As Constantine, the great emperor of the Romans lay on his deathbed, he called for the bishop of Constantinople. Upon the bishop’s arrival, Constantine asked for baptism. Writing of this event, Eusebius Pamphilus of Caesarea said, “Being at length convinced that his life was drawing to a close, he felt the time has come at which he should seek purification from sins of his past career, firmly believing that whatever errors he had committed as a mortal man, his soul would be purified from them through the efficacy of the mystical words and the salutary waters of baptism.” Eusebius then quotes Constantine:
“The time arrives which I have long hoped for, with an earnest desire and prayer that I might obtain the salvation of God. The hour comes in which I too may have the blessing of that seal which confers immortality; the hour in which I may receive the seal of salvation. I had thought to do this in the waters of the river Jordan, wherein our Saviour, for our example, is recorded to have been baptized: but God, who knows what is expedient for us, is pleased that I should receive this blessing here. Be it so, then, without delay: for should it be his will who is Lord of life and death, that my existence here should be prolonged, and should I be destined henceforth to associate with the people of God, and unite with them in prayer as a member of his. Church, I will prescribe to myself from this time such a course of life as befits his service.”
Following Constantine’s baptism, Eusebius tells his readers that the great man, “who was regenerated and perfected in a church dedicated to the martyrs of Christ,” rejoiced and put off the imperial garments and reclined on a white couch refusing the purple vestments due to his position.
As historians debated Constantine’s commitment to Christianity, one of the strikes against the man was his refusal of baptism until close to his death. Surely, it is argued, a man truly committed to the faith would submit immediately to baptism. The fact that he did not, coupled with other matters, led Jacob Burckhardt and others to doubt Constantine’s conversion. Instead, it was seen as a hypocritical decision made merely to call Christians to his side in his effort to secure sole rule in the Roman Empire.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, especially as all this relates to Constantine’s baptism. The church of the early fourth century understood that remission of sins occurred at the time of baptism. Immersion remained baptism’s proper mode. At the beginning of Constantine’s reign, then, the church remained steadfast in its understanding of baptism’s purpose and mode. What had changed was the concept of the scope of forgiveness assured at baptism. Somewhere the church got the idea that baptism only assured the forgiveness of past sin but the forgiveness of present and future sin required good works – confession and penance. As a result, many believers put off baptism until near death to assure the forgiveness of all sin. Historians call these “deathbed conversions” clinical baptism. That’s why Constantine waited for his baptism.
The Catholic Church still holds to this erroneous idea. Baptism, they teach, forgives past sins but the communicant must continue to seek absolution through confession and penance as well as other meritorious works.