The Early Church on Baptismal Regeneration

St. Justin Martyr’s First Apology dates to around 160. In the text we find Justin offering an explanation and a defense to the pagan emperor. That includes a description of what the Christians of his day thought about baptism:

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water.

Justin offers two scriptural passages in support of this practice. He first mentions Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Then, to explain “how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins,” Justin cites the words of the prophet Isaiah’s vision:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken (1:16-20).

Justin cites not only Scripture, but apostolic Tradition, saying, “This [rite] we have learned from the apostles.” He also explains why—namely, that since we were born “without our own knowledge or choice,” and “brought up in bad habits and wicked training,” the rite of baptism exists that we “may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed.” 

Justin even mentions an important detail—why the Christians of the second century referred to baptism as illumination:

And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.

So even in the early Christian term for baptism, illumination, we find reflected the idea that baptism does something.

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Nov 16th 2021 Joe Heschmeyer

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