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.