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Clifford McLain's avatar
December 4, 2009

Water Baptism and Salvation

The many divisions and varied opinions about this sub­ject make it appear almost like a hopeless task, particular­ly so for the one who honestly tries to clear the air of all its entanglements. Nevertheless, we must do what we can.

To begin with, the honest workman should realize that God could not be the author of such widespread division and confusion. It naturally follows that the negative course must be the only other alternative; namely, our ancestral enemy, that old devil–Satan. Consequently, we need to discern just how he has accomplished his many-sided views — “For we are not ignorant of his devices”– that is, his thinking, disposition, intellect, etc. (II Cor. 2:11). Then, too, we are warned to be on guard “against the wiles of the devil,” that is, his methods of operation (Eph. 6:11).

When one views the history of our ancient enemy, his wiles or methods of operation are always uncovered along certain traditional lines — “Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition” (Mark 7:13). We may summarize his methods of operation with a single word: “tradition.” Based on the fact he has always been a liar and a slanderer from the beginning, we may state his devices or way of thinking within the confines also of one word: “slander.” We know of no action of his, recorded in scripture, that does not proceed along these lines. In reference to “slander,” the Holy Spirit, with His activities of grace, can and does overcome much in this field. Even so, one can at times in history, past and present, almost smell the brimstone as the hoofprints are seen in the divisions of the evil one. This evidence alone tells the spiritual mind that something (concerning water baptism) is drastically wrong with the thinking of God’s people.

When “tradition” is considered, there is much to “unlearn” along with the learning, if one is to be taught of the Spirit. Lest we be misunderstood, we are not saying that all tradition is Satanic. We are say­ing water baptism is the traditional bait used by the Devil to bring about many divisions that blind the eyes of the visible church. Therefore, we need to look long and hard as we examine two well-known and accepted premises: (1) that water baptism is a symbol of the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord (Immersionists); (2) that water baptism is a symbol of the coming of the Holy Spirit into the believer’s life with all the varied values of that presence (Affusionists). (Source: Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 7, Baptism Ritual, 1948, Van Kampen Press, 542 South Dearborn Street, Chicago , Illinois.)

Naturally, if we can show from the scriptures used to substantiate these two positions that they do not refer to water baptism, then we are well on our way to understanding the mind of our blessed Lord with reference to this theme. Further , we prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that water baptism is a Jewish ritual and has always had (without exception) an entirely different symbolic story to portray.

The first scripture reference to be considered is as follows: “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death” (Rom. 6:3, 4). Please note the little word, “into,” for no mere ritual of water could ever place us into Jesus Christ. On the other hand, when we consider the actual baptism of the Holy Spirit — “For by one Spirit are we all baptiz­ed into one body” — (I Cor. 12:13), there is no problem at all. Because the baptism of the Holy Spirit does just what Romans 6 says, that is, it places us into the Body of Christ. In other words, Holy Spirit baptism (not water) places us into organic union with Christ. But some will say, “yes, we believe that water baptism is in the background.” The latter point will be addressed when we deal with the true symbolism of water baptism. Some hold this scripture not only to be water baptism but also make the water necessary for salvation.

The next passage to be studied is very similar to the first: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Please notice once again the same identifying word, “into,” and the latter phrase, “ have put on Christ .” We repeat, no mere ritual of water could ever place us into Christ nor could it ever cause us to put on Christ. It is obvious this is exactly what the Holy Ghost does for us in His baptism.

Another reference used by some to substantiate water baptism is exposed when we consider the context and not just the text. “And ye are complete in Him… in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: (likewise) buried with Him in baptism” (Col. 2:10-12- -parenthesis is mine). The belov­ed Greek teacher, Kenneth S. Wuest, in his expanded translation renders the Greek thought in verse 12 in this way: “Having been entombed with Him in placing into (Christ by the Holy Spirit), in which act of placing into (Christ) you were also raised with Him through faith…” No comment is needed. J. B. Phillips, in his “Letters to Young Churches,” translates verses 11 and 12 in this man­ner: “In Christ you were circumcised not by any physical act, but by being set free from the sins of the flesh by vir­tue of Christ’s circumcision. You, so to speak, share in that, just as in baptism you shared His death…” We could go on and on, but are quite sure by now that the Holy Spirit’s thinking in these verses is ob­vious to all. Needless to say, not one drop of water is pre­sent. Furthermore, since we are complete in Him (Christ), verse 10, it would simply be SHIBBOLETH, or man’s requirement (see Judges 12:5,6), to try to add anything.

Last, there is a passage in Ephesians to be dealt with: “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace .” There is (BUT) one body, (BUT) one Spirit, (BUT) one hope, (BUT) one Lord, (BUT) one faith, (BUT) one baptism, (BUT) one God (Eph. 4:3-6–parenthesis is mine). The burden of this text seems quite obvious; namely, to KEEP THE UNI­TY OF THE SPIRIT. The means of this grace is found in the sevenfold cord of Oneness.

Naturally, all true believers will agree there is but one body of saints in this age, “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Bar­barian, Scythian, bond nor free, but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). In other words, race, ordinances of the flesh, human cultures, station of life, are of no consequence in Christ. As to the one Spirit, failure to realize this is disastrous, for every saint must be taught of Him (I John 2:27). Hope! Yes, but only one — “Which is Christ in you the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). One Lord–for “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24). Faith — only one that matters, and it comes “by hearing, and hear­ing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Likewise, there is but one baptism — “For by one Spirit are we all baptiz­ed into one body…” (I Cor. 12:13). Naturally, this must be Holy Spirit baptism, for water baptism never unifies, it only divides. Remember the burden of our text is “uni­ty.” Moreover, if one allows the one baptism to include the two (Holy Spirit and water), then he must completely ignore the laws of literal hermeneutics and join the ranks of the liberals. This, in turn, would make possible by way of interpretation: two bodies, two Spirits, two hopes, etc. You see how impossible this would be. Lastly, in the sevenfold cord of oneness, there is but one God. No comment is needed.

May we recommend a fine study help on the “Baptiz­ing Work of the Holy Spirit,” by Merrill F. Unger. The good doctor does not hold all the way with our view on water baptism; nevertheless, this deviation will in no way detract from the value of his fine teaching.

The True Symbolism of Water Baptism

We have chosen the Old Testament as a starting point, inasmuch as all scholars and most students of the Word are in accord as to the true symbolism of water baptism when confined to the old economy: namely, “that water baptism is a symbol of cleansing and purification.” These baptisms were looked upon as washings. In fact, the New Testament translators, when referring to these Old Testa­ment baptisms, even translate the Greek word “baptisms” into our English word “washings.” To illustrate–”in meats and drinks, and divers washings (baptismos)” (Heb. 9:10). Prayerfully consider these facts, for they shed much light on the New Testament teaching.

Your attention is invited to a particular conversation found in the New Testament. Listen now as we overhear a discussion about baptism: “And John also was baptiz­ing in Aenon… Then there arose a question…about purifying” (John 3:23-27). Study the whole con­text carefully and you will discover that their thinking, at least at this time, concerning our subject was still in the confines of Old Testament teaching.

Turning now to a discourse of Paul as he addressed the Jews at Jerusalem, retelling his conversion, and bap­tism in water: “And now why tarriest thou? Arise and be baptized, and wash away thy sins” (Acts 22:16). Observe the word “wash,” for it is obvious that the Old Testament idea of cleansing or purifying is still very much in the forefront. Note also the offer of the Messianic kingdom was still valid when Paul arrived at Rome–”Because that for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain” (Acts 28:20). In other words, the book of Acts was still Jewish ground; even though the church of this age may be seen in the mist from Paul’s conversion onward, that is, in the context of salvation. Notice also that Romans 6 and Galatians 3 concerning baptism were written prior to Acts 22. Naturally, if there were to be any symbolism in the background of these passages, it could not be that which has evolved through tradition, but would have to be in keeping with Paul’s previous testimony if one is to be consistent and scripturally sound.

One fact will be hard to deny–that its true symbolism, up to and including Acts 22, was still Jewish. The reason for water baptism in the New Testament is best understood when one understands its relation to the Jewish priesthood. (See note on “The Priesthood” later in this Appendix.) For those who desire to make a fuller study of the different shades of meaning at­tached to “baptism,” perhaps the most exhaustive work in print, and a classic in this field, is by Dr. J.W. Dale.

In conclusion, we wish to set forth the testimony of two well-known and highly respected saints of another day. First, the testimony of Justin Martyr, A. D. 110-165:

Dialogue of Justin Martyr with Trypho, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1

Chapter 14: “that 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. For what is the use of that baptism which cleanses the flesh and the body…”

Chapter 19: “Nor do we receive the useless baptism of cisterns, for it has nothing to do with this baptism of life.”

Chapter 29: “What need, then have I of circumcision, who have witness to by God? What need have I of that other baptism, who have been baptized with the Holy Spirit?” (Compare this last statement with Col. 2:10-12.)

Now we shall look at the testimony of John Bunyan, beloved author of “Pilgrim’s Progress.” The following is from Bunyan’s article on “A Reason of My Practice in Worship,” (a reprint in Grace Impressions, Volume 2, Number 4, May, 1964):

“Again, if water baptism, as the circumstances with which the chur­ches were pestered of old, trouble their peace, wound the consciences of the godly, dismember and break their fellowship, it is, although an ordinance, for the present to be prudently shunned, for the deification of the Church, as I shall show anon, is to be preferred before it. Secondly, and observe it, One Spirit, One Hope, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (not water, for by one spirit are we all baptized into one body), One God and Father of ALL WHO IS above ALL and Through ALL in ALL, is sufficient rule for us to hold commu­nion by, and also to endeavour the maintaining that communion and to keep it in the unity within the bond of peace against all attempts whatsoever. (Eph. 4:1-6–I Cor. 12:16).” Again, on Page 837, he refers to Paul in I Cor. 1:14-16, and comments: “By this negligent relating of whom were baptized by him he showeth that he made no such matter of baptism as some in these days do.” The teaching of only one baptism (that of the Holy Spirit) for this dispensation is not some new-fangled idea, but is as old as the Mystery itself. The Priesthood Water baptism was a required procedure in preparation for the priesthood. This ceremonial rite was the outward symbol of their (the priests’) purification: “And Aaron and his sons… shall wash (baptize) them with water” (Ex­odus 29:4); “Moses brought Aaron and his sons and wash­ed (baptized) them…” (Lev. 8:6). See Greek word “baptismos” in the New Testament, translated “washings” (Heb. 9:10) (Source: A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament; 1930; Vol. 5 , pg. 398; Harper Brothers, New York, New York.) Attention is directed to one of Israel’s religious privileges–that they were to become a nation of priests, a channel of blessings to the nations (Exodus 19:6; Isa. 61:6; Zechariah 8:13, 23). Moreover, Peter’s letter, written in the time frame of the Acts Period to the dispersed of Israel (I Peter 1:1), demonstrates beyond question that the Holy Spirit had begun His work of fulfilling the promise of a “royal priesthood” in Israel. Compare Exodus 19:5-6 with I Peter 2:5, 9. Hence, we understand why John the Bap­tizer came baptizing in water, inasmuch as Israel’s role as a nation of priests was then a present possibility. The call of the nation to repentance along with the offer to restore the kingdom had brought this time into focus. Note, the burden of the message for that day was, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2) . Note also that water baptism was still a symbol of washing or purifica­tion as late as Acts 22:16. Suffice it to say, Israel did reject her Messiah and the kingdom He offered (Acts 28:20-28). Consequently, the kingdom and that priesthood are now in abeyance. Shadow and symbol have been replaced by substance (Col. 2:10, 1 4-23). Requirements The requirement of water baptism, from John the Bap­tist to the conclusion of the ministry concerning the Kingdom, was just as valid as were all the different re­quirements recorded and required in Hebrews 11. To avoid misunderstanding, we are not saying that these many but different requirements had any merit in themselves. What we are saying is that the requirement was the outward expression of the believer’s faith toward that revelation which was addressed to him for his obe­dience of faith. Obviously, it is the faith of the believer, and not the outward requirement, which God counts for righteousness. The outward act only expresses the life of that faith. Water baptism was valid for those to whom ad­dressed (Acts 2:38).