by Fr. John Maxwell


Baptism was not a new idea introduced into the world through John the Baptist. There were Jewish and Pagan baptisms before him. These baptisms carried with them the ideas of cleansing, initiation into the community, and new birth. We first encounter baptism in the New Testament with references to the baptism of John. His was a baptism of repentance, and a foretaste of the baptism which was to follow. It, however, did not effect (bring about) the new birth (Acts 19:4, 35). Nor was it done in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Following our introduction to John's baptism in the Gospels, we hear the account of the baptism of Christ. Now Christ was without sin and therefore He had no personal need of repentance (2 Cor. 5:21). Here, He who was without sin made Himself the bearer of all sin. In the name of all sinners He made the act of repentance. When Christ entered into the waters of Jordan He took our humanity with Him and cleansed it. We sing at the Vigil Service of Theophany, at which we commemorate the baptism of Christ, these excerpts: "We behold an earthly event, but what can we comprehend is higher than the heavens; through cleansing comes salvation; through water the Spirit; through descent into the water our ascent to God." "He who takes away the sin of the world is cleansed, that I might be made clean." Just as in the Eucharist we partake of the Lord's Supper, so it is with our baptism we participate in the Lord's baptism. Just as the Holy Spirit rested upon the Lord at His baptism, so the Holy Spirit comes upon us following our baptism.

Christian baptism is described in the New Testament to accomplish the following things: It brings about the new birth (Jn. 3:5, Titus 3:5), it washes away sins (Acts 2:37-38 and Acts 22:16), it unites one to the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3-4), it incorporates the believer into the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13), it is the putting on of Christ (Gal. 3:26-27), it is likened to circumcision, but is far superior to it because it is an inward one of the heart and not just an outward one of the flesh (Col. 2:11-12), and it saves (1 Pet. 3:21).

Christian baptism is then our Pascha, it is our passage from earth to life. For this reason, St. Cyril of Jerusalem called it, "the Tomb and the Womb." Because there is only one birth, there can be only one baptism (Eph. 4:5). This, our Pascha, is also our deliverance from the power of darkness into the Kingdom of Christ. Exorcism is, therefore, performed on all those about to be baptized, and there is a renunciation of the devil and a public profession of loyalty to Christ. The newly baptized is a newly enlisted soldier of Christ and is therefore called to fight the good fight of faith. (1 Tim. 6:12)

Someone may ask, since there is this renunciation of the devil, why do we baptize infants who cannot make a verbal renunciation? We must keep in mind here that Christ came to save all mankind. "He was an infant," says St. Irenaeus, "to save infants, a young man to save young men and a mature man to save mature men." It is His will that the little children not be hindered from coming to Him (Matt. 19:14). Good parents did not wait for their children to decide to get a polio vaccine when it was made available. In like manner, good Christian parents want their children to grow up receiving the antidote to sin and death.  They want their children to know Christ at each stage of their life. For this reason, unlike many Western Churches, we do not deprive our children of the sacraments of Chrismation (Confirmation) and the Eucharist. Moreover, we know that even children in the womb can respond to Christ. It was St. John the Baptist who leaped in his mother's womb over the presence of Christ (Lk. 1:41). No good parent waits for his newborn to decide to take a bath. Nor do good Christian parents allow their children to become all dirtied with sin and wait and hope that their child will one day receive cleansing from Christ.

For those who believe in believer's baptism (i.e. those who claim that baptism accomplishes nothing except a public profession of faith in Christ, and a testimony of the change that has previously taken place), let us ask the question: if baptism was for the saved, to demonstrate what they already had in Christ, why do people receive the Holy Spirit after their baptism in the Book of Acts? The Scripture is clear: "If any man have not the Spirit of Christ he is none of His" (Rom. 8:9).

Let us not pass over this point too quickly. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in tongues of fire and with a mighty wind. The disciples began to speak in other tongues and people who had assembled in Jerusalem from all over the world heard them speaking the praises of God in their own language. Peter then stood up and preached Christ to them, and when they heard that they had crucified Christ, they asked Peter what they should do (Acts 2:1-37). Peter did not say, "With every head bowed and every eye closed, just lift up your hand if you want to be saved." Nor did he ask them to come forward to say the sinner's prayer. Instead he said, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). Here we see that repentance combined with baptism brought about the forgiveness of sins. And this purification in turn made them worthy receptacles of the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Later in Acts, the deacon Philip went and preached to those in Samaria. When they believed the Gospel they were baptized (Acts 8:12). Interestingly enough they did not receive the Holy Spirit until the Apostles Peter and John came and laid their hands upon them (Acts 8:14-17). This is indeed a troubling verse to those who believe in "believer's baptism." Here they believed and were baptized and yet did not receive the Holy Spirit until three days later. Baptism here clearly was not to show publicly what they had already received, for they had yet to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, why was the Holy Spirit given through the Apostles and not just any believer? One man seeing that it was through the Apostles that the Holy Spirit was given even offered money for this power. This authority, however, was not for sale (Acts 18:23).

The reason why the Apostles had such authority was that it was given to them by Christ. Before the giving of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, in fact before the Ascension of Christ into heaven, the resurrected Christ appeared to the Apostles and breathed on them the Holy Spirit and granted them authority to remit and retain sins (Jn. 20:21-23).

The Apostle Paul we are told, like the rest of the Apostles, also had this authority. He questioned some disciples in Ephesus if they had received the Holy Spirit since they believed (Acts 19:1-2). When it was determined that they had not and that they were only baptized into John's baptism, they received Christian baptism followed by the laying on of the Apostle Paul's hands and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:3-7).

Now did the Apostles allow this authority to pass from this earth with their passing on to a better life? God forbid! They gave that authority to their successors, the bishops, who to this day bestow the Holy Spirit after baptism through the mystery of chrismation.

The only exception to this patter of baptism preceding the giving of the Holy Spirit is found in the account of Cornelius' conversion (Acts 10: 47-48). This exception occurred as a sovereign act of God because the Jewish Christians were reluctant in their accepting of Gentile converts (Acts 11:1-18). God can still make exceptions, but the Biblical norm is baptism preceding the bestowal of the Holy Spirit by the Apostles or their successors.

From The Dawn
Newspaper of the Diocese of the South
Orthodox Church in America
April 1998