I recently received a question from a sweet lady about our church’s use of the Nicene Creed in one of our worship services. About once per quarter, we recite this old confession. But a line in the creed was bothering her, as it could sound like the creed supports the idea of baptismal regeneration. Here is my response slightly edited for this format.
I really appreciate your question about baptism as mentioned in the Nicene Creed.
The Nicene creed says, “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” That phrase, “for the remission of sins,” is what sounds like a sticking point. Is the creed suggesting to us that the act of water baptism brings to us the remission of sins? Does it suggest that baptism is required for salvation? Does it say to us that baptism regenerates a person? I certainly understand how the questions could be raised.
We know that Scripture does not teach that baptism regenerates a person. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9). Nor does Scripture indicate that water baptism is required for a person to be saved. So, if the creed is suggesting such things, we must do away with at least that part.
Let’s ask where might the language that is used in the creed have come from? We read in Acts 2:37-38, “37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ 38 And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” Here we see what I would guess is the source of the language that was used in the Nicene Creed.
First, is language that indicates that there is one baptism “for the remission of sins” biblical? We have to say that it is since we can see it right there in Acts 2:28. Therefore, if we understand the language correctly, if we have a proper understanding of salvation and baptism, we do not have to avoid using it.
Next, does such language require us to believe that the point being made is baptismal regeneration? I would argue not. Peter was certainly not suggesting in Acts 2 that being immersed in water brings about forgiveness. Peter instead ties together as a unit repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We must also note that the very same Peter who used that phrase in Acts 2 was also clear in his first epistle to say that physical baptism has nothing to do with our salvation. Peter wrote, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21). Clearly Peter is connecting the physical act of baptism unbreakably to a person’s initial cry of repentance and faith. Baptism is not physical washing. Baptism is the act of one who has cried out to God to appeal to him for forgiveness. Peter says baptism saves, but then immediately points out that baptism has nothing to do with saving you but simply points to the faith through which you are saved.
How then should we think about the phrase, “baptism for the remission of sins.” To the early church, there was no concept of separation between saving faith and baptism. This is not to say that the church, if pushed, would suggest that faith alone does not save. Nor is there a belief that baptism has anything to do with causing one’s salvation. Instead, it is to say that there is a clear assumption in the minds of the church that those who repent and believe will quite naturally be baptized. It was simply unthinkable to a first century Christian that anybody could be genuinely saved and refuse to follow the Lord in baptism. Thus, to call a person to be baptized in the first century would be akin to calling them to repent and believe for salvation and to follow that belief with baptism.
To show that this concept is not me reading into the text, let me add that there are other places in Scripture where one word is used to point to a concept that is broader. For example, we are happy to say that whoever believes is saved (John 3:16). But we also know that repentance is part of saving faith (Matt. 4:17). There is nothing wrong with suggesting that faith saves. At the same time, there would be nothing wrong with an even clearer call to repent and believe. After all, one cannot genuinely believe in a saving way without repenting. Thus, a call to faith necessarily includes the call to repentance.
Another example in Scripture is Paul’s statement in Romans 10:9, “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” One could argue that all that Paul is saying we must believe is that Jesus rose from the dead. But included in Paul’s words are the understanding that the resurrection includes the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins and the doctrine contained in its understanding.
The point I think we should see is that, sometimes in Scripture, a single term is used to hold a larger concept. And I believe that when Peter says that we should repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins in Acts 2:38, he is using the word baptism to include all that baptism represents. Baptism represents a repentant faith in the Lord Jesus and his saving grace. That repentant faith in the Lord Jesus is our only hope for the remission of sins. That faith is symbolized in the one, true baptism.
If we understand that what I am suggesting is the meaning of Acts 2:38 is sound, and if that is the source of the language in the creed, I do not think we will need to worry that the statement in the creed is promoting anything unsound. We must actually agree that there is only one baptism for the remission of sins. That baptism is the baptism which symbolizes the saving faith and repentance of the believer. That baptism is what peter was calling for in Acts 2:38. And that baptism necessarily contains the faith that saves and must not be separated from it.
As I said a moment ago, I really am grateful for your question, as it forced me to think more clearly about the statement in the creed. I agree that, if not explained, that statement can be confusing to people in our culture, because baptism has been wrongly understood in many denominations. I believe that your question will cause me to take some time to help our folks guard against the misunderstanding that could arise here. Similarly, I often take time to remind our folks that the word catholic in the creed is not intended to mean the Roman Catholic Church, but is merely a word that means the universal church, the body of all who have ever been saved by Jesus.
You might also ask me why we would use the Nicene Creed, or any creed, if people have the potential of being confused by the language? I think that the use of such statements, even with the potential for confusion, is helpful. I believe that there is something good in, from time to time, helping our church acknowledge basic doctrines that have been proclaimed for centuries. It is nice to see that what we preach at our church is not a doctrine that we have come up with recently, but that it is compatible with the words of the believers who declared these things to be true back in 381, even if we might say things in a clearer way for our generation.
I hope this answer is helpful. And I will be sure to do what I can to help our folks know that this line is not about baptismal regeneration in any form.