“One baptism for the forgiveness of sins”
As we look at the statements in the Nicene Creed, it helps to remember that each one was formed over several decades as a result of discussion, dispute, reflection, and prayer. Each phrase was carefully written. Each word, then, matters.
The phrase we are now considering – “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” – is a good example. The phrase is not intended to be a complete statement of the meaning of baptism nor of the theology of forgiveness, though it contributes to both. When we look at how this phrase is written and see it in the context of the creed as a whole, we see that the word that holds the key to its meaning is the word “one.”
The word “one” has already been used in the creed for emphasis: “I believe in one God… in one Lord Jesus Christ…. in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Therefore, we can safely assume that when the council Fathers at Nicaea chose the expression “one baptism,” they were stressing the “one” as essential.
A brief historical background will help us understand this insistence on one baptism. In this light, we may see how this insistence can enlighten our faith today.
The Nicene Creed was put together soon after the age of frequent persecutions of Christians by the Romans had come to an end. We know of the martyrs who were willing to suffer and even to die during those persecutions rather than violate their commitment to the Lord. Some Christians, however, were not so steadfast. When threatened, they agreed to offer sacrifices to the emperor or to one of the gods of Rome in order to escape suffering. Later, some of these regretted their failures and sought to be reconciled with the Church.
No one in the Church believed that such Christians should be rejected permanently. The question that caused a great deal of division in the Church was how such Christians could be offered reconciliation. Some Christians argued that such a failure was so great, so definitive, that it ended their baptismal covenant with the Lord and His Church. Such Christians, then, needed to be rebaptized in order to be reconciled. Other Christians, however, saw a second baptism as not merely unnecessary but as impossible. Based on previous Christian practice and on such Scripture passages as “God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29), they argued for one – and only one - baptism which creates a bond between Christ and the baptized person that endures even though the baptized person sins. We can no more be unbaptized than we can stop being the children of our biological parents. This latter response became the Church’s formal response, expressed in the creed by the word “one.”
Our belief in one baptism becomes both a source of hope and a challenge to our faith now. It offers us hope when we reflect on our sins, past and present. As we respond to the Lord’s invitation to be with Him and stand in His light, our sins and their implications become clearer to us. That clarity may cause our hearts pain and grief. This faith in one baptism assures us that we still belong to the Lord and to His people. If we approach the Lord with regret for our sins and a desire for reconciliation, He will show us His mercy. No sin is so terrible that it need separate us from the Lord or His Church forever. While we are in this life, at least, forgiveness and reconciliation remain possible.
Sometimes, however, we may be the ones sinned against. It may have been abuse or rejection from parents or classmates or teachers. It may have been abuse from someone who is called to represent Christ and the Church to us. Such abuse causes the sharpest pains and creates the greatest challenge for us. Because of our one baptism, we remain joined to Christ and His Church. Yet, we see people who have sinned against us who remain part of that same Church, at least by all outward appearances. To leave the Church as a result of this pain is very tempting but doing so cuts us off from some of the means of healing and grace that Christ desires to give us. The challenge becomes how we remain in the Church and remain united to Christ without denying or minimizing the sins we have suffered. We remember how Christ Himself suffered abuse for us. We know that He is close to all who suffer in His name. This gives us hope and healing, as through it all Christ offers us His loving embrace.
Father Mark Nolette, a priest of the Diocese of Portland