Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Wikipedia vs. Baptism

Where does one begin on the subject of baptism?

If there is a more misunderstood Christian practice in all of the New Testament, I cannot think what it might be. I suspect even speaking in tongues can’t touch it with respect to the degree of confusion produced by the teaching about it currently circulating.

How widespread and how deeply rooted are the misconceptions surrounding baptism? I suppose one might look at different denominational opinions on the subject and assess them one by one, but I’m really more interested in what the man on the street (and perhaps even in the pew) thinks than in esoteric positions held by theologians that have failed to make an impression on the masses.

So then, to Wikipedia, our barometer of popular cultural understanding:
Baptism (from the Greek noun βάπτισμα baptisma) is a Christian rite of admission and adoption, almost invariably with the use of water, into the Christian Church generally and also a particular church.”
I’d maintain that while this definition represents a fairly common view in Christendom, it fails to accurately set out the teaching of the Bible. Which is kinda the only thing that matters, actually.

Really, the definition is wrong in just about every possible way.

Different Kinds of Baptism

To begin, we need to recognize that the writers of the New Testament use the word “baptism” in reference to several very different events. Conflating one with another can be a source of significant bewilderment, not to mention doctrinal error.

To give some examples, they speak of “John’s baptism”, a physical baptism that signified repentance, then also a spiritual “baptism into Moses” experienced by the nation of Israel, and even the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”, which is also not a physical baptism; no water at all is involved. The Lord even spoke of his death metaphorically as a “baptism”.

But these other historical meanings and uses of the word are surely not what confuses many Christians today. None of these varieties of baptism tells us how believers should be baptized in 2019 and what baptism in the Church Age actually accomplishes or signifies.

So let’s stick to the subject of water baptism, which Wikipedia refers to as a “rite”.

Wikipedia’s definition may do an injustice to the teaching of the Bible, but it provides a concise way of setting out the differences between the word of God and popular thought.

‘A rite of admission and adoption’

By “adoption”, our favorite encyclopedia-by-committee means to say that, in the act of being baptized, one is “adopted” into both the church universal and into a specific local church. But the New Testament does not associate the doctrine of adoption with water baptism, except in the rather vague sense that new first century converts were always baptized immediately after a profession of faith rather than at some later date, so that both events tended to happen around the same time. Nor is either the church universal or the local church ever said to “adopt” anyone.

Rather, adoption is an act of God that occurs in the moment a believer first receives the Holy Spirit, by which he or she becomes God’s child in a sense never true previously. The new Christian is enabled in truth and confidence to call God “Father”. In the Bible, the doctrine of adoption is primarily concerned with fatherhood and sonship, not brotherhood or membership. We might say it is more paternal than fraternal.

Thus, while the baptism of the Holy Spirit is connected with the idea of adoption, water baptism is not.

However, water baptism IS a rite of admission in this particular sense: that one is indeed always baptized “into” something, just not necessarily the church. John’s disciples were “baptized into” John’s baptism. Israel was baptized “into” Moses. Being baptized into something is a common feature of the various types of baptism. What it is that water baptism baptizes us into, we will see shortly.

Still, rather than “admission”, I’d prefer to use the words “identification with”. Water baptism is a deliberate choice to identify yourself with someone, be it John the Baptist or the Lord Jesus Christ. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, but nobody called it “repentance baptism”; they referred to it as “John’s baptism”.

‘Almost invariably with the use of water’

This phrase needs to be rewritten as simply “invariably by immersion” (or more correctly, submersion), which is to say without alteration, without exception, without option. Water baptism in the word of God inevitably and only occurs in a body of water, not by drizzling, sprinkling or spraying. The Greek word itself means to dip, and to do so thoroughly. Every water-baptized person in scripture stepped into a lake, river or other body of water, went down into the water and came back up out of it. Other rituals are certainly more common today, but they do not qualify as baptism in any biblical sense.

Why is sprinkling inadequate? It has neither precept nor precedent in the Bible, for one. Put bluntly, we’re not told to do it, and we have no examples of it. That should be reason enough.

But secondly, sprinkling is a wholly inadequate visual metaphor. Why? Because Christian water baptism is identification with Christ himself at each stage of his death, burial and resurrection. The act of going under the water and reemerging is a precise physical analogy to the spiritual reality being symbolized thereby. The act of sprinkling has a different spiritual significance entirely.

‘Into the Christian Church generally’

The idea that water baptism admits us to the Church universal (or ‘general’) is another error caused by conflating it with baptism with the Holy Spirit.

The fact that all Christians are baptized by the Holy Spirit into a “body”, and that the body in question is the church universal, is indisputable. It is plainly stated that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” But it is equally certain the baptism whereby this was accomplished was historical rather than ongoing, accomplished for us rather than commanded of us, spiritual rather than physical, and corporate rather than individual.

By “historical rather than ongoing” I mean that baptism with the Holy Spirit was the commencement of a new spiritual reality made evident to the world in a number of significant events that occurred between the Lord’s death and sometime before the last book of the Bible was written. It comprised a series of landmarks in the history of the early church that fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and confirmed the new work that the Lord was doing as he built his church.

By “accomplished for us rather than commanded of us” I mean that baptism with the Holy Spirit was entirely an act of God. Believers contributed nothing to it whatsoever except perhaps that in a couple of instances, God initiated it when the apostles laid hands on particular groups of Christians. This stands in sharp contrast to water baptism, which is the plain command of the risen Christ to his followers: “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 only takes place if and when we obey it, which all believers ought to. Other than the dying thief, I cannot think of a scriptural example of an unbaptized believer.

By “spiritual rather than physical” I mean that baptism with the Holy Spirit involved no water at all. It was accompanied by “the blowing of a violent wind” and “what seemed to be tongues of fire”.

By “corporate rather than individual” I mean that baptism with the Holy Spirit incorporated and brought together all races and classes of men equally into the body of Christ, his church. Unlike water baptism, it was not primarily concerned with the relationship between Christ and individual believers; rather, it has united all sorts of formerly adverse and distinct groups and made them all one in Christ.

It was prophesied by both John the Baptist and the Lord himself. It began at Pentecost, continued with the Samaritans in Acts 8 and the household of Cornelius in Acts 10, and extended even to a dozen men in Ephesus in Acts 19. It was characterized by speaking in tongues and prophesying, and even associated with water baptism and/or laying on of hands by the apostles, though the order of events seems to have been pretty much irrelevant. Some believed first, some were first water baptized then baptized with the Holy Spirit; for others, like the household of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit fell on them and gave evidence that they were part of the body of Christ before their water baptisms even took place.

At any rate, one thing is very much evident: water baptism and baptism with the Holy Spirit are quite distinct.

Believers today benefit from this historical act of incorporation too, but it wasn’t and isn’t water baptism that made or makes us part of it.

Water baptism is baptism into Christ. It is identification with him personally. Yes, he is the Head of the Church. Yes, the church is his spiritual “body”. But the fact that in the process of identifying ourselves with him we also find ourselves identified with his spiritual body is (comparatively) incidental. To emphasize the “Christian Church” is to put the shoe on the wrong foot; to miss the primary purpose of water baptism. We are not identifying with an institution; far less are we knocking on its doors to gain admission or seeking the acceptance of man. We are identifying with the death, burial and resurrection of the Son of God himself. The church exists for his glory, not the other way around.

Water baptism is merely symbolic. It has no magical properties. It does not confer salvation, and it does not make you a different person, a church member or anything else. It is a public acknowledgement of a desire to live differently and that doing so will be accomplished, not by will or effort, but only through the power of Christ’s resurrection. Peter calls it “an appeal to God for a good conscience.”

‘Into a particular church’

Even less does baptism, at least in any spiritual sense, admit one into “a particular church”.

Yes, there are certain denominations that regard baptism as a rite of passage that brings you into association with them, but they do so with no scriptural authority whatsoever, whether they be United, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian or any other local gathering. Human beings may certainly opt to open the doors of their buildings to you or even to keep you out if they wish. Baptism has nothing whatsoever to do with that in the eyes of God.

Despite the confusion around the subject, baptism remains and should remain a singularly important event in the life of every believer, whether its significance is properly understood or otherwise.

It would be a shame to enter into it with little or no idea of what it actually means.


  1. "Water baptism is merely symbolic. It has no magical properties. It does not confer salvation, and it does not make you a different person, a church member or anything else."

    Well, yes and know. It certainly has a purpose and confers specific results, all of which you are mentioning here concerning baptism. It's clear that you have to distinguish between the ceremonial tool and the conferred benefit (as in most ceremonial, usually institutional, settings.) E.g. in the Catholic Church "what if" questions are sometimes asked like what if I am in distress in a desert with an unbaptized friend and water is not available when he dies but he wants to be baptized at this final moment? At that time you can do a baptism of faith with him and baptize him on the basis of his desire and new found faith. So indeed water is a tradition and symbolism that goes with baptism but is replaceable.

    All of this discourse brings up another point namely that you are working at a slight disadvantage being thousands of year removed from everyhing but presuming that no one else historically closer to New Testament events had sufficient intellect and thought things through and arrived at more valid conclusions than you which gave us our traditions. That is of course an improbable and incorrect scenario and has contributed to the fractured nature of the Christian faith nowadays because it has been the case and duplicated by many personages throughout history.

    An interesting example and discussion of this topic is provided here contradicting the traditional Protestant ideas about saved by faith alone regardless of works and so on.

  2. "All of this discourse brings up another point namely that you are working at a slight disadvantage being thousands of year removed from everything but presuming that no one else historically closer to New Testament events had sufficient intellect and thought things through and arrived at more valid conclusions than you which gave us our traditions."

    What a curious statement, Q! I am going right back to the first century for my authority and saying we should do baptism the way it was done in scripture itself, and understand it in the way the earliest Christians understood it. All the "traditions" you refer to were developed much later.

    Moreover, it has nothing to do with "intellect" or "thinking things through". It's about simple obedience.

  3. I in turn am a bit surprised that you consider it a curious statement since it's only pointing out two very clear facts.

    A) You are two thousand years removed from the facts and other people much closer to the facts than that have arrived at sound conclusions that, as a Protestant, you choose to claim to know better 1000 to 2000 years later and to ignore. I am saying that's highly unlikely.

    B) Also, you ignore when I tell you how baptism is really viewed in the Catholic church, which is actually quite similar to the Protestant view (who evidently took it from the Catholics) except Catholics are not shy about procedure and pomp and circumstance, especially where a King is concerned. From what I see here the pomp and circumstance is a major thorn in the side of the Evangelicals when it should be totally irrelevant especially in regard to keeping Christian's apart from each other. Frankly, I don't think that will go over well with our creator.