Here’s a brief quotation from Justin Martyr that sheds some light on the theology and practice of baptism (bold italicized are mine):
“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.”
Ante-Nicene Fathers 1: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus
Notice how Justin Martyr describes his own baptism as an act of dedication. When he speaks of being “made new through Christ,” he follows by explaining a process in which one first believes in what is taught as true, then makes a deliberate decision to “live accordingly,” and are then instructed to pray and fast – and then are brought “where there is water,” and are “regenerated.” Setting aside the regeneration language – in connection with baptism – for a minute, do note that Justin Martyr adds that this practice was “in the same manner” in which he was regenerated. This is one reason why I’m a credobaptist, that this process was more or less the standard Apostolic procedure concerning baptism and involved the conscious dedication of the one being baptized. This is what I think Peter is referring to in the following passage (1 Pet 3:21 ESV):
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…
Some have suggested that this was just the practice for converts, but the theology attached to baptism, the examples of its administration in the Apostolic age, and the witness of the Apostolic Fathers all seem to indicate that the only liturgy for baptism required the conscious decision and dedication of the one being baptized.
Baptism is seen as a dedication of oneself after careful examination and deliberation concerning what it means to follow Jesus. I think the term “regeneration” is synonymous with Justin’s later description of “the washing with water.” Regeneration, as understood as the doctrine of new birth that radically transforms the affections of the sinner, enabling faith in Christ, is not what Justin is referring to here. Rather, it is the sacrament of cleansing that gives assurance to the entreaties of the praying and fasting sinner. The cleansing in water is a sign and seal of the regenerating cleansing that God has graciously granted to the one is described as dedicating themselves to God. Being “made new in Christ” is temporally linked with the dedication language Justin uses, but you can also see that it is the necessary qualifier and logically precedes the “regeneration” that occurs in the “washing in water.”
© 2013, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.