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3: Baptism and the Ante-Nicene Authors
Preface for Baptisms Article Series
Baptisms: Introduction and Historical
Original Proclamations about Baptism
Two Baptisms Occurring Separately
Baptizo: Two Baptisms, One Greek
Synonymous Phrases: Baptism in the
Water Baptism in Jesus' Name
No Record of Paul's Water Baptism
Is Baptism Essential to Salvation?
Acts 1: Parallel Account of the Great
Necessity of Water Baptism: 3 Common
Survey 1: Baptisms in Acts
The Baptism of Crispus (and Assuming
Survey 2: Baptism from Romans to
Baptism and Hebrews 10:22
Conclusions: When and How Are We
Survey 3: Baptism and the Ante-Nicene
Closing: Water Baptism for the Right Reasons
Having reviewed some of the more prominent Ante-Nicene church
fathers writing including Clement of Rome, Mathetes, Polycarp,
Ignatius, Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus, we
have found that there is little reference to baptism that
would relate to this study in most of their writings. Though
Irenaeus deals with baptism to quite a large extent, his discussion
focuses heavily on the baptism of Christ as a marker for Christ's
age. And in combination with this, Irenaeus refutes the baptismal
doctrines held by a mystical sect of heretics who apparently
distinguished between Jesus the man and the Christ which, in their view, descended
on the human known as Jesus. As such, such excerpts from Irenaeus
are not particularly relevant to our study on baptism.
Barnabas also discusses baptism in chapter XI of his epistle. Barnabas’ comments are heavily laden with metaphorical imagery. For a detailed discussion, please see the “Baptisms” section of our series entitled, “First Eight Writers' Consensus.”
When we come to Justin Martyr, we find information regarding the practice of water baptism that is more clearly relevant to this study. Justin Martyr was a Gentile born in Flavia Neapolis, in Samaria. He lived 110-165 A.D and studied in philosophers' schools prior to his conversion. Below we have listed the relevant excerpts in their immediate context beneath the section heading where they can be found in Justin's writings.
One brief word on the relevance of the writings of the Church
Fathers before we begin. First and foremost, they are not
canonized, i.e. they are fallible. They do not have the weight
of the scripture. As such, they can be wrong. However, they
are useful on several levels, all of which we will not go
into here. In general, they relate the understanding of the
early church on a wide variety of issues from a time less
removed from the apostles and less prone to deviation than
our own. That being said, no argument can be established from
their writings alone or starting from their writings alone.
All sound doctrine must be established first from scripture.
The writings of the Church Fathers are only useful as supplemental
support added to critically analyzed Biblical evidence. Thus,
arguments in the writings of the Church Fathers can be flawed,
but in order to disregard them we must first be able to precisely
demonstrate where and how they deviate from the doctrine found
in scripture itself.
Highlighted in red are the portions
dealing directly with the issue of baptism. Highlighted
in blue are the phrases
tracing the basis of Justin's arguments in the book of Isaiah.
We will notice how this reference to Isaiah
is consistent throughout and as such is key to understanding
what Justin is actually arguing over the course of his discussion.
The writings of Justin regarding Baptism:
Note: Some of these quotes are quite lengthy but the length
is necessary to establish the context.
THE FIRST APOLOGY OF JUSTIN
CHAP. LXI.--CHRISTIAN BAPTISM.
I will also relate the manner in which
we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through
Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair
in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded
and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake
to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and
to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins
that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they
are brought by us where
there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in
which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God,
the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus
Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing
with water. For Christ also said, "Except
ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."(6)
Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born
to enter into their mothers' wombs, is manifest to all. And
how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins,
is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I
wrote above;(7) he thus speaks: "Wash you, make you clean;
put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to
do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and
come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though
your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool;
and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow.
But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for
the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it."(8)
And for this [rite] we have learned from
the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born
without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents
coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked
training; in order that we may not remain
the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become
the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain
in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, 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; he who leads to the layer the
person that is to be washed calling him by this name
alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God;
and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves
with a hopeless madness. And this washing
is called illumination, because they who learn these things
are illuminated in their understandings. And in the
name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets
foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is
--(end of excerpt)--
First we will note from the first paragraph that Justin associated
water baptism with both our dedication of ourselves to the
Lord as well as our regeneration, i.e. the rebirth spoken
of by Christ in John 3:5-6, which Justin himself quotes. He
also directly states that at the point where a person is immersed
in water, it is pronounced over them "in the name of the Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit" which itself is a reference to the command
of Christ in the great commission of Matthew 28 and Mark 16.
Justin's association of this rite of water baptism with the
words of Christ in John 3 seem so far to indicate that he
believes water baptism to be essential (necessary) to salvation.
In other words, so far, it seems that Justin feels that it
is BY water baptism that we receive the Holy Spirit as opposed
to the concept that it is USUALLY at the SAME TIME of water
baptism that we receive the Holy Spirit.
However, we must withhold our judgment for the time until
we have completed our survey of Justin's writing on this subject.
Only when we see all of what he wrote concerning baptism can
we understand what his position on this issue really was.
Justin then goes on to quote Isaiah the prophet as support for this position. He refers to Isaiah's proclamation to repent and wash that we might be made clean in the eyes of God.
Critical also, is Justin's assertion in the second paragraph that this rite was passed down from the apostles themselves. Finally, Justin seems to reinforce the notion that it is BY water baptism that we are saved when he states that the washing itself is the facilitator of our enlightenment. However, this is not what Justin is saying. He does not state that the washing is our enlightenment. He says that the washing is called "illumination" because when we learn the reasons for it, we are enlightened.
So far, it would seem that Justin is directly stating two
important ideas. First, that regeneration in the Holy Spirit
comes BY water baptism, not just usually at that same point
in time. And second, that this teaching was passed down from
the apostles themselves regarding water baptism.
We will deal these assertions in two ways. First, right now
we will examine this proposed interpretation of Justin's words
in light of scripture. Then we will go on to look at further
statements from Justin to see if that's what he's actually
Here then, is our theoretical interpretation of Justin's teaching
on water baptism based on what we have seen so far in his
writings: "The apostles taught that believers are regenerated
BY the rite of water baptism."
However, Acts 10:37-48, 11:15-18 records the conversion of
the first Gentile believers. In this account, none of these
Gentiles had previously been water baptized at the point when
they receive the Holy Spirit. Thus, they were regenerated
without and prior to water baptism. Conversely, Acts 8:12-17
and Acts 19:1-6 similarly records believers who did not receive
the Holy Spirit at the point of their water baptism and therefore
could not have been regenerated by water baptism.
In addition to this, the entire host of 120 disciples in the
upper room including the apostles did not receive a second
water baptism when they received the Holy Spirit. Having been
baptized by John perhaps as much as three years earlier, they
received the Holy Spirit at a separate time. The fact that
this occurs twice more in Acts (10:37-48, 8:12-17) after the
ascension of Christ, indicates that it was not simply a matter
of their water baptism having occurred before the resurrection.
Thus, having demonstrated through scripture that we have cases
where water baptism did not bring regeneration, it would seem
erroneous for us to interpret Justin's words so far to indicate
that. Either, if that is indeed what Justin meant, then he
himself was in error. In short, either Justin is wrong or
our interpretation of him is.
We will now continue on with Justin to see if he was indeed
conveying that water baptism was necessary for salvation given
that it was BY water baptism that we are regenerated.
DIALOGUE OF JUSTIN
CHAP. XIII.--ISAIAH TEACHES THAT SINS ARE FORGIVEN THROUGH
"For Isaiah did
not send you to a bath, there to wash away murder and other
sins, which not even all the water of the sea were sufficient
to purge; but, as might have been expected, this
was that saving bath of the olden time which followed s those
who repented, and who no longer were purified by the
blood of goats and of sheep, or by the ashes of an heifer,
or by the offerings of fine flour, but
by faith through the blood of Christ, and through His death,
who died for this very reason, as Isaiah himself said
--(end of excerpt)--
Notice again, that we see Justin continuing to base his argument
in the writings of Isaiah. Here we find Justin explaining
that no water, whether from a bath to the entire ocean full
would be enough to cleanse away sin. He concludes here by
stating that, while water is insufficient to cleanse us, it
is the blood of Christ that makes us pure before God.
This explanation by Justin references two significant passages
of scripture which we have already looked at, I Peter 3:20-21
and Hebrews 9:8-14. Hebrews similarly associates external
washings with the Old Covenant, stating that such ordinances
were never able to cleanse the conscience before God, which
only the blood of Christ can accomplish for us. I Peter 3
likewise states that it is not the external cleansing that
saves, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.
At this point it seems Justin is breaking from any indication
that it is water baptism BY which we are regenerated and beginning
to indicate that the external submersion in water has no cleansing
power, no power to save us. Perhaps instead Justin simply
understood that the regeneration would occur at the same time
that the new convert made his pledge to God by coming forward
to be water baptized. This would explain why he quoted John
3:5-6 as a reason for our coming forward by our own choice
to be water baptized. For now, let's go on.
CHAP. XIV.--RIGHTEOUSNESS IS NOT PLACED IN JEWISH RITES, BUT
IN THE CONVERSION OF THE HEART GIVEN IN BAPTISM BY CHRIST.
"By reason, therefore, of this laver of repentance and knowledge
of God, which has been ordained on account of the transgression
of God's people, as Isaiah cries,
we have believed, and testify that that
very baptism which he announced is alone able to purify those
who have repented; and this is the water of life. But
the cisterns which you have dug for yourselves are broken
and profitless to you. For what is the
use of that baptism which cleanses the flesh and body alone?
Baptize the soul from wrath and from covetousness, from envy,
and from hatred; and, lo! the body is pure.
--(end of excerpt)--
Having previously shown that Isaiah "did not send you to a
bath, there to wash away murder and other sins, which not
even all the water of the sea were sufficient to purge" Justin
goes on with Isaiah to state what baptism Isaiah did, in fact,
point to. According to Justin, the water of life (a reference
Jesus used in regard to the Holy Spirit - John 7:37-39 and
John 4:10-15) is the baptism, which is able to purify those
who have repented. From the previous section we know that
it is not water that Justin believes can cleanse us but the
blood of Christ alone. Then comes the instruction from Justin
that baptism which cleanses the flesh and body alone is of
little use and instead what is desired is for each person
to baptize their soul from sinfulness. Here again Justin indicates
an act of your will that deals with your character and behavior.
This is very similar to I Peter 3's assertion that it is our
pledge of a good conscience that facilitates salvation.
CHAP. XIX.--CIRCUMCISION UNKNOWN BEFORE ABRAHAM. THE LAW WAS
GIVEN BY MOSES ON ACCOUNT OF THE HARDNESS OF THEIR HEARTS.
"This circumcision is not, however, necessary for all men,
but for you alone, in order that, as I have already said,
you may suffer these things which you now justly suffer. Nor
do we receive that useless baptism of cisterns, for it has
nothing to do with this baptism of life. Wherefore also God
has announced that you have forsaken Him, the living fountain,
and digged for your selves broken cisterns which can hold
no water. Even you, who are the circumcised according
to the flesh, have need of our circumcision; but we, having
the latter, do not require the former. For if it were necessary,
as you suppose, God
--(end of excerpt)--
Here again we see that Justin asserts water baptism in cisterns
has little to do with the baptism of life, declaring Jesus
Himself to be the living fountain. Note how he compares such
external baptism with the circumcision of the flesh required
in the Old Testament.
CHAP. XXIX.--CHRIST IS USELESS TO THOSE WHO OBSERVE THE LAW.
"Let us glorify God, all nations gathered together; for He
has also visited us. Let us glorify Him by the King of glory,
by the Lord of hosts. For He has been gracious towards the
Gentiles also; and our sacrifices He esteems more grateful
than yours. What need, then, have I of
circumcision, who have been witnessed to by God? What need
have I of that other baptism, who have been baptized with
the Holy Ghost? I think that while I mention this, I would
persuade even those who are possessed of scanty intelligence.
--(end of excerpt)--
(NOTE: It is important to state that Justin is not
saying that circumcision and water baptism are alike in all
respects. Instructing Gentiles to be circumcised was prohibited
specifically in the New Testament [1 Corinthians 7:18, Galatians
5:2-3] while the apostles and others such as Philip continued
to water baptize new converts. Even in an earlier excerpt,
we saw that Justin himself attested that Christians continued
to water baptize and that the apostles passed on to them the
reason to continue water baptism. So, Justin is not saying
that water baptism is like circumcision concerning the fact
that circumcising Gentiles was prohibited. Instead, Justin
is making a very simple comparison concerning a very specific,
singular similarity. Neither of the two was needful for salvation.)
Although we will go on from here to look at a few more passages
from Justin, the quote above is by far the most specific and
informative concerning his opinion on the needfulness of water
baptism for salvation. Again, he speaks first of circumcision.
He states, that there is no need for circumcision for salvation
because now we have God who has attested to his acceptance
of us. He immediately continues in a parallel statement concerning
baptism saying that if we have been baptized in the Holy Spirit,
what need have we of another form of baptism.
Given the clear use of the term Gentiles here and the fact
that Justin himself was a Gentile, it seems very possible
that Justin had Acts 10:37-48 and 11:15-18 in mind here. While
that is still somewhat speculative, what is doubtless is Justin's
assertion that no other baptism is needed for those who have
the baptism in the Holy Spirit. To argue otherwise, one would
have to assert that circumcision is likewise necessary since,
for Justin, he has coupled the two of them here. For Justin,
a Christian who has been baptized in the Holy Spirit is no
more in need of water baptism than a Gentile Christian is
in need of circumcision where salvation is concerned. Yet
this doesn't meant Justin ceased to practice water baptism,
he simply did not practice it under the notion that it was
needful for salvation.
CHAP. XLIII.--HE CONCLUDES THAT THE LAW HAD AN END IN CHRIST,
WHO WAS BORN OF THE VIRGIN.
And we, who have approached God
through Him, have received not carnal,
but spiritual circumcision, which Enoch and those like
him observed. And we have received it
through baptism, since we were sinners, by God's mercy; and
all men may equally obtain it.
--(end of excerpt)--
This passage demonstrates again that baptism is the mechanism of our obtaining spiritual circumcision, Justin does not specify which form of baptism here. But given that this excerpt follows the previous excerpt in the original text, we must assume that the baptism meant here is baptism in the Holy Spirit. For Justin has already stated, "What need, then, have I of circumcision, who have been witnessed to by God? What need have I of that other baptism, who have been baptized with the Holy Ghost?" Clearly, Justin has already used the term "baptism" to refer to baptism of the Holy Spirit, not just water baptism.
CHAP. XLIX.--TO THOSE WHO OBJECT THAT ELIJAH HAS NOT YET COME,
HE REPLIES THAT HE IS THE PRECURSOR OF THE FIRST ADVENT.
"And, accordingly, our Lord in His teaching," I continued,
"proclaimed that this very thing would take place, saying
that Elijah would also come. And we know that this shall take
place when our Lord Jesus Christ shall come in glory from
heaven; whose first manifestation the Spirit of God who was
in Elijah preceded as herald in[the person of] John,
a prophet among your nation; after whom no other prophet appeared
among you. He cried, as he sat by the river Jordan: 'I
baptize you with water to repentance; but He that is stronger
than I shall come, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: He
shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire:
whose fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His
floor, and will gather the wheat into the barn; but the chaff
He will burn up with unquenchable fire.'
--(end of excerpt)--
This final note concerning baptism indicates that Justin did
in fact comprehend the difference between water baptism and
baptism in the Holy Spirit. When we reflect this back onto
his previous statement that those who have the baptism in
the Holy Spirit have no need of another type of baptism, it
becomes even clearer that Justin did not hold water baptism
to be necessary for salvation.
So what, then, do we make of his opening remarks outlining
the rite as handed down by the apostles? It would seem, that
when taken as a whole, Justin wrote of water baptism
for the following reason. Justin himself states that he is
writing the manner of water baptism because without recounting
the practice of water baptism, the rest of his explanation
would be unfair. That is, according to Justin, he is describing
water baptism because an understanding of it is essential
as a building block to his larger argument.
It is also significant for us to review Justin's first words
as he delves into this study. He states, "I will also relate
the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we
had been made new through Christ," and then proceeds to discuss
how the rite of water baptism was practiced. Notice that in
regard to water baptism, Justin refers to it as "the manner
in which we dedicate ourselves to God." And then he correlates
the TIMING of this dedication to "when we had been made new
through Christ." Clearly, Justin is presenting water baptism
as an expression of our dedication, of our commitment to God.
By this, he is simply stating the general expectation that
our regeneration would occur AT THAT SAME TIME as we present
ourselves for water baptism, not BY that act.
Then, Justin records the Christian rite of water baptism as
he says it has been handed down by the apostles. Or more accurately,
Justin writes that the reason for this rite is what has been
handed down by the apostles.
From the whole of his words on water baptism and baptism in
the Holy Spirit, we can understand that Justin's doctrine
reflects the theory we have established in our scriptural
study. First, that water baptism was practiced by the apostles
and the early church and handed down from them. Second, that
it was the norm and the expectation that usually converts
would receive the Holy Spirit not BECAUSE OF or BY water baptism,
but generally AT THAT SAME point in time.
Third, water baptism was not essential to salvation because it was comparable to Old Testament external practices, which are powerless to cleanse or save, regardless of how much water is used. This reflects such New Testament passages as I Peter 3:20-21 and Hebrews 9:8-14.
Why then was the rite of water baptism maintained and considered
important? Justin states that the apostles themselves passed
on the following reason for the rite of water baptism to them.
"(Paraphrase.) At our birth we were born without knowledge
of choice of our own. In order that we might instead become
God's children by choice and knowledge (not ignorance), we
come forward to go through this ritual of water baptism. It
is, a public statement of our repentance and turning from
sin to the ways of God."
Thus, water baptism is significant in that it is a point of
our commitment to God and it is that commitment, not the external
washing with water, which saves. Just as Peter writes, "The
like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not
the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer
of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus
Christ:" (I Peter 3:21).
It is clear that when viewed as a whole, Justin did not embrace
or teach that regeneration came BY water baptism. Instead,
he taught, as the New Testament itself bears out, that water
baptism is a baptism of repentance, but baptism in the Holy
Spirit is the baptism of regeneration. According to Justin,
water baptism is no more a necessity for Christians than circumcision
of the flesh.
We conclude our study in agreement with these words from Justin.
"What need, then, have I of circumcision, who have been witnessed
to by God? What need have I of that other
baptism, who have been baptized with the Holy Ghost?
I think that while I mention this, I would persuade even those
who are possessed of scanty intelligence."