What is Baptism – Matthew F. Sheehan

Baptism is the Christian sacrament of admission and adoption. It is one of the seven sacraments and is an ordinance of Jesus Christ. Baptism is sometimes referred to as a Christening, though some denominations reserve the term Christening for the baptism of infants. The sacrament is thought to be based on the acts of John the Baptist, who used baptism as the central sacrament of his movement and may have baptized Jesus.

In Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12, baptism is compared to burial. It symbolizes a person’s past course of life coming to an end and their rebirth into the Church. Baptism and the steps that lead up to it are designed to absolve guilt and to prepare the individual for their new life of faith. While the act of baptism itself cannot wash away sin, it is a central step in accepting God and exercising faith in Jesus. Through Jesus’ shed blood, mankind is granted salvation.

Methods of Baptism


During the time of John the Baptist, baptisms were performed in a moving river. The subjects were immersed completely in the water, washing away sin and allowing them to be reborn into a new life. Though this was the preferred method of John the Baptist, the immersion method of baptism does not actually require the individual to be fully submerged in the water. Immersion was the most common method of baptism for many years, though the ancient church viewed the mode of baptism and the amount of water used to be inconsequential.


The affusion method of baptism requires less water than the immersion method. During an effusion baptism, the individual being baptized has water poured three times over the forehead while holy words are spoken. This type of baptism can be done in virtually any location and is one of the more common methods of modern times. Another option similar to effusion is aspersion, which involves sprinkling only a small amount of water on the head.

Alternative Methods of Baptism

According to the Catholic Church, there are three ways that an individual can be saved. First, through the sacramental form of baptism, which involves water. Second, through baptism of desire. This is the explicit or implicit desire to be part of the Church. Third, through the baptism of blood, also known as martyrdom.

Meaning of Baptism

Most Christians view baptism as a central sacrament that is required for salvation, though some put less emphasis on the importance of it. The purpose of baptism is to save the person being baptized. It delivers them from the Original Sin and eliminates the guilt associated with it. It allows the individual to enter the kingdom of Christ and to live with him forever.

For Catholics, baptism by water is the initiation into a life of service and of God. It obliges the individual to share in the Church’s apostolic and missionary activity. It is the profession of the true faith required of a member of the Church. It is an outward sign of an inward grace. When a believer is baptized, it symbolizes their surrender to a life of faith and obedience to God.

Christian Traditions

Baptism is the literal and symbolical cleansing of an individual. It is the act of dying and rising again with Christ, dedicated to a life of service and salvation. Catholics believe that baptism is necessary to cleanse the individual of the Original Sin. It is common to baptize infants in the Catholic Church wearing a baptismal gown, in accordance to the texts of Matthew 19:14. Anglicans believe that baptism symbolizes the entry into the Church, affording the rights and responsibilities of full membership. They too believe it absolves the celebrant of the Original Sin.

Eastern Orthodox Christians typically prefer the threefold immersion method of baptism. This symbolizes the death and rebirth into Christ as well as the washing away of sin. Latin Church Catholics prefer affusion while Eastern Catholics employ submersion or partial immersion. Baptismal fonts inside the church are typically used for baptism by immersion rather than a natural body of water. After baptism, a baptism certificate may be given to document the event.

During the baptism ceremony, a baptism scripture is read by the priest. This is a central part of all sacraments and is intended to bestow wisdom and grace from God.

Age for Baptism

The age at which an individual should be baptized varies between denominations. Around 400 AD, a man named Augustine theorized that because of the Original Sin, man is separated from God at birth. During this time, infant mortality rates were rather high, causing parents to worry about the fate of their children should they die before being baptized. This led to the practice of baptizing infants, ridding them of the Original Sin and allowing them to enter heaven should they perish before adulthood. Since immersing an infant in water was a risky practice, baptism by affusion became common for these types of ceremonies.

Some faiths do not agree that children are at mortal risk if they die before being baptized. Those that do not baptize until adulthood believe that a child is safe in the arms of God until they can consciously decide whether or not to be saved by accepting Jesus. Thus, only adults and older children must be baptized.

As a central tenant of Christianity, baptism is widely practiced. While the age at which an individual is baptized as well as the method in which the ceremony is performed may vary from one denomination to another, the goal of baptism is always to absolve the believer of the Original Sin and to allow them to be reborn into the welcoming arms of Christ so they may find salvation through faith.