Theology Thursday - Baptism as the "Channel of Sanctification"

Not long after the apostolic era, Christian leaders began teaching that the ordinance of baptism regenerated sinners. The author of the Shepherd of Hermas, for example (ca. 100-154 A.D.),1 explained that “we went down into the water and received forgiveness of our previous sins” (31.1). He also believed a Christian could only sin once after being regenerated by baptism.2

In this excerpt Tertullian, the great 2nd century scholar from Carthage, explains his views on baptism. He clearly believed in baptismal regeneration. Here, he marvels at how people could scoff at such a simple vehicle as baptism for salvation:3

Well, but how great is the force of perversity for so shaking the faith or entirely preventing its reception, that it impugns it on the very principles of which the faith consists! There is absolutely nothing which makes men’s minds more obdurate than the simplicity of the divine works which are visible in the act, when compared with the grandeur which is promised thereto in the effect; so that from the very fact, that with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, finally, without expense, a man is dipped in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner, the consequent attainment of eternity is esteemed the more incredible.

Tertullian then explains that water was a “vehicle” for God at the very beginning of creation. Why, then, should God not likewise use the waters of the ordinance of baptism to “create” a new believer?4

Mindful of this declaration as of a conclusive prescript, we nevertheless proceed to treat the question, “How foolish and impossible it is to be formed anew by water. In what respect, pray, has this material substance merited an office of so high dignity?”

The authority, I suppose, of the liquid element has to be examined. This however, is found in abundance, and that from the very beginning. For water is one of those things which, before all the furnishing of the world, were quiescent with God in a yet unshapen state.

“In the first beginning,” saith Scripture, “God made the heaven and the earth. But the earth was invisible, and unorganized, and darkness was over the abyss; and the Spirit of the Lord was hovering over the waters.”

The first thing, O man, which you have to venerate, is the age of the waters, in that their substance is ancient. The second; their dignity, in that they were the seat of the Divine Spirit, more pleasing to Him, no doubt, than all the other then existing elements. For the darkness was total thus far, shapeless, without the ornament of stars; and the abyss gloomy; and the earth unfurnished; and the heaven unwrought: water alone—always a perfect, gladsome, simple material substance, pure in itself—supplied a worthy vehicle to God.

What of the fact that waters were in some way the regulating powers by which the disposition of the world thenceforward was constituted by God? For the suspension of the celestial firmament in the midst He caused by “dividing the waters;” the suspension of “the dry land” He accomplished by “separating the waters.” After the world had been hereupon set in order through its elements, when inhabitants were given it, “the waters” were the first to receive the precept “to bring forth living creatures.”

Water was the first to produce that which had life, that it might be no wonder in baptism if waters know how to give life.For was not the work of fashioning man himself also achieved with the aid of waters? Suitable material is found in the earth, yet not apt for the purpose unless it be moist and juicy; which (earth) “the waters,” separated the fourth day before into their own place, temper with their remaining moisture to a clayey consistency.

If, from that time onward, I go forward in recounting universally, or at more length, the evidences of the “authority” of this element which I can adduce to show how great is its power or its grace; how many ingenious devices, how many functions, how useful an instrumentality, it affords the world, I fear I may seem to have collected rather the praises of water than the reasons of baptism; although I should thereby teach all the more fully, that it is not to be doubted that God has made the material substance which He has disposed throughout all His products and works, obey Him also in His own peculiar sacraments; that the material substance which governs terrestrial life acts as agent likewise in the celestial.

Therefore, Turtullian concludes, the waters of baptism are made a “channel of sanctification.”5

But it will suffice to have thus called at the outset those points in which withal is recognised that primary principle of baptism,—which was even then fore-noted by the very attitude assumed for a type of baptism,—that the Spirit of God, who hovered over (the waters) from the beginning, would continue to linger over the waters of the baptized.

But a holy thing, of course, hovered over a holy; or else, from that which hovered over that which was hovered over borrowed a holiness, since it is necessary that in every case an underlying material substance should catch the quality of that which overhangs it, most of all a corporeal of a spiritual, adapted (as the spiritual is) through the subtleness of its substance, both for penetrating and insinuating.

Thus the nature of the waters, sanctified by the Holy One, itself conceived withal the power of sanctifying. Let no one say, “Why then, are we, pray, baptized with the very waters which then existed in the first beginning?” Not with those waters, of course, except in so far as the genus indeed is one, but the species very many. But what is an attribute to the genus reappears likewise in the species.

And accordingly it makes no difference whether a man be washed in a sea or a pool, a stream or a fount, a lake or a trough; nor is there any distinction between those whom John baptized in the Jordan and those whom Peter baptized in the Tiber, unless withal the eunuch whom Philip baptized in the midst of his journeys with chance water, derived (therefrom) more or less of salvation than others.

All waters, therefore, in virtue of the pristine privilege of their origin, do, after invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of sanctification; for the Spirit immediately supervenes from the heavens, and rests over the waters, sanctifying them from Himself; and being thus sanctified, they imbibe at the same time the power of sanctifying.

Albeit the similitude may be admitted to be suitable to the simple act; that, since we are defiled by sins, as it were by dirt, we should be washed from those stains in waters. But as sins do not show themselves in our flesh (inasmuch as no one carries on his skin the spot of idolatry, or fornication, or fraud), so persons of that kind are foul in the spirit, which is the author of the sin; for the spirit is lord, the flesh servant. Yet they each mutually share the guilt: the spirit, on the ground of command; the flesh, of subservience.

Therefore, after the waters have been in a manner endued with medicinal virtue through the intervention of the angel, the spirit is corporeally washed in the waters, and the flesh is in the same spiritually cleansed.


1 Many scholars believe the Shepherd consists of two individual sections, composed at different times and later published together. I’ve provided Rick Brannan’s dating estimate for the relevant section which I’ll be quoting from (The Apostolic Fathers in English, translated by Rick Brannan [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012], Introduction). Another resource states, “The Shepherd of Hermas was likely written in or around Rome and quite possibly over a stretch of time ranging from the late first century AD to the middle of the second century AD,” (Charles Meeks, “Shepherd of Hermas,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016]).

2 Hermas 31.6 reads, “after the calling, that great and honorable one, if someone, being tempted by the devil, might sin, he has one repentance.”

3 Tertullian, “On Baptism,” chapter 2, in Ante-Nicene Father, 9 vols., ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. Thelwall, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 3:669.

4 Tertullian, “On Baptism,” chapter 3, ANF 3:370.

5 Tertullian, “On Baptism,” chapter 4, ANF 3:370-371.

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Ed Vasicek's picture

It is my view that the early church experienced went down wrong paths quickly.  I maintain that much of this is the result to their anti-Semitic stance.  The gentile leadership of the church did not begin with the assumptions and background of the Jewish believers, which is the more or less assumed background of the New Testament (all the authors were Jews with the exception of Luke, who had likely been a God-fearing gentile associated with the Jews before his conversion).  

The gentile church had an agenda to put a wedge between the Testaments and the two peoples of God -- for baptism is strictly a New Testament command -- although it certainly had Jewish roots.  Since no one was saved in the Old Testament by baptism, it is only in the age of grace that baptism is said to have this magic.

I am looking forward to seeing some good discussion in this material.  Thank you, Tyler R.

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture


It's astonishing to me how quickly patristic writers assumed baptismal regeneration. In particular, John 3:5 is often seen as referring to water baptism.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Andrew K's picture

TylerR wrote:

It's astonishing to me how quickly patristic writers assumed baptismal regeneration. In particular, John 3:5 is often seen as referring to water baptism.

Agree 100%, Tyler.

It seems to me the early church was very good at hammering out key, foundational doctrines on the nature of God, weeding out (most) false practices, and preserving--in essence, at least--true ones. But when it comes to preserving the doctrinal structures and nuance behind those practices... well, everything seems to have gone a bit pear-shaped.

Bert Perry's picture

To me, that is one of the most darkly amusing portions of Scripture regarding baptism.  In John 3:4, Jesus is clearly referring to the womb.  In John 3:6, Christ refers to being born of the flesh (e.g. "womb") and of the spirit.  So for verse 5 to refer to immersion, you more or less have to assume that Christ is changing the subject twice in five seconds of speech to Nicodemus--and that Nicodemus follows it that way.  

I can't go with that. 

Ed, I'm also not quite sure I follow you in your argument that the mis-interpretation of baptism proceeds from anti-Jewish attitudes in the church.  You seem to be more or less saying that in response to the Jews performing a rite among infants for membership in that tribe, Gentile Christians tried to exclude Jews by imposing a different rite among infants for membership in the Church.  Am I close?

No argument that Christians have historically treated Jews poorly, a sentiment sometimes reciprocated, but I am not quite sure I followed you there.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Bert asked:

Ed, I'm also not quite sure I follow you in your argument that the mis-interpretation of baptism proceeds from anti-Jewish attitudes in the church.  You seem to be more or less saying that in response to the Jews performing a rite among infants for membership in that tribe, Gentile Christians tried to exclude Jews by imposing a different rite among infants for membership in the Church.  Am I close?

No Bert, you are not close.  My argument is this: In the late first and especially early second century, the church took an Anti-Semitic stance.  Because God had given the OT to the Jews, it was therefore necessary to suggest not only that the Messiah had come and been rejected by the Jews, but also the way that Christians were saved was distinct from the way people in the Old Testament were saved.  Whereas Paul taught that we are saved the same way as Abraham or David (cf. Romans 4), baptism was not an OT ritual, and therefore a new (and they might argue) better element added to faith, one unavailable to the Jews, since baptism (to be baptism) must be administered in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, something a mainstream Jew would never countenance..  So, therefore, the simple ritual of baptism -- something the Jews did not have -- makes Christianity distinct and "new."  Rather than making faith in Jesus as the Messiah the defining marker, baptism now becomes the defining marker (although the church fathers clearly connected the rite as made powerful and effective by the death/resurreciton of Jesus).  I think this is also how the Lord's Supper became a sacrament. Not only are mainstream Jews lost because they have rejected Jesus, they also cannot gain God's grace available from the sacraments, which is under the control of the church itself.   Thus were planted the seeds for what evolved into Roman Catholicism with its sacerdotalism. That's what I am suggesting, but, of course, I could be wrong.


"The Midrash Detective"

Ed Vasicek's picture

Adding some more, Christianity was originally considered a "sect of the Jews."  Indeed, I believe it is Messianic Judaism.  Most everyone else at the time (with just a few exceptions) were polytheistic idolaters.

What most clearly separated these two groups of monotheists, in an outward sense?  Baptism.

So Baptism no longer merely represented the real division between the groups -- "What do you make of Jesus?" -- but became the evident, outward divider.  Since it divided Christians from Jews, the rite itself now becomes that which saves.

When the Jews were persecuted, the Christians no longer wanted to be thought of as a "sect of the Jews," especially since, by this time, over half the church was gentile.  When the Christians were persecuted, the Jews did not want to be identified with them.  So this one rite became the dividing line.

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

Do we find things in the Church Fathers and elsewhere about that, Ed?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

BrandonC's picture

Thomas Torrance, a number of years ago, did a study on "The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers." In this study, as indicated by the name, he attributes the chief error of the Apostolic Fathers to a misunderstanding of the doctrine of grace. The theology of baptism was but a consequence of this deeper misunderstanding of grace. He says, 

The Gospel carries with it an eternal indicative, but post-Apostolic Christianity laboured only under an imperative.

It is easy to see how this entailed a doctrine of salvation by works of righteousness, with grace introduced in an ad hoc fashion as enabling power. If the believer's activity was directed toward creating goodness in an attempt to bridge the gap between the actual and the ideal, the piety behind this could not but be essentially ego-centric. It was taken too much for granted in the early Church that the superiority of Christianity to paganism lay in its mode of life, in the call to follow in the sinless pattern of Christ. It failed to realize that the Christian ethic can be construed in such a way with the basic principles of the natural man as to evade the main issue of the Gospel of grace.The result is that the Fathers had all the formal characteristics of the Christian faith, but harnessed to the basic urge of man for self-justification (Torrance, 134).

He goes on to say,

Salvation is wrought, they thought, certainly by divine pardon but on the ground of repentance, not apparently on the ground of the death of Christ alone. There is no doubt about the fact that the early Church felt it should take up the Cross and follow Christ, and it was willing to go all the way to martyrdom, but it felt that it was in that way the Christian made saving appropriation of the Cross, rather than by faith. That Ignatius, the most "Pauline" of all the Apostolic Fathers, should have laid so much stress on attaining to God though a martyrdom in imitation of Christ, and so failed to see that the death of Christ as an act of salvation can be appropriated by faith alone, is very significant indeed. It was not seen that the whole of salvation is centred in the person and the death of Christ, for there God has Himself come into the world and wrought a final act of redemption which undercuts all our own endeavours at self-justification and places us in an entirely new situation in which faith alone saves a man, and through which alone is a man free to do righteousness spontaneously under the constraining love of Christ. That was not understood by the Apostolic Fathers, and it is the primary reason for the degeneration of their Christian faith into something so different from the New Testament. Failure to apprehend the meaning of the Cross and to make it a saving article of faith is surely the clearest indication that a genuine doctrine of grace is absent (138).

(Thomas Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1996.) 

The connection with Tertullian's baptismal regeneration is clear. Though Torrance does not deal with Tertullian specifically in this volume, he does deal with The Shepherd of Hermas and the view of baptism communicated there, as well as the Second Epistle of Clement.

As Ed noted, it is clear that the church left the Gospel very early in her history. It seems that, textually, the reason is a misunderstanding of her identity and the nature of the Gospel, the nature of grace. 

As a side note, this book by Torrance (as well as his many other writings) is very helpful in understanding the Church Fathers according to their own words. For what it's worth.

[i]Working to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of the faith of those to whom God has called me, that I may rejoice with them in Him - Phil. 2:17[/i] I blog at [url=]

TylerR's picture


Thanks, Brandon! My own reading leads me to believe that, for some reason, early church fathers tended to read every reference to the Baptism of the Spirit as water baptism. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

Bert asked:

Do we find things in the Church Fathers and elsewhere about that, Ed?

The short answer is, "I don't know."  I can only infer that viewpoint, based upon the history of the relationships between Jews and Christians during that time, each disassociating themselves with the other to avoid persecution by such association.

Here is an interesting early quote from Justin Martyr as a sample of early Anti-Semitic viewpoints.  Anti-Semitism is pretty easy to document.

Justin Martyr - Dialogue with Trypho (Between 138A.D. and 161 A.D.)

We too, would observe your circumcision of the flesh, your Sabbath days, and in a word, all your festivals, if we were not aware of the reason why they were imposed upon you, namely, because of your sins and the hardness of heart.

 The custom of circumcising the flesh, handed down from Abraham, was given to you as a distinguishing mark, to set you off from other nations and from us Christians. The purpose of this was that you and only you might suffer the afflictions that are now justly yours; that only your land be desolated, and you cities ruined by fire, that the fruits of you land be eaten by strangers before your very eyes; that not one of you be permitted to enter your city of Jerusalem. Your circumcision of the flesh is the only mark by which you can certainly be distinguished from other men…as I stated before it was by reason of your sins and the sins of your fathers that, among other precepts, God imposed upon you the observance of the Sabbath as a mark.

Here is a quotation form the Epistle of Barnabas that explains the origin of replacement theology and God's total and permanent rejection of Israel:

"Epistle of Barnabas" Chapter 4 vs 6-7 (between 130A.D. and 138 A.D.)

Take heed to yourselves and be not like some piling up you sins and saying that the covenant is theirs as well as ours. It is ours, but they lost it completely just after Moses received it.

My point is this: Christian leaders made a point of separating themselves from and condemning not only the unbelief of the Jews, but also suggesting that the Law was given to them because of their inferiority, and thus the Law itself is more of a penalty than a blessing.

From this, in infer (which is why I wrote, "IMO"), that baptism served as a clear line of demarcation (as circumcision and Sabbath were to the Jews) -- a Christian ritual in the Name of the Triune God that makes a distinction between Christianity and Judaism.  Even today, many Christians are not persecuted until after they are immersed, because that is the official "coming out of the closet."


"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

I can go with that.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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