What is the purpose of Christian water baptism?
Every Christian denomination has its opinion on the matter. In order to assess those opinions historically, we really need to get ourselves in the right frame of mind.
My son Noah's baptism at age 17
The evangelist's eyes swept the horizon. Nothing.
This is where the Lord had told him to wait, he reminded himself. He wasn't going to let doubt creep in.
He wiped sweat from his brow and even from his eyelashes. Unlike deserts in the yet undiscovered new world, Israeli deserts are humid due to warm, moist air blowing over from the Persian Gulf.
Then he saw it. A caravan moving slowly at an angle away from him. He ran towards it, unsure exactly what he was supposed to do.
As he got closer, he saw a large and beautifully adorned chariot drawn by four horses. In it sat a large, dark eunuch, obviously of some importance. He recognized the insignias as Ethiopian.
"Go to that chariot," Philip heard the Lord whisper in his heart.
The Apostle Philip as represented at St. Isaac Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia
He obeyed immediately.
As Philip approached, he heard someone reading as the eunuch listened in his chair. As he came alongside the chariot, watched carefully by guards with large swords and equally large muscles with which to brandish them, he realized that it was Isaiah that was being read.
Quietly, a guard pointed in Philip's direction, and the eunuch turned.
Philip didn't hesitate. "Do you understand what is being read to you?"
The eunuch took note of the sweating traveler. He smiled and motioned for Philip to climb into the chariot with him.
You know the rest of this story. Philip explained that Isaiah 53 referred to Jesus, the Christ of God, and he showed him many other prophecies which told that the Christ would suffer, die, rise from the dead, and send the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him.
As they finally came upon water in the midst of that desert, the eunuch asked if he could be baptized.
Would you have mentioned baptism in explaining prophecies about Christ?
I think it is fair to say that Philip thought water baptism somewhat more important than the average Evangelical.
Justin Martyr, writing about a century after Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch, seemed to know that water baptism was part of prophecy ...
By reason, therefore, of this laver of repentance and knowledge of God, which has been ordained on account of the transgression of God’s people, as Isaiah cries, we have believed and testify that the very baptism which he announced is alone able to purify those who have repented; and this is the water of life. But the cisterns which you have dug for yourselves are broken and profitless to you.
From A Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, chapter 14. The cisterns mentioned are in reference to Jeremiah 2:13.
The historical and Biblical record on the purpose of water baptism is remarkably clear and simple.
I am going to show you two things ...
Then I'm going to explain two things (thinking many of my readers are Evangelical) ...
An excellent example of the clarity was a comment I read in a book by David Bercot.
1709 depiction of Peter baptizing Cornelius
Bercot noted that most Evangelicals do not believe that John 3:5 is a reference to baptism. John 3:5 says that unless a person is "born of water and the Spirit" he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Since Evangelicals generally believe that water baptism is a public testimony having nothing to do with salvation, they usually see the water in that verse as referring to our physical birth.
Bercot's comment on this is notable.
"If Jesus," he says, "didn't mean water baptism in this verse, then he is a terrible communicator because everyone without exception for the next 1600 years thought he did."
Justin Martyr is a great example of this. After saying that new converts were "brought by us where there is water and regenerated in the same way that we were regenerated," he adds, "For Christ also said, 'Unless you are born again, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven'" (First Apology 61).
There, Justin ties not only John 3:5, but even John 3:3 to baptism!
That is the earliest known reference to John 3:5. The next is just as clear, and it is from one of the most respected 2nd-century Christians. Irenaeus was taught by Polycarp, who knew the apostle John, then later became a missionary to barbarians of the tribe of Gaul.
About 30 years after Justin, he wrote ...
For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean—by means of the sacred water and the invocation [i.e., calling on the name of] of the Lord—from our old transgressions. We are spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: "Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." ("Fragments of Irenaeus" 34, from The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. I)
I could show you dozens more passages like this. From the very earliest days of the church, Christians consistently spoke of baptism in this way.
Of course, the question for all of us from an Evangelical background is whether what they said is Scriptural.
St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage from A.D. 249 to 258, is one of the most cited of early Christians by churches that glorify tradition. Here is what Cyprian had to say when an opponent (Stephen, bishop of Rome, who is claimed by Roman Catholics to have been "the pope") appealed to tradition ...
"Let nothing be innovated," says [Stephen], "nothing maintained, except what has been handed down." From where is the tradition? Does it descend from the authority of the Lord and the Gospel or does it come from the commands and letters of the apostles? For that those things which are written must be done, God witnesses and admonishes, saying to Joshua … "The book of this Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night so that you may be careful to do all that is written in it" [Josh. 1:8]. (Epistle 73, from The Ante-Nicene Fathers: vol. 5)
Much of the doctrinal controversies between churches boil down to a matter of interpretation.
Not on water baptism. These verses interpret themselves. Ignoring John 3:5, which we've already looked at, here's the more important ones:
I simply cannot imagine how these verses can be interpreted any way but the obvious one, especially combined with the universal testimony of every early Christian writer on the subject.
There's not one deviant voice—among anyone we'd want to call a Christian—for 1600 years!
Humans hate to change their minds. They do not do it easily. Despite how clear Scripure and history is on this subject, Christians are not simply going to change what they believe. The traditions of men are far more important to us Evangelicals than we care to admit, and our traditions are not very ancient.
So I have taken the time to answer some objections to the obvious import of the above verses.
One last note: How strong is my position on the topic of baptism? It's so strong I haven't had to tell you what it is. I simply gave you quotes from history and from the Bible, and you were able to interpret my position on your own without a word of explanation from me.
But I know what really matters to us as Evangelicals—the crucial, core issue ...
What you really want to know is if baptism is tied to being born again, to the forgiveness of sins, to entering Christ, to salvation, and to spiritual circumcision, then does this mean that anyone who is not baptized is not saved?
At the very least, we have to admit there is some room for exceptions. The thief on the cross was saved without being baptized.
In the Book of Acts, we find that the apostles didn't wait any time to baptize. The Philippian jailer was baptized in the middle of the night even though Paul could have sent him to the small church he'd already started and which is mentioned the next day (Acts 16:40).
However, from the very earliest Christian writings after the New Testament, we find at least a couple days of fasting prescribed before baptism. It appears that the church was frustrated with people who were baptized, then fell away, and they were looking for some additional commitment.
From The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, around A.D. 100:
Concerning baptism, baptize in this way: After you have first said all these things [i.e., the teachings in the first part of the manual, about 2 typewritten pages], baptize into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in flowing water. If you don't have flowing water, baptize in other water, and if you cannot use cold, use warm. If you don't have either, pour water three times onto the head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But before the baptism let the baptizer and the baptized fast, along with whoever else can. You shall order the baptized to fast one or two days beforehand.
Later that time would expand to a week, and by the early 3rd century it was common to do all baptisms on Passover every year, when Christians celebrated the death of Christ. (The resurrection was celebrated every Sunday; no kneeling or fasting were allowed because it was a day of rejoicing—Tertullian, De Corona 3, c. A.D. 210.)
If a person was killed while they were awaiting baptism, the early Christians referred to it as a baptism in blood, and they believed that the person would be saved.
Thus, the same tradition that verifies baptism for the remission of sins also allows for salvation apart from baptism in special cases.
Please note that we who are Evangelicals claim to be followers of Scripture. Thus, the only appropriate response to the things written on this page is for us to abandon our incorrect view and stop saying that baptism is merely a public testimony.
It is not a public testimony. Paul baptized the Philippian jailer in the middle of the night, apart from the church, with only his own family present. Scripture teaches that it is the place where our sins are forgiven, where we are joined to Christ, and thus, where we are born again. (In fact, there's little doubt that the "washing of regeneration"—or "rebirth"—in Titus 3:5 is a reference to baptism.)
However, from a Scriptural standpoint and from experience with God, it seems ludicrous to suggest that so many modern followers of Christ do not have their sins forgiven because they were taught a wrong view of baptism and they prayed a sinner's prayer in its place.
1. Baptism is a request to God, not a magical potion.
Peter calls baptism a request to God for (or from) a good conscience (1 Pet. 3:21). It is not a magical potion.
The KJV translates eperotema as "answer" in 1 Peter 3:21. The NIV translates it as "pledge." I have been using "request," similar to the NASB's "appeal."
I think the KJV and NIV renderings are grossly and inexplicably inaccurate.
Years ago I did a thorough search for the proper translation of that word. It's only found once in the New Testament. Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon, the most definitive lexicon available, says that it's only found a couple times outside the New Testament in Greek literature, and each use is as inconclusive as 1 Peter 3:21.
The verb from of eperotema, eperotao, is found 59 times in the New Testament. It means "to ask."
Why would we take the noun form of "to ask" and translate it as "answer" or "pledge"? Does that make any sense? Isn't it much more likely that it means a "request" or "question?"
That's the conclusion Liddell and Scott drew, and it's the definition given in Strong's Concordance. As I've pointed out, it's also the translation chosen by the NASB, which I believe to be consistently the most accurate translation.
When a person believes, he makes an initial act of faith. Today, most Evangelicals have replaced baptism with a "sinner's prayer," which has no Scriptural precedent whatsoever. Baptism was what the apostles prescribed as an initial act of faith.
As a result, because it was the initial act of faith, it was the place where sins were washed away.
That is why Ananias told Paul, "Arise, be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16). Baptism was Paul's sinner's prayer that day, and Ananias knew that.
On the other hand, God has always made exceptions. Cornelius was an exception, for example. Peter didn't know that it was acceptable to baptize Gentiles, and had he not seen God pour the Holy Spirit out on Cornelius, he would never have baptized him (Acts 10:47).
Exceptions should not cancel out the norm, but they should be taken into account ...
2. God has always been a God of exceptions.
It would be impossible to list all the exceptions God has endorsed, but let's take a shot at listing some:
Anyone who has read the entire Bible knows how often God seems not to enforce his own laws. On what possible basis, for example, could someone as unrighteous as Samson end up as judge of Israel?
So would the God we find in Scripture strictly enforce the need for a person to get wet in order to forgive their sins? Is that anything like the God we know?
3. Faith is at the heart of salvation.
We have seen that there are plenty of Scriptures, as well as historic, unanimous testimony by primitive Christians, that tie baptism to salvation; however, is it possible to miss the fact that it is faith that really matters?
Abraham is said to be the father of faith. He is never said to be the father of baptism.
Faith, belief, and believing are mentioned 267 times in the letters of the apostles. Baptism or baptize is used just 15 times.
Thus, I make no apologies for suggesting that God has forgiven the sins of those who have faith but who have received a wrong teaching about baptism from misguided Evangelicals like us.
Again, I want to emphasize that if we are Evangelicals—Bible believers, as we claim—then we ought to return to Biblical belief and practice and quit being misguided. (See below.)
4. A Christian is known by his life, not his baptism
The letter we know as 1 John was written "that we may know we have eternal life."
What tests does he give us to know whether we have eternal life?
Over and over John says we can test ourselves by whether we keep God's commands (2:3-4), love (4:7), and have the witness of the Spirit (3:24).
John uses terms of certainty like "everyone" repeatedly.
The answer to this question is a lot easier than you might think.
Martin Luther never suggested that baptism was symbolic, but Ulrich Zwingli, his contemporary in Switzerland, did. Nonetheless, Zwingli did not go nearly as far as modern Evangelicals do and suggest that it was purely symbolic.
A purely symbolic baptism would have to wait for the Pietists of the 17th century, a Lutheran movement that strongly emphasized spiritual experience. They are responsible for separating the term "born again" from baptism.
To the Pietists, it was those who had experienced a spiritual birth that were born again. Assuming you had a real spiritual experience just because you were baptized seemed remarkably ineffective to them.
I have to agree, but only partially. It is Scriptural to suggest that we need to examine our experience with God and the righteousness of our lives to determine whether we are truly born again (2 Cor. 13:5). The pattern in Scripture, though, is that we truly believe, then are baptized for the remission of our sins, and then we receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
Martin Luther—who did not get baptism wrong but maintained a Catholic understanding of baptism till his death—was delivered from his torturous conscience by the preaching of faith from Johann Staupitz.
Martin Luther is easily the most influential historical figure among Evangelicals.
From Martin Luther, Protestants gained a strong emphasis on faith.
That emphasis on faith has become so strong in the modern age that many Evangelicals are willing to interpret any subject using Scriptures on faith. That is especially true of baptism.
Most Evangelicals develop their teaching about baptism from Scriptures on faith. If they do address any verses that actually mention baptism, it's just to explain them away.
Anyone who simply looks at the verses on baptism—for example, as they are listed above on this page—will be struck by how consistent and clear they are.
Most Evangelicals never do that.
Instead, any time someone says the things I'm saying on this page—even if they do it the way I am doing it, by simply quoting verses—is met with verses and comments about faith. Unknowingly, Evangelicals that believe in the public testimony version of baptism usually ignore pretty much every verse on baptism in the New Testament unless they are explaining them away.
It's a very sad state of affairs.
But one we can correct!