Conversations in Reformed biblical theology

sacraments (2)

Baptismal theology (general)

What is baptism? Is it a brand new rite that sort of comes out of nowhere? Is it merely borrowed from the proselyte baptisms of the Jews?

The latter does not seem provable; it is not clear when the Jews began proselyte baptism. The former is simply implausible; and Jesus told John that His baptism was necessary “to fulfill all righteousness” - surely indicating that the act was not arbitrary.

Baptism in fact has deep roots in the Old Testament. The book of Hebrews describes the sundry washings of the law as “baptisms” (Hebrews 9.10 Greek; cf. 6.2). Likewise, the New Testament identifies great events of salvation history as “baptism”: the Great Flood and the passage through the Red Sea (see 1 Pet 3.18-22; 1 Cor 10.1-2). These events and rituals thus stand as antecedents for Christian baptism, and understanding the latter requires understanding the former.

In the law, the “baptisms” were ritual washings which helped the worshipper qualify for access to the tabernacle by restoring him or her to ritual cleanness. In the case of males, they served to restore the Israelite to the state of purity which circumcision had conferred upon him by way of initiation. That, baptism belonged in a sort of class with circumcision; circumcision was the initiating rite; many of the baptisms, at least, were restorative rites.

The passages through the Flood and the Red Sea depict baptism as movement from a world under judgment into a promised new creation.

These two baptisms (event and ritual) are closely related, as is reflected in Naaman’s washing in the Jordan upon Elisha’s instruction. Naaman had been a leper - unclean. When he baptized himself, we are told that his skin became “like a little child’s” - a new creation. Thus the baptismal themes of cleansing and new creation go hand in hand.

In the new covenant, of course, there is but one baptism, in contrast to the repeated baptisms of the law. This is indicative of the greater power of the new covenant.


Disclaimer: inclusion of material in the bibliography implies neither endorsement of all views expressed in the material, nor that the author of the material endorses (or, if deceased, would have endorsed) the views of this web site. The criterion for inclusion of material in this list is genuine helpfulness to the discussion, not uniformity of viewpoint.

Tim Gallant: “Encounter at Damascus:  The Acts Narrative as Paradigm for Paul’s Theology of Baptism.” Argues that Paul’s own encounter with Christ undergirds his baptismal views.

Tim Gallant: “Infant Baptism: A Biblical Introduction.” Although this essay is dealing specifically with infant baptism, it provides a great deal of salvation-historical material that helps shed light upon the meaning and nature of baptism more generally.

Tim Gallant: “Pentecostal Ordination: The Newness of Christian Baptism.” Correlates Christian baptism both to the ordination rites and the cleansing rites of the old covenant.

Robert Godfrey: “Why Baptism?” Modern Reformation (May/June 1997).

Mark Horne: “A Baptismal Catechism for Presbyterians.”

Peter Leithart:  “Christs Christened into Christ:  Priesthood and Initiation in Augustine and Aquinas.” Studia Liturgica (1999).

Peter Leithart:  “The Politics of Baptism.” First Things (December 1996).

Peter Leithart:  “Womb of the World: Baptism and the Priesthood of the New Covenant in Hebrews 10:19-22.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament (2000), 78:49-65.

Ralph Allan Smith: “Studies on Baptism.” An explicitly whole-Bible, covenantal approach to the doctrine of baptism.

Alan D. Strange: “Baptism as a Seal.” A helpful introduction to the relationship between covenant and baptism, and the nature of the sacrament's sealing function.


I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.

- Nicene Creed

How is it signified and seal unto you in holy baptism that you have part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?

Thus, that Christ has appointed this outward washing with water and added the promise that I am washed with His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away.

- Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 69

O Almighty, Eternal God, who by the Great Flood in accordance with your righteous judgment condemned the unfaithful world, and out of your great mercy upheld faithful Noah, together with him and his family, and in the same way did drown the hardened Pharaoh, together with all his people in the Red Sea and did nevertheless bring your people Israel, with dry feet to the other side, all of which had signified the baptismal washing. Wherefore we pray that through your free mercy, you graciously regard your servant N. and give to him the light of faith in his heart, that through this saving flood all might be drowned which he inherited from Adam, and he be taken out of the number of the unfaithful children of wrath. O heavenly Father, graciously receive him as a child, and join him together in one body with your Son in His cross, daily suffering, and burial together in one grace, to the end that in fervent love, steadfast hope and true faith, he might overcome death without fear and enter eternal life, through the same Lord Jesus Christ, your Son. Amen.

- Leo Jud, revision of Martin Luther’s Great Flood baptismal invocation