What comes to mind when you hear the word renunciation? One might think of a brave dissident who renounces her citizenship before officials of her native land in favor a of chosen country with greater political freedom. If you are a fan of history (or of the Netflix series The Crown), maybe you think of the scandalous 1938 abdication of King Edward VIII, who renounced his claim to the British imperial throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
Closer to home, perhaps, you may think of a wedding. The declaration of intent asks bride and groom, “Forsaking all others, do you pledge yourself to each other for as long as you both shall live?” In affirming this declaration, a husband and wife freely and intentionally renounce all other possible partners and embrace a vow of lifelong, exclusive commitment.
Public, binding renunciations are deeply significant. They declare a person’s free choice to deny one path in exchange for another. They bind a person’s decision to the accountability of chosen witnesses. They stand throughout time as a testimony — in record and memory — of a deliberate and sober commitment, come what may. They are made by persons of responsible age who can understand the entailments of the commitment.
“No renunciation is more central to the Christian life than the one that occurs at baptism.”
While the practice has all but disappeared from many liturgies, no renunciation is more central to the Christian life, nor more rooted in the history of Christian tradition, than the one that occurs at baptism. And this renunciation also underscores why baptism should be reserved for professing believers.
Baptism from the Beginning
From the earliest days of the church, baptism was understood as a person’s public identification as a disciple of the risen Christ (Matthew 28:18). Baptism testifies to a person’s conscious faith in Jesus as Lord, reflects the deep inworking of grace in the transformation of desire, and marks the believer’s entry into the community of the local church (Romans 6:3–5; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27). Luke’s narrative history of the early church depicts new believers being baptized in the presence of witnesses, testifying to their adoption as fellow heirs, and signaling their pledge to live as citizens of a heavenly kingdom (Acts 10:44–48).
Leaders in the early church universally maintained these emphases in the post-apostolic age.1 They emphasized the importance of public profession of faith as part of baptismal practice by pointing to the “good confession” Timothy made “in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:12). So also, they noted how the apostle Peter linked the public “pledge of a good conscience to God” to the celebration of baptism (1 Peter 3:21 CSB). Tertullian (155–220) argued that the practice of profession of faith at baptism, if not directly derived from the Scriptures, “without doubt flowed down from tradition,” having been “handed down” from the disciples.2
One’s public testimony at baptism not only highlights the work of sovereign grace in election and regeneration; it also reflects supernatural deliverance from the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of the beloved Son (Colossians 1:13). Trusting in Messiah Jesus entails deliberately forsaking the self-reliance, idolatry, and vain pursuits that characterize life under the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19). As with a wedding vow, the new believer makes a dual commitment at baptism. He freely and intentionally renounces the claims of Satan upon his life, and he consciously embraces a lifelong, exclusive commitment to the lordship of Christ.
Satan, We Renounce You
In the early church, new converts entered a process of instruction as catechumens (Greek katēkhoumenos, “being instructed”), in which they were taught the basics of the Christian faith. Only upon clear understanding and conscious profession of faith would a catechumen be accepted for baptism. The earliest accounts of baptismal practice thus record not only a profession of faith, but the renunciation of Satan. Tertullian of Carthage writes,
When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the bishop, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels.3
Allegiance to Christ meant renouncing, rejecting, and repudiating the reign believers were formerly under and the practices they previously performed. The Apostolic Tradition, an early third-century Egyptian handbook to church order, records a similar instruction:
Then the presbyter, taking hold of each of those about to be baptized, shall command him to renounce, saying: I renounce thee, Satan, and all thy servants and all thy works.4
In a series of lectures designed to prepare catechumens for baptism, Cyril (313–386) describes how this renunciation was practiced at the church at Jerusalem. On the night before their baptism, after candidates entered the outer hall of the baptistery building, they were told to face west (symbolically the region of darkness), stretch forth their hand, and, “as though he were present, [say,] ‘I renounce thee, Satan!’” Cyril continues,
What then did each of you stand up and say? “I renounce thee, Satan,” — thou wicked and most cruel tyrant! meaning, “I fear thy might no longer; for that Christ hath overthrown, having partaken with me of flesh and blood, that through these He might by death destroy death, that I might not be made subject to bondage for ever.” “I renounce thee,” — thou crafty and most subtle serpent. “I renounce thee,” — plotter as thou art, who under the guise of friendship didst contrive all disobedience, and work apostasy in our first parents. “I renounce thee, Satan,” — the artificer and abettor of all wickedness.5
“Allegiance to Christ meant renouncing, rejecting, and repudiating the reign believers were formerly under.”
Such was the universal practice from Africa to Palestine to Asia. In a homily on baptism, Proclus (d. 446), bishop of Constantinople, reminds catechumens that blasphemy, empty pleasure, evil deeds, and idolatry are the schemes of the devil. To renounce Satan means forsaking idolatry, rejecting envy and drunkenness, disavowing stealing, lying, and prostitution, and rejecting the use of magic to obtain health.6 Proclus instructs baptismal candidates to declare, “I renounce you, Satan, and your pomp and your cult and your angels and all your works.” He continues,
These things you called out in words. Demonstrate it with your deeds! Sanction your confession with your conduct. Do not return to the place whence you ran away!7
Confessions of Catechumens
Clearly, the affirmations and renunciations of the baptismal rite can only be made by those who knowingly, freely, and authentically profess faith in Christ. Only believers can bear public witness to the radical transformation of sovereign grace. Only believers can solemnly renounce their former way of life and forsake the power and promises of the evil one. Only believers can commit to live in holiness by the power of the Spirit as part of a community of faith. For centuries, the liturgical practice of the church demonstrated the priority, temporally and theologically, of the baptism of adults.
The prevalence of infant baptism in the sixth century spelled the end of the catechumenate in many places. Even then, however, medieval liturgies in the Western tradition continued to be designed with mature candidates in mind.8 The profession of faith and renunciation of Satan were so essential to the practice of baptism that they could simply not be abandoned. Instead, they were erroneously transferred to the infant’s parents or godparents as sponsors — the very concern Tertullian had raised nearly four centuries earlier.9
The teaching of the New Testament and the practice of the early church was to admit to baptism only those whose conversions reflected a clear understanding of its meaning. As with marriage vows, no alternate can stand in with the authority of the baptizand. Profession of faith in the Lord Jesus and renunciation of Satan, his works, and his ways is the glory of the believer alone.