Denominational Doctrines on Baptism

Most members of the Lord's church, along with most members of denominations who have ridiculed the idea of the importance of baptism, would probably be surprised and shocked to read the comments of some of the greatest scholars and theologians in those various religious bodies as those scholars emphasized the importance of baptism. Of course, all the comments of all scholars are worth nothing if they deny the plain teaching of the scriptures, but when they affirm it, as they so often have, it might be an eye opener to any person who would read their comments with care. I confess that I was astounded as I checked through all the writings of religious leaders and of the so called "church fathers" all the way back to Polycarp, who was a student of the Apostle John, and found no one who wrote in any derogatory way against baptism, or denying its importance in the plan of salvation.

It seems apparent that a large part of the eventual opposition to it came as a result of the fact that those "church fathers" and their followers in the Roman Catholic tradition taught its importance so strongly that they made it a sacramental act which had the power to forgive sins in an almost miraculous way, so that even a dying drunkard who was unconscious, or an infidel who did not even believe in Jesus could receive baptism and be saved by it. The doctrine became so entrenched in the minds of most religious persons that even among Protestants who had presumably rebelled against the Roman Catholic doctrines it was still taught. For example, the Methodist Discipline up to 1891 which was called "The Ritual, the General Rules and Articles of Religion of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South" states on page 708, Section 2 concerning The Ministration of Baptism to Infants, that the minister shall say this as a suitable exhortation, "Dearly beloved, forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin, and that our Saviour Christ saith, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God: I beseech you to call upon God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bounteous mercy he will grant to this child that which by nature he cannot have: that he may be baptized with water and the Holy Ghost, and be received into Christ's holy Church, and be made a lively member of the same." Then after a prayer which asked that this little child to be baptized would receive the fullness of his grace, the minister is to address those who brought the child for baptism thus: "In causing this child to be brought by baptism into the Church of Christ, it is your duty to teach him to renounce the devil and his works, etc." Then his instructions are: "And then, he shall sprinkle or pour water upon it, or if desired, immerse it in water, saying, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

Then in section 3, page 711, the ritual for baptizing "such as are of Riper years" the minister is to say, "Dearly beloved, forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin (and that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and they that are in the flesh cannot please God, but live in sin, committing many actual transgressions), and that our Saviour Christ said, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God: I beseech you to call upon God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bounteous goodness he will grant to these persons that which by nature they cannot have: that they may be baptized with water and the Holy Ghost , and be received into Christ's holy Church, and be made a lively member of the same."

One may note with astonishment the following things: First, that both the little child and the adult are thought to be in sin, with the adult being charged with actual transgressions, whereas the child was lost simply because he was born that way (which of course is not taught in scripture). Second, you may note that they understood that being born of water and of the Spirit involved water baptism. Third, it is specifically stated that without this baptism one cannot enter the kingdom of God. Fourth, when they were baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost they would receive a new nature instead of the sinful one, and by that act be made a lively member of the Church of Christ. It was never made clear exactly how they got into the Methodist church.

When one reads the words of Calvin, Luther and other Protestant leaders, it is not hard to see that although they rejected the idea that baptism saves as a sacramental regenerating act that automatically conferred the grace of God on the recipient, they mentioned many times that it was for the remission of sins. Calvin, for example says, "For he commands all who believe, to be baptized for the remission of their sins. Therefore, those who have imagined that baptism is nothing more than a mark or sign by which we profess our religion before men -- have not considered that which was the principal thing in baptism; which is, that we ought to receive it with this promise, 'He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.' Mark 16:16."

When one reads what looks like contradictory statements from some of them indicating that they believed in salvation by faith only, we need to realize that many of those older and greater scholars did not mean by the expression "saved by faith" that a person was saved either by faith alone, or at the point of faith. They distinguished between "salvation only by faith," which meant that it was gained only as one had and acted upon his faith (Hebrews 11:6), and "salvation by faith only," which meant that a person could be saved simply by having faith. Many of their followers assumed that they believed a person was saved by faith alone when what they really taught was that it was only by faith that one could accept the salvation offered by the blood of Christ, and not by works of merit. Remember that they were very close to the Roman Catholic doctrine that salvation could come by doing penance, doing good works which would gain merit for a person, even dropping money in the box for a donation to build St. Peter's cathedral would release a soul from purgatory. They opposed this. Then some of them, while teaching the importance of being baptized, for all of them knew it was a command of Christ, tried to reconcile the idea of being saved by faith and yet having to be baptized for the remission of sins by trying to split theological hairs. They said, "We were really pardoned when we believed, yet had no pledge of it, or formal acquittal until we were baptized." As they continued to study, many of the more honest and thoughtful ones discovered that they could find no scriptural basis for that theology, and it created more problems than it solved, so they eventually came to the Bible doctrine that God did not promise to grant remission of sins until a person acted on his faith and demonstrated it by being baptized.

But my primary point in this article is to show that we can find statements all the way from the early "church fathers" who lived directly after the death of the Apostles, all the way through the Protestant Reformation that shows that they taught at various times that baptism was necessary for us to receive the promise of salvation. We have already given an example of it from the Methodist Discipline, and could give similar quotations from Timothy Dwight, President of Yale who said, "It is to be observed that he who understands the authority of this institution and refuses to obey it, will never enter into either the visible or invisible kingdom." One can find the same kind of sentiments in the Episcopalian Church Catechism, the Westminister Catechism and Confession of Faith, Doctrinal Tracts by John Wesley, published by order of the Methodist General Conference and practically all of the "church fathers" who mentioned the subject.

It might be of value to read the specific remarks of Wesley on page 248, 249 of "Doctrinal Tracts." "By baptism, we who were by nature children of wrath are made the children of God; and this regeneration which our church in so many places ascribes to baptism is more than barely being admitted into the church, though commonly connected therewith; being grafted into the body of Christ's church, we are made the children of God by adoption and grace. This is grounded on the plain words of our Lord, 'Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he can not enter into the kingdom of God' John 3:5. By water, then, as a means, the water of baptism, we are regenerated or born again; whence it is also called by the apostle 'the washing of regeneration.'"

We have not quoted these men to prove that baptism is indeed for the remission of sins, for the Bible itself makes that plain enough, but to indicate that most of the greatest religious leaders whose primary concern was to expound on the meaning of scripture and to glorify God did not customarily make the kind of slurring remarks about the design, purpose and importance of baptism as their modern followers do, who seem more concerned with following some denominational tradition than they are with what God actually taught.

T. Pierce Brown

Published in The Old Paths Archive