Soon after the Berlin Wall came down many American Evangelicals saw Eastern Europe as a mission field ripe for the Gospel. However, they overlooked the fact that Orthodox Christianity had already been there for over a thousand years! Mihai Oara wrote “Conversions and Conversions: Romanians between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism” which describes how Evangelicals sought to evangelize Eastern European Orthodox.
The typical narrative of conversion goes:
I grew up as an Orthodox, but I really did not know Jesus Christ. I used to drink, smoke and beat my wife. I was really disgusted with my life, until one day a Baptist friend invited me to an evangelistic service. There I heard the gospel for the first time in my life and I decided to give my life to Jesus. I talked with the Orthodox priest in our parish but he told me not to join a sect, because the salvation comes from kissing the icons and through good works. My family and friends thought I was crazy, but my life was completely changed and I decided to follow Christ in the baptismal water. In the new church I found real love and friendship and the pure Gospel, unadulterated by human traditions. Source
Within this conversion story are certain Evangelical themes: (1) growing up in an empty ritualistic church, (2) hearing the Gospel for the first time, (3) having a life changing “born again” experience, (4) getting baptized to demonstrate this new life, and (5) the pure Gospel versus human traditions. Many Evangelicals oppose the idea of sacramental grace, i.e., that one is born again or spiritually changed through the sacrament of baptism. They believe that baptism is valid only if one has had a genuine born again experience. This leads them to encourage Orthodox converts to get rebaptized.
The Evangelicals’ hostility to sacramental baptism and their insistence that their Orthodox converts undergo rebaptism present a serious challenge that requires a response from the Orthodox. Addressing the Evangelical challenge to Orthodox baptism requires answering the following questions: (1) What evidence is there for the Orthodox sacramental understanding of baptism? (2) What evidence is there for the Evangelical born-again experience? And (3) Which approach reflects the historic Christian understanding of baptism? It should be kept in mind that Evangelicalism is a diverse movement within Protestantism. In this article I attempt to speak to the mainstream of modern American Evangelicalism.
Baptismal Regeneration in Orthodoxy
Does the Orthodox Church teach that we are born again through baptism? The answer is: Yes. This can be found in the prescribed prayers for baptism.
But do thou, O 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 thou hast said, O Lord: Wash ye, be ye clean; put away evil things from your souls. Thou hast bestowed upon us from on high a new birth through water and the Spirit. (Hapgood ed., p. 278)
O Master, Lord our God, who through the Font bestowest heavenly Illumination upon them that are baptized; who has regenerated thy newly-baptized servant by water and the Spirit, and hast granted unto him (her) remission of his (her) sins…. (Hapgood, p. 283) Source
From the prayers used in the sacrament of baptism it is clear that the Orthodox Church believes that one is born again through baptism.
Baptismal Regeneration in the Early Church
One reason Orthodoxy believes that we are born again through baptism is because this is what the early Church believed. Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) affirmed baptismal regeneration in his First Apology:
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. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (First Apology LXI; emphasis added)
Irenaeus of Lyons (fl. c. 175-c. 195) also taught baptismal regeneration:
And inasmuch as man, with respect to that formation which, was after Adam, having fallen into transgression, needed the laver of regeneration, [the Lord] said to him [upon whom He had conferred sight], after He had smeared his eyes with the clay, “Go to Siloam, and wash;” thus restoring to him both [his perfect] confirmation, and that regeneration which takes place by means of the laver. (Against Heresies 5.15.3; emphasis added)
Basil the Great (c. 329 – c. 379) in On the Holy Spirit wrote:
First, it is necessary that the old way of life be terminated, and this is impossible unless a man is born again, as the Lord has said. Regeneration, as its very name reveals, is a beginning of a second life. (§35; emphasis added)
Here Basil understands “born again” in the sense of one life ending (life under the pagan gods) and another life beginning (life under Christ).
Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313 – 386) in his Catechetical Lectures referred to baptism as the “laver of regeneration” (Lecture 18.32) and closes the lecture with an extended quote from Titus 3 and Ephesians 1 in which baptism is referred to as the “washing of regeneration.” In Lecture 17.35 Cyril makes reference to the “season of baptism” – Holy Week preceding Easter Sunday – when the baptismal candidates would appear before the clergy: bishops, priests, and deacons. Jerusalem then was a major pilgrimage center for Christians. The practice of the clergy – bishop, priest, and deacon – administering baptism is also found in Tertullian’s On Baptism (§17). Ignatius of Antioch pointed out that baptism required the consent of the bishop (Smyrnaeans §8).
Thus, the consensus of early Christians supports baptismal regeneration. In early Christianity baptism is understood as the beginning of a new life in Christ, i.e., being regenerated or “born anew.” There is no evidence of salvation in Christ being separated from the sacrament of baptism or salvation being defined in terms of just a spiritual experience.
Baptismal Regeneration in the Bible
The Greek word for “regeneration” (παλιγγενεσια, palinggenesia) appears only two times in the New Testament: Matthew 19:28 and Titus 3:5. In Matthew 19:28 “regeneration” (παλιγγενεσια) refers to the renewal of creation at Christ’s second coming. This parallels Peter’s proclamation of the eschatological renewal of creation in Acts 3:21 and the promise of a new heaven and a new earth in Revelation 21:1.
The reference to “regeneration” (παλιγγενεσια) in Titus 3:4-7 is of greater relevance to the question about baptismal regeneration. Paul writes:
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth (διὰ λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας) and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (Emphasis added; NIV).
Here baptismal regeneration is linked to the bestowing of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of chrismation. In baptism we are joined to Christ thereby acquiring the status of adopted children of God; in chrismation our spirit is renewed through our receiving the Holy Spirit. This baptism/chrismation pairing was the common practice of the early Church. The Orthodox Church still retains this pairing, the Latin Church separated confirmation from baptism sometime after the seventh century (Louth p. 184).
Baptismal Regeneration in John’s Gospel
Many Evangelicals refer to Nicodemus’ night time conversation with Jesus in John 3 to support their teaching on being “born again.” The passage reads:
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:3; NIV)
The question for us is does John 3 teach baptismal regeneration or the Evangelical born again experience? The Greek here is “γεννεθη ανωθεν” (gennethe anothen) which has been translated “born from above” or “born again.” This ambiguity is because the Greek “ανωθεν“(anothen) can be translated either “above” or “again.” In Galatians 4:9, Paul uses the word “ανωθεν” in the sense of “again”; he asks the Galatians if they wanted to serve their former deities again. So while the English rendering “born again” is not a strict literal translation of the Greek, it conveys the underlying meaning adequately and agrees with the sense of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.
The key exegetical question for John 3:5-8 is what “born of water” and “born of Spirit” mean.
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (NIV)
One way to read John 3 is in terms of the sacraments of baptism (born of water) and chrismation (born of the Spirit). One of the reasons why we need take seriously the possibility of the connection between “born of water” with water baptism is the fact that Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in the first half of John 3 is immediately followed by the story in the second half of John 3 where it is emphasized that both John the Baptist and Jesus were baptizing where there was “plenty of water” (John 3:22-26).
Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown notes that in light of the Old Testament “born of the Spirit” could be understood covenantally (1966:139). He points to passages where the nation of Israel was referred to God’s first born child (Exodus 4:22, Deuteronomy 32:6, and Hosea 11:1; see also Isaiah 63:8, 64:8). Unlike pagan mythology which viewed the king as a direct offspring of the gods, the Israelites saw the monarch’s sonship in terms of the anointing that made a man a king (Brown p. 139; 2 Samuel 7:14, Psalms 2:7 and 89:27). Thus, as an educated Jew Nicodemus would have been well aware of the promise of the eschatological outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We find this promise fulfilled in Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances where he calls the disciples his brothers and breathes on them bestowing the Holy Spirit (John 20:17, 22; Brown 1966:140). This suggests that the Christian sacrament of chrismation has roots going back to the Old Testament.
Evangelical scholar Leon Morris noted that the Christians of John’s time would naturally have associated John 3:5 with the sacrament of baptism but then notes that Nicodemus could in no way have understood it that way as well (p. 217). For Morris rebirth by water and Spirit simply meant a new existence as a result of divine activity: “Jesus is referring to the miracle which takes place when the divine activity re-makes a man. He is born all over again by the very Spirit of God.” (p. 218) This spiritual reading of John 3 goes back to Calvin for whom real water was not necessarily involved as “water” referred to the purifying action of the Spirit. Calvin in his commentary on John 3 wrote: “By water, therefore, is meant nothing more than the inward purification and invigoration which is produced by the Holy Spirit.” (Emphasis added.) This dichotomy can also be seen in the Baptist New Testament scholar G.R. Beasley-Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament (1962) in which he was willing to recognize the efficacy of the Holy Spirit but not the rite of baptism (p. 230). This non-sacramental understanding opens the door to a vague and subjective understanding of the Holy Spirit. Its implicit Gnosticism is rather unlikely given the Apostle John’s struggle against the early Gnostic heresy which stressed the spiritual over bodily reality. Early Christians’ sacramentalism which understood divine grace, i.e., the Holy Spirit, to be at work in the physical matter, e.g., water (John 3:5), bread (John 6:48-53), mud (John 9:15), would have presented an effective deterrence against the Gnostic heresy.
Early Christian Baptism
Leon Morris disputes the sacramental reading of John 3 pointing out that the Christian sacrament of baptism was “non-existent” at the time of Nicodemus’ visit with Jesus (pp. 217-218). While that may be true in the strict sense, all the elements are also present in the story: (1) the inquirer (Nicodemus), (2) the catechist (Jesus), (3) the sacrament of baptism (water baptism by Jesus’ disciples), and (4) the sacrament of chrismation (the work of the Spirit).
Early Christian initiation followed the two-fold pattern set in John 3: “born of water” and “born of the Spirit.” People were first baptized (born of water) then anointed with holy chrism (oil) which conferred the Holy Spirit on the newly baptized (born of Spirit). Cyril of Jerusalem in his catechetical lectures described early Christian initiation in terms of the baptism/chrismation pairing:
For as Christ after His Baptism, and the visitation of the Holy Ghost, went forth and vanquished the adversary, so likewise ye, after Holy Baptism and the Mystical Chrism, having put on the whole armour of the Holy Ghost, are to stand against the power of the adversary, and vanquish it, saying, I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me. (Lecture 21.4; NPNF Vol. VII p. 149-150)
Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225) described a similar baptism/chrismation pairing in the early Church. In On Baptism (§7) he described the process:
After this, when we have issued from the font, we are thoroughly anointed with a blessed unction . . . . (Emphasis added.)
A careful reading of Tertullian’s description of baptism shows that he does not hold to a symbolic view of baptism like today’s Evangelicals.
Thus, too, in our case, the unction runs carnally, (i.e. on the body,) but profits spiritually; in the same way as the act of baptism itself too is carnal, in that we are plunged in water, but the effect spiritual, in that we are freed from sins (Italics in original; bold added). (On Baptism §7; emphasis added)
We see here Tertullian understanding baptism as spiritually efficacious. He does not present baptism as just a symbol as modern day Evangelicals would. As a matter of fact he boldly affirms a sacramental understanding of baptism – physical matter capable of conferring divine grace. In the early baptismal rites it was the practice for the priest to pray over and bless the water to be used for baptism. Tertullian explains the blessing of the baptismal waters of this drawing on Genesis 1 which recounts the Holy Spirit hovering over the primeval waters.
. . .that the Spirit of God, who hovered over (the waters) from the beginning, would continue to linger over the waters of the baptized. But a holy thing, of course, hovered over a holy; or else, from that which hovered over that which was hovered over borrowed a holiness, since it is necessary that in every case an underlying material substance should catch the quality of that which overhangs it, most of all a corporeal of a spiritual, adapted (as the spiritual is) through the subtleness of its substance, both for penetrating and insinuating. Thus the nature of the waters, sanctified by the Holy One, itself conceived withal the power of sanctifying. (On Baptism §4; emphasis added)
This twofold sacrament of baptism/chrismation agrees with Jesus’ disciples administering water baptism in John 3:22 and John the Baptist’s announcement that as the Messiah Jesus administers the Spirit baptism (John 1:33, Matthew 11, Mark 1:8. Luke 3:16, Acts 1:5). The baptism/chrismation pairing is alluded to in Acts 2:38, 19:5-6, Romans 5:1-5, Ephesians 1:13-14, and Titus 3:4-7.
Many Evangelicals understand baptism as “an outward sign of an inward grace.” For them salvation is in the experience of inward grace, not in the baptismal rite. The value of baptism lies in it showing the world that something has happened inside the believer. The Evangelical rejection of the sacramental understanding of baptism is based on a false dichotomy of baptism as magical rite versus baptism as purely symbolic. This reluctance to attribute efficacy to the baptismal rite resembles early Gnosticism’s spirit-matter dichotomy. Where Evangelicalism takes an either-or approach to the sacraments (opposing the physical elements against divine grace), Orthodoxy takes a both-and approach that views the physical elements as capable of conveying divine grace. Orthodoxy’s sacramental worldview is rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation in which the eternal Word of God became flesh.
Regeneration Understood Covenantally
This outward versus inward dichotomy can be bridged with the Reformed teaching on baptism as a covenant rite. One valuable contribution the Reformed tradition made to Christian theology is the highlighting of the biblical concept of covenant. It can serve as a bridge between Evangelicalism’s insistence on faith as a subjective experience and the historic understanding of baptism as efficacious sacrament. New life in Christ can be understood as a change in covenant affiliation: from living under Satan’s rule to living under Christ’s lordship. Conversion can be understood as a change from life apart from Christ to life in Christ. If faith is present then baptism is more than a ritual; it is a moment of personal encounter with Christ.
The Reformed tradition’s Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 20 “Of Holy Baptism” defines baptismal regeneration in covenantal terms.
Now to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be enrolled, entered, and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance of the sons of God; yes, and in this life to be called after the name of God; that is to say, to be called a son of God; to be cleansed also from the filthiness of sins, and to be granted the manifold grace of God, in order to lead a new and innocent life (Book of Confessions p. 100; emphasis added).
Another major Reformed confession, the Westminster Confession, Chapter 30 “Of Baptism” defines baptismal regeneration in covenantal terms.
Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world (Book of Confessions pp. 154-155; emphasis added).
Orthodoxy understands baptism as being more than a church ritual. Orthodoxy’s covenantal understanding of baptism can be seen in the questions asked of the candidate before baptism:
Dost thou renounce Satan, and all his Angels, and all his works, and all his service, and all his pride?
Hast thou renounced Satan?
Dost thou unite thyself unto Christ? and
Hast thou united thyself unto Christ?
(in Hapgood p. 274).
All four of these questions are asked three times and must be answered three times. This threefold repetition is a way of showing that the baptism is not a spontaneous whim but a serious commitment. In the case of a child, the godfather or godmother will answer for him (her); this sponsor is also responsible for the child’s spiritual growth and wellbeing. The assumption is that the child will be brought up in the Christian faith and one day will claim it as their own.
Is there biblical support for a covenantal understanding of regeneration? There are biblical passages that support this. John 1:12 reads:
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right (εξουσιαν) to become children of God…. (Emphasis added; NIV)
John could have used the word “dynamis” (from which we get “dynamite”) which means power or force, but instead he chose to use the word “exousia” which means authority. The word “authority” suggests that faith in Christ result in our being adopted into God’s family, that is, covenantal adoption. That a change in status is involved is supported by the Evangelical scholar Leon Morris (p. 98, Note 72). Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown was reluctant to understand “exousia” in semi-judicial terms (p. 11), but was open to understanding sonship in covenantal terms.
John 1:12 can be understood both covenantally and sacramentally. Becoming a child of God means being adopted into God’s family, i.e., entering into a covenant with God. In ancient times the suzerain invited people to enter into a covenant with him, that is, to receive him as their king and to become part of his household. What John does in his Gospel is reframe covenant relationship in terms of uniting one’s self with the incarnate Son of God. The radical element in John’s theology is God’s giving the Spirit to men as when the risen Christ breathed on his disciples. In the post-resurrection accounts the conferring divine sonship can be seen in Christ’s referring to the disciples as his brothers and his telling them that his Father is now their Father (John 20:21-22). The conferring of the Holy Spirit not only fulfills the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messianic Age, it also fulfills Jesus’ teaching about the coming life in the Trinity in John 14 to 17.
Baptismal Regeneration According to Paul
In Romans 6 and 7 Paul uses language that alludes to regeneration: being dead then being made alive, and burial and resurrection.
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:4; NIV)
Here Paul frames baptism within the context of authority relations. He talks about not letting sin “reign in your mortal body” (Romans 6:11-13). The Greek word for “reign” is “βασιλευετω” (basileueto) which has the same Greek root for “king” “βασιλευ” (basileus). This covenant framework was reflected In the way baptism was done in the early Church, especially in vows leading to a change in loyalties from the pagan gods to Jesus Christ the risen Lord.
Paul presents baptism as rescue from slavery. This is consistent with the Christus Victor motif which presents humanity as in captivity to the Devil until Christ came to rescue us.
But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. (Romans 6:17; NIV)
Baptism is much like the switching of citizenship from one country to another.
In Romans 7 Paul explains baptism using the analogy of the death of a spouse which brings about the termination of a marriage contract. Upon being released from her marital commitments the woman is free to live a new life. This analogy is intended especially for his Jewish audience who made the transition from the old covenant under Moses to the new covenant under Christ.
So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. (Romans 7:4; emphasis added; NIV)
The death Paul is writing about here is not so much a biological death but a legal/covenantal death. It is a lot like the owner of the store deeply in debt who agrees to an M&A (merger and acquisition) with a major corporation. After the M&A his store ceases to exist as independent entity, all assets and liabilities become part of the new owner. The good news is that new Owner assumes responsibility for the old debts and the “bad” news is that the former owner is now answerable to the new Boss, Jesus Christ.
However, a change of legal status is not enough, we also need a new life within us. In the early Church and in the Orthodox Church today becoming a Christian involves two sacraments: baptism and chrismation. This new life comes through the Holy Spirit. In Romans 5:5 Paul notes that “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (NIV) In Romans 8 Paul explains how having the Holy Spirit indwelling us enables us to live in accordance to the law of Christ.
The theme of baptismal regeneration can be found in Colossians 2:11-13.
In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature (flesh), not with the circumcision by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature (flesh), God made you alive with Christ. (Emphasis added; NIV)
Here we find Paul explaining the meaning of baptism not in terms of a subjective experience but in terms of being joined to Christ’s death and resurrection. The covenantal understanding of baptism can be seen in Paul’s equating Christian baptism to Jewish circumcision. Under the Mosaic covenant one became a Jew through circumcision but under the new covenant of Christ one becomes a Christian through baptism. While there is a symbolic element in baptism, Evangelicals have emphasized it to the point they have in effect excluded the sacramental and covenantal aspects.
Salvation Equals Experience?
Evangelicalism’s doctrine of the born again experience is the result of a trajectory of doctrinal evolution from the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s to English Puritanism in the 1600s to the American revivals in the early 1800s. Historically, Christians accepted the teaching of baptismal regeneration. For them there was no hard and fast distinction between regeneration, justification, and sanctification. This is much like the way the Apostle Paul conflated baptism with justification and sanctification in 1 Corinthians 6:11.
In the Middle Ages there emerged among the Scholastics a debate arose over whether the infusion of supernatural habits (virtue) was theologically prior or posterior to the divine acceptation (McGrath Vol. 1, p. 145, 154). In response to this debate Martin Luther created a new doctrine sola fide which rearranged the way the order of salvation was understood. Alister McGrath in Iustitia Dei notes:
The essential feature of the Reformation doctrine of justification is that a deliberate and systematic distinction is made between justification and regeneration (Vol. 1, p. 186; emphasis in original).
The significance of the Protestant distinction between iustificatio and regeneratio is that a fundamental discontinuity has been introduced into the western theological tradition where none had existed before (Vol. 1, p. 184; emphasis in original).
Luther’s doctrine of sola fide was based on justification being separate from sanctification and regeneration. While Luther continued to hold to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, this alteration of the traditional order of salvation would in time open the way to new understandings of Christian salvation.
Jerald Brauer’s “From Puritanism to Revivalism” (1978) helps us understand the historical roots of Evangelicalism’s “born again doctrine.” In the 1600s the English Puritans in their quest to further reform the church introduced a new criterion for church membership: a personal conversion experience. Baptism and assent to the church’s teachings were no longer enough, what was needed was being able to testify to an experience of converting grace. (See also Brauer’s 1976 article.)
The nature of the Puritan conversion experience can be expressed rather simply. It is a profound, overwhelming, totally transforming experience in which a person believes he has experienced death and rebirth through the powerful working of the Spirit of God (Brauer 1978:230).
The Puritan emphasis on conversion as subjective experience gave rise to personal testimonies that pinpointed the date and even the hour of the moment of conversion (Brauer 1978:241).
The Puritans changed justification into a multi-step process that took place over time. Their high view of the church led them to situate conversion within the church under the supervision of the minister. Under the later revivals conversion became instantaneous and independent of the church and its pastoral leadership. The early Puritans emphasized the conversion experience as a means to further the reform of the church. But for the later revivalists the conversion experience was an end in itself. The conversion experience became the bedrock on which the church was built; not having this experience disqualified one from church membership and even from the ministerial office (Brauer 1978:236-238). This was an unprecedented extreme unknown to historic Christianity. Such was the importance of the born again experience that it became the touchstone for Evangelical spirituality and theology.
Historic modes of thought developed by centuries of Christian history, both symbols and discursive thought patterns, were subsumed under the centrality of the conversion experience. It became the touchstone in terms of which all doctrines, traditions, offices, and institutions were to be tested. This represented a further shift in goal from concern for the covenantal community with its modes of thought and action and from the holy commonwealth, to a primary concern for the individual’s conversion (Brauer 1978:242).
The born again experience was not central to the original Protestant Reformation led by Luther and Calvin (Brauer 1978:234). The English Puritans affirmed Luther’s doctrine of sola fide but applied it subjectively. The Puritans’ emphasis on the personal appropriation of justification, i.e., conversion as subjective experience, marked a break from classical Protestantism.
. . . Puritans emphasized the personal appropriation of justification more than its givenness. Under the onslaught of doubt, Luther could say, I have been baptized, and Calvin could rest in the mystery of God’s mercy through eternal election, but the Puritan rehearsed the personal experience of conversion. Thus the stress on the personal appropriation of salvation tended to outweigh the classical Reformation’s emphasis on the givenness, the objectivity of God’s action in salvation. This, rather than predestination, was the center of Puritan experience and theology (Brauer 1978:234).
Thus, Puritanism can be seen as a transitional movement standing between the magisterial Reformation of the 1500s and the revivalist Christianity that emerged on the American frontier in the early 1800s. Brauer writes:
If it is viewed from the perspective of the magisterial reformation worked out by Luther and Calvin, Puritanism can be seen as a gradual subjectivizing of the Reformation faith. On the other hand, if it is viewed from the perspective of the Great Awakening and subsequent Revivalism, Puritanism is understood as a much more objective, less individualistically oriented movement (1978:240; emphasis added).
The New England Puritans’ subjective understanding of converting grace was what lay behind the Half-Way Covenant controversy in the late 1600s and the Great Awakenings in the early 1700s. Then in the 1800s when people began migrating over the Appalachians into frontier areas they became free from the supervision of the trained clergy a situation which allowed for new doctrines and spiritualities. It was in the frontier revivals that “mourners bench” was invented that would in time evolve into the “altar call” so widely associated with Evangelicals and the Baptists. The revivals and the “anxious bench” were designed to create a conversion experience among those in attendance. Revivalist Charles Finney‘s popular New Measures, e.g., the “anxious bench” influenced many Reformed churches that Mercersburg theologian John Williamson Nevin was provoked to write The Anxious Bench as a rebuttal and as an apologia for the catechumenate (See Borneman). With the rising prominence of the “born again” experience came a denigration of sacramental baptism. Baptism came to be seen as an outward sign of this experience but not integral to this experience of grace. The priority given to this inward experience rendered outward acts like baptism secondary at best or superfluous at worst. This low view of baptism would have been shocking in the early Church but it explains the hostility modern day Evangelicals display to Orthodox baptism.
The Uncertainty of Salvation
Orthodoxy takes issue with the presumptuous certainty with which Evangelicals say that they are going to heaven or that someone they know is already in heaven. With respect to the eternal destiny of individuals the proper Orthodox answer is: It’s a mystery. We trust in God’s great mercy and we have confidence in Christ’s power to save us. To believe in Christ is follow him, follow his teachings, join one’s self to Christ, and become part of his body, the Church. Being a Christian is not easy for it means denying one’s self and taking up one’s cross daily (Luke 9:22). What matters is not so much the spiritual “born again” experience (as beneficial it may be) but faithful obedience to Christ all the days of our life. To put it another way, one can have a genuine faith encounter with Jesus Christ of what Evangelicals call the “born again” experience; this marks the beginning of a life of faith and discipleship in the context of the Church.
In the Gospels are numerous cautions against presumption of salvation. John the Baptist warned the Jews that being born a Jew would not guarantee their salvation (Luke 3:8). Jesus warned that the Pharisees’ zealousness in keeping the Law of Moses was not enough to get one into heaven (Matthew 5:20). He also warned that those doing signs and wonders could end up in hell (Matthew 7:21-23). One of the most direct teachings on the question of who gets into heaven is found in Jesus’ teaching on salvation being like a narrow door that only a few will enter (Luke 13:22-30).
In 2 Timothy 2:11-13 Paul reminds Timothy of his rebirth through baptism, the call to discipleship, and a warning against abandoning the faith.
Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him, [baptism]
We will also live with him;
If we endure, [Christian discipleship]
We will also reign with him.
If we disown him, [apostasy]
he will also disown us.
If we are faithless,
he will remain faithful, [Christ’s steadfast love]
for he cannot disown himself. (2 Timothy 2:11-13; NIV)
What Paul wrote here is radically at odds with the easy believism that pervades much of contemporary American Evangelicalism. Paul did not teach: once saved, always saved. Rather, he taught the Christian life as being like a race. So a good Orthodox answer to the question: “Are you saved?” can be to quote the Apostle Paul:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14; NIV)
For Paul salvation is not something he already has in his pocket, it is something he is moving towards. It is a “goal” and a “prize.” This is so different from Evangelicalism’s easy believism where people are taught with a short prayer they are guaranteed to get into heaven and there is nothing left to do but to wait for the Rapture. Bible study support groups or sermons on practical Christian living or missions trip while good do not affect one’s getting into heaven. This attitude is reinforced by the “once saved, always saved” doctrine held by many Evangelicals.
The sacrament of baptism is more than a mere ritual. It is a covenant act in which one joins one’s self to Jesus Christ. Personal faith and the grace of the Holy Spirit make baptism a personal encounter with the risen Christ. In Orthodoxy baptism comprises a confession of faith in Jesus Christ and submitting one’s life to Christ’s lordship thereby entering into the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God here is seen as synonymous with having Christ as one’s king. The covenantal dimension of baptism means that baptism is more than a subjective individualistic expression of faith in Christ but an act of joining the Church, the body of Christ. Baptism marks the end of an old life and the start of a new life, hence the phrase “born again.”
Orthodoxy’s sacrament of baptism being rooted in Scripture and the Tradition of the early Church cannot be considered “mere human tradition.” The Orthodox understanding of baptismal regeneration reflects the historic understanding of baptism. Evangelicalism’s individualistic subjective understanding of baptism because it is recent is at odds with historic Christianity. Many nominal Orthodox Christians are unaware of Orthodoxy’s ancient spiritual heritage. These spiritual treasures are there to be reclaimed by the Orthodox and shared with others.
Saying No to Rebaptism
Orthodoxy does not object to spiritual experience but it does object to the way Evangelicalism has made the born again experience foundational to being a Christian and the way it delinks the born again experience from the sacrament of baptism. Anyone who doubts Orthodoxy’s openness to spiritual experience is encouraged to read Gregory of Palamas and Symeon the New Theologian.
Should an Orthodox Christian seek rebaptism if after years of sporadic attendance and spiritual indifference they come to a renewed faith? If baptism is a sacrament as taught by the Orthodox Church then the answer is: No. For an Orthodox Christian to seek rebaptism is a serious sin. It is wrong because it entails a rejection of the Church’s teaching on baptism. Also, the Nicene Creed teaches that we recognize “one baptism for the remission of sins.” Baptism is an unrepeatable sacrament, once done it can never be repeated.
An Orthodox Christian seeking rebaptism would be like an American teenager telling his parents that although he grew up in America he doesn’t really feel American and for that reason he is seeking to become a naturalized American citizen. One can only imagine the look of surprise and incredulity on his parents’ faces. Plus the feelings of being hurt and insulted. Then the perplexity because this idea has no legal basis. The only way for the mixed up teenager to make this harebrained idea work would be to emigrate to another country, renounce his American citizenship, acquire citizenship in another country, then apply for US citizenship (providing the Dept. of Immigration and Naturalization Service approves the application for citizenship). Similarly, for an Orthodox Christian to seek rebaptism at an Evangelical congregation would involve the repudiation of the Orthodox Church, abandoning Orthodoxy, and becoming a Protestant. Taking part in a sacrament of a non-Orthodox church is grounds for excommunication; it is a serious sin. One cannot receive Communion in an Orthodox church unless one has first gone to confession with an Orthodox priest, confessed the sin and renounced the errors of Protestantism.
Evangelicalism’s “born again” experience is a lot like a guy telling a girl: “I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you!” The girl should respond with: “Are you proposing to marry me?” Orthodox baptism is like the wedding ceremony where the man and the woman make vows with profound consequences – they become “one flesh.” (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:15-17) So while Evangelicals may be sincere in their attempts to reach out to Orthodox Christians, their teachings that Orthodox baptism is not valid or that Orthodox Christians are not truly born again are attacks on Orthodoxy. They are seeking to replace the ancient Faith with one that is new and that separates people from the Orthodox Church.
Nominalism is a problem among Orthodox Christians but leaving Orthodoxy is not a good solution. Orthodox Christians who have backslidden, that is, fallen into patterns of sinful behavior, need to be confronted with the Gospel, go to Confession, and be restored to spiritual health through receiving the Eucharist. Evangelicals often talk about the need for revival and this is what is happening in Romania and elsewhere. At the end of his article Mihai Oara describes the revival of Orthodoxy in Romania:
What is happening, however, is that nominal Orthodox Christians are becoming more devout and starting to attend church services and participate in the sacraments. Every time I visited Romania I found churches full at the main services, sometimes with crowds overflowing outside. A lot of new churches and monasteries are being built, so many that I have recently read an article in a British newspaper which was complaining that while Romanians are among the poorest in the European Union, they paradoxically spend too much of their money on building churches.
Orthodoxy needs revival! In Romania, in America and everywhere else. Lord have mercy!
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