The Church Has Gone Baptism Stupid (Part 2)

In my last article, I argued that the Christian Church is incredibly divided over the subject, mode, and nature of baptism. These misunderstandings about baptism flow from removing baptism from its Jewish context as an act of repentance which brings one into a new community of faith. This is not the same thing as saying baptism is necessary for salvation, but rather, it is the recognition that baptism is a visible act of faith and repentance that normally followed right after the first exercise of faith in Christ. I will demonstrate this briefly from Scripture. If you are not a Baptist, I would like to make the humble suggestion that a great deal of what you have been taught about baptism is a lie.

So what exactly is baptism? In order to better understand baptism while in college, I did a detailed study of every text related to baptism in Scripture. As I was examining Mark 1:4-5, a light went off in my head: baptism is an act of repentance. In baptism, the person being baptized is repenting of their sins rather than merely being a passive agent. Why didn’t anyone tell me this before? I never would have figured this out based on our church’s practice of baptism. Baptism is treated like an assembly line where one person after another is dunked without them saying a word. The modern church environment is too sterile to allow for those being baptized to give their testimony of faith or (heaven forbid) confess their former sins publicly. We couldn’t do toddler baptism either since they don’t have any big sins to confess. We have to get baptism over with fast because it’s taking up time that should be used for the preaching of the Word and the whole thing makes us feel uncomfortable anyway since getting dunked in water is rather undignified and humiliating. But the text reads:

“John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

The verb “to baptize” comes from the Greek baptizo which means “to dip” or “to immerse.” There is no disagreement among reputable Greek scholars on this. You will not find a single Greek lexicon that defends “to pour” or “to sprinkle” as an acceptable translation of the term. The first edition of the Liddell-Scott lexicon tried to do it, but every edition after that removed pouring as an acceptable translation because the editors knew that “to pour” is a biased translation based on church tradition rather than occurence in Greek literature. Even if we had no idea what “baptism” means, “to pour” or “to sprinkle” are impossible meanings here. Those who are being baptized are the direct object of the verb. A person cannot be divided into parts or poured out like water can. Only a liquid can be sprinkled or poured, but a person can be immersed. The Jordan river is the indirect object of the verb (the dative case).  The water is not baptized, but the person is being baptized in the water. The preposition en or “in” only makes sense with immersion. Bible translation committees mistranslate en in Matthew 3:11 as “with” because if it is accurately translated as “in water” then this would exclude baptism by pouring and therefore not sell as many copies (Bible translations must be denominationally neutral). But notice that the same preposition is translated accurately in Mark 1:5: “in the Jordan.” “You” in Matthew 3:11 is the direct object of the verb baptize (the accusative case). It is the person who is being baptized, not the water. If baptizo can mean “to pour” we could translate the Bible like this:

“were being poured by him in the river Jordan” (Mark 1:5)

“I pour you with [in] water for repentance” (Matthew 3:11)

“What prevents me from being poured?” (Acts 8:36)

Now compare this with immersion:

“were being immersed by him in the river Jordan” (Mark 1:5)

“I immerse you in water for repentance” (Matthew 3:11)

“What prevents me from being immersed?” (Acts 8:36)

Baptism as an act of repentance also excludes the practice of infant baptism since an infant cannot repent or confess their sins. It is a baptism “of repentance” or one that is characterized by repentance. This is evident from what is taking place in the water: “confessing their sins.” Before John immersed them in water, they would confess their sins publicly and so bring them out into the open. This is part of Christian repentance (Jas 5:16). This repentance leads to eternal life and forgiveness of sins (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25). That is why this baptism characterized by repentance results in “the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). It is not the act of immersion in water that brings about forgiveness, but repentance of which baptism is a form. The thief on the cross and Cornelius were justified by faith before baptism (Luke 23:43; Acts 10:44-47).

Here we also have an explanation for almost every verse that is quoted to argue for baptismal regeneration. Repentance results in the forgiveness of sin and biblical baptism is an act of repentance. Repentance and baptism are not two different things, but baptism is an act of repentance since it involves the confession of sin and the renouncement of one’s former way of life. We see this in 1 Peter 3:21: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” It is not the “removal of dirt from the body” – the physical action of being immersed in water (how does pouring a little water remove dirt from the body?), but the “appeal to God for a good conscience” which saves. The appeal to God is faith and repentance for forgiveness of sins which results in a clean conscience after we have been forgiven (Rom 10:9-10; 1 John 1:9). A person does not need to be immersed in water in order to ask God for forgiveness. Baptism acted as one of the first means or opportunities for repentance because everyone in the first century understood what baptism is. Baptism was the equivalent of our modern altar call. It was only for pagan Gentiles and unbelievers who wanted to join the Jewish community. That is why John’s action of demanding for Jews to be baptized was shocking. It was even more shocking to John for Jesus to request baptism since baptism was reserved for sinners (Matt 3:14).

In this context, Acts 2:38 makes perfect sense. Peter’s demand that the crowd repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins was necessary because if a person refused to be baptized, it would demonstrate that their repentance was not genuine since public baptism would result in them getting kicked out of the synagogue. Peter is not asking them to do two different things, but one thing in two different ways. This is confirmed by the parallel to Acts 3:19: “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out.” To repent and turn are not two different requirements for salvation, but two different ways of expressing the same truth: (repent and be baptized / repent and turn) with forgiveness of sins being the result. Every Baptist who has ever converted to the Church of Christ did so because he or she embraced a paedobaptistic understanding of the nature of baptism that separates repentance and baptism because an infant is unable to repent, or rather, already held to it since many Baptists don’t understand baptism either. They were unable to understand that repentance and baptism in Acts 2:38 are not two different requirements for salvation and fell into the same trap that removed baptism from its Jewish context as the early church did.

For Baptist churches, as a bare minimum, the person being baptized should give their testimony of faith and explain how he or she came to saving faith in Christ. That means we stop baptizing toddlers and those who don’t understand what baptism is. Because our context is very different from that of the first century, we must carefully teach those who claim to be Christians the truths of Christian faith, the gospel, and what baptism means before baptizing them, otherwise they will have no idea what is going on in baptism (Matt 28:19-20). Baptism took place immediately after conversion for the first century church because they actually understood what baptism meant and what it would cost them. This understanding of baptism has largely been lost today and we need to move toward recovering the radical nature of baptism. Baptism is not an assembly line and those who participate in it are not passive agents.

For further study on baptism, see The Meaning and Use of Baptizein by T. J. Conant and Baptism: Its Mode and Subjects by Alexander Carson. These are two of the finest defenses of the Baptist position you will ever read. You can read them for free on Google books. If the collective visible church would just read Mark 1:4-5, we would not have all of the divisions in the church on baptism that we do now.

If you have never trusted in Christ to save you, repent and place your faith in him (Rom 10:9). Then get baptized in a Bible-believing church as an ongoing act of repentance which demonstrates the truthfulness of your faith. In baptism we show that we are willing to be humiliated by professing that our former life was a lie that would have sent us to hell had not God saved us through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in the gospel. Baptism is not for good people, it’s for sinners like us.

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4 thoughts on “The Church Has Gone Baptism Stupid (Part 2)

  1. Hi, James. Thanks for the interaction at Denny Burk’s blog. Here are some of my thoughts on what you’ve presented here. I’ve limited myself to responding only to things related to the mode of baptism. I agree wholeheartedly with much of what you said regarding the meaning of baptism, specifically as an act of repentance. Spot on. Very well articulated. Personally, I think 1 Pet. 3:21 is one of the strongest credobaptistic texts in Scripture. Though I do get the impression that you are far less comfortable with child baptism than I am. In any case . . .

    You said, “The term ‘baptism’ comes from the Greek baptizo which means ‘to dip’ or ‘to immerse.’ There is no disagreement among reputable Greek scholars on this.”

    This is the kind of just-take-my-word-for-it approach that is so common amongst immersionists. You could at least mention a few names. Is Strong not a reputable scholar? He gave this sense: “to make whelmed (i.e. fully wet).” Is Thayer not a reputable scholar? He gave these senses: “to wash, to make clean with water” and metaphorically “to overwhelm.” Is J. W. Dale not a reputable scholar? His analysis of baptizo is the most exhaustive I’ve ever seen, and he emphatically disagrees with the immersionist position. Does bapto and baptizo very frequently denote dipping or immersion? Yes. But that isn’t the only thing the terms can denote (as I’ve labored to show in my own article: http://bit.ly/1ra08eh).

    You said, “You will not find a single Greek lexicon that defends ‘to pour’ or ‘to sprinkle’ as an acceptable translation of the term.”

    Because that would be a much too specific way to define or translate a term as general as baptizo. Nevertheless, there are clear instances where baptizo and its related words are used to refer to washings that are conducted via pouring or sprinkling. I mention a good number in my article, but I’ll reproduce a few examples here:

    – The Septuagint uses bapto to describe Nebuchadnezzar’s being “bathed in the dew of heaven” (Dan. 5:21).
    – The author of Sirach refers to the cleansing rituals of Numbers 19 (i.e. sprinklings) as baptisms (Sirach 34:20).
    – The Noahic flood waters are described as a type of baptism (1 Pet. 3:20-21).
    – The author of Hebrews describes various levitical sprinklings as baptisms (Heb. 9:9-14).

    Now, none of this means that lexicons should start including “to pour” or “to sprinkle” as additional definitions of baptizo, because the sense of “washing” covers everything just fine; as long as we understand that the washings denoted by the bapto word group were very often conducted via modes other than immersion.

    You said, “Even if we had no idea what ‘baptism’ means, ‘to pour’ or ‘to sprinkle’ are impossible meanings here. Those who are being baptized are the subject of the verb. A person cannot be divided into parts or poured out like water can. Only a liquid can be sprinkled or poured, but a person can be immersed.”

    I think you’re confused about how the active and passive voices work. First off, those who are baptized are the object of the verb, not the subject. Now, baptizo often occurs in a passive form, in which case the subject is also the object. That’s how the passive voice works. When Acts records that the Philippian jailor “was baptized” (Acts 16:33), baptizo is in a passive form, which means that the jailor is both the subject and the object. (This does not mean he baptized himself.)

    But when John says “I baptize you with water” (Matt 3:11), baptizo is in an active form, which means that John is the subject of the verb while “you” is the object. Syntactically, it would be entirely reasonable for John to say “I sprinkle you with water,” or for Acts to say of the Philippian jailor, “he was sprinkled.” I’m not saying these statements should be translated this way. I’m just pointing out that the syntactical argument you’re making is nonsensical.

    You said, “The Jordan river is the indirect object of the verb.”

    No, it isn’t. “In the Jordan” is a prepositional phrase that describes where John was baptizing. It is not an indirect object.

    You said, “The preposition en or ‘in’ only makes sense with immersion. Bible translation committees mistranslate en in Matthew 3:11 as ‘with’ because if it is accurately translated as ‘in water’ then this would exclude baptism by pouring and therefore not sell as many copies (Bible translations must be denominationally neutral).”

    This is way overblown. Prepositions are just diverse in the ideas they convey. That’s all there is to it. There’s no conspiracy here. I addressed arguments from prepositions in my article (footnote 16), but I’ll reproduce it here:

    “Prepositions can and often do take a variety of different meanings. En frequently denotes instrumentality: “Shall I come to you with [en] a rod” (1 Cor. 4:21); “Greet one another with [en] a holy kiss” (1 Cor. 16:20); “God . . . comforted us by [en] the coming of Titus” (2 Cor. 7:6). . . . It was for good reasons that my Greek professor often warned against theologizing from prepositions.”

    You said, “If baptizo can mean ‘to pour’ we could translate the Bible like this: ‘were being poured by him in the river Jordan’ (Mark 1:5).”

    The weirdness is only due to the nature of the English verb pour. An additional helping word is required in order to convey it passively. You would just say “being poured upon by him.” The verb sprinkle, on the other hand, would not require an additional helping word: “being sprinkled by him.” These are just English quirks. It has no bearing whatsoever on the Greek verb baptizo.

    You said, “It is not the ‘removal of dirt from the body’ – the physical action of being immersed in water (how does pouring a little water remove dirt from the body?)”

    1. Who said it has to be a little water? A profuse pouring could remove just as much dirt as an immersion. Don’t force immersion into the text. Just take “baptism” here in the more general sense of washing. Washing can be achieved in various ways.

    2. You’re not giving adequate space for symbolism in the ordinance. Sprinkling a small amount of water may not amount to a literal baptism, but it does sufficiently represent one. The same applies to the way we commonly practice the Lord’s supper. A bite of bread and a shot of grape juice does not amount to a literal supper, but it does sufficiently represent one.

    Hope this is helpful.

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    1. Thank you for your response Joel. I originally replied to your reply to Denny’s article because to my knowledge no group has ever advocated sprinkling or pouring as acceptable modes of baptism while also affirming credobaptism since the early Anabaptists of the 16th Century. The reason why they practiced pouring is because they had no knowledge of Greek and just followed established custom. The Greek Orthodox who practice infant baptism always use immersion because they know Greek. If your understanding of baptism is correct, then you are first person to have a correct understanding of baptism since the Anabaptists. The two beliefs don’t go together because baptism pictures our death and burial with Christ (Rom 6:3-5). If baptism is not regenerative, then infants have not been buried and raised with Christ. Immersion alone captures the picture of burial and resurrection and therefore baptism is reserved for only those who are in union with Christ. Hence this is why immersion was the way baptism was practiced in the first century (Acts 8:36-39). Baptist scholars in the 19th Century wrote a ton on baptism and I will list some of the books at the end which I recommend that you read. You wrote:

      – The Septuagint uses baptō to describe Nebuchadnezzar’s being “bathed in the dew of heaven” (Dan. 5:21).

      This is an exaggerated use of the term baptō to describe Nebuchadnezzar’s entire body being covered by water as he slept on the ground. Pouring or sprinkling are impossible meanings here since his entire body was wet because of condensation whereas “baptism” by pouring only wets part of the body. The point is he was just as wet as if he had been immersed in water. The focus is on the effect of the condensation (being drenched), not how he got wet.

      – The author of Sirach refers to the cleansing rituals of Numbers 19 (i.e. sprinklings) as baptisms (Sirach 34:20).

      Sirach 34:25 is describing the ritual immersion of Numbers 19:19. The person must “bathe himself in water” and this was done by immersion. Having water sprinkled over oneself does not bathe the entire body but dipping in water does. Notice that Sirach uses loutron while the Greek of Numbers 19:19 uses the verb louō which corresponds with the Hebrew Rkhtz describing bathing. Sirach is only referring to the second half of the ritual involving bathing, not the first half which did involve sprinkling water.

      – The Noahic flood waters are described as a type of baptism (1 Pet. 3:20-21).

      Noah’s flood immersed the whole earth in water. The entire world was covered over with water and that is why it is a type of immersion.

      – The author of Hebrews describes various levitical sprinklings as baptisms (Heb. 9:9-14).

      Hebrews 9:10 is describing the ritual immersions in water mentioned in places like Lev 11:32; 14:9; 15:5-13; Num 19:7-8, 19. These are distinguished from the ritual sprinklings in 9:13 by the verb rantizō.

      The reason why Dale’s work needs to be 4 volumes long is because whereas Conant can just cite the occurrences of baptizō in Greek literature and let the evidence speak for itself, Dale has to engage in obfuscation to hold on to his traditions.

      I would recommend the following pieces of writing:

      “Paedobaptism Examined” by Abraham Booth

      “The Great Carrollton Debate” volume 1 and “John’s Baptism” by J. R. Graves

      “A Handbook on Christian Baptism” part 1 by Richard Ingham

      “A Manual of Baptism” by G. S. Bailey

      “The Meaning and Use of Baptizein” by T. J. Conant

      “Baptism: Its Mode and Subjects” by Alexander Carson

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikveh

      https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/mikveh.html

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  2. Postscript: I said the passive voice means that the subject is also the object, but that may be an inaccurate or confusing way to put it. A better way to describe it is that the subject receives or undergoes the action of the verb.

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