The Purpose of ImmersionReferences to baptism in the patristic literature abound. It is clear that for the first few centuries everyone was in agreement that baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, and was the gateway to salvation. Of course Jesus is the gate (John 10:7), but the water is where we meet Him. We will limit our survey to the earliest patristic writers.
Hermas, c. 140-150 AD:
... when we went down into the water and received remission of our former sins...(Shepherd IV.iii.1) Note: Remission is simply another word for forgiveness.
Justin Martyr, c. 150-165 AD
As many as believe that the things are true which are taught by us and decide to live accordingly are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting for the remission of their past sins and we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water and are born again (Apology 1.61).
Then in discussing John 3:5 (a passage always associated with baptism in the early Christian literature) Justin Martyr continues:
In order that we... may obtain the remission of sins... there is pronounced in water over whom who has chosen to be born again and has repented of his sins the name of God the Father and the Lord of the universe (1.61).
In his discussion of the Lord's Supper he says that no one is allowed to partake of the communion except the man who "has been washed with the washing that is for remission of sins and unto a second birth and is so living as Christ has enjoined." (1.66).
Irenaeus, c.192 AD
"We have received baptism for the remission of sins... And this baptism is the seal of eternal life and new birth unto God" (Dem. 3.41f. Haer. 5.11.2).
Nicene Creed, 325 AD
This fourth century creed (technically, the Creed of the Council of Nicaea) is well known. It is ironic that although it is cherished by churchgoers the world over, the import of its words is frequently overlooked: ...I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins...
Naturally these affirmations do not stand on a par with the authority of scripture, but they do shed light on the early Christians' understanding of baptism.
Scholar of the early church, Everett Ferguson, has studied all the evidence concerning baptism in the first five centuries of the church. His extensive study encompasses Christian art (depictions of baptism), written documents (Patristics), and archaeological evidence (church buildings, baptistries).
His magnum opus, Baptism in the Early Church (953 pages), is the result. The verdict: Baptism was immersion, and universally practiced as the means of entry into the church of Christ.
ConclusionBeyond a shadow of a doubt, baptism in the New Testament and afterwards wasimmersion for salvation -- at least for the first few centuries!
Further studyThe Water That Divides: A DVD of a live presentation at the University of Georgia -- PowerPoint plus Q&A session. Seven great books on baptism: authors are LaGard Smith, Everett Ferguson, Jack Cottrell, Rex Geissler, George Beasley-Murray, and John Mark Hicks. I've read them all and recommend them.
Next weekI hope you enjoyed the Baptism series (Part I and Part II), and will share this information with others who may benefit.
In our next series, we will study the biblical meanings of both "falling away" and "restoration."