Sometimes, perhaps somewhat blithely, we claim baptism is for the remission of sins. While the statement is true, it doesn’t come close to giving us the full understanding of what baptism is or does. Reducing baptism to being about the forgiveness of sins probably occurs because an over emphasis on a notion of “original sin” has caused people to assume that washing away the guilt of original sin is the main or even only point of baptism. But remitting sins is only one aspect of baptism as can be noted in our baptismal prayers as well as in some of the comments from the Patristic writers. For example, St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) mentions that in his time baptism was called “the bath of regeneration” not “the bath of the remission of sins” and he explains why:
“Any way, someone will say, if the bath takes away all our sins, is it not called the bath of the remission of sins, or the bath of cleansing, rather than the bath of regeneration? The reason is that it does not simply remit our sins, nor does it simply cleanse us of our faults, but it does this just as if we were born anew. For it does create us anew and it fashions us again, not molding us from earth, but creating us from a different element, the nature of water.
This bath does not merely cleanse the vessel but melts the whole thing down again. Even if a vessel has been wiped off and carefully cleaned, it still has the marks of what it is and still bears traces of the stain. But when it is thrown into the smelting furnace and is renewed by the flame, it puts aside all dross and, when it comes from the furnace, it gives forth the same sheen as newly-molded vessels.
When a man takes and melts down a gold statue which has become filthy with the filth of years and smoke and dirt and rust, he returns it to us all-clean and shining. So, too, God takes this nature of ours when it is rusted with the rust of sin, when our faults have covered it with abundant soot, and when it has destroyed the beauty He put into it in the beginning, and He smelts it anew. He plunges it into the waters as into the smelting furnace and lets the grace of the Spirit fall on it instead of the flames. Then He brings us forth from the furnace, renewed like newly-molded vessels, to rival the rays of the sun with our brightness. He has broken the old man to pieces but has produced a new man who shines brighter than the old.” (Ancient Christian Writers: Baptismal Instructions, pgs. 138-139)
For Chrysostom, baptism does not only forgive sins, though it does that. More gloriously, baptism is understood by Chrysostom as it is a total regeneration of the human. The forgiveness of sins certainly happens in baptism, but so much more happens – the total transformation and transfiguration of the person occurs – the renewal of creation itself. This is what we pray for in the baptism service. So before we even do the baptism of the person, we bless the water and set the theological stage for what baptism is. In the blessing of the water in the baptism service, we pray:
“And grant unto it the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan. Make it the fountain of incorruption, the gift of sanctification, the remission of sins, the remedy of infirmities, the final destruction of demons, unassailable by hostile powers, filled with Angelic might; that those who would ensnare your creature will flee far from it. For we have called upon your Name, O Lord, and it is wonderful and glorious, and terrible unto adversaries.”
“But do You, Master of all, show this water to be the water of redemption, the water of sanctification, the purification of flesh and spirit, the loosing of bonds, the remission of sins, the illumination of the soul, the laver of regeneration, the renewal of the spirit, the gift of adoption to sonship, the garment of incorruption, the fountain of life. For You have said, O Lord: Wash and be clean; and put away evil things from your souls. You have bestowed upon us from on high a new birth through water and the spirit. Wherefore, O Lord, manifest Yourself in this water, and grant that he who is baptized therein may be transformed; that he may put away from him the old man, which is corrupt through the lusts of the flesh, and that he may be clothed upon with the new man, and renewed after the image of Him who created him; that being buried, after the pattern of Your death, in baptism, he may, in like manner, be a partaker of Your Resurrection and having preserved the gift of thy Holy Spirit, and increased the measure of grace committed unto him, he may receive the prize of his high calling, and be numbered with the first-born whose names are written in heaven, in You, our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.”
We recognize in the baptism service that salvation is about the entire world and whole cosmos. Baptism is not merely for the remission of human sin, but is to heal and set aright all that has been made wrong in creation by human sin. Human sin didn’t just sully the soul, but it also disrupted the relationship between humans and God and between humans and the rest of creation. All of creation groans under the effects of human sin (Romans 8:19-22). God who so loves the world in the incarnation brings salvation to the entire created order not just to human souls. In the prayers of the Baptism service, we see how many benefits come with and from baptism itself:
the remission of sins,
the final destruction of demons,
purification, the loosing of bonds,
a new birth, transformation,
clothed upon with the new man,
a partaker of Christ’s resurrection,
numbered with the first-born whose names are written in heaven.
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:27)