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Baptism (G.G.)

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This is an opinion article from a user of WikiChristian.

By Graham Llewellyn Grove, December 2003, Original article

Introduction

I was baptized in a friend's swimming pool when I was aged 15. I could have been baptized in the church with water sprinkled on me, but I liked the idea of getting dunked in the water more. So, my family and the rest of the congregation found themselves standing around a backyard swimming pool, whilst my sister (who was also being baptized), the church minister and I found ourselves trembling in our bathers in the cold water. It was the week of Australian Grand Prix, and much larger crowds of people witnessed the racing cars than witnessed my declaration that Jesus is Lord. Yet even as I was plunged under the water, the crowds at the car race did witness this declaration, for as I stepped out of the pool, in the sky in large letters, the words “Jesus is Lord” were written. Aren’t coincidences amazing?! A Christian who was also a pilot had decided that a wonderful way to proclaim Jesus to the multitudes was to write in the sky.

To me, baptism represented a public declaration, an outward sign of my inward change when I repented of my sins and placed my faith in Jesus Christ and was given new life in him. However, not all Christians see baptism this way.

Examples of baptism in the Bible

Jesus was baptized. His cousin, John, was in the wilderness by the River Jordan proclaiming that the Christ was coming and that the people needed to repent of their sins. Many people came to John, confessing their sins and were baptized by him in the river. And so, among the crowds one day, Jesus came to John (Matthew 3: 13-17)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? Jesus replied, Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness. Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.

After his resurrection, Jesus commanded his apostles to baptize (Matthew 28: 18)

Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

His disciples followed this command and throughout the book of the Acts there are many examples of baptism. On the day of Pentecost, Peter stood before the crowd and proclaimed the gospel and 3,000 people accepted the message that day and were baptized

After Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, he was an active preacher of the Gospel. One day, He was thrown into prison at Philippi after healing a slave girl. That night whilst they were praying, there was a violent earthquake and he was able to walk free. The terrified jailer awoke, and the story continues in Acts 16: 31-34

He (the jailer) then brought them out and asked, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? They replied, Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved - you and your household. Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God - he and his whole family.

Later, when Paul was in Corinth, he proclaimed the Gospel to a man named Crispus. Acts 18: 8 states

Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized.


Water baptism

When we talk about baptism, we usually mean, the event of water baptism. That is, water is either poured on an infant or a new adult believer or he is submerged within water, with words such as, "I baptize you in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost" spoken. This is also what this chapter is referring to and concentrating on. However, it should be remembered that within the Bible, the word baptism is not always intended to be interpreted like this. In Matthew 3: 11, John the Baptist said

I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful that I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

In Luke 12: 49-50 Jesus spoke to his disciples, saying

I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!

He said this some time after he had been baptized by John with water, so clearly he wasn't referring to this.

These verses show that the word baptism was used in more than one way by New Testament writers. Sometimes when I read verses about baptism, I wonder, can baptism be interpreted simply to mean the washing of our sins by Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that occurs when a person becomes a Christian? Does it have to mean the actual event of having water poured over a new Christian? Can it sometimes merely be interpreted as being made clean from sin? Could a verse such as "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned" just as truthfully be written as "Whoever believes and is made clean from sin will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned"?

For the rest of this chapter, the term baptism is specifically used to denote water baptism.

Is baptism necessary for salvation?

The Roman Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant churches teach that baptism is necessary for Salvation. Many Protestant and Pentecostal churches teach that baptism is not necessary for salvation. The belief that water baptism actually saves a person is known as baptismal regeneration. Essentially, Roman, Orthodox and certain Protestant traditions tell us that we are not Christians if we are not baptized. Other Protestant and Pentecostal churches tell us that we can be a Christian without being baptized. Why is there this difference?

It is vital to realize that the question of the necessity of baptism for salvation is completely different from the question, "Should we be baptized?" I would be surprised if any Christian claimed that we shouldn't be baptized. It is almost universally agreed by all Christians regardless of denomination that all Christians should be baptized. Jesus commanded his apostles in the Great Commission to make disciples from all the nations and baptize them (Matthew 28: 18).

I believe that at the root of this difference in opinion about baptism's relationship to salvation is the question of Justification by faith alone, or by faith plus works.

The Orthodox and Roman Churches teach that justification is by faith plus works. The teaching is that a Christian is saved from his sin by his faith in Christ, but he needs to confirm his salvation by good works. The Church itself has the power to forgive sins by administering its sacraments, which include the Lord's supper (the Mass) and baptism. The Catholic Catechism states that

Our Lord tied the forgiveness of sins to faith and Baptism... Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ...

The teaching is clear that the action of baptism itself brings about the cleansing of sin. For again the Catechism states

This sacrament signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one can enter the kingdom of God... The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation

The Orthodox teaching is very similar. In an official internet site, the following statement is made

The way of entry into the Christian Church is by baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The Protestant churches teach that Justification is through faith in Christ alone, and that no works can earn or are needed to earn salvation. Most Protestant and Pentecostal Christians, conservative and liberal alike, believe that baptism is an outward symbol of cleansing of sin and spiritual rebirth that occurs when a person puts his faith in Christ. It is generally felt that water baptism itself is not required for salvation, but that Christians are baptized as a public witness or sign of that salvation and rebirth. However, this is not necessarily the official teachings of some denominations. The Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Churches all teach that baptism is in someway required for salvation. The 39 articles of faith of Anglican church makes the following statement regarding baptism

Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed, Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.

The Uniting Church of Australia teaches that

Baptism is an effective sign of a relationship with Jesus and with the church.

Although these statements could be interpreted in different ways, the Uniting Church of Australia, in a joint statement with the Anglican Church, also explains

Both churches believe that through baptism with water, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection, incorporated into the body of Christ, the Church, and receive the gracious gift of forgiveness of sins and new life in the Spirit.

Martin Luther wrote about the necessity of baptism, and the Lutheran Church of today continues to teach that baptism is the means by which a Christian is forgiven. Luther wrote

Baptism is no human trifle, but is instituted by God Himself, moreover, that it is most solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we cannot be saved.

An official Lutheran website comments on baptism

It (baptism) works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

Although these three denominations teach that the act of baptism imparts forgiveness, this is not the commonly held belief of many Christians who attend these churches. These Christians tend to have the same understanding of baptism, to that of the teaching of the Baptist churches. It is an interesting fact, that a denomination which emphasises the importance of baptism to the extent that it is known as “Baptist”, actually clearly teaches that baptism does not save. A website of the Southern Baptist churches in America states that

It (baptism) is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead.

The United Methodist Church in the United States also teaches that baptism is a sign of faith, and not the means of salvation

Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth.

Pentecostal churches mostly teach that baptism is to be performed on believers and as such is a symbolic act of faith. The Assemblies of God state in their Official Statement of Fundamental Truths that

Water Baptism by Immersion is practiced after repenting of one's sins and receiving Christ's gift of salvation

So, there is a wide gap in official teaching about baptism between different denominations. The teaching of any church seems to fall into one of two categories – either rebirth is through faith, or rebirth is through baptism. I believe that it is inconsistent to proclaim that justification is through faith alone, and then to suggest baptism with water is required for the forgiveness of sins. Accordingly, the Protestant churches that teach the necessity of baptism contradict themselves when they also teach that we are made completely acceptable to God by our faith in Christ alone.

The underlying theme of the New Testament is simply that Jesus saves. John 3:16-18 states that

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.

In this passage, along with many others throughout the New Testament, there is no pronouncement that baptism is required for salvation. Belief in the gospel saves. Baptism is not even mentioned in these passages. Paul wrote that he came to preach the gospel and not to baptize. In 1 Corinthians 1: 17

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel - not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

And further in that letter he explains the gospel (1 Corinthians 15: 1-4)

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

If baptism is needed for our salvation, then why has Paul written that he did not come baptize? It is because Paul wanted the Corinthians to know that it wasn't baptism that saved them, but it was faith in Jesus as Lord. To the Romans, Paul wrote (Romans 10: 9-13)

9-10 That if you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved... 13 Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

The Bible tells us that Christ makes us righteous when we place our faith in Him. This is the good news. To suggest that we need to be baptized with water before our sins are removed from us, is to say that faith in Christ by itself is not enough. It means that I was not forgiven of my sins just one minute before my baptism even though I had long ago placed my faith in Christ. It means that just one minute later, following my immersion in water, my sins were removed and I was acceptable to God. I can never accept this, because I know in my heart that I was justified and saved when I placed my faith in Christ. I know that the Holy Spirit lived in me in those minutes and days before my baptism with water. And I know that I can also find examples in the Bible of the Holy Spirit living in people before their baptism with water. In the book of Acts, Cornelius and his household were filled with the Holy Spirit whilst Peter preached the Gospel to them. And so Peter said (Acts 10: 47)

Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.

Christians who teach the necessity of baptism however often point to Bible passages that seem to imply baptism does save. There are some verses that do seem to suggest this, and each Christian should read these and honestly examine them himself. In Acts 22, Paul recounted his conversion. In Damascus, after Jesus revealed himself to Paul, Ananias instructed Paul (Acts 22: 16)

And now, what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized, and wash away your sins calling on his (Jesus') name

The important question here is, is the washing away of sin done by baptism or is it done by calling on Jesus name? The passage should perhaps be written "And now, what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized. Wash away your sins calling on his name" as it is the washing away of sins and the calling on Jesus' name that are linked in this verse. It is the calling on the name of Jesus that washes our sin, not the physical act of water baptism.

Mark wrote (Mark 16: 15-16)

He (Jesus) said to them, Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.

Mark has written that whoever does not believe is condemned. If baptism was needed, then why has he not written whoever does not believe or whoever is not baptized will be condemned? To use the first part of the verse to justify the necessity of baptism for salvation, while ignoring the second part of the verse, is wrong.

When Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, Jesus told him (John 3: 5-7)

I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, "You must be born again."

Some Christians assume that "water" refers to baptism. However, I believe that Nicodemus who was a teacher of the Law would have understood water in terms of the Old Testament. Christian baptism is not referred to in the Old Testament, so Nicodemus would not have understood it in this way. Being born of water could be interpreted as meaning being purified. There is no reason to automatically assume water means baptism here.

There are a few other verses that also can seem to suggest baptism is required for salvation. However, I believe that if these are read with the whole context of the New Testament in mind, then they can be understood entirely differently. But I don't just appeal to the Bible to show that baptism is not required for salvation. Here are three true stories / examples

My sister's boyfriend was raised in a Hindu household. He began coming to Church as a young adult. He quietly listened to sermons, songs and prayers, and one day, he knew - he knew that he believed that he was a sinner and that Jesus had died in place of him, for his sins, and that Jesus was his only way to the Father. That was almost one year ago. He now has a strong and growing faith and calls himself a Christian. However, he hasn't been baptized yet. Is he Christian? Is he saved? Is he in Christ, and Christ in him?
My wife's friend was baptized as an infant. She regularly attended Church as a young child. However, in high-school she decided that she did not believe in God. She is an atheist to this day. She has been baptized. Is she a Christian? Is she saved? Is she in Christ, and Christ in her?
I was raised in a Christian household. I always called myself a Christian. As I became a teenager, I began examining my beliefs and knew that I believed I was a sinner and that on the cross, Jesus had died for my sins. My parents encouraged me to be baptized, and I was baptized. Prior to my baptism, was I a Christian? Was I in Christ and Christ in me? Was I saved?

What about infant baptism?

The practice of baptizing infants can be traced in history back to the third century after Christ. Prior to this, Infant Baptism may have occurred, but there are no clear records of it. In the centuries after this, infant baptism became almost universal in Christendom. From around the time of the reformation different groups of Christians ceased its practice, and would only baptize those old enough to believe in Christ - this is usually referred to as "believer's baptism". Today, Orthodox, Catholic and many Protestant denominations (including Anglican, Uniting Church, Lutheran) baptize infants. Many Protestant and Pentocostal denominations (including Baptists, Assemblies of God) do not baptize infants.

In the Bible, there is no definite example of a child being baptized, but there are also passages that many Christians believe imply children were baptized. For example, in Acts 16: 31-34, the jailer and all his family were baptized.

He (the jailer) then brought them out and asked, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? They replied, Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved - you and your household. Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God - he and his whole family.

The jailer presumably had young children, and if all his family was baptized, then this suggests his children would also have been baptized. However, the passage also states that "they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house" and that "he had come to believe in God - he and his whole family". Both of these suggest that there weren't any infant involved, because (1) you don't speak to infants and (2) infants aren't able to believe abstract concepts.

Most Christians who believe that baptism is an act undertaken symbolizing belief and rebirth, feel that infant baptism makes no sense. Many of these Christians make a public declaration that they will raise their child teaching him about Christ. This is called a "dedication".

For Christians who believe that baptism is a regenerative act, where an individual is actually washed of his Sin, infant baptism makes perfect sense. If baptism with water brings about God's grace, then an infant who dies without it, dies stained with sin, but an infant who dies baptized, dies cleaned of sin. As the Catholic Catechism puts it

As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them... Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them," allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.

The Anabaptists and Baptists

From the dark ages until the reformation, baptismal regeneration was taught and infant baptism practiced almost universally. At the time of the Reformation in the early sixteenth century, some Christians in Switzerland formed a movement that was labeled Anabaptist, which meant re-baptizer. They rejected infant baptism, believing baptism was a symbolic act that should be performed on confession of faith. Anabaptists reached out with missionary vigour to Europe (mostly German-speaking Europe), but were heavily persecuted by both Protestant and Catholic churches. Thousands of Anabaptists were murdered and as time passed, their numbers dwindled. Today, only small communities of Mennonite and Hutterite Anabaptists remain in Europe and North America.

A century after the beginning of the Anabaptist movement, members of independent English churches began teaching and practicing believer's baptism. These Christians became known as the English Baptists, and from them, Baptist thinking spread to North America. Other traditional Protestant churches, including the Anglican and Lutheran churches did not adopt this viewpoint, and the Catholic and Orthodox churches also continue to teach in baptismal regeneration and practice infant baptism.

Conclusion

Different denominations have different teachings and practices regarding baptism. These are important issues that all Christians should examine, especially the question of whether baptism is a saving act or instead a symbol. However, we shouldn't let issues of baptism cause bitter divisions in the Christian Church as it has in the past. Instead we should go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them as Jesus commanded, teaching that Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God (1 John 5: 1)


Official teachings about baptism in different denominations

What does baptism by water mean and is it required for salvation? What is the official teaching of different denominations?

Roman Catholic and Orthodox - Baptism is the washing of a Christian's sin and the start of his life in Christ. It is required for his salvation

Many Protestant denominations, including Baptists and Pentecostal denominations - Baptism is an outward representation of the inner washing of sin that occurred when a Christian first believed. It is not required for salvation

Many Pentecostal and many Protestant churches, including Anglicans and Lutherans - Baptism is the washing of a Christian's sin and start of his life in Christ. It is required for his salvation.


What about infant baptism?

Roman Catholic - Infant baptism practiced

Orthodox - Infant baptism practiced

Many Protestant churches - including Anglican, Uniting Church, Lutheran - Infant baptism practiced

Many Protestant churches - including Baptists - Believer's baptism only (baptism of adults and older children who accept the Gospel)

Most Pentecostal churches - Believer's baptism only




By Graham Llewellyn Grove




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