In the modern sense of the word, baptism is a Christian ritual or sacrament symbolizing the cleansing of sins or other spiritual impurities. Following baptism, Christian believers are welcomed into the Church body as sanctified members. Most ceremonies involve the use of water, although different Christian denominations have different methods of baptizing congregants. Some clergymen will sprinkle the water over an infant, while others prefer to fully immerse an adult candidate in a body of water.
The concept actually predates Christianity. The Greek word for baptism has no religious connotations whatsoever. To the Greeks, it described a submersion or dunking, in the sense of a sinking ship or a piece of cloth being submerged in dye. There is another Greek word, roughly spelled raptizo, which is said to denote sprinkling or pouring. This distinction between baptizo and raptizo does have some bearing on the modern Christian ritual.
Certain sects within Judaism also practiced a form of baptism before the arrival of Jesus Christ. The essential concept of cleansing one's spiritual body is similar to the modern Christian ritual, but it was also very different in its intent. When John the Baptist began perform his own baptism rituals, it was in accordance with the existing Jewish practice. When Jesus Christ arrived at the Jordan river, John the Baptist recognized the difference between his own largely symbolic ritual and the future baptism by the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
As Christianity grew in popularity, the sacrament of infant baptism became a vital element in the Catholic Church. During this ritual, an ordained priest sprinkles a few drops of holy water over the child's head or places a few drops on his or her forehead. The infant ceremony is accompanied by specific readings of Scripture, along with responses between the priest, parents and congregation. Baptism of an infant is believed to establish a bond between the child and God, leading to a blessed life as a new creature.
Protestant denominations vary widely on the issue. Some of the older denominations, such as Lutherans and Episcopalians, still practice infant baptism as a form of sanctification. Others, such as mainstream Baptists and Methodists, have also adopted the practice of adult rituals featuring full immersion, but have also maintained some forms of infant baptism. Many Charismatic churches stress the importance of baptizing an adult as a necessary part of a total plan of personal salvation. In these denominations, the ritual follows the act of repentance as a form of spiritual death, burial and resurrection.
Some of the differences between Christian denominations over the accepted form of baptism lie in the original language of the New Testament scriptures. Those denominations favoring sprinkling or pouring believe the original Greek translations used the word raptizo, which means to sprinkle. Others say the word was baptizo, which indicated a full immersion. This has led to several divisions within the Christian Church, based on disagreements over the form ordained by God.
Another controversy over the ritual is the age of accountability. Some Christian denominations believe that an infant should be baptized as soon as possible, in order to live out his or her life without the stain of man's sin. Others believe that it has no spiritual meaning until the candidate has reached an age of accountability, usually by age 12. Adult baptism through full immersion is seen as an act committed by someone who actually understand his or her sinful nature. Infants have no such understanding, therefore they are protected by God's grace.
The sacrament of baptism, regardless of the form it takes, is a tangible act of contrition which often provides the recipient with a sense of renewed purpose and dedication.