SACRAMENTS: Baptism And The Forgiveness Of Sins by Ronald P. Byars

Baptism And The Forgiveness Of Sins by Ronald P. Byars

From The Sacraments In Biblical Perspective

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)

And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord. (Acts 22:16)

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14)

John the Baptizer came preaching a baptism “for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; and similarly, John 1:29)  Christians, having adopted John’s ritual and reframed it as an act specifically related to Christ and the Holy Spirit, also understood it in relation to forgiveness of sins.  For example, on the day of Pentecost, Luke records that Peter preached a sermon to the crowd who had gathered in response to a public manifestation of the Spirit in relation to the apostles (Acts 2:4-6): “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)  The linking of forgiveness of sins and the Spirit characterizes baptism in its specifically Christian form, in contrast to John’s baptism.

Luke also describes an address that Paul made to a rowdy audience when he had been rescued by Roman soldiers after being identified and mobbed in the temple.  Paul recited his story, including his personal credentials, his history as a persecutor of Christians, and his conversion on the road to Damascus.  He recalled that in Damascus a man named Ananias had visited him and spoken words to him that led to Paul’s regaining the sight he had lost in his encounter with Jesus on the road.  Ananias had said to him, “Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.” (Acts 22:16)  At least by the time of Tertullian (160-225 CE), it had become common in the church to believe that baptism effected the forgiveness only of past sins.  Tertullian argued against the practice of infant baptism, clearly already an established practice, not on the grounds that it was not valid, but because, when a child had a whole life to live after baptism, the risks of committing postbaptismal sins were so great that such an early baptism put the baptized person at risk of condemnation.  (For similar reasons, he opposed the baptism of young, single adults.)  This concern caused it to become commonplace for converts to postpone baptism as long as they could, until they reached their deathbeds, if possible.  This was the choice of the Emperor Constantine (272-337 CE), who had embraced Christianity with fervor, but did not seek baptism until he neared the end of his life.

Augustine (354-430 CE) exerted a significant influence on baptismal practice when he interpreted the doctrine of original sin as inherited guilt that required baptism to wipe the slate clean.  Because infant mortality was high, postponing baptism appeared to run the risk of imperiling an unbaptized child’s salvation.  This led to the practice of baptizing as soon after birth as possible and eventually to a widespread practice of baptism by midwives, thus separating the sacrament from the context of the worshiping community.  The theological problem posed was that it had become evident to pastoral observation and ordinary experience that baptized persons still committed sins.  If baptism was an act of forgiving only original sin, what hope was there for those who lived long lives after their baptisms?

The church found a solution in the fashioning of a whole new sacrament, the sacrament of penance (since Vatican II, the sacrament of reconciliation), which provided a protocol for auricular confession to a priest, who was empowered to forgive postbaptismal sins.  This new sacrament posed a problem to the Reformers of the sixteenth century, who observed that the priest’s power to forgive could easily be misused in ways that were manipulative and self-serving rather than pastoral.

The fact of such abuses challenged both Martin Luther and John Calvin, as well as others of the Protestant Reformers, to rethink issues related to baptism, particularly to baptism as an act intended for remission of sins.  They took the position that baptism for the forgiveness of sins had a future reference as well as a past reference.  One interpreter of Calvin’s baptismal theology interprets it as the conviction that “in Christ all sins have been washed away, are being washed away, and will be washed away.” (Old, Shaping)  “Of the essence of the Reformed understanding of baptism is the belief that it is a prophetic sign.  It is a sign under which the whole of life is to be lived.  Our baptism is always with us, constantly unfolding through the whole of life.”

The baptismal invocation in Calvin’s Genevan Psalter of 1542 included a petition for a child being baptized, that he or she be sanctified by the Spirit and “that always he [sic] receive from you the remission of his [sic] sins.”

André Benoit, in his study of baptism in the second century, argues that, while remission of sins was a constant in baptismal doctrine in that period, it had to do with the pardon of actual sins, not original sin.  In the primitive church, the issue of postbaptismal sins posed no problem, because if baptism needed to be preceded by metanoia (repentance), metanoia did not end with baptism.  Rather, it was necessary to repent ceaselessly while awaiting the future eon.  Since repentance was a permanent fixture of the Christian life, sins after baptism raised no particular difficulty, since the Christian assumed a penitent state the whole life long. (Le Baptême)

The sacrament of baptism initiates the incorporation of a person of any age into a community whose role is to form its members over a lifetime into a people who are capable of hearing a prophetic word and, in response, confessing their own sins and their complicity in the sins common to all.  The priestly role of the community is one that can be learned, and it involves both a proper penitence before the holy God for one’s own sins and a commitment to acknowledge before God the sins of the church, the world, and every race, tribe, nation, and affinity group – a communal intercession for others, including those who cannot, do not, will not, or don’t know that they ought to repent for themselves.  Such formation begins with baptism, and is enabled by its promise of forgiveness.

The Letter of the Colossians specifically referred to baptism, relating it to forgiveness.

When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.  And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.  He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:12-14)

This statement served to support the contention that the Christians of Colossae had been liberated from the oppressive power of “rulers and authorities” (2:15) and “the elemental spirits of the universe” (2:20), presumably referring to invisible powers as well as civil officers and religious officials and false spiritualities, with their prescriptions and regulations.  Christians are not to be intimidated: “Why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?  Why do you submit?” (2:20)

The homily continues as the writer of the letter expresses a passionate conviction that believers must set their minds on Christ, who is “seated at the right hand of God” (3:1), and put to death sinful behaviors (3:5-9), clothing themselves with virtues, such as “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” as well as forgiveness and love. (3:12-25)

Paul, or someone from his circle, sees baptism as a kind of dying and being made alive again.  Our record has been cleared, and the new life calls for a continuing discipline of repudiating every sort of behavior that does not conform to the good news and dedicating ourselves to a new way of life.

In Colossians, the apostle’s view would seem to be congruent with Benoit’s summary of second-century views.  Chapter 3 sets before the recipients of the letter a charge that they adopt continuing disciplines intended to eliminate sinful behaviors, implying that such behaviors had not automatically dissolved after baptism, but required continuing attention if they were to be avoided; and also that Christians practice virtues fitting to those who have been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him, as though ways of living appropriate to the gospel could be learned over time.

The contemporary service books of many denominations include rites of confession and pardon, not to forgive postbaptismal sins by means of sacramental acts, but to recall our baptism, which sustains us our whole life long.  No Christian outgrows the need for the repentance that is embedded in the church’s perception of baptism.  The recollection that we are baptized served to remind us of the promise that God will never abandon us to our sins, but embraces us and the whole church in an outpouring of mercy that never ends.  In liturgical use, the person who pronounces the declaration of forgiveness might stand at the baptismal font to indicate that confession and pardon are rooted in our baptism.

Calvin’s liturgical approach was to follow the minister’s bold announcement of God’s mercy with the reading of the Ten Commandments, understood as guidance for living the Christian life – guidance God has generously provided for people already forgiven.

The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship suggests following the pardon with either the reading of the commandments, or the summary of the law, or this:

Hear the teaching of Christ:
A new commandment I give to you,
that you love one another as I have loved you.


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