It should be clear that baptism was ordinarily a sacrament for "adults." This does not mean that, since today children of precatechetical age are the ordinary subjects of baptism (with later reception of confirmation and Eucharist), the newly recovered rites of Christian initiation have meaning only for the few adults who "missed" baptism when they were young. What is evident from any study of the history of initiation is that it cannot be understood if it is assumed that infants were the ordinary subjects of baptism from the beginning. Today, even though infants are the ordinary subjects of baptism, it is in the rites for the Christian initiation of adults that the full meaning of baptism is found.
Images and Themes of Initiation
The New Testament reveals different theologies of baptism. Although there is no contradiction between these theologies, it would be wrong to think that each New Testament community (and author) has the same view of baptism. This anachronistic approach stems from a contemporary theology of baptism that, understandably, uses all the theological strands of the New Testament in order to develop a rich theology of baptism. There are, then, different levels of baptismal interpretation in the New Testament, some more primitive (for example, Luke and the other synoptics) than others (Paul and John).
The earliest theology of baptism is found in the Lukan Acts. The underlying theme is that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. Secondly, Christian baptism, unlike that of John, is in the name of Jesus. Thirdly, the gift of the Spirit is loosely attached to baptism. Note this passage, for example: "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 shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 2:38).
Washing in water for the forgiveness of sins is fundamental to all other theologies of baptism. The message of Peter, demanding personal repentance, metanoia, is the basic message of Jesus' preaching in the Gospels: "The time has come . . . and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News" (Mark 1:15). In modern times, when sin and repentance seem to have lost their force, it may be difficult to perceive how the primitive preaching on baptism restored hope to those in despair. The preaching emphasized the forgiveness of sins, the ability to forget the past and have a future, the possibility of starting over again, and, finally, the involvement with a person, Jesus Christ, who made such forgiveness possible. Again, many associate contemporary baptism with the removal of original sin, not personal sin. The New Testament neither minimizes sin and repentance nor associates baptism with original sin exclusively. The forgiveness of sins spoken of by Peter refers to the personal sins of each individual, the life of sin that is contrary to the following of the Lord. On the other hand, this message of repentance and forgiveness emphasizes the fact that Christianity is not a religion that places no requirements upon the shoulders of its practitioners. Instead, Christianity is a way of life.
In no way contradictory to the theme of forgiveness of sins, but building upon it in a positive way, is the more advanced theological intuition of St. Paul into baptism as participation in Christ. Thomas Marsh terms Paul's theology of baptism a "peak theology" of the New Testament. Although it seems to have had no influence upon the early theology of baptism and the evolution of baptismal practice, Paul's profound insights into baptism were "rediscovered" by the mystagogues of the 4th century and, from that time to our own, have been fundamental for an understanding of baptismal initiation. Paul views baptism as the Christian's union with Christ through participation in his death along with the pledge of future resurrection. Nowhere is this theological theme better expressed than in Romans 6:3-8 (a pivotal reading in the contemporary Easter Vigil):
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his . . . If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.
Allied with this theme is another Pauline theme, that of participation in the church, the body of Christ.
Another insight into baptism is introduced by the Johannine corpus -- the theme of being reborn as children of God. Where Luke and the synoptics conceive baptism negatively, where Paul views baptism much more positively and with an intrinsic connection to Jesus Christ, John, although continuing the positive approach to baptism, does not see baptism all that closely connected with Christ. Instead, men and women who are baptized and born again are regenerated through "water and the Spirit" (John 3:5). All the above themes are related. Baptism for the forgiveness of sins is the negative side of the coin, absolutely essential to any notion of sharing in Christ, the sinless One, or in his body, his spotless robe, or of being born through cleansing water and loving Spirit.