Water Baptism: A Magic Bullet?

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. III: The Golden Age of Patristic Literature (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 374.

Cyril of Jerusalem was a Christian thinker of the fourth century C.E. He states regarding water baptism:

Do not think of the font as filled with ordinary water, but think rather of the spiritual grace that is given with the water. For just as the sacrifices on pagan altars are in themselves indifferent matter and yet have become defiled by reason of the invocation…made over them to the idols, so, but in the opposite sense, the ordinary water in the font acquires sanctifying power when it receives the invocation of the Holy Spirit, of Christ and the Father (Cat. 3, 3 LCC).

Cyril is saying that the water of baptism acquires a “sanctifying power” on the believer through the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. On my Christian dating site, I often discussed water baptism with a Christian who wasn’t baptized. He didn’t think that he needed baptism, for he was a dispensationalist of the E.W. Bullinger variety. As far as he was concerned, he had already been circumcised by the spiritual circumcision “without hands” (Colossians 2:11). For him, “without hands” meant that he didn’t need a minister to dunk him in water for the circumcision of his heart to occur.

I thought at the time, “Well, maybe the circumcision is ‘without hands’ in the sense that God removes the sinful flesh from the believer, but God does so at water baptism.” And Cyril’s statement reminded me of this. On the surface, water baptism is a person getting dunked in water, and that’s it. The water by itself is not that special, for it’s water. But God is involved in that seemingly mundane event, as he uses it to bury our sinful selves and to raise us up as new creations. Romans 6 and Colossians 2:12-13 seem to make that point…

…assuming that they’re even describing water baptism! Many Christians believe that these texts refer to baptism by the Holy Spirit, which occurs once a person accepts Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. Some take that to mean that we don’t need water baptism, while others assert that water baptism is an outward physical symbol for an inward transformation, our baptism by the Holy Spirit. At water baptism, we physically commemorate the fact that our old sinful selves have died and we’ve been raised up as new selves, yielded to God. But, for advocates of this view, this “death” occurs through faith in what Christ did on the cross, not through getting dunked in water.

But there are Christians who believe that, even if water baptism is not what saves and sanctifies, it can still have a positive effect on the believer. For them, water baptism is an outward sign of commitment to Jesus Christ. A friend of mine disputed that water baptism could save, but he still felt that it could be a “conduit” to bring a person closer to God, like lifting up one’s hands in worship. My dad was actually baptized twice. The first time he was baptized “didn’t take,” since he still wasn’t committed to God. And so he was baptized a second time so he could make an official commitment.

A lot of churches baptize people when they are infants, or when they choose to make some profession of faith in Christ. Armstrongism held, by contrast, that a person had to be “ready” to be baptized, since commitment to God was serious business, much like marriage. When I first asked my dad if I could be baptized, he said that I wasn’t “ready,” since I still talked back to my mom and tried to make myself look good. He didn’t think that I’d arrived at “repentance,” or that I was ready to make a serious commitment to God (not that he thought I was damned, since he believed in a “second chance” doctrine of salvation, in which people would have an opportunity to believe at the second resurrection). I think that this sort of approach to baptism explains why so many in my immediate and extended family remain unbaptized, even if they believe in God and/or the doctrines of Armstrongism. Baptism is easy in a lot of denominations, but it was serious business in mine.

From my own experience, do I agree with Cyril about the “sanctifying power” of water baptism? Not really. When I was baptized, I didn’t feel that close to God. I just felt like I was getting wet. I was actually expecting something profound: a feeling that my old sinful self was dying and that I had been reborn as a new person, one who intensely loved God and my fellow man. One of the people who baptized me, a Pentecostal, said that his baptism was like that: he felt a “mighty wind” as he came out of the water, and he had so much love for the people around him. But all I felt was wet. “This is it?,” I thought.

I did feel something years before my baptism, when I repented before God and decided to follow him the best I could. I asked God for forgiveness, and from that point on I tried to honor my parents, to stop losing my temper, to serve around the house, to refrain from picking on my brother, sister, cousins, etc. I had an intense desire for the things of God, and I got up early in the morning to read my Bible or religious literature, even taking it with me to school. I felt as if something had happened within me. If I were to pick the moment when I felt spiritually circumcised, it would be my moment of repentance, not when I was baptized.

As far as my experience now is concerned, I really don’t know what to say. I’m not indifferent to the things of God, since I crave a relationship with the divine, righteousness, peace, joy in the Holy Ghost, etc. But I have a lot of bitterness against God, people, and evangelical Christianity, with its narrow view of salvation and how it continually pushed me to be someone I wasn’t (a happy-happy extrovert) to make God happy. To be honest, I think I was more “ready” to commit to God when I first asked my dad if I could be baptized than I am today, years after my baptism!

I still hope for some sort of spiritual transformation, but I don’t think water baptism is a “magic bullet,” at least not in my experience. I got wet, but I still got up the next morning as the same James, with the same problems and the same weaknesses. My sinful flesh was (and is) still with me!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to Water Baptism: A Magic Bullet?

  1. Polycarp says:

    James, I do believe that Paul was speaking about baptism in Romans 6, and that it indeed is more than a symbol. Of course, I am going to throw at you the standard 1st Peter 3.20. Baptism is more than getting wet, but the dying out of the old man to sin, the answer of a good conscious.

    Personally, I have been baptized, three times (four). The first time, I was thrown in the water, almost literally. The second time, I was baptized in a SBC church. The third time was after I received the baptism in the Spirit (like Cornelius). This time, I believe it fulfilled the qualifications of Scripture. I had truly repented, unlike the repentance many times before.


  2. James Pate says:

    I’ll have to take a fresh look at the Peter passage. The “water baptism saves,” “water baptism doesn’t save,” and “you only need spiritual baptism” all like to appeal to it. The second group is perhaps the most unconvincing in its treatment of this text, since some of its adherents try to say that the text is talking about the ark, not the water saving (though I know the Noah story fits into all this somewhere).

    BTW–I was thinking of this when I was walking–by “baptism of the Holy Spirit” in this post, I mean a Christian receiving Christ and getting the Holy Spirit, not the Pentecostal definition that includes tongues. Different groups define baptism of the Holy Spirit in different ways, as you know.


  3. Polycarp says:

    Yeah, I know. That’s the thing with Christians we cannot agree to disagree.


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