St. Justin Martyr on Christian Baptism

St. Justin Martyr (100–165) was a second-century Christian apologist and one of our earliest testimonies to the worship of the Early Church. A pagan convert, he died a Christian martyr in Rome. In St. Justin’s First Apology (ca. 150), he writes regarding Christian Baptism:

Justin Martyr

St. Justin Martyr (André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584) (Wikipedia)

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. 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, “Unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5). Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias [Isaiah] the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, says the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if you refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it” (Isaiah 1:16-20).

And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.

—St. Justin Martyr
First Apology 61

8 thoughts on “St. Justin Martyr on Christian Baptism

  1. Before I became Orthodox it was the writings of Sts. Ignatius, Polycarp and Justin who played the biggest role in convincing me that the evangelical churches I grew up in had strayed from what had been handed down by the apostles. What I like about the passage you’ve quoted here is his trinitarian understanding of baptism. There is some debate over whether or not Justin was a trinitarian, but I’ve seen enough evidence to convince me that he used the limited language then available to convey the concept as best he could.

    • Really? That’s interesting. I’m not a theologian by any means, but it wouldn’t have even occurred to me that Justin wasn’t a Trinitarian. I have a whole lot of learning to do still.

      I’d been being pulled toward the Catholic Church in subtle ways for most of my life, I think, without even realizing it. I drifted a long way from my evangelical roots after high school — I come from a Pentecostal background, too — and never felt that I fit there after that. I developed a great admiration for the Church learning about it in history courses — one of my undergraduate mentors was a medievalist and a Latinist — and I had a fair bit of exposure to the Church Fathers and the medieval saints through his courses. The last thing standing in the way of my coming to the Church was the misconception that the modern Catholic Church was corrupt and burdened with lifeless accretions — and that fell pretty quickly once I attended Mass a few times and met some real, living Catholics.

    • I believe what commentary on baptism is right on with what the New Testament teaches about the issue, I’m part of a church that has strayed more on an evangelical direction. I’m not willing to leave it because it’s an opportunity to teach my fellow brethren about the Kingdom of Heaven the way God our Father and Christ intended. My wife and I have been reading what the early Christians or what the ante nicene fathers believed it has been very beneficial to us, it’s not an easy journey but a very joyful one and a challenge.

  2. You know, I could never remember where the practice of Baptism originally came from (I never got the impression that John the Baptizer made it up himself). Thanks Justin for pointing out the Isaiah passage!

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