers is the only method of baptism to which the Holy Spirit testifies. The experience and joy of a new believer in the imitation of Jesus’ baptism is indescribable. Through His baptism, we become like Him; we become a true Son of God.

The Same Method was Followed by All

The Apostles broke unleavened bread, “in like manner” of Jesus in remembering His death, and they baptized with living water “in like manner” with His baptism. The method of baptism instituted by Jesus carries several spiritual meanings that are fundamental to the Gospel message.

In 150, in his First Apology to the Roman Emperor, Justin Martyr, said that baptismal candidates were baptized “in like manner.” The same method was followed by all:

Then we lead them to a place where there is water, and they are regenerated in the same manner in which we ourselves are regenerated, in the name of the God, the Father and Lord of all, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Ghost, they then wash (themselves) with water.2

In the Likeness of His Death

Through baptism we die with Christ to sin, and mortal life in this world. So we enter the water, as Paul wrote: “in the likeness of His death” (Romans 6:5). As Jesus bowed His head (John 19:30) when He breathed His last, we bow our heads when we enter the water in the imitation of His baptism. We shall also be resurrected “in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:5) when Jesus returns.

Bowing down the head is the safest method of baptism in living water, especially when the current is strong. In Mark 1:10, we read, “immediately coming up out of the water,” signifying that Jesus brought Himself up out of the water, which is only possible in a face down baptism. The famous theologian John Chrysostom (347 – 407), described baptism saying, “for when we immerse our heads in water, the old is buried as in the tomb below, and wholly sunk forever: then we raise them (our heads) again . . .”3 Here, he explained that we are “buried with Him through baptism into His death” (Romans 6:4).

After the Reformation, some denominations began to baptize people backwards, and then raising them up out of the water. They explained this as symbolic of our “death and resurrection.”  But baptism in water only symbolizes our death with Christ.The tradition of baptizing backwards likely began because of the shallow water in baptismal tanks. There has to be sufficient water to baptize face down, so we read, “John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there” (John 3:23).

We wash away our sins

When we die with Christ, our sins are washed away (Acts 2:3822:16), just as we read earlier: “but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 6:11Acts 2:388:1210:4819:5).

The authority to wash away our sins comes from the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and from His Spirit. The Apostle John writes, “There are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood” (1 John 5:7-8).

It is also important that the one who baptizes us has spiritual authority. Just as John the Baptist was given spiritual authority through the Spirit of Christ, Jesus’ disciples also received the authority of the Spirit of Christ to remit sins when Jesus breathed authority into his disciples, saying, “receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (John 20:22-23).

Should we wash away the sins of someone, before they have come “to the knowledge of the truth?”(Hebrews 9:21-22; 10:26). The children of believers are “called, and they are holy” (Acts 2:39; 1Cor 7:14). This means they are “set apart.” But those who have been set apart can only be made perfect before God through the remission of their sins (Hebrews 10:14).  It is for this reason that Apostles gave baptism, “even to infants”4. For those “whom he called, He also justified”(Romans 8:30). Polycarp, a disciple of John, is one famous Christian who testified to his baptism, occurring at his birth, in 70 A.D.5 Before the Reformation, the only voice against the baptism of infants came from Tertullian, in 190.6 He warned of the danger of sin after baptism.  But a person can only lose all hope of salvation, if they sin willfully after “being made partakers of the Holy Spirit, having tasted the good word of God, and the power of the age to come”(Hebrews 6:4-5).

In living water

Justin Martyr said that baptismal candidates were baptized in living water, “Then we lead them to a place where there is water.”

Paul said, “you died with Christ (through baptism) from the basic principles of the world . . . and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 2:203:3). So, the river, or ocean we choose, and the day, are of no significance.

The restoration of the Gospel of Christ, and the baptism of Christ in living water was prophesied by the phrase “springs of water” in Revelation 14:6-7.

Living water and its connection with the Holy Spirit goes back to the writing of Jeremiah: “for My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn for themselves cisterns – broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:18). Here, God distinguished the water that exists naturally, and the water that is held by man’s cisterns. The spiritual meaning is that we do not go to man’s source, but God’s. The prophecy of Micah was that God would wash away our sins through baptism in natural water: “He will cast all our sins into the depths of the ocean” (Micah 7:19). Through baptism, we do not enter a religion made by man, but by God, so we go to a river, lake, sea, or spring because we seek “a pure river of water of life” (Revelation 21:622:1Ezekiel 47:1), which is the power of the Holy Spirit. Only living water produces life; our baptism is a rebirth, our baptism brings life. Jesus came to bring life and life abundantly, and promised that if anyone would follow Him, “out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38).

In the Name of Jesus

Justin Martyr said “we are regenerated, in the name of the God, the Father and Lord of all, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Ghost,” in keeping with Christ’s commandment of Matthew 28:19-20.

Although Justin Martyr knew that the Name of God was Jesus, as he related in his Dialogue with Tryphos, he did not know that the Holy Spirit that Jesus spoke of was the Spirit of Christ. He did not understand that the Spirit of Christ had only been “manifest in the flesh,” in the Son. In his First Apology, he told the Roman Emperor that the Holy Spirit was a third person, “born on the waters” in Genesis 1:2. As a result of this new theology, believers stopped baptizing in the name of Jesus.

In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul explained why the disciples baptized in the name of Jesus (see Acts 2:38; 8:12; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16; and 1 Corinthians 1:13; 6:11).

Paul told us that after Jesus endured the cross, He was given “the name which is above every name”:

“And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore, God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth” (Philippians 2:8-10).

The Apostles baptized “in the Name of Jesus,” because they understood that the Name of “the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” was the name of Jesus, just as prophesied in Isaiah 9:6.

We must be born of water and Spirit

Jesus told Nicodemus that we must be “born again,” “unless you are born of water and Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

There are two steps to this. First, we must die. Through water baptism, we are baptized into His death. Then we must be “made alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5).

Just as He was “put to death in the flesh and made alive in the Spirit,” (1 Peter 3:18) we are made alive in the Spirit when we receive the Spirit of Christ through faith. Paul said, “did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by the hearing with faith” (Galatians 3:2). The Spirit of Christ is the proof that we belong to Him (Romans 8:9). For “God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15). Through our death in water baptism, and through “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8:2) we are “born again.”

Jesus explained the meaning of “born of Spirit” in John 3:8: “you hear the sound of it. So is everyone who is born of Spirit.” This described the effect of the Spirit on the believer, not the water! The evidence of the tongue emitting sound was the most apparent evidence that one had been “born of Spirit.” And originally, all who received the Spirit of Christ, also received the Spirit of God (Romans 8:9). In 180, Irenaeus, in his Book, “Against Heresies” told us that one needed to receive the Holy Spirit as evidenced by the tongue emitting sound for one’s salvation to be made “perfect” or “complete” 7. He said that there were many in his day, who did speak with other tongues.

But the evidence of the tongue emitting sound was not the evidence of the Spirit of Christ cited by the Apostles. In the Book of Acts, the Apostles saw the tongue emitting sound as the evidence of the Spirit of God; but the Spirit of Christ was evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit, which Paul described as “love, joy, peace…” (Galatians 5:22). Peter mentioned these qualities, saying: “he who lacks these qualities is blind, short-sighted, having forgotten the purification from his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you” (2 Peter 1:9-10). One who has these qualities, knows that the Spirit of Christ is in him, and that he is truly a son of God.

The Spirit of Christ was the anointing on the Two Witnesses, in sackcloth “for 1,260 days,” (Revelation 11:3) from the time of the departure of the Spirit of God in 193 until 1471  when the Moravian Church broke free from the power of Rome. The Spirit of Christ was the “oil” in the two lampstands (churches) of the Reformation (Revelation 11:4; Zechariah 4:14).  It was “the stone that struck the statue (of the beast) and became a great mountain” (Daniel 2:35).

The Deception of the new “Born of Spirit” Theology

In the late second century, when the Spirit of truth departed, the Church made a new explanation of being “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5) to say that one was born of Spirit because the Holy Spirit sanctified the water in baptism. By this time, the Gentiles no longer understood the difference between the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of Christ. Irenaeus wrote, “He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men.”8 This of course is another testimony of the baptism of infants in the Early Church, who, Irenaeus described as “reborn” through water baptism.

The False Prophet

Tertullian, a lawyer, was the advocate of the “New Prophecy” movement, otherwise known as Montanism.

He used the new “born of Spirit” theology to argue that any water could be used to baptize. He wrote:

“it makes no difference whether a man be washed in a sea or a pool, a stream or a fount, a lake or a trough; nor is there any distinction between those whom John baptized in the Jordan and those whom Peter baptized in the Tiber, unless withal the eunuch whom Philip baptized in the midst of his journeys with chance water, derived (therefrom) more or less of salvation than others. All waters, therefore, in virtue of the pristine privilege of their origin, do, after invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of sanctification.”9

In the last sentence, we can see the force of Tertullian’s argument was the belief that the Holy Spirit sanctified the water, and not that the believer was sanctified by receiving the Holy Spirit, after being baptized correctly (Acts 19:2-4).

As mentioned, Tertullian was not only the voice against the need for living water, He also said there was no need to wash away the sins of infant children. But this idea was rejected by the mainstream Church.

The mainstream Church considered the “New Prophecy movement” to be the possession of an evil spirit. Tertullian was “the Father of Latin Christianity,” the first to write his theology in Latin.  Twenty years earlier, Irenaeus had identified “Lateinos” as the very probable solution to 666 (Revelation 13:18).

Tertullian was not only the first to speak against the significance of baptism in living water, but the first to propose the Trinity (the image of the beast), and Sunday rest (the mark of the beast).

  1. Histoire Dogmatique, Liturgique et Archeologique du Sacrament de Bapteme, Vol 2.
  2. First Apology, Chapter 61, Translation by Thomas Fall D.D., “The Fathers of the Church” Volume 6, Catholic University of America, 1946.
  3. St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on St. John , pg. 211
  4. Origen, Commentaries on Romans 5:9, A.D. 248
  5. “Eighty and six years have I served Him” (Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp 9 c. AD 156
  6. Baptism in the Early Church, Everett Ferguson,2009, pg. 627
  7. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 6, paragraph 1
  8. ibid, Book 2, Chapter 22, paragraph 4
  9. Tertullian, On Baptism, Chapter 4. Translated by S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.