The issue of baptism is important in and of itself, but as a topic it is the gold standard for exposing how bizarre our modern approach to the Scriptures is.
I will show you that there is no legitimate alternative interpretations to what the Scriptures say about baptism. The New Testament says one thing about baptism, and one thing only. Our modern teaching that baptism is a symbolic public testimony has always puzzled me since it has no support at all in Scripture and the apostles show no concern whatsoever for having a “public” present for baptism in the book of Acts. Our defense of baptism as a symbolic public testimony (hereafter, SPT) is embarrassing at best.
I’m not going to do a long history of baptism, delving into the role of washings in pre-Christian Judaism or among the Essenes. I’m not going to cover the prophecies about baptism in the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament Scriptures are simple, straightforward, and easy to understand. We can marvel at the prophecies about baptism and the precedence for baptism after we learn to pay attention to the elementary apostolic teaching about baptism.
I’m not going to cover every verse that has reference to baptism. I’m only going to cover the ones that get argued about.
Purpose and Timing of Baptism
Jesus said that the one who believes and is baptized shall be saved, while the one that does not believe will be condemned. SPTers argue that yes, Jesus said those believed and baptized will be saved, but it is only those who don’t believe that will be condemned.
If this were the only verse in the apostles’ writings, then the SPT interpretation would just be poor/unlikely. It’s not, however.
Here Peter is responding to Jews who were convicted about killing God’s Messiah and who had asked what they should do. Peter tells them, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the remission of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
My interpretation of that verse is that Peter wanted them to repent and to be baptized in the name of Jesus so that their sins would be forgiven. A.T. Robertson is one famous Greek scholar who argues that the word “for” (Gr. eis) could be translated “because of” in this verse.
I am not qualified to be as upset as I am with Robertson’s obviously incorrect translation, so we’ll skip that. We will just move on to the rest of the verses, which will show on their own that “for the remission of sin” is the right translation.
This is the conversion of Saul (later the apostle Paul) as described by Paul himself. Most of us think Paul was saved on the road to Damascus. Ananias seems to think otherwise.
What are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.
I don’t think I need to explain this, nor why this proves “for the remission of sins” is what Peter said on the day of Pentecost. You can read it for yourself.
There are a couple of points to be made, though. Notice that Ananias refers to baptism as a washing. We’ll see it referenced as washing a couple more times before we’re done with this study.
I also want you to see this very important side point. Today, we like to tell a new convert something like, “Though you can’t see him, Jesus is here right now. You can bow your head and pray to him, and he will hear you.”
We try to send people to Jesus, the invisible head in the heavens, but when Jesus appeared to Paul, he did not say, “I am glad you are repenting of persecuting me. I am here right now, and you can even see me. All you have to do is accept me into your heart right now.”
No, Jesus, in a vision speaking audibly to Paul, sent him to the church. He sent him to the his visible body on earth.
One big difference between baptism and the “sinner’s prayer” that we have replaced it with is how it affects our conception of the church. Baptism involves physical water and the touch of physical members of the church. It brings us into a covenant community that is real and close. We are attached not just to the head in the heavens, but to the body of our Lord right here on earth. He can touch us, comfort us, hug us, and share our life with us through his body.
We don’t take the body analogy literally enough. Jesus lived in an individual body on earth 2,000 years ago. He still lives in a body on earth, a body which consists of many members.
For as the body is one, yet has many members [limbs/body parts], and all the parts of that one body, though many, are one body, so also is Christ. (1 Cor. 12:12)
There are a lot of side issues in this passage that we will get to in the next post, having to do with the timing of baptism in water vs. baptism in the Holy Spirit. All I want to point out here is that Peter did not wait to baptize Cornelius and his household until the next meeting of the church or the next major church event. He had Cornelius baptized on the spot.
This is the ultimate anti-public-testimony passage. This passage starts at midnight (v. 25) and ends at “when it was day” (v. 35). In between, Paul baptized the Philippian jailer and his family.
Thus, Paul baptized the Philippian jailer in the middle of the night, after midnight and before morning. This was not essential. Before Paul left Philippi, Luke mentions that he left behind Lydia and some other believers. The baptism of the jailer could easily have happend the next day “as a public testimony.”
What Happens at Baptism
Don’t you know that as many of us as were baptized into Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we are buried with him by baptism into death, so that like the Anointed One was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we should walk with him in newness of life.
As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
Is it at all difficult to follow what these verses say?
The Passages that Frighten Us
There are three passages that frighten symbolic public testimony believers.
- John 3:5: “Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
- Titus 3:5: “Not by works which we have done, but according to his mercy he has saved us, by the the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
- 1 Peter 3:21: “… in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which … eight souls were saved by water. In a similar manner, baptism also now saves us—not by washing away the filth of the flesh, but the plea to God for [or from] a good conscience—by the resurrection of Jesus the King.”
At this point, SPT believers begin claiming these verses don’t mean what they say. They sputter, stutter, choke, and run for explanations.
No real explanations are needed for the obvious meanings of these verses. I am sorry we are so frightened of them, but they agree with everything we have looked at.
Addressing the One “Difficult” Verse
I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say I baptized in my own name! I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Other than that, I don’t know that I baptized anyone else. For the King did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel. (1 Cor. 1:14-17)
So, do you think we ought to interpret this verse to conflict with all the others we just looked at?
How about let’s interpret this verse to mean that other people did the baptizing, rather than Paul. Paul used this to point out that he was not only not baptizing into his own name, but he was not even doing the baptizing himself. His job was to exalt Jesus through preaching, not to exalt himself. As a result he preached Jesus, and those who responded were baptized into Jesus, not Paul, often by other people than Paul.
Do we have any precedence in Scripture for such an idea?
Yes, it’s pretty well founded in Scripture:
- Even Jesus didn’t baptize all his disciples himself (Jn. 4:2).
- All the Corinthians were baptized, even if they were not baptized by Paul himself (Acts 18:8).
Making Baptism Scriptures Easier on SPT Believers
Everyone already knows that once someone believes, something must be done in response to that belief. There needs to be a concluding action certifying one’s belief.
Our actions make it clear that we all know a response is needed. Everyone provides one. Most of the time what we provide it is a sinner’s prayer, which has no Biblical support at all.
The apostles, however, supplied a response in the form of baptism. Peter even relates it to a sinner’s prayer by calling it a plea to God for (or from) a good conscience (1 Pet. 3:21).
- The response to believing the message of Judaism and converting was to be circumcised. Baptism is a spiritual circumcision (Col. 2:11-12).
- When Philip preached to the Ethiopian eunuch it is obvious that both Philip and the eunuch saw baptism as the natural response and entrance into the Christian faith rather than the sinner’s prayer. “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36).
- When Peter saw that Cornelius had received the Holy Spirit, his response was immediate, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47).
- Paul, when he repented, was told by Ananias, “What are you waiting for? Arise, be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).
Baptism is not a magical thing that saves people by getting them wet or giving them a bath. It is the normal response to the Gospel that we have replaced with the sinner’s prayer without any scriptural justification.
In baptism the repentant sinner is buried with Jesus and rises again. There he begins his new life in the Anointed One. There he washes away his sins, his past, and his background. There he is crucified to the world, and the world is crucified to him. There he enters into covenant with God who saves him by his own will and power, transforming him into a new creature and filling him with the Holy Spirit, which is the promise of the New Covenant.
A Plea to Choose the Word of God over Tradition
I’m not exactly sure how we convince ourselves that it is okay to sweep these verses away, choosing to base our teaching on baptism on our interpretation of verses that don’t mention baptism. We have constructed a doctrine of baptism that has no foundation or even reference to any verses on baptism, only to verses on faith.
The fact that the baptism doctrine we have invented from verses on salvation by faith is so different from the doctrine of baptism practiced and taught by the apostles should put some fear into us that our interpretation of those verses on salvation by faith are also wrong.
Reasonable thinkers would draw that conclusion without hesitation. Our reasonableness is seriously damaged by the knowledge that disagreeing with the central traditions of Protestantism will get us ostracized, not only by our Christian friends, but probably also by our families as well.
Is it worth it to us?