The Significance of Baptism:
A Lost Art of Forgiveness
Moses Mikheyev, Senior Editor
What has become of baptism, one of the most religious acts in Christianity? Nothing, literally. We have, as modern-day Christians, taken baptism and made it into a rite that does not even relate to what early Christians (1st-4th centuries) have associated it with: forgiveness. Baptism, in the early church, was strictly seen as an act of repentance, an act of God’s forgiveness, and an act of dying to Christ and being ‘resurrected’ in Him. It was seen as a very serious and sober decision, obviously not something an infant would do! Furthermore, baptism was usually viewed as a single act of forgiveness; something modern-day Christians either choose to ignore, or, worse still, are ignorant of. What do I mean by ‘single act’? Well, according to a vast amount of early Christian literature (the Bible included), water baptism was given usually once and, once submerged in water, you were ‘washed’ from past sins and raised into new life to live a sinless life. By sinless, of course, I do not mean a life completely free of any sin. But, as we shall see, a life that is not marked by sin; a life that reflects the life of Jesus Christ. Baptism was seen as a holy act and as an initiation into a sect that lived a holy life; “Be holy, for I am holy.” Baptism removed past sins, this is extremely crucial to understand throughout this whole argument. Baptism was primarily concerned with the forgiveness of past sins; the washing and removal of past stains. Moreover, people who partook in baptism were usually very mature (mentally, not exactly spiritually) and were serious and ready for complete change; complete repentance. By repentance, of course, I do not mean, as we moderns tend to take it, as an act of saying sorry and then turning back to our sins: no, repentance was a complete change of character; a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn around.
Baptism also had a ‘mystical’ side to it: the death of self and the resurrection of Christ within self. Having such a mystical side, baptism came to represent something that John the Baptist’s baptisms never represented. And, for that matter, what did John’s baptisms have to do with our Christian baptizing? That is a good question which, inevitably, forces us to take a look at a few 1st century views regarding (Jewish) baptism and what it meant.
Everything began with mikveh (Hebrew for “collection [of water]”). Mikveh is a ritual purity bath that renews a person spiritually. A Jew would wash himself in water before a certain holiday and appear before God ‘clean’. The ancient Jews have been getting ‘baptized’ for centuries prior to Christianity and subsequently. They would have their females immersed (tevilah: Hebrew for the ‘act of immersion’) after menstruating in order to be pronounced ‘clean’. The Jews would also ‘baptize’ new male and female converts (also what Christianity does). The priests also were baptized in order to be consecrated for office (Exodus 29:4). A person had to be ‘baptized’ before entering the Temple complex; being only then pure and able to come into God’s sacred Place. A lot of these ritual baths as they were/are called actually come from the Bible. According to Leviticus 15:19 a woman menstruating was unclean and was only clean if purified with water (Leviticus 15:5) and if a person was made ‘unclean’ by touching someone or something unclean, he or she was ‘purified’ by being “washed…in water” (Leviticus 22:6). All of this purification was done with water. As we have seen, Judaism used washing as a symbolic act of being spiritually pure before God. The act itself is done today with a person taking a shower before entering the mikveh in order to show that he/she intends the immersion to be an act of ritual purity, not physical. A person that is immersing in the mikveh usually removes all clothing, jewelry, makeup, nail polish, and anything that might obstruct the water from touching the human body. Today, people take ritual baths for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes a sofer (scribe) will take a bath before writing a Torah scroll.
We have found mikvaot (plural for mikveh) dating back to the first century A.D. and have even found one such ritual bath at Masada; a fortress built on a plateau, a thousand feet up in the dry desert region near the Dead Sea. The ritual baths are, usually, taken in moving water. Only dry places, like Qumran and Masada, which have no access to moving or standing natural water, have these man-made baths.
What is of importance to us is the fact that baptism is not unique to Christianity and that its predecessor, Judaism, actually began the practice. By studying ancient Jewish baptism practices we can, properly, understand our own Christian practices. Moreover, by understanding Judaism we can understand Jewish figures like the Essenes, John the Baptist, and Jesus Himself. Since I have briefly covered ancient and modern Jewish beliefs regarding baptism, I can now take a closer look at John the Baptist and his understanding of baptism.
John the Baptist came from the ‘wilderness’, followed a strict diet, proclaimed repentance, and had nothing to do with the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. What did John have in common with the Pharisees then and the Sadducees? Well, nothing. John the Baptist, as a lot of scholars now believe, was probably an Essene (or, at least, he had an Essene background). Now, who were the Essenes?
The Essenes believed in a few things that really set them apart from the Pharisees and the Sadducees. First and foremost, the Essenes were most likely the authors of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls which so many of us are thoroughly familiar with. Secondly, they believed in some form of predestination and believed that God controlled the world (in every political and religious way). Thirdly, the members were sort of the ‘outcasts’ of society from a religious and political perspective. They despised the Jewish Temple and isolated themselves from the world (living in the ‘wilderness’ northwest of the Dead Sea). Fourthly, the members gave up all of their possessions and only then joined the sect. They lived as one big and happy family (in every sense). Fifthly, the Essenes held a revolutionary belief that God lived anywhere and was not only present in the Temple. Sixthly, the Essenes interpreted Isaiah 40:3 significantly different than others. I want to pause here and take a look at Isaiah 40:3 more in depth; looking at, specifically, how the Essenes and others interpreted that verse.
The ancient Hebrew biblical text did not have any vowels and any periods or commas. Due to this, many phrases and verses could be read significantly different by different people. Isaiah 40:3 just happened to be one of those many verses. Isaiah 40:3 reads, depending on the ‘translation’:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
What does this verse tell you? As a devout Jew, living in the 2nd century B.C. or maybe even in the 1st century A.D., what would you do if you read that verse and fully believed that those words were God-breathed? Well, you probably would sell everything you owned (literally) and run off into the wilderness in order to “prepare the way of the Lord”! The Essenes read this verse and it told them that “in the wilderness” God was going to do something miraculous.
Now, let us pause for a moment and look at how the ‘rest’ of the world read this same verse:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
That is taken from Matthew’s Gospel and it’s the way the early Christians understood this verse when quoting Isaiah 40:3. What do you notice that is significantly different about these two ‘identical’ verses? That’s right, the Essenes believed that some voice said, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”; while others seen at as a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” So, is it the voice that is in the wilderness or do we prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness? What do we do? That was the question the religious Jews were asking! And, the Essenes decided that the voice was not in the wilderness, but that the voice said to go into the wilderness. And so they went. And, as far as we know, John the Baptist followed. 
How did we go from Christian baptism to John the Baptist to the Jewish Essenes? The answer should be quite obvious: John the Baptist was one of the first people in history to start mass baptism and who associated it with repentance. Since he was one of the first “baptizers”, we want to know everything about this person and his ideas and teachings and where he was coming from. By knowing all of this, we may properly understand John (and baptism).
Now, the Essenes had this isolated desert community in or near Qumran. They literally gave up on the Jewish Temple and all of its sacrifices and went to look for God elsewhere. They observed a strict diet (like John) and had an extremely vast amount of purity rites: baptism-like dipping in the water and other ‘washings’. They were ‘purified’ by the water and had baths made right out there in the hot, dry desert near the Dead Sea. Since they had these ritual, religious baths, it is not too hard to see how a ritual bath may have evolved into a full-body baptism. And, since the Essenes believed that washing somehow ‘cleansed’ a person from sin and made him pure, it is not hard to see how such thinking evolved into a baptism that removed all sin.
John the Baptist
John the Baptist had a lot in common with the Essenes: he seemed to have followed a similar diet, lived in the wilderness, preached repentance by baptism (apart from the Temple), and he disliked the Pharisees and the Sadducees. That would be like someone nowadays preaching Christianity apart from the ‘Church’. And, actually, saying that you were saved outside the ‘Church’! That was radical back then as it would be now. John (and the Essenes) saw the Temple not as the place where God’s Presence was presiding, but as a place of hypocrisy, money changing, and evil. Somehow along the lines, John the Baptist and the Essenes, unlike the rest of Judaism (Pharisees and Sadducees), began to believe that God did not live in the (holy) Temple, but anywhere. Actually, He lived, as far as we can tell by reading Isaiah 40:3, in the desert!! That was something else! Here, in Judaism, we see this belief that God only lived in Solomon’s Temple. But now, out of the blue, God is said to live anywhere! That was radical!
Since we have become a little more familiar with ancient (Jewish) baptism and the Essenes, we can now take a look at John the Baptist and examine him more closely.
John the Baptist was definitely, by all counts, a crazy, out-of-the-slums, doomsday, the-end-is-near prophet. He came out of the wilderness of Judea and preached a baptism of repentance. He stood in the Jordan River, near the Sea of Galilee (according to tradition), and people would come, confessing their sins, and would be thus baptized a baptism of water. When John saw some Pharisees and Sadducees coming he told them:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you of the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
John was concerned with repentance and good works. John wanted the people to genuinely repent and turn to God with all of their hearts and minds. As can be seen from his statement, John was a very straight forward person who really cared less about what people thought of him. If he sensed that you were evil, you were in for the long haul! John baptized those who were ‘worthy’ of baptism because they have shown evidence of true repentance. As a matter of fact, John was baptizing people in order to forgive their sins! This was a fairly revolutionary idea! A baptism that acted like Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement); people’s ‘Slates of Sins’ were being wiped. Originally, Jews celebrated Yom Kippur and had their sins forgiven once a year (every year). But here, John was saying that you could be immersed in water (anytime and any day) and be purified and forgiven.
What does all of this information tell us about baptism? Well, it tells us that baptism was practiced by ancient Jews and it was associated with ‘purifying properties’. John’s baptism was specifically a call to repentance and a washing away of sins. The Essenes, unlike the Christians, practiced a daily baptism and a daily cycle of ‘purification’. As Christians, we can appreciate the fact that baptism was never taken lightly in the ancient world; we can treat it as an initiation into the Kingdom of God.
Early Christian Beliefs
Aside from all of the Jewish practices, we come to Christian baptism, which put a twist on everything. It was a very Jewish twist of a very Jewish practice! The Christians believed in a few things that differentiated them from the Jews. They practiced a baptism that occurred only once in a person’s entire life. They believed that baptism erased all past sins and initiated a person into Christianity. They believed that after baptism no sins were to be committed. They believed that baptism was a burial of the flesh (and all past sins and deeds) and a resurrection or a ‘breathing in’ of new life; a life of Christ.
Where do we get all of these beliefs and understandings regarding baptism? Are they in the Bible? To those questions I now turn.
There are a few basic, universal principles regarding baptism that Christians taught: (1) Jesus said that a person could not be saved unless he/she was baptized by water and by Spirit, (2) According to Acts 2:38, Peter preached that a person was to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, be forgiven his/her sins, and be baptized by the Holy Spirit, and (3) A lot of early Christians did not delay baptism and, once a person ‘believed’, he or she was (instantly) baptized. These are a few of the beliefs that early Christians either taught or practiced. On the mystical side, Paul once said, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27 NRSV). Obviously, Paul viewed baptism as a way of ‘putting on’ Christ and being Christ’s hands and feet to the world. Baptism was almost an ethical rite. Christians were baptized as sinners and came up, out of the water, as pure and holy children of God. Who have, as I will later expound, put to death the corrupt, evil flesh and have put on Christ. As Christians, we are not holy because of anything we did or because we deserved anything; we are ‘holy’ because of God’s grace and mercy through “the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 NRSV). Here we see how we are “renewed” by the Holy Spirit. But, in regards to the “water”, it is a water of “rebirth”; water (baptism) of new life. We are “born again” and we enter this world not as ourselves but as children of God. We enter this world as that “city on a hill.” We are, essentially, new beings.
Peter, a super apostle of Christ, taught that baptism was already prefigured in the Old Testament. According to this view, God had already ‘baptized’ a few people before; namely, the eight souls that were saved on the Ark. 1 Peter 3:18-22 (NRSV) reads:
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which he also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in the former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah,, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
What Peter is doing here is called allegory: he is taking a historical narrative and turning it into something it is not and applying it to something more religious and spiritual. He has taken the flood narrative and made it relate to baptism. That is an astonishing leap! What I think we need to do in order to properly understand this is look a little bit at early Christian beliefs regarding these ‘spirits in prison’ whom Jesus went and preached to.
Well, according to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, Jesus went into the underworld and preached to the souls who were in Sheol (not hell, but a place for the dead). He went there while He was ‘dead’ and he preached there for three days. According to legend, He saved a lot of souls and we even have two exact copies of ‘live’ accounts of the whole scene in ‘hell’! Here’s how that happened! Some dead males were resurrected and were brought to Earth. The Christians interrogated them and found out that they came back from Sheol (place of the dead). Everyone thought these guys were crazy! You? Hell? Jesus preaching? Yeah right! Everyone responded similarly: these guys were lunatics! Well, someone was ‘smart’ in the room, so he had them write out separate accounts of the scene in Sheol. They placed the two apart and the two ‘dead guys’ wrote out the same narrative word-for-word. And so, the crowds believed that Jesus preached to dead people in Sheol. That was how the story went. Apparently, Peter must have been either familiar with it or maybe he had something to do with it or maybe he knew something similar, we’ll never know. What we do know is that some Christians believed in something similar. We cannot understand 1 Peter 3:18-22 unless we understand the fact that the ancient Jews believed that humans did not go to heaven or hell; no, the human soul went to one place: Sheol. And in Sheol (also known as Abraham’s Bosom), the souls were waiting either for the Messiah or for Judgment Day. Well, they got the Messiah. So, Jesus came and led some of these souls ‘home’. His death and resurrection was the ticket for their escape. His death paid the price. His death broke the gates of bronze.
Next, Peter says that that the eight souls were saved through water. Moreover, he says that immersion is not a removal of dirt, but that it is an appeal to God for a good conscience. That sounds a lot like Jewish mikveh: it is a spiritual washing, not a physical. What comes next is more ethical and less mystical:
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God. You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry. They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme. But they will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. For this reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they have been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, the might live in the spirit as God does.
Peter goes on to say that baptism is about change. It’s about being “finished with sin” and living “for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God.” Does that sound like anything I have been saying for the past half hour?
Peter says something similar in his second epistle:
His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is nearsighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.
What Peter says here is fairly important; being both ethical and mystical. On the ethical side of the coin, Peter is saying that those who are “participants of the divine nature” will essentially have the “fruit” that he mentions (e.g. goodness, knowledge, self-control, etc.). First of all, we must know to whom Peter is speaking in order to understand the context. Peter is, obviously, speaking to those who are participants of the divine nature. On the mystical side of the coin: Who are participants of this so-called “divine nature”? Well, if you look at Paul’s theology and early Christian beliefs, which I will later further describe, after baptism a person was to have Christ “in” him/her. Or, in other words, a person was to “put on” Christ; Christ being that “divine nature”. Thus Christians are called to “put on” or be “in” the Divine Nature. Furthermore, Peter says that Christ has given us these things so that we could overcome evil and not be partakers of this world’s sins.
Notice that he further says, “For anyone who lacks these things is nearsighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.” What is it to be ignorant of the “cleansing of past sins”? Well, if we believe that baptism is a thorough washing of past sins, then we can easily understand that, for Peter, this whole argument is tied in deeply with baptism. Actually, this whole paragraph only makes sense if one understands early Christian baptism! Remember, baptism is the forgiveness of past sins. Thus whenever past sins are mentioned and new life, you usually end up with a lecture on baptism.
To some everything up so far, early Christians were taught that baptism was the putting on of a divine nature and that Christ was to be our example for our way of life; living every day in Him. Our actions were to reflect those of Christ’s and our lives were to be as pure and as sinless as possible; knowing that He has forgiven us our past sins.
Paul, Baptism, and Sin
Paul’s theology is fully argued out well in Romans chapter 6: Paul makes probably one of the longest arguments regarding baptism in the whole New Testament. Romans 6 is an extremely delicate argument and it has extremely mystical overtones. Arguing with the congregation(s) in Rome, Paul comes to the subject of grace and sin. Paul was trying to say that a person whom Christ forgave more sins was full of more grace. Obviously, if you deeply think about it, some were going to start sinning more so that grace would abound! Nevertheless, Paul did not stop the flow of thought there but continued it with giving the Romans a lecture on sin. On giving this lecture, Paul, as, literally, every early Christian, dove into the subject of baptism (sin and baptism were inseparable in the early Church). And so Paul comes to a question-answer debate:
What then are we to say? Should we continue to sin so that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace. What then? Should we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves to sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations…
Paul has finally ended his whole ‘holy’ argument with very human statements like “natural limitations”; he feels that he may have pushed the sinless life too far. Nevertheless, let us back up a bit and review Paul’s understanding of baptism and sin.
Paul believes that when a person rises up again out of the baptismal waters that person is no longer the same. Similarly, it is written in The Shepherd of Hermas, “Before a man bears the name of the Son of God, he is dead. But when he receives the seal, he lays aside his deadness and obtains life. The seal, then, is the water. They descend in the water dead, and they arise alive.” For Paul, as for other Christians, baptism was very symbolic and very spiritual. Christians were dying. They were going into the waters as Paul of Tarsus’ and coming out Jesus’; they came in human and came up semi-divine. We were to be “resurrected” and walk in “new life”. We were to live according to God’s law (which includes grace) and we were to die to ourselves. Baptism also meant “crucifying” your “old flesh”. It meant killing your past sins, evil habits, and bad deeds and taking on a new man. That “new man” being the “divine nature” of Peter and the “putting on Christ” of Paul. Our lives, as baptized Christians, were to be marked by a life of holiness and righteousness. If the fruit is not there, the Spirit is not either. For Paul and Peter, baptism marked a new beginning. And that beginning was the end of you. The end of sinful self. Paul can say it better: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NRSV).
Through it all, Paul finally appears to admit the truth and nothing but the truth. He comes to a point where he must admit to himself and his peers that sin still exists. It still is there. Deep inside, but there. Even after all of the holy rituals and the (later) baptism with the fiery Holy Spirit, Paul still feels like sin is in him. He writes some of his most sad, bitter, anxious, and passionate words regarding his experience:
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
Paul seems to have given up entirely. His argument started out on a holy note, but now it ends with a tune coming straight out of Hell. Paul’s hands are clenched, his eyes are sharp and focused, his mind is attacking his own flesh, and his flesh is on a rampage to destroy the spirit. Amidst this anguish, notice how Paul says that his “inmost self” never forgets the law of God. Let me pause here a bit and reflect on this statement. Baptism does not claim to make a person sinless; baptism claims to join you to Christ and have you start living by His standards and in Him. A Christian can still commit sin. But sin, for the Christian, is rather sporadic and it involves the inner ‘godly conscience’, which tells the person, “Hey, you did that wrong. Ask forgiveness. You can’t do that.” Sin will still be there but it will not reign and do whatever it wants. Sin will be inhibited by the Spirit of God. Thus, though Paul argues that Christians are to be dead to sin, he still understands that little slips and mistakes happen and that sometimes maybe anger, hate, jealousy, or lust does settle in. But, for Paul, Christ is the essential character that a Christian “wears”. And, the battle against sin is something that is done on a daily basis. Thus, if you are battling with sin, sin is not “conquering”; for the battle is still raging and the victor is still unknown. Christ has allowed you, through baptism, to put on His character. But by putting on His character, you, inevitably, have to fight daily to keep it and maintain it. Thus, Paul always fights the good fight. Yet, amidst this turmoil Paul exclaims that Jesus Christ will rescue him! You can almost feel the joy leap off of his written work! Being himself- confusing, intelligent, and honest- Paul decides to drive the argument home. This time, sin will not be allowed to conquer:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law- indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
Paul decides, after all, to say that, with those who have the Spirit of God, anything is possible. Conquering sin is reasonable. Paul says that Christians can maintain a life of righteousness.
One of the things that we have seen regarding baptism is that sin is almost always mentioned with it. As you can tell, a sermon on baptism that does not touch on sin would be very disturbing for ancient Christians: baptism had everything to do with sin. That is why I mention sin so often and delve into that sinful topic off and on!
Now, continuing with baptism, I want to conclude Paul’s ideas with another one of his statements (this one being mystical), “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you [.]”(Galatians 4:19 NRSV). Until Christ is formed in you? What does that mean? Apparently, after baptism one does not “put” Christ on totally and completely; obviously, for some, it takes a while. Thus, Paul can be found saying to a group of Christians something like that. Christ has not been fully “formed” in them; they have not fully become like Christ. Even after the waters of baptism, the Christians were still developing the Christ-like character. With this statement I would like to end. Paul is best understood with that one sentence. Christianity makes so much more sense when that statement is taken into account. God does forgive our past sins, baptism does make us a part of Christ’s church, baptism does give us a godly conscience, and, yes, baptism does free us from sin. But the total and complete formation of Christ in our lives takes a lifetime. It takes a lifetime to know Christ and a lifetime to ‘become’ Christ to the world.
Sinning After Baptism: Are Sins Forgiven?
Since sins are forgiven only once under Christian baptism, what happens if our cleaned ‘slate’ becomes tainted again? That is the same question an early Christian by the name of Hermas asked. According to the ancient Christian writing known as The Shepherd of Hermas, which was written around 100-150 A.D., there is no further repentance after your remission of sin in baptism. Hermas asked the angel of the Lord the following question: “I heard, sir, some teachers maintain that there is no repentance than that which takes place, when we descend into the water and received remission of our former sins.” The angel told Hermas that he has heard correctly. But the angel continues and says:
“That was sound doctrine which you heard; for that is really the case. For he who has received remission of his sins should not sin any more, but should live in purity…And therefore I say to you, that if anyone is tempted by the devil, and he sins after that great holy calling in which the Lord has called His people to everlasting life, he has opportunity to repent once. But if he should sin frequently after this, and then repent, to such a man his repentance will be of no avail.”
According to the angel who instructs Hermas, there is still another chance of repentance after baptism; only due to God’s great and unending mercy. What may sound as an impossible command is approved by our own modern day canon. The Shepherd is not treated as Scripture in our modern church (except by a select few). It was, though, on the contrary, held in extremely high regard by the ancient Christians and was considered Scripture by a lot of early Christians; being found in our oldest New Testament manuscript, Codex Sinaiticus. Anyways, since The Shepherd is not held in such esteem as in previous generations, it would be necessary for me to obtain ‘Scriptural’ proof from our modern canon. And yes, Scripture agrees with Hermas’ angel, as I will now show.
The Epistle to the Hebrews maintains the same basic idea: no repentance after knowledge of the truth [baptism]. According to Hebrews 10:26, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” What does it mean that there is no sacrifice? Well, we have heard it said, with great concern and cause, that Christ died “once for all.” The key word in these texts is “once”; apparently, Christ’s sacrifice is valid only once; He forgives sins once, a sacrifice offered only once for mankind’s sins. Thus, once Christ was ‘offered’ up for your sins, His sacrifice was accepted once. So, if anything else occurred (sin-wise), Christ’s death had no effect or meaning. To commit sin after the knowledge of the Holy was to say that some other Christ was going to offer Himself again. This, again, ties in with baptism in the sense that we are forgiven our sins and we start out fresh before God. Instead of eternal Hell, God has offered us humans a chance to have our slates cleaned. Afterwards, we are to give God our best; knowing that He has forgiven our transgressions. Yes, He has made us “white as snow.”
Another paragraph that stresses the ‘holy life’ is Hebrews 6:4-6, which reads:
“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.”
Again we see the idea that Christ’s sacrifice was offered up only once and never again. Sin is to be avoided after the so-called “enlightenment.” 1 John also stresses a holy sinless life with similar theological, ethical, and mystical statements:
“Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor does anyone who does not love his brother.”
The authority, the simplicity, and the depth of John’s words echo throughout the ages; John’s brevity and clarity are petrifying. John’s statements cannot be fully appreciated until the beliefs about early Christian sinning and baptism are thoroughly understood. It appears, from the above statements that yes, Christians did cease sinning like Tertullian has also pointed out. One of the paragraphs that still allows room for sin and forgiveness is 1 John 1:8-2:2,
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive is our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense- Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins…”
John appears to say at least two obvious things: (a) if a person says he has no sin, he is a liar. That is, we have all sinned and have all fallen short of the glory of God, and (b) even if we do sin; we have Christ who will ask for our forgiveness on our behalf. That is amazing! Whether we notice it or not, Christ is doing so much for us sinners! He truly is the Messiah. Also, John appears to have at least two different classifications of sin: (a) sins that lead to death (no repentance?) and (b) sins that may be still forgiven. According to 1 John 5:16-17,
“If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.”
John seems to have in mind the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. That sin is unforgiveable. Thus, you could pray all you want and forgiveness will not be offered. God is a consuming fire. Let us not make Him out to be our next door neighbor who joins us for soccer practice and eats popcorn. Moreover, some Christians understood serious post-baptismal sin to fall into the “unforgiveable” category. As modern-day Christians, it is difficult to fully understand the intricate details of everything. All that must be pointed out is that sin was serious (some was unforgiveable) and that baptism was also a very, very serious rite.
Ancient Christian Church Fathers
The ancient Fathers of the church have left us a lot on the subject of baptism. Generally speaking, the same theology and line-of-thought is expressed throughout their writings with little difference. Justin Martyr, a second century Christian philosopher, writes, “But there is no other way than this: to become acquainted with this Christ; to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins; and for the rest, to live sinless lives.” Clement of Alexandria, a second century Christian philosopher from Egypt writes something similar regarding the teaching he has received as a Christian, “We are washed from all of our sins, and are no longer entangled in evil. This is the one grace of illumination, that our characters are not the same as before the washing.” Obviously, we can sense Paul’s teachings, Hermas, and Peter’s in Clement’s statement. Tertullian, a fiery, satirical, and Pentecostal Church Father who wrote towards the end of the second century tells us that “we enter, then, the font once our sins are washed away, because they ought never to be repeated.” Again, a Christian all the way from North Africa is similarly preaching a baptism that occurs only once and a forgiveness that occurs only once. Similarly, he says again,
“[B]aptismal washing is a sealing of faith, which faith is begun and is commended by faith of repentance. We are not washed in order that we may cease sinning, but because we have ceased, since in heart we have been bathed already. For the first baptism of a learner is this: perfect fear…if it is only after baptismal waters that we cease sinning, it is out of necessity, not of free will, that we put on innocence.”
The same teaching continues up until at least the fourth century. Somewhere along the lines, after Constantine and the endorsement of the so-called “Catholic” church, do we see the forgiveness and washing of sins as not extremely important. For the (Catholic) Bishop of Rome began to absolve sins himself. Thus, a Bishop was thought to be able to “forgive” a person’s sins after baptism. Of course, such teaching is a later Christian development and was absolutely foreign to the first or second century Christian mind. In conclusion with early Christian thought, we see that baptism was very important and even a sacred rite. It was, only later, somewhat overshadowed by Catholic absolution. Baptism was almost always done once and it was heavily associated with the following main points:
1) The forgiveness of past sins.
2) The shedding of the ‘old man’ and the birth of the ‘new man’.
3) The death and crucifixion of self and the arrival of Christ in a person’s character.
4) The beginning of the ‘growth’ and ‘development’ of Christ in a human (Gal. 4:19).
5) The ability to live, as much as possible, a sinless life.
6) The ability to serve Holy God with a clear and good conscience.
7) The ability to be saved and have faith in entering Heaven.
8) The ability to be the Bride of Christ.
Those are and were the main points of baptism. Sins after baptism were usually very problematic and some had to live in solitary until repentance was seen as ‘sincere’ and from the heart. Though, for modern Christians, such beliefs sound impossible and unreasonable; early Christians thought otherwise. The second century Pentecostal Montanists thought that the forgiveness of serious post-baptismal sin was heresy. Thus, whether we like it or not, Christianity was, essentially, a ‘holy’ movement which stressed ethics. Virtue was important and holiness was obtainable because God has sent His Holy Spirit to give strength and power to those who have chosen to follow Christ. It seems proper for me to conclude with an apocryphal statement from the spurious Acts of Paul. Though the Acts are not, in any sense, ‘scripture’; they do contain early Christian beliefs and statements. The following quote is allegedly said to come from the lips of Paul, “Blessed are they who keep their baptism pure; for they shall find peace with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” 
The Ante-Nicene Fathers (ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; 1885-1887; repr. 10 vols. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994).
Tertullian, 3.662 is equivalent to volume 3 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers and 662 is the page number.
 1 Peter 1:16
 I say “mentally” because we know that absolutely new Christians were usually baptized, after believing, immediately. Thus, in the spiritual realm they were just new believers and even, I dare say, completely ignorant of spiritual issues.
 Some would argue, most notably Alfred Edersheim and Bishop Lightfoot, that the Essenes had nothing to do with John the Baptist. I guess, one could agree. But the point is primarily the similarities. Not as much as whether John was, or was not, an Essene. The point is that he had some fairly similar, and distinct, Essene-like beliefs: the existence of God outside the Temple, a life in the desert, etc.
 According to The Refutation of All Heresies, Book IX, Chapters 13-23, the Essenes prayed for their enemies and they were anti-war, like Jesus. They were very peaceful and also had books that were, interestingly, outside the canon; for they did not only read the law and the prophets, but also “any treatise of the faithful.” The Dead Sea Scrolls, with all of their ‘additional’ books, could have been the created and kept by the Essenes.
 See Josephus’ description of the Essenes in Ant. 13.171-173 and a section regarding predestination, a Dead Sea Scroll, in Charter 2:13-4:26
 Isaiah 40:3 NRSV
 Matthew 3:3 KJV
 We, of course, are merely speculating the fact that John may have been an Essene. But, whether he was or wasn’t, is not that important. What is important is the fact that such a belief existed and that John was somewhat familiar and/or associated with the Essenes and/or Essene-like beliefs.
 Here it seems proper to call to mind that fact that the Jews hated the Samaritans for building another temple on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria. They thought that that was blasphemy! God lived only in the Jerusalem Temple! We know, for a fact, that this belief, that God was present and felt anywhere, was a revolutionary belief.
 Matthew 3:7-10 NRSV. According to Luke 3:7, John was speaking to ‘the crowds’ and not, as in Matthew, specifically the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
 John 3:5
 ‘Instant baptism’ seems fairly illogical today due to our lack of faith and power; we usually do not convert people by way of miracles (which tend to convert people quite fast!).
 Sheol is the Hebrew name for our “hell”. Not a place of torment, but a place where the human souls are kept after death.
 1 Peter 4:1-6 NRSV
 I am quite familiar with the belief that 2 Peter is pseudonymous and that it was written in the 2nd century. Of course that may well be the case. But, as some scholars think, it surely may have come from Peter’s hand and may have been edited by some unknown scribe in the second century (incorporating the epistle of Jude).
 2 Peter 1:3-9 NRSV
 Romans 6:1-19 NRSV
 Hermas, 2.49
 Romans 7:14-25 NRSV
 Romans 8:5-10 NRSV
 Hermas, 2.22
 New International Version
 New International Version
 1 John 3:7-10 NIV
 New International Version
 New International Version
 Justin Martyr, 1.217
 Clement of Alexandria, 2.216, 217
 Tertullian, 3.676
 Tertullian, 3.662
 Acts of Paul 1:18, translated by Jeremiah Jones.