“We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” -Nicene Creed
Baptism is the first of the Holy Mysteries, or Sacraments, of the Church. A Mystery is a sacred and holy act through which God’s saving power, His grace, works upon the recipient.
In Protestant countries, and particularly in North America, the predominant view of Baptism is that of it being a symbolic act. Baptism, in most Protestant churches, represents an act of obedience to Christ, an outward expression of an inward conviction. It is generally believed that one must first hear the Gospel, believe in Christ, and then be baptised; that only people of accountable age who have made a profession of faith should be baptised remains the dominant evangelical position. There are of course some variances and differences in the precise theology and expression, as well as some additional concerns for those Protestant churches that practice infant baptism, such as the Lutheran and Reformed churches.
The historic, and authentic, Orthodox-Catholic understanding of baptism is quite different however. The Orthodox-Catholic Church maintains the Sacramental efficacy of baptism as a true Mystery of our Lord. It is essential to our salvation, to our place in the Church, to our walk with Christ. Baptism is the foundation upon which the Christian life is built, it is the first Sacrament all Christians must receive. In Baptism the person dies to sin and is born-again into the spiritual life. As St. John says “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
Unlike our Protestant brethren who view baptism as symbolic of death and resurrection, we view baptism as a very real supernatural act that imparts the remission of sins and a union with Christ. Baptism is not just a sign of moral cleansing or symbolic of the spiritual rebirth of a person, as it was commonly viewed by the Jews. It is a very literal rebirth into the Kingdom of God, it is man’s participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, in the events of Easter. (Romans 6:3,4).
Every man baptized into Christ should pass progressively through all the stages of Christ’s own life, for in Baptism he receives the power so to progress, and through keeping the Commandments he can discover and learn how to accomplish such progression.
–St. Gregory of Sinai
Baptism washes away, it erases, the effects of the Original Sin, leaving the baptised person free to live life, to start anew. Because the person being baptized is now free of sin and takes on Christ as Paul mentions in Galatians 3:27, the newly baptized person becomes enlightened in the Biblical sense, that is they take on the Word that is the light, they become sons of light themselves. All who have been baptized have been consecrated for worship in the Christian Church and are left with an eternal sign of that consecration on their soul.
All people, who have never before been baptized, are eligible for baptism. However, the rite is reserved for those who profess the faith as adults (usually through the process of catechism), or for infants by the promise of the family to raise them in the Church. Note that baptism, by its very nature, is a sacrament that can only be performed once. While we will discuss its proper form, it is important to note that when baptism is performed with correct intent, and with the essential criteria, regardless of who performs it, the baptism is considered valid and should not be repeated.
The basics of baptism include the immersion or pouring of water and the recitation of the Trinitarian formula with the intent to baptise. The baptism should be done thrice, either by immersion or pouring of water, once at the recitation of each part of the Trinitarian formula. The ordinary ministers of baptism are the Bishop, the Priest or the Deacon. However, in emergency situations, any person may baptize another. Baptisms that are clearly invalid, and offer no Sacramental grace, include those done with non-trinitarian formulas such as those done by the Mormon church or by so-called Christian churches that deny the Trinity (such as Oneness Pentecostals and Iglesia de Cristo).
As important as baptism is, in and of itself, it does not guarantee salvation, entry into Heaven, or continued grace. Baptism is, rather, the promise of future salvation, a promise that is conditional on faith. Turn from God, and there is no salvation. Fail to obey God and there is no future hope.
“The grace of the Holy Spirit which is given mystically to every Christian when he is baptized acts and is manifested in proportion to our obedience to the commandments of the Lord. That is, if a Christian obeys the commandments of the Lord more, grace acts with him more, while if he obeys them less, grace acts within him less. Just as a spark, when covered in the ashes of fire becomes increasingly manifest as one removes the ashes, and the more fire wood you put the more the fire burns, so the grace that has been given to every Christian through Holy Baptism is hidden in the heart and covered up by the passions and sins, and the more a man acts in accordance with the commandments of Christ, the more he is cleansed of the passions and the more the fire of Divine grace lights in his heart, illumines and deifies him.”
+ St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain