Is Water-Baptism Required for Christians?
Question: I am struggling with some matters on baptism and was wondering if you could help me settle some issues in my mind. A very doctrinal friend of mine argues against believer's water baptism being practiced in the church age after the completed canon of Scripture. He has also stated "there is not one command in the New Testament commanding the believer to be baptized". Subsequently, I went home and pulled out a few books to consider his claim. After looking for a while (and developing a headache), I came across several NT passages where the command to be baptized in water is given:
The first passage (as you are aware) is where Peter is preaching the first message in the church age. The clear command to be baptized is obvious. Does this command still carry weight for the believer today? The second passage is where Paul is recounting his Damascus road experience and where the Lord commands him to be baptized. I think it is strange that the Lord would command him to be baptized before calling on His name. There are other passages to consider too (Acts 10:48; Matt.28:16-20; - where a command seems to be in view, and the latter by our Lord; and 1Cor.1:17; Eph.4:5 - with neither of these last two passages seeming to rule out water baptism). What do you think? Do these commands fall into our own day?
Thank you for your service.
Response: Thank you for your thoughtful e-mail. I well appreciate the godly fear of wanting to do right by scripture in every way, and whether this answer strikes you as right or wrong, I want to commend you for keeping yourself open to what the Bible has to say (whether or not it confirms or confutes previous opinions). The day we lapse into comfortable views and stop listening to the Word itself - really listening - is the day our spiritual decline begins. True spiritual growth is not an easy process, but all those who respond from an open heart to our Lord's words in Matthew 7:24-27, both to listen to Him and to put into practice what He commands, are those who truly "build on the rock".
To begin, I should make it clear that ichthys.com is not connected with any other ministry or any other personality, either officially or unofficially. Nor does the teaching presented here reflect anything but my own individual exposition of the Word of God. Naturally, I have antecedents (see "antecedents of Ichthys"), as we all do, but none of the teaching from this ministry (to include this response) should be construed as anything but my own (i.e., I don't represent anyone else) - although I do hope, and pray, and strive to ensure that they accurately reflect the truth of the Word of God (this is my sole concern).
The above is certainly germane to the topic of baptism. For there are few other subjects in the history of the Church which have been more divisive, and that fact is a reflection of the rapidity with which organizations in particular jump from careful consideration of scripture to defense of tradition (a charge from which few Christian groups are immune, even those whose tradition is very recent).
Let us start with some pertinent principles. First, Paul's statement in 1Cor.1:17 that he was sent to preach the gospel not to baptize is very telling. It certainly does not say that water-baptism is wrong, but it is indeed a very strange statement to make if it were, in Paul's view of things, a mandate that all believers must be water-baptized. It is also true as you say in regard to Eph.4:5 that this verse does not rule out water-baptism. It does, however, state (on a par with there being only One Lord Jesus Christ) that there is indeed only "one" baptism. At the very least, this ought to mean that there is only one baptism of any true spiritual consequence, and, if that is true, no serious Christian would venture to place water-baptism in this premier position over and against the baptism of the Spirit.
Clearly, water-baptism is not and could not be any sort of means or requirement for a salvation that is based upon grace through faith (Eph.2:8-9) - which begs the question of why then there should be a mandate to be baptized with water, especially since it is the Spirit baptism to which John and Jesus looked forward and told us to esteem (Mk.1:8; Lk.24:48; Jn.15:26; 16:5-15; Acts 1:4-5; 1:7-8), and since water baptism has been so historically divisive, so prone to the inducement of guilt and fear for the un-baptized, and so engendering of false confidence in works and rituals for the baptized.
In the early church-visible, yes, there is no question that water-baptism was the rule, and that is evident as far back as the apostolic fathers (cf. in particular the "Didache"). But that first Church era, the era of Ephesus, was very clearly one of stagnancy in spiritual growth (they had abandoned this "first love" of the truth), and was truncated after a bare 12 years as a result (see The Coming Tribulation, part 2A: "The Seven Churches of Revelation"). In light of this, to build doctrine on what we know of the practices of this early, transitional era, is a major albeit common fallacy. It is also worth pointing out that for much the greater part of the past two millennia, infant baptism by sprinkling has been by far the dominant form of baptism and was for the most part accepted as valid and the only baptism needed. So that for the perhaps the majority of the Church Age's Christians, the question "should I be water-baptized?" never came up at all. Even in the case of those who now find a need for adult water-baptism by whatever method, I would imagine that even they would be reluctant to cast a universal shroud of doubt over the depth or genuineness of the faith of nearly all the believers who lived from the earliest days down until the fifteenth century (and many since as well, of course).
As to the examples you cite in the book of Acts, it is likewise a major fallacy to build doctrine exclusively upon the historical reports therein. Luke reports the truth through the Spirit - even when it is an accurate account of wrong-headed behavior (cf. the election of Matthias: see Peter #2). This is certainly true in the case of water-baptism. The assumption on the part of even the apostles in the early going that water-baptism is a natural thing to do for those who accept Christ proceeds from an as yet incomplete understanding of the new reality of the cross and resurrection on the one hand, and of the consequent baptism of the Spirit on the other. A good example of this is that fact that even on a subject as critical as bringing salvation to the gentiles - the main point of this current age of the Church - even well after Pentecost Peter still required special instruction, circumstances and help before he realized the truth that this salvation was not only for Jews (and had to defend his actions later against others: Acts 10-11). Paul, too, was at first most solicitous of the elders in Jerusalem, but would come to stand with the truth against all tradition and authority in due time (cf. Gal.1-2; esp.2:11-14). And so it would seem imprudent to conclude that just because believers, even apostles, are occasionally involved in water-baptism, that the practice was necessarily the result of specific instructions as opposed to the continuing of a ritual tradition which had already been superseded by reality (my own view as it is no doubt clear by now).
One of the passages you mention, Acts 22:16, clearly falls into this category, for it is not a quote of the words of our Lord, but of Ananias' conversation with Paul. It therefore reflects Ananias' (as yet not completely enlightened) thinking on these matters.
This brings us to the consideration of Matthew 28:19-20, which is really the crux of the entire issue. For, no matter what we might feel about it, even if water-baptism does not seem to make theological sense, if our Lord were really commanding us to be water-baptized, that would certainly settle the issue. In fact, that is not at all what this passage, an admittedly difficult one to interpret, really relates. What this passage actually commands is for us to "make disciples" (the only imperative in the Greek), that is, to teach mankind about Jesus Christ, how to come to Him and how to follow Him. The two participles ("baptizing" and "teaching") are clearly instrumental in nature (i.e., they show the method of carrying out the order: "by baptizing" and "by teaching"). "Baptizing" and "teaching" therefore reflect the means to these two parts of the process, namely 1) entering into Christ, and 2) properly following Him thereafter. "Baptizing them into the Name of ..." thus must refer to the mediation of the gospel message by which we all are baptized by the Spirit through faith into all three Persons of the Trinity (Rom.6:3; cf. Is.30:27), while "teaching them" clearly concerns the post-salvation process of growth and discipleship which is equally essential. Beyond all question, it is the baptism of the Spirit which places us into union with God, union with Christ - and it is the indwelling Holy Spirit which is the pledge of this (2Cor.1:21-22; Eph.1:13-14; 4:30). Water-baptism has nothing to do with either. Therefore, in my view, the main point behind the baptism referred to in Matthew 28:19 is the same as the one made in 1st Corinthians 12:13 where we are all "baptized into one Body (of Christ, His Person, His Name)".
It is well to note here that Matthew 28:19-20 is not our Lord Jesus Christ's last communication with His disciples. For that mandate was given in Galilee. But we know that Jesus ascended into heaven from Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives, the very place to which He will return at the end of this Age at the conclusion of the Tribulation (Lk.24:48; Acts 1:4-5; 1:7-8). Here are Christ's final words to them and to us before He returned to the Father:
The significance of the symbolism of water-baptism (excluding the unique case of the water-baptism of Christ which portrays His death for our sins) is essentially two-fold: 1) it portrays the individual's repentance, turning away from sin and death and toward God instead (cf. Acts 22:16); and 2) the pouring out of the Spirit which "baptizes us" into Christ (cf. Acts 19:5). But in the passages above our Lord is talking about actual repentance and the actual pouring out of the Spirit – the reality in each case clearly being the only really important thing (not the ritual which represents them). In Acts chapter 10, the gentiles who were listening to Peter repented and believed just as soon as the gospel message passed his lips, and the Spirit fell upon them in dramatic fashion (Acts 10:39-46). To which Peter remarks "can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water now? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." To which we may well ask, what was the added benefit of water-baptism now that these gentiles had 1) repented and believed and been saved, and 2) been baptized with the Spirit, baptized into the Person of Jesus Christ? Certainly in this case (and in every subsequent case I might add), it was a matter of mere ritual following powerful reality, and while a consideration of this passage does not necessarily mark out water-baptism as improper, it certainly does at least suggest that it was an after-thought that could in no way compare with the baptism they had already undergone.
Taking all this into consideration in light of our Lord's final words in the Luke and Acts passages quoted above where He stresses the reality of repentance-faith and the reality of Spirit-baptism (with no mention of water-baptism), I believe we would be in great and dangerous error to take the clearly parallel Matthew 28:19-20 passage "baptizing them into the Name" as purely or even predominantly concerned with water-baptism (and should instead see it, as explained above, as mediating the baptism of the Spirit by proclamation of the gospel). All indications are that this passage is referring to the reality of our union with Him and with the Father and with the Spirit through faith and through the baptism that really makes a difference to our Christian lives and eternal futures, the baptism of the Spirit. This, after all, is exactly what John had predicted: "I baptize you with water for repentance .... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit - and with fire" (Matt.3:11).
1st Peter 3:21 is also pertinent here, a passage which indicates exactly what we have been discussing above. Later in his life, Peter came to understand this issue very clearly (as Paul had: 1Cor.1:17), and was prompted to discuss the matter, possibly also as Paul had from personal observation of the questionable influence that the continued use of this ritual was having in the Church:
We may compare Paul's injunctions against the continued participation in Jewish temple ritual which is the whole theme of the book of Hebrews. No true restoration is possible for those who "continue to crucify the Son of God afresh, exposing Him to open shame" (Heb.6:6). This is a change for him, of course, with Hebrews having been written after the incidents in Jerusalem which led to Paul's captivity. He may not have fully understood that sponsoring those young men and their vows and making sacrifice was wrong at that time, but he certainly proclaims it as wrong in Hebrews. There is a parallel here to baptism, for just as continuing with animal sacrifices has the effect of saying Jesus' death was of no effect, so there is a sense in which water-baptism seems to be saying that the baptism of the Spirit never happened (in both cases the ritual looked forward to a far greater reality). Once this principle is understood (as it was not at first in the earliest days of the Church), are we to operate as if we did not in fact understand?
Therefore there is a sense in which water-baptism may indeed be an offense for those with knowledge (e.g., Paul and Peter after the early days: 1Cor.1:17; 1Pet.3:21). It can also be dangerous for those without it. For the early Church may be forgiven for failing to understand that this was a ritual now replaced by reality, a shadow of the true pouring out of the Spirit (cf. Heb.10:1). But for us, how can it be justified, especially if all we are really operating on is fear? The fear of the Lord is indeed healthily (Ps.19:9; Prov.1:7; Eccl.5:7; Is.11:2-3), but our faith in Him and His Word must be strong enough to give us the courage to triumph over all other fears (Rom.8:28-39). Nearly two millennia of tradition across the board can still be wrong (and, sadly, that is more often the fact than not). This, then, is my main objection to a point of view that water-baptism is something we ought to indulge in as Christians. For, whether overtly expressed or not, it is essentially a means of providing a "feeling" of security in salvation. That is a terribly dangerous proposition in and of itself, and is especially so when one considers that this "security blanket" is always administered by an organization (a fact which has the effect of shifting loyalty and confidence away from Christ and to that organization instead; see Peter #27, "Three Doctrines which Threaten Faith"). Indeed, over the course of history the controversy and the false teachings revolving around water-baptism have led many astray from the faith.
Walking in the Spirit with whom we have been baptized is not always easy. Jesus, after all, told us to count the cost before making the commitment to follow Him (Matt.7:14) - there would be costs. To submit to water-baptism in order to fit into a particular organization is easy enough, for it is always easy to rely on some ritual well within one's own control. What is often not so easy, however, is following the Lamb wherever He leads, even when this takes us as it took Him outside the camp to suffer at the hands of those who place false traditions in the place of truth.
Let me close by returning to the words of that most famous "baptist", John, in Matthew 3:11: "I baptize you with water ... He [the Messiah] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit". For, indeed, it is exactly this ministry of the Spirit which is so important in Jesus' life and ministry, and it is not water baptism, but the baptism of the Spirit which Jesus emphasizes over and over (e.g., Lk.4:18; 11:13; 12:12; 24:48; Jn.7:39; 14:15-26; 15:26; 16:5-15; 20:22; Acts 1:4-8, etc.). The emphasis in the epistles is also consistently focused upon Spirit baptism rather than water baptism (which is hardly even mentioned). Even in our famous passage on Paul's regrets about water-baptism, we find in 1st Corinthians 2:4 a clear contrasting of the power of the Spirit on the one hand with earthly wisdom as demonstrated by earthly proofs such as water baptism on the other (cf. with 1Cor.1:17). Against this universal emphasis and testimony (once we take the examples in Acts as historical rather than dispositive), there is really only Matt.28:19, the meaning of which we have discussed at length above. All things considered, it would seem prudent for us as followers of Christ to place the emphasis where He placed it, where the Word of God places it, namely, on the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
I apologize for the fact that this is not an exhaustive exposition of the topic. Eventually, that will be available in part 6 of the Bible Basics series (a long time in the future at this point, I fear). However, you may also find the following e-mail responses helpful to supplement the details: