The Mystery of Holy Baptism intrigues many people who ask about the Orthodox faith. Our beliefs about Baptism differ from those of Western Christians – that Baptism is just a symbolic ritual. To the Orthodox Church, Baptism is a rite of passage into the Kingdom of God, that we might walk in newness of life. In this post, we talk about what truly happens to us during our Baptism and what this means for our salvation.
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What is Baptism?
Simply put, Baptism is our death, burial, and resurrection in union with our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. It replaces circumcision as the new rite of passage into the Covenant between God and His people. It is through Baptism that we enter into the Kingdom of God and into eternal life. The Apostle Paul described the promise of God beautifully in his letter to the Romans: “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (6:4). Thus we can see the essential quality of baptism in attaining salvation.
To baptize (Gr. baptizo) literally means to immerse or to put into. Therefore, the Orthodox have always baptized by triple immersion, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). In the Old Testament (OT), we see a type of Christian Baptism in the passage across the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1-2). John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Covenant, baptized with water unto repentance (Mark 1:4; Acts 19:4), and Our Lord Jesus Christ received this baptism and transformed it.
What happens to us as a result of Baptism?
There are three main things that occur or and are set in motion upon our being baptized. All three are spiritual in nature and reflect the “walk in newness of life” we are about to experience.
#1. A first and second dying
During Holy Baptism, we die with Christ on the Cross and descend into Hades with Him (the immersion). Then we ascend out of Hades with Christ, renewed and born again. As Saint Cyril of Alexandria (4th century) wrote to new converts, “You were led by the hand to the holy pool of divine baptism […] and each of you was asked if he believed in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. And you made that saving confession, you descended into the water and came up again three times. In the very same moment, you died and were born.”
The second dying we experience is our continual death to sin. Every day we must die to sin; when we don’t and allow ourselves to sin, we have quite literally forsaken/rejected our baptism. Saint Paul writes to the Colossians: “Therefore put to death your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).
#2. The resurrection of righteousness
Baptism ushers in our new life in Christ, our new birth and the entrance into God’s Kingdom (John 3:3) where we walk in newness of life. This Mystery joins us to Christ in His glorified humanity and indwelt by God Himself (John 14:23). Because of Christ’s death, we can now have a true relationship with God. A real, dynamic relationship, a true life in Christ. This first resurrection also serves as the prelude to the resurrection of our bodies at the Second Coming.
#3. Intimate, continual communion with God
The final spiritual change that Baptism accomplishes within us is purpose. We rise up out of Baptism to a new life, to the beginning of eternal life itself. This is why Saint Peter tells us that Baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21) – it removes filth from our souls and bodies and gives us a “good conscience toward God”. Because Christ took on our human nature and deified it by placing it at the Right Hand of the Father, we now have a pathway toward complete communion with God. We can participate in the Life of His Church and partake of Him in the Eucharist. We can experience His love, His grace, His energies, in a very real way. And we can continue to progress toward eternal life with God right there beside us.
Can someone not baptized be saved?
Many people ask this question. Ultimately, this is up to God to decide. If He wills to save someone who did not receive the Mystery of Holy Baptism, then He wills it. However, we know of the importance of Baptism, which Christ provided for us in the life of His Church. It would be foolish of us to knowingly reject the gift He has given us, especially a gift that allows us to be in intimate communion with Him.
Holy Baptism initiates a very real transformation in the mind, heart, soul, and body. We die with Christ on the Cross and resurrect with Him to a new life in which we die to sin. And because of this rebirth, we can now attain full communion with God, a real relationship with Him, as we work toward our salvation. Therefore, we should thank God for giving us this incredibly beautiful, heartrending gift, unworthy as we are.