It is tragic that an activity meant to unify those who believe in Christ has become yet another point of division. It is equally tragic that so many otherwise faithful Christians threaten their own salvation by resisting or ignoring the clear teaching of the Word of God and the consistent practice of the early church. It is not my intent in this article to insist that baptism is essential or prerequisite to salvation because, as one of our local elders recently observed, the question of whether baptism is essential is the wrong question.
When one examines the New Testament and the writings of early church (pre-Constantine) leaders, there can be no doubt that water baptism was consistently practiced. In every conversion described in the book of Acts, the new believers were baptized:
* The crowd in Jerusalem at Pentecost (2:37-41)
* Samarians and Simon the Magician (8:9-13)
* The Ethiopian (8:26-39)
* Saul (Paul) 9:17-19; 22:12-15
* Gentiles at Caesarea (10:44-48)
* Lydia (16:14-15)
* The Philippians jailer (16:27-34)
* Crispus and other Corinthians (18:5-8)
* Ephesian believers (19:1-5)
Furthermore, water baptism was taught and practiced by the early church as a foundational doctrine. Paul taught about its significance (Romans 6 and Colossians 2), and Peter taught about its meaning (1 Peter 3). The Hebrew writer referred to baptism (washings) as an "elementary teaching" (Hebrews 6:1-2). Water baptism was not a debatable point--it was taught, accepted, and practiced.
The Didache (or The Teaching of the Twelve), a late-first or early-second century Christian document considered valuable by a number of church leaders, gives detailed instructions about water baptism. The writer of the Epistle of Barnabus (another early Christian document of the same period) clearly understood immersion: "Blessed are they who, placing their trust in the cross, have gone down into the water; for, says He, they shall receive their reward in due time" (Chapter XI).
Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, written in the middle of the second century, devoted a chapter to water baptism, saying: "Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the layer the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone."
What was important to the early church, however, was not whether water baptism was essential to salvation, but rather its significance.
1. Water baptism washes away an individual's past sins. On the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples attracted a large crowd, which Peter addressed. Many of the listeners were convicted by Peter's persuasive sermon and asked "What shall we do." Peter's simple, unequivocal response: "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (See also Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5)
2. Water baptism is the mechanism for becoming united with Jesus. Paul's comments to the Roman church are foundational to the understanding of water baptism: "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin." (Romans 6:3-7)
3. Water baptism unifies believers into one body through a common experience. Paul explained this to the churches of Galatia: "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise." (Galatians 3:26-29)
And again to the contentious church in Corinth: "For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).
4. Water baptism is the mechanism for the regeneration of the individual (the new birth). Jesus Himself said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." (John 3:5). The term "born-again Christian" is, in fact, redundant. One cannot be saved, according to Jesus, without being born again.
5. Water baptism is an individual's public pledge of faithfulness to God. Peter expressed this clearly to his first letter to the churches of Asia: "Corresponding to that [Noah and others being brought safely through water], baptism now saves you--not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21).
6. Water baptism brings with it the gift of the Holy Spirit and therefore a clearer understanding of spiritual things. God is sovereign in all things, including the giving of the Holy Spirit--and there are biblical and ecclesiastical examples of individuals who received the Holy Spirit before water baptism. The early church, however, clearly understood that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit routinely accompanied water baptism and was not some later event. The group of believers Paul found in Ephesus, who had received baptism but not the Holy Spirit had not yet received a Christian (in the name of Jesus) baptism. As soon as they did, they received the Holy Spirit.
In his First Apology, Justin Martyr explained the phenomenon of clearer vision: "And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed."
Nowhere in the documents of the early church is there any debate about the necessity of water baptism. Nowhere does anyone pick apart of words of Jesus in Mark 16:6 ("He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned."). Nowhere does anyone cite the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43) as proof that baptism isn't essential. Nowhere does anyone argue about whether water baptism is a work. Nowhere is there any debate about whether being "born of water" (John 3:5) refers to water baptism or physical birth.
The entire argument about the necessity of baptism is a modern construct born out of the attempt to reduce the Gospel to a set of rules and regulations. Run a search on "water baptism" on Google or another search engine and you'll discover a dizzying cacophony of claims and counter-claims that represent the kind of argument that Brian McLaren calls "adventures in missing the point."
Trying to unlock some secret (or obvious) code in the New Testament that provides a prescription for salvation smacks of Gnosticism and legalism, both of which were resoundingly rejected by the early church. It is easy to get embroiled in the debate if one is passionate about the Gospel, but this kind of nit-picking does nothing to advance the cause of Christ.
The reductionist nature of the debate become clear when we are embroiled in controversies over the tiny Greek conjunction, eis, in Acts 2:38. Are we to be baptized for the remission of sins or because of the remission of sins?
No legitimate Christian group denies that the early church practiced water baptism, nor does any claim that baptism itself produces salvation. That being the case, I have to wonder why anyone expends any time in this controversy at all. We don't decide who's saved--God does. Even incontrovertible proof of the necessity of baptism (if such a thing were possible) would not change that fact. God looks at our hearts, our words, and our behavior and knows if we have accepted His free offer of Grace.
So, "Is baptism essential for salvation?" is the wrong question. Few seem to ask "Is loving your neighbor essential for salvation?" or "Is hospitality essential for salvation?" or "Is charity essential for salvation?" or any number of similar questions related to Jesus' teachings.
As pointed out earlier, the early church believed that water baptism, through the Grace of God, accomplishes the following:
* Washes away past sins
* Unites us with Jesus
* Unites us with the body of Christ (the church)
* Regenerates us with a new life
* Commits us with a pledge of faithfulness
* Gives us greater spiritual understanding through the Holy Spirit
There are those who would argue one of more of these points, but even if only one of them were true, why would any believer refuse or neglect to be baptized? That's really the question!
As I said at the beginning of this article, it is tragic that baptism--clearly intended as a unifying event for Christians--has become a source of division. Other baptismal practices (such as John's) seem to be focused on the individual, but Christian baptism has a definite group function.
The Apostle Paul writes:
* "all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death" (Romans 6:3).
* "by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:13a).
* "all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Galatians 3:27).
* There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were [all] called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4-6)
Each of these statements is directed to groups of believers, emphasizing their common experience in being united with Christ. To the ekklesia in Philippi, he wrote "make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose" (2:2). How can we be "intent on one purpose" when we argue about the very thing intended to unite us?
Water baptism should not be viewed as a law to be obeyed, but rather as an incomparable opportunity to be enjoyed. Those who minimize or even deny its importance are robbing believers of one of the most profoundly impactful experiences along the road to becoming more like Jesus. And those who legalistically insist that the unbaptized are unsaved miss the point.
I suspect that much of the debate comes back to a modern obsession with being able to fix a time and place that something occurred--to be able to say "I was saved when _____." But becoming a Christian is not tied to any single event, it is a life-long process. Recognizing this makes everything we think, say, and do part of salvation in some sense. To the ekklesia, baptism was clearly part of that path--what they called The Way, but it was neither the beginning nor the end.
c Richard M. Soule, 2004 Unlimited copy and distribution permission is hereby granted on the condition that this copyright notice is included.
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, c 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Note: This article is adapted from an issue of "Ekklesia Then & Now." For more information, go to www/peculiarpress.com/index_ekklesia.htm
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