Baptism and Original Sin

Baptism and Original Sin
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, September 3, 2010 at 2:29pm

QUESTION: How does baptism relate to original sin?

ANSWER: To answer this question we must first begin with the fact that the NT teaches that baptism is a salvation event. I.e., it teaches that baptism is the point of time when God bestows the double cure for the problem of sin. In that moment God takes away the GUILT of sin by uniting us with Jesus Christ’s atoning death. This is called “baptism for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38). Also in that moment God begins the process of healing us from the DISEASE of sin by giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit (also Acts 2:38). This is the gift of “living water” promised by Jesus in John 7:37-39. When the Holy Spirit enters, the sinful soul that was “dead in trespasses and sins” is “made alive” in an act of “regeneration and renewing” (Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13; Titus 3:5). These things happen “in baptism,” says Paul (Col. 2:12). This is why Peter can say that baptism now saves us (1 Pet. 3:21).

Second, we must acknowledge that this is the understanding of baptism that appears in all Christian writings throughout the second century A.D. and into the third century and beyond. For example, Justin Martyr (around A.D. 150) said this: “We have learned from the apostles this reason” for baptism, i.e., “in order that we…may obtain in the water the remission of sins.” He also says that new converts “are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated,” because “they then receive the washing with water.” Here he cites John 3:5. (This is from his “First Apology,” paragraph 61.)

The Christian writer Tertullian, in a sizable treatise specifically on baptism written a little after A.D. 200, says the same thing. He opens the essay with these words: “Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life.” Though baptism is a physical act, its “effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from sins” (from chapters I and VII).

Third, we must also understand that about this time (around A.D. 200) some Christians were beginning to believe that infants are indeed born with a weakened and sickly spiritual nature as the result of Adam’s sin. There is no evidence that such an idea existed before then. Tertullian is the first to mention it, more in the form of questioning it than affirming it. The idea continued to be taught for the next couple of centuries in this mild form, i.e., an inherited state of spiritual sickness. The idea of original sin as inherited total depravity and condemnation to hell was not introduced until Augustine, in the early fifth century.

In any case, once some Christians began to believe in original sin in any form, they immediately concluded that infants ought to be baptized. The logic is simple: baptism is for the purpose of taking away sin; infants have a form of sinfulness because of Adam; therefore we must apply baptism to them to take away this “original sin.” In fact, Tertullian’s treatise shows that some Christians were already beginning to advocate infant baptism for this reason. This is how the whole practice of infant baptism began, and from that point on it continued to spread. Given the NT teaching of baptism as a salvation event, it was inevitable that when Christians began to believe in original sin, they would also begin to baptize their infants—even though the NT itself never mentions such a practice.

But WHY is there no mention of infant baptism in the NT itself? Because there is also no doctrine of original sin there!! Many have thought that Paul teaches such a doctrine, especially in Romans 5:12-19. And certainly in this text Paul affirms that Adam’s sin had potentially disastrous effects upon the whole human race. What most fail to recognize, though, is that Paul’s main point in these verses is that WHATEVER Adam’s sin WOULD have brought upon his descendants, such consequences have been completely removed and canceled out by the atoning death of the second Adam, Jesus Christ. Thus no one is actually born in a state of original sin of any kind. Instead, every infant is conceived and born in a state of having-been-redeemed from that awful fate. I.e., every child comes into the world not under original sin but instead under original grace. (See my book, “The Faith Once for All,” ch. 9; and my commentary on Romans, on 5:12-19.)

The Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace is similar to what I have explained above, but it does not go far enough. It still leaves children coming into the world afflicted with a partial depravity or spiritual sickness, similar to the view that arose in the early church around A.D. 200. I do not believe that Romans 5:12-19 leaves any room for ANY residual effects of Adam’s sin. Thus I believe that infants are born pure, free, and innocent—not by nature, but by the application of the original grace of Jesus Christ. Since this is the case, there is absolutely NO reason to baptize infants, unless one completely rejects the NT teaching about the meaning of baptism and creates a totally new meaning for it, one that is applicable to infants no matter what spiritual condition they are born in. (This is what Huldreich Zwingli did in A.D. 1523-1525, of course.)

Someone has asked if this prevenient grace or (more accurately) this original grace began to be applied only from the time of Christ’s atonement, i.e., only AFTER the death of Jesus on the cross. The answer is NO, it began to be applied as soon as sin entered the human situation in the days of Adam himself. Even Adam’s own children were born under Christ’s original grace. The bottom line is that NO child has ever been or will ever be born is a state of original sin. Paul’s whole point in Romans 5:12-19 is this, that no matter how strong and pervasive were the potential effects of Adam’s sin, the actual effects of Christ’s atonement are MUCH MORE effective and powerful. (See the “much more” in Rom. 5:15, 17.) Any attempt to make the application of the second Adam’s atoning work less effective than the awful consequences of the sin of the first Adam (as, e.g., in the Calvinist’s attempt to apply the former only to the elect) negates the whole point Paul is making in this passage.

How, then, does baptism relate to original sin? In Biblical terms there is no relation whatsoever, because there is no such thing as original sin in the first place. Baptism is still for the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the sin-sick nature, but this is not necessary and is not even meaningful until a child reaches the age of accountability and becomes responsible for his or her PERSONAL sins. That is when baptism is needed. The person who is forgiven and made alive “in baptism” (Col. 2:12-13) is being delivered from the consequences of HIS OWN trespasses and sins, not the one sin of Adam. (See the parallel passage in Eph. 2:1, 5: you were “made alive together with Christ” [v. 5] when “you were dead in YOUR trespasses and sins,” PLURAL [v. 1]. Our need for baptism arises from our many personal sins, plural, not from Adam’s one sin.)

(As a postscript, I believe it is proper to speak of the NT as teaching BELIEVERS’ baptism, as does everyone who rejects infant baptism. But I think it is also necessary to speak of SINNERS’ baptism, i.e., a baptism intended to be applied to those who are still under the condemnation and depravity of their own personal sins, and in which God’s grace works to take these conditions away.)

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