Believer’s Baptism --Part 2

Believer’s Baptism
Part 2

W. Ross Rainey

Some Problem Passages

There are several New Testament passages which have been misunderstood and, as a result, misapplied in regard to believer’s baptism.

Mark 16:16. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

There are those who maintain that water baptism is essential to salvation, and this is one of several “key” texts to which appeal is made. However, two things should be kept in mind regarding this verse: (1) the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 is questionable, so caution should be exercised in seeking to use this statement as a proof-text, and (2) the only pronouncement of condemnation at the end of the verse is upon those who do not believe, for the words “and is not baptized” do not follow “believeth not.” Furthermore, it should be understood that water baptism is included here simply as the normal outward and public sign accompanying true belief in Christ.

John 3:5. “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

It is probably safe to conclude that the most widely accepted explanation of this verse among conservative Bible scholars takes “water” here as a symbol of the Word of God (compare Psalm 119:9; Ephesians 5: 25-26; Titus 3:5), which is, of course, the instrument of the new birth (compare James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23), the Spirit of God being the Agent of the new birth. This is certainly a possible and plausible answer to the problem posed by this text, but there is another school of thought worthy of consideration.

The Lord Jesus Christ was speaking to Nicodemus about the new birth, and He used the words “born of water and of the Spirit” to explain the previous phrase “born again” in verse 3. In the Authorized King James Version of the Scriptures there are six words in the phrase of verse 5, while in the Greek text there are but four, which literally read: “of water and spirit” (small “s”). At first Nicodemus thought the Lord Jesus was referring to the natural (verse 4), but Christ’s words in verse 5 clearly indicated to this inquiring Pharisee that He was referring to a washing of a spirit kind. In other words, Christ was speaking of a spiritual cleansing, something Nicodemus should have known about from Ezekiel 36:24-27 and 37:1-14. The new birth is indeed a spiritual cleansing (see Titus 3:5). From the standpoint of Greek grammar this phrase in John 3:5 affords an example of what is called hendiadys, meaning “one in two,” that is, one thought expressed by two figures. Thus “water” and “spirit” express one thought — namely, a spiritual cleansing, and this, brought about only by being “born again.”

The words of John 3:5 are used by some to try to substantiate the erroneous idea of baptismal regeneration, but the word “baptize” is nowhere found in the context of this classic conversation between Christ and Nicodemus, plus the fact that baptism has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject matter of the passage. In fact, believer’s baptism did not even exist at that time.

Acts 2:38. “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”

This is a favourite text, along with Mark 16:16 and Acts 22:16, of those who contend that water baptism is essential to salvation. Yet, while vigorously seeking to gain their point, such adherents conveniently ignore the many texts which clearly assert that salvation is by faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, if water baptism is essential to salvation how could the dying malefactor on the cross have been saved (Luke 23:39-43), and why did Paul and Silas answer the Philippian jailor as they did (Acts 16:31)? Also, what about Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:14?

To apply the words of Acts 2:38 and 22:16 to Gentiles is a serious error. On both occasions these statements were directed exclusively to Jews (see 2:22, 36; 22:1), the words of Acts 2:38 having been spoken on the day of Pentecost and thus at the beginning of a transitional period in the church’s history (see also 3:12; 4:10; 5:30-31; 7:2, 51). These Jews were directly charged with the crucifixion of Messiah (see 2:23; 3:13-15; 4:10; 5:30; 7:52), while the pattern of approach to the Gentiles is found in Acts 10:34-43 and has not changed from that time on down to the present moment, the Gentiles having been charged only indirectly with Christ’s crucifixion (note “they” in 10:39).

Regarding Peter’s words in Acts 2:38, it is well to remember that water baptism signifies a change of association. Because it was one of the acts a Jewish proselyte had to undergo, plus the background of John the Baptist’s ministry, baptism was well-known to the Jews of that day. However, this was not just any sort of baptism which Peter commanded, but baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, involving a complete break with Judiasm and an association with the Lord Jesus Christ and His followers. Even today it is not a Jew’s profession of Christianity nor his acceptance of the New Testament nor his attendance at Christian services, but his submission to Christian baptism that severs his tie with the Jewish community and marks him off as a Christian. This explains the stress placed here upon the ordinance of water baptism.

One day, when in the home of Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. of Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas, I asked him what his answer is to the problem of Acts 2:38. I am indebted to him for the following considerations, plus the concluding illustration, which clarify the meaning of this problematical text:

    1. Read Acts 10:43.

    2. Peter is again speaking in Acts 10:43.

    3. In Acts 10:43 Peter mentions only believing, thus revealing that believing, not baptism, is the key thing in Acts 2:38.

    4. The context which follows Acts 10:43 is the clincher.

Actually, in the matter of salvation, baptism is a non-essential. It is like getting your hat to get in your car to go to town. Getting your hat is a non-essential.

to be continued