Baptism, Universally Accepted, Widely Disputed

Baptism is one of these topics that has caused serious division in the Christian church, yet some call it a non-essential doctrine, you know, one of those doctrines that people should not divide over. The problem is not that people shouldn’t have divided over this issue, but that they have divided over this issue and, while not as violently as in the past, the intense debate continues to this day.

I don’t know of any Christian church that doesn’t teach baptism, but there are major disputes in some areas. Is water baptism required for salvation? Is water baptism the point of spiritual regeneration? Should babies be baptized? Is sprinkling with “holy” water sufficient or is immersion required for water baptism? There are numerous points of contention among believers when it comes to baptism. For this article our first focus will be on the manner of baptism.

There are at least two different viewpoints as to the manner of baptism. Something that amazed me was the realization that good theologians will tell you that even though they might believe one of these viewpoints, the other is legitimately viable in the Bible. The main viewpoints are infant baptism, and believer’s baptism. Adding to the confusion is a small segment that teaches that spirit baptism alone is sufficient. Churches are all over the board when it comes to this teaching. what is amazing is that theologically, biblically, there is no clear-cut decision when it comes to weighing the differences between these viewpoints even though theologians become adamant on one stand or the other.

Infant baptism centers around the doctrine that baptism after Christ replaces the Jewish practice of circumcision. Infant baptism is implied, according to this theology, in the biblical accounts where whole households were baptized in the book of acts.

“Believer’s baptism” centers around the doctrine that in order to become a Christian one must consciously choose to follow Christ. Consequently, since infants are incapable of making this choice, infant baptism is not valid. Additionally, there is a heavy emphasis in this faction on the need for baptism to include full immersion in water. The reasons for this include the fact that the very meaning of the Greek word for baptism includes the concept of dipping or immersion. Additionally, where it is illustrated in practice in the Gospels and other places, the people were immersed.

Modern theologians will say that even though they do not believe the other viewpoints regarding baptism these viewpoints are acceptable within the realm of orthodoxy. That is just a theological way of saying that there is no clear way of proving in the Bible that their viewpoint is the true viewpoint while another is not. This is a conundrum. A conundrum is a riddle, an enigma, some concept that is too difficult or impossible to explain. Baptism in the Bible falls into that category.

It’s not that all theologians don’t say that the meaning behind baptism is the same. Indeed they do, for they all point to the same verse in the book of Romans as to the meaning of baptism.

We were buried therefore with him through baptism unto death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. Rom 6:4ASV

All groups say that baptism is symbolic of dying with Christ, and being raised with him in newness of life, just as the words in the book of Romans say here. Where they differ is in the manner and details. And the reason they differ in manner and details goes far deeper. These different camps differ in basic theological perspective on the meaning and interpretation of the Bible.

Roman Catholic and some mainline Protestant denominations base their interpretation on what is called covenant theology. The perspective of this group, in a nutshell, says that baptism is the sign of the new covenant as circumcision was the sign of the old covenant. Furthermore, they say that baptism is a sacrament, a ritual that, in itself, bestows the grace of God upon a person. In contrast, bible and evangelical perspectives emphasize other theologies like dispensationalism, and say that baptism is an ordinance, carried out in the meaner that Jesus was baptized by John, that is, being immersed in water, following his example, signifying or testifying our allegiance to him. Then there are those, although few, that say that baptism is an act of the spirit, as opposed to an act that we do, that is, the cleansing action of the spirit being created in us is the baptism.

So we have different practices among the churches regarding baptism. Churches like the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches practice infant baptism. They teach that with this ritual that the young infant is now a member of the church. They sprinkle or pour small amounts of water on the infants in the practice. However, Baptist, evangelical, and charismatic churches for the most part teach that infant baptism is wrong, and you must be immersed in water at an age of consent to be truly baptized. Most of these churches call the practice “Believer’s baptism”. Some churches teach that you must be re-baptized if you were infant baptized. Complicating this, some churches teach that you must be baptized to be saved while others teach that baptism, while commanded, is not necessary for salvation.

Only a small percentage of churches, mainly Pentecostal and charismatic churches, teach spirit baptism. For the vast majority who believe in spirit baptism, spirit baptism is a second baptism. Some churches will teach you that speaking in tongues must accompany spirit baptism while others hold that speaking in tongues is not required while being baptized in the spirit.

It must be said, though, that there are verses that point to the replacement of water baptism with spirit baptism:

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  (Act 1:4-5 ESV)

The above verse makes a number of declarations.  It says:

  • John’s baptism was  with water
  • In contrast, baptism with the Holy Spirit is coming in a matter of days
  • The promise of the father is fulfilled with the baptism of the Holy Spirit

This looks like water baptism is being replaced here to me.  One key is the word “but.”  You were baptized with water BUT you will be baptized with Holy Spirit. The word “but” here indicates a replacement for water baptism is spirit baptism,

Again, though, spirit baptism is a second baptism to most churches that teach it. The Apostles were water baptized and then experienced spirit baptism also.  Also, there are records in Acts where speaking in tongues and prophecy are part of the baptismal record.   Some churches will teach you that speaking in tongues must accompany spirit baptism while others hold that speaking in tongues is not required while being baptized in the spirit.

On the other hand are churches that teach that this is wrong. The Episcopal Church is one of the churches that expressly states “Any view of tongues which sees this phenomenon as an essential sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is contradictory to Scripture”. [i] A minor number of churches teach that spirit baptism occurs at the moment of salvation, and of these there are a few that teach that the baptism of the spirit regenerating the life of a person is the only baptism a person needs.

While baptism is one of the most promoted practices in Christendom a lot of churches have split over baptism. The Anabaptist movement in the 16th century had believer’s baptism as one of its principle tenets. It was considered heresy at that time not only by the Roman Catholic Church, but also by other Reformation participants. Thousands were put to death, and many more were tortured and endured various other persecutions.[ii]

Baptism is a topic with multiple points of contention. As confusing as this all may sound so far, in truth, we have yet to see all the points that make this conundrum so baffling.

Baptism Doctrine: What is the Meaning of Baptism

Water baptism is a beautiful ceremony. Whether it be infant baptism where loving parents give their children to be ceremoniously washed, or “believers baptism” where the new commitment of believers to testify their allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ often brings tears to the eyes of the beholder’s, in any case, water baptism is a beautiful thing. Likewise, I would like to say that Spirit baptism is an all inspiring sight. Watching believers receive the power of the Holy Spirit into their lives is pure joy.

There are many places in the Bible that talk about baptism. From the famous places like Jesus being baptized in the Jordan to the many references in the Gospels and the book of Acts where people are baptized to the less well-known verses in the Old Testament, baptism is a topic that is woven through the Scriptures. But while we have this abundance of verses that talk about baptism, there are only a few verses that teach what baptism means. The vast majority of the other verses are examples of baptisms in various forms, but by themselves they don’t really teach what baptism is.

As I visited churches and investigated their doctrines, I found the following verses to be almost universally relied upon to explain their practice of baptism:

Or are ye ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
We were buried therefore with him through baptism unto death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. Rom 6:3-4ASV

These verses give the meaning of baptism as being analogous to Christ dying and being resurrected. From church to church the words ring out, “as you go down into the water you die with Christ, as you come out of the water you are raised with him.” While the words may be paraphrased from church to church, the explanation is nevertheless the same. Water baptism proponents explained that when you are immersed in the water it is symbolic of being in the tomb with the dead Christ. They further teach that coming up out of the water is a symbol representing our being raised with Christ. There are no verses that specifically say that you must be immersed in water to be baptized. Baptism by immersion is water is taught using the example of Jesus as well as some aspects of the derivation of the word “baptism,” which comes from the word “bapto.” “Bapto” means to dip.

What the verses in Romans say is that baptism is dying with Christ as he died, and rising with him as he rose from the dead. They don’t say in the verse whether or not the baptism is water. While this analogy can easily be used to show the symbolism of water baptism, it can just as easily be used to show the symbolism of the Spirit baptism where a new believer, is washed in the spirit, and is raised, born-again, into new life. After all, Jesus was dead. And when he was resurrected, he was “born again”, into new life, just as we are when we claim his sacrifice for us, and enter into new life. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of cases, the teacher will read “water” into Romans 6:3-4.

Once these verses are explained the rest of the doctrine about baptism the particular church would teach would be given sketchy treatment. But there are other verses that I found the commonly used. For example:

that aforetime were disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water:
which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ; 1Pe 3:20-21ASV

This verse which does have both the words, “baptism” and “water” in it is frequently used to prove that water baptism is what Christ wants for us. If you read these verses carefully, this analogy where water was used to save eight people is compared to baptism. But the analogy is not complete in verse 20. Because after the writer says “even baptism”, he says in the next verse, “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ;” Here, the writer corrects the understanding about baptism being physically washed and water, but rather it is the inward cleansing through the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So the context of this verse is not a proof that baptism should be in water for us as much as it is a proof that baptism, the real baptism, is when we are washed inside.

No matter which viewpoint is presented, the real meaning of baptism is that we are washed in the blood of Christ, and given glorious eternal life. In another article we will look at why we even have this word “baptism”, which is a transliteration of a Greek word baptizo, and how even having this transliteration is part of the baptism conundrum.


© copyright 2020 Mark W Smith All rights reserved.

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