What Is Baptismal Regeneration?
Is the doctrine of “baptismal regeneration” scriptural? In order to answer such a question, one first must define precisely what he means by that designation.
Exactly what is “baptismal regeneration”? The phrase connotes different things to different people. For some, the expression is merely a bit of inflammatory rhetoric designed to intimidate those who affirm that baptism is a part of the regeneration process. To others, it is the notion that baptism is a “sacrament” which has a sort of mysterious, innate power to remove the contamination of sin — independent of personal faith and a volitional submission to God’s plan of redemption.
The doctrine of baptism’s essentiality has the support of the Bible; the “sacramental” ideology does not. Let us reflect upon this latter concept.
Baptism As a Mystical Sacrament
“Baptism,” as administered by the Roman Catholic Church, reflects a form of “baptismal regeneration” that is wholly at variance with the New Testament. A leading Catholic authority defines “baptism” in the following fashion:
“A sacrament of the New Law instituted by Jesus Christ, in which, as a result of washing with water accompanied by the words ‘I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,’ a human being is spiritually regenerated, and made capable of receiving the other sacraments” (Attwater, 45).
This view involves the idea that “baptism” need not be accompanied by faith, or personal surrender to the Lord. Note these additional citations from the same page of this volume.
“Baptism of the insane may be lawfully performed if such a desire has been expressed in a lucid interval, or in imminent danger of death if, before losing reason, a desire had been manifested. Those who have been insane from birth, or since before attaining the use of reason, may at any time be baptized as infants.”
“Baptism of the unborn. If there is not a probable hope that a child can be baptized after birth, Baptism may be administered in the womb: in the case of a head presentation, on the head; in other presentations on the part presented, but then it has to be again baptized conditionally if it is living on complete delivery. Should the mother die in labour, the child is to be extracted from the womb and, if certainly living, baptized absolutely; if life is doubtful, conditionally. An aborted fetus must also be baptized, unconditionally or conditionally according to the circumstances.”
The sentiments expressed by Attwater (whose book, incidentally, has the Imprimatur of the Roman Church) are wholly foreign to New Testament doctrine.
But how does the teaching of the New Testament differ from this concept of “baptismal regeneration”?
New Testament Baptism
First, there is nothing in the teaching of the Scriptures which would even remotely suggest that there is some magical essence inherent in the water of baptism that can effect forgiveness of sin. Rather, baptism, i.e., immersion in water, is a rite that is accompanied by both faith (Mark 16:16) and repentance (Acts 2:38). Void of those prerequisites, it has no validity whatever.
Second, baptism is an act of obedience wherein one expresses his confidence in the power of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection to produce pardon. Paul makes it quite clear that when one is buried with Christ through baptism, it is into the Lord’s death, i.e., the benefits of his death, that the sinner comes.
And, just as the Son of God was raised from the dead to the glory of Father, even so, when one is raised from the burial of baptism, he passes into a state characterized as “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
The power to save is in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Penitent believers access that power when they humbly submit to the Lord’s requirement to replicate the Savior’s burial and resurrection in the action of baptism (cf. Col. 2:12-13).
Third, though we readily acknowledge that there is no “sacramental” power intrinsic to the water of baptism, that does not give us leave to repudiate the sacred connection between the rite of baptism and forgiveness. To do so, is to ignore numerous passages of the plainest import.
Salvation is preceded by both faith and baptism, according to the precise language of Mark 16:16. The Greek text literally suggests: “He who has believed, and who has been immersed, shall be saved.” In a parallel passage, baptism is viewed as the culminating act by which one is acknowledged as a disciple (Mt. 28:19 – ASV).
Jesus informed Nicodemas that one does not enter the kingdom of God except by the new birth process (Jn. 3:5), which involves “water,” i.e., baptism. Not many would deny that the new birth and “regeneration” are equivalents. Hence, there is a solid connection between regeneration and the birth that involves water. For fifteen centuries it was conceded that the “water” of this passage is an allusion to baptism.
John Calvin introduced the novel view that the “water” must be spiritualized, and he has been followed by numerous advocates of the doctrine of salvation by “faith alone.” The historian Philip Schaff observed that Calvin’s view was an excessive reaction to the dogma of Catholicism, and that it is impossible to disassociate the “water” in this verse from the rite of baptism (Lange, p. 127).
When asked: “What shall we do?” by sincere folks who had been convicted of their sin guilt, Peter informed them that they must repent and be baptized “for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). No sectarian quibble can evade the force of this transparent command and the design associated with it.
Paul of Tarsus, who had been praying for days — and still was lost, was instructed to: “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). This was not “baptismal regeneration” in a mystical sense; rather, it was merely submission to an inspired ordinance.
It is by baptism that one is said to enter “into Christ” (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 3:27), wherein salvation is located (2 Timothy 2:10).
Paul describes baptism as a “washing of water,” or a “washing of regeneration,” in connection with which the sinner is “cleansed” or “saved” (Eph. 5:26; Tit. 3:5). A.T. Robertson, a Baptist scholar, concedes that both of these passages allude to water baptism (p. 607). And so, while the Roman Catholic dogma of “baptismal regeneration” is false, there is a perfectly legitimate nexus between baptism and regeneration.
Peter unequivocally affirms that baptism is involved in our salvation. Just as Noah and his family were transported from an environment of corruption into a realm of deliverance, so, similarly, in baptism we are moved from the world of defilement into a redeemed relationship with the Lord (1 Pet. 3:21).
One does not have to believe in the Catholic concept of “baptismal regeneration” in order to acknowledge that there is a relationship between water immersion and forgiveness, in the passages cited above.
The Principle Involved
Perhaps it would be helpful if we would illustrate, by other cases in the Scriptures, the principle that is involved in this relationship.
The Case of Naaman
Naaman was an officer in the Syrian army, but he was woefully afflicted with the dreaded disease leprosy. The prophet Elisha bade him go “wash” in the Jordan river, promising that he would be “clean.” Finally, after some equivocation, the captain thus did, and his flesh was restored (2 Kgs. 5:14).
Certainly there was no merit in Jordan’s water, and there is no textual suggestion that Namaan was disposed to trust in the efficacy of the river; he simply came to a state of confidence in the prophet’s message. There was no “water healing” in this case. But who, thinking rationally, could deny that his restoration was dependent upon submission to the divine command?
The Man Born Blind
Jesus once encountered a man who had been blind since birth. The Lord spat upon the ground and made a clay potion, anointing the man’s eyes. He then commissioned the gentleman to: “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (Jn. 9:7). The man obeyed; he washed, and came away seeing.
Was there medicinal value in Siloam’s water? Of course not. Should the blind man have refused the Savior’s command? What if he had reasoned in this fashion: “If I go and wash, that will suggest that I am trusting in water. I do not believe in ‘washing restoration.’ I do not wish to ‘merit’ my sight. Therefore, I will simply trust in Jesus’ power to heal, and refrain from going to Siloam.” Just what would have been the result?
Perhaps the following chart will help to put things in focus with reference to the connection between baptism and salvation, and the order of their occurrence, in the scriptural plan.
The Biblical Order
Even when one has done precisely as the Lord commands, he has merited nothing; he has earned nothing. The fact that we are saved by God’s grace does not negate human responsibility in accepting Heaven’s gift, and one’s refusal to do what is clearly commanded by the Son of God, or to assign it a subordinate status, is not justified.
Those who speak in opposition to New Testament baptism, contradicting the sacred writings, will have a heavy judgment to bear.
- Attwater, Donald. 1961. A Catholic Dictionary. New York, NY: Macmillan.
- Lange, John Peter. 1874. The Gospel of John. New York, NY: Scribner, Armstrong & Co.
- Robertson, A. T. 1931. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. IV. Nashville, TN: Broadman.