The Importance of Baptism In Early Christianity

By: Garrett Best

Sometimes you run across a quote that is just too good not to share. I’m currently reading The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986 by Stephen Neill and Tom Wright. It’s a fascinating book and I would highly recommend it if you are looking for a readable survey of the major Biblical interpreters in Europe and America during the 19-20th centuries.

Here is what Neill and Wright said about the importance of baptism for early Christians:

“If there is one thing more certain than another about these early churches, it is that admission to them was by faith and baptism. The New Testament knows nothing of membership in the Church by faith alone, without the accompanying act of obedience and confession. The Epistle to the Romans was probably written in A.D. 56, that is less than thirty years after the death of Christ; Paul takes it for granted that all his readers will have been baptized, and that the extraordinarily high and realistic doctrine of baptism which he presents to them is the familiar tradition of the Church and not a strange new doctrine which he has himself thought up under the influence of some Hellenistic tradition or other. Whether we like it or not, from the very beginning the Christian Church, which had grown out of the Jewish Church, had its institutional element. We may say, if we wish, that baptism was merely the outward expression of a living faith, and that faith was the all-important thing. This is true, but it does not alter the fact that, until faith found its expression in baptism, the believer was not a member of the Christian community, the body of Christ. Non-sacramental Christianity, as it is to be found today in almost all the Protestant churches of the continent of Europe, is an invention of the rationalistic nineteenth century; it has little to do with the Christianity of the New Testament and cannot be made to square with it.” (pg. 202)



  1. Gotta say, that Cornelius was and those with him were saved PRIOR to their water baptism/ They were baptized because they had been saved, not to be saved. I do believe that baptism is a symbol of spiritual cleansing (not the agent), and that it is secondarily an initiation into the community of faith. I deny that baptism has any saving power. The children of Israel walked across the Red Sea on dry ground, the Egyptians got the water. Noah the others with him were ALREADY on the Ark before the flood waters hit, in the NT there are some instances where salvation and being filled with the Holy Spirit (the true baptism) was prior to water baptism. The water of baptism is a sign , like you put in a window, that one belongs to the people of God. Joining the people of God was by faith, from first to last , Romans 1:16-17).

  2. That is a great quote!

    In a related note, I’m getting flooded with people asking for book recommendations on the history of biblical interpretation in Europe and America in the 19-20th centuries. Any advice? 😉

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