Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Act of Baptism In the Book Of Acts

           There’s a joke that goes something like this: a Church of Christ preacher said, “Give me an axe and two 38s, and I can whip any Baptist preacher on the planet.” Understanding the punch line requires an understanding of the differences between those two denominations regarding the correct biblical teaching of baptism. And adjudicating between the two claims can only be done by studying what the Bible has to say about that subject.
            The purpose of this paper is to analyze what the book of Acts teaches regarding the Christian practice of baptism. The major passages regarding baptism will be discussed, the correct interpretation offered, and their significance clearly stated. Claims regarding the relationship of baptism to salvation will be examined along with the mode of baptism and the proper candidates for baptism. This paper will not concern itself primarily with other passages but is limited solely to occurrences recorded in the book of Acts.
The Major Passages in Acts Regarding Water Baptism
            The book of Acts is the early history of the church, recording the practices and testimonies of many of the apostles. Unlike the epistles that are primarily didactic, the book of Acts focuses more upon the experiences of God’s early church. Because of this status primarily as history, the discerning reader must be careful regarding what doctrine he draws from Acts. Isolated experiences such as the casting of lots to determine a church leader or the burning of occult materials are two examples that the modern church should not necessarily emulate.
            There are several instances of water baptism1 explicitly mentioned in Acts. The pattern of what is mentioned varies slightly in each instance with some calling for repentance (2:38), others for belief (19:5), and others calling baptism itself a “washing away” of sins (22:16). Given this variation, what can be determined from the Scriptures regarding the purpose of baptism?
            The best place to look is the first occurrence of baptism of believers follows Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. Peter preaches to a number of Jews who were (or whose families were) personally involved in the crucifixion of the Lord. After Peter finished the sermon, the Holy Spirit convicted the mass of Jews present (Acts 2:37). They now asked what they should do in response to this message. Peter told them to repent and be baptized in the name of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Subsequent to these acts they would receive the Holy Spirit. How did the first century person, Jew or Christian, understand the command to be baptized? Constable writes, “Baptism in water was common in both Judaism and early Christianity. The Jews baptized themselves for ceremonial cleansing. Gentile converts to Judaism commonly baptized themselves in water publicly as a testimony.”2 This cleansing has antecedents in John the Baptist’s ministry (Mt. 3:11; Mk. 1:8; Lk. 3:7-21), and no explanation is ever given by the gospel writers. The pre-Crucifixion Jews understood the concept of baptism ceremonially. While baptism was understood ceremonially, the context of Acts 2, however, suggests something more than just a ceremonial cleansing. It is a public identification with the crucified and risen Savior. Peter is challenging those involved in the Lord’s death to public identify themselves with this Christ by participating in a public act demonstrating the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord.[3] The stories of persons in non-Western culture in particular who lost their livelihood and families after identifying with Jesus through baptism are endless. This may also be expressed as saying baptism is the public testimony that one trusts in Christ.
Thirdly, water baptism is an outward expression of the inward occurrence of Spirit baptism, an event that happens upon the conversion of the unbeliever to a believer (Rom. 8:9; I Cor. 12:12). A common mantra in Southern Baptist circles is to say that “baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace.” Although this verbiage is not found in the Scripture, it is implied in I John 5:8, where baptism is seen as a testimony of man coordinated with the testimony of God represented by the Spirit and the blood. Water baptism is external proof of the obedience of the Christian to the command of Jesus Christ (Mt. 28:19-20) that is enabled by the fact the Christian has already been baptized and sealed by the Holy Spirit upon his possession of faith (Eph. 1:14). Regardless of one’s view, “the idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in [the] NT.”[4] The epistles all assume the baptism experience on the part of the congregants (Ro. 6; I Jn 5:8). The “Christian” who refuses to be baptized may not truly be a Christian at all.
The Mode of Baptism in Acts
The mode of baptism is never explicitly covered in Acts. An inference can be drawn from Acts 8:38, where it states Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch went “into the water” (eiV to uJdwr), but whether a sprinkling or immersion occurred is not stated. Therefore, lexical evidence must be considered. And the lexical evidence is unanimous: baptism (baptizw) means “plunge, dip, wash.” [5] Had Luke intended to suggest sprinkling as an acceptable mode of baptism, it is more likely he would have used the word rJantizw, a term found five times in the NT (Heb. 9:13,19, 21; 10:22; Rev. 19:13) [6] that clearly means “sprinkle.” Other biblical references outside of the book of Acts intimate that those engaging in baptism came “up out of the water” (Mt. 3:16; Mk. 1:10) and that John was baptizing in the Jordan because “there was much water there” (Jn. 3:23). The cumulative force of the argument – lexical, theological, inferential – unanimously declare that water baptism is to be done by immersion. Although the use of pouring has deep historical roots (found in the Didache [7]), the biblical evidence is unanimously immersion.
Who Is Able?
            Whom, according to Acts, may be baptized? Christian sects disagree on this issue as well. Baptists and the Churches of Christ historically have limited the rite of baptism only to believers capable of expressing a confession of faith in Jesus Christ. The vast majority of confessional Christians, however, see sprinkling as the proper mode and permit infant baptism on the basis of an inference from Acts 16:33, where the entire family of the Philippian jailer is baptized. The suggested inference is that it is merely logical to believe that some members of the jailer’s family must be infants or not old enough to express faith. The first problem with this view is that it is an imposition on the text. To argue that there must logically be persons too young to express faith is eisegesis of the worst sort, particularly since the very next verse (16:34) says his whole household was now “believing” in God. Even those who advocate infant baptism never argue that the infant actually is capable of the volitional choice of believing. [8] This eisegesis is made possible by the covenantal assumption that baptism in the New Testament parallels circumcision in the Old Testament (Col. 2:9). A second problem from the Reformed standpoint is that it is inconsistent. This is the same theology that insists that “the whole world” (I John 2:2) does not mean every person but now insists that the household of one person must have had some children baptized. It is not an argument from silence; it uses the silence to fill in the gaps. The second problem is even greater than the first: the synthesis principle (analogia Scriptura) does not allow for this eisegesis because nowhere else in the entirety of Scripture are children baptized. The entire belief is based upon presuppositions that must seriously be questioned at face value.
Is Water Baptism Necessary for Salvation?
            Defining baptism as the outward sign of inward grace, ceremonial cleansing, or
identification with Christ is unacceptable to those who hold a view termed “baptismal regeneration.” Those who hold this view believe that it is the act of water baptism that secures salvation for the professing believer. Until the moment that person is properly baptized1 he remains lost and in his sins. The two primary proof-texts from Acts used to advocate this view are Acts 2:38 and 22:16. The former will be briefly examined because it is the more explicit of the two passages.
            Acts 2:38 is unquestionably the key proof-text used to teach baptismal regeneration. [9] It states: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Theologians have provided at least five explanations of these passages throughout church history. These are: 1) baptismal regeneration; 2) baptism as a parenthetical statement with repentance for the forgiveness of sins; 3) Spirit baptism; 4) the preposition eiV should be translated as a causal, thus, “because of” rather than “for;” 5) both Spirit and water baptism are meant as baptism shows the outward expression of the inward reality. Each view will be examined briefly.
Read straightforwardly the passage appears to teach that forgiveness of sins is inextricably bound to baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. Advocates of this view then deduce that without forgiveness of sins one is lost. Thus, salvation requires baptism to be fully effected. Baptism is thus the instrumental cause of one’s salvation. Without it, man does not have his sins remitted and consequently is lost. This view is advocated by the Churches of Christ.[10] There are numerous problems with this view including the following: 1) there are about 150 other passages in the New Testament indicating salvation occurs by believing that do not mention baptism at all; 2) Jesus came “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) yet he never baptized anyone (John 4:2), a problem that must be explained adequately by those who hold this view; 3) in several cases in the book of Acts (3:19) forgiveness of sins is tied to repentance, consistent with Luke’s version of the Great Commission (Luke 24:47); 4) Paul was sent “not to baptize” but to “preach the gospel,” suggesting the gospel was not realized by baptism; 5) Scripture is clear that to have the Holy Spirit is to be saved (Ro. 8:9). The believers in Acts 10 at Cornelius’s household possessed the Spirit and spoke in tongues before they were ever baptized in water. This last is the strongest argument against baptismal regeneration.
A second argument suggests that the grammar in Acts 2:38 argues for repentance rather than baptism for the forgiveness of sins. This view argues that because the verb “repent” (metanohsate) is a second person plural verb, it is the primary verb of the main clause that Peter uses to address the entire crowd. The other verb, “baptize” (baptisqhtw), is third person singular and serves as the primary verb of the subordinate clause. Thus, repent addresses the entire crowd and baptism individual persons. [11] This fits the theology of Acts, but “its subtlety and awkwardness are against it” (Wallace, 370).
The third position argues that the baptism referenced is “Spirit baptism.” The problem with this view is that it violates the immediate context where the hearers of the gospel are baptized (2:41). It also suggests that Spirit baptism can only occur if believers allow it, a violation of the entire Scripture record.
            The fourth position seems to be the most common among Baptists.[12] It states that the Greek word eiV should be translated as a causal preposition rather than a preposition of purpose. In this scenario the translation is altered to, “Repent and be baptized because of the forgiveness of sins.” This view is advocated by two prominent Greek grammarians of yesteryear, Julius Mantey and A.T. Robertson. [13] But this understanding was refuted by Ralph Marcus in a scholarly exchange with Mantey.[14] Although Mantey correctly showed that eiV occurs as a causal preposition in other places (Mt. 3:11), applying this argument to Acts 2:38 seems driven more by theology than grammar.
            The final view sees both ideas communicated (Wallace, 371). This is shown by Peter in both chapters 10 and 11, most especially 11:15-16. This may be a proper way to view the entire theology of Acts; however, it is difficult to see how the Jew would necessarily have drawn this conclusion at the time of Peter’s sermon. Thus, while there is no doubt that Lukan theology as expressed in Acts would see both types of baptism, it still cannot resolve the problem that Peter is commanding them to experience a Spirit baptism on their own.
            Each view has strengths but several weaknesses. The weaknesses of each view seem more prominent than the strengths. The most likely option to the present author seems to be the grammatical argument regarding repentance. It flows naturally with the gospel of Luke’s closing statement, and it can be demonstrated to be the grounds for the remission of sins in other places in Acts (3:19, 26:20). The solution is not drawn by a singular solid argument but is determined by the cumulative force of the data.
            The purpose of this paper was to evaluate the teaching of water baptism in the book of Acts. The major passages regarding baptism were discussed, the correct interpretation offered, and their significance clearly stated. Claims regarding the relationship of baptism to salvation were examined along with the mode of baptism and the proper candidates for baptism. The conclusions made from this brief research study are as follows: 1) baptism is to be done by immersion and is for believers only; 2) the passages that appear to teach the necessity of baptism for salvation are modified and explained by numerous other passages; 3) even within the book of Acts, repentance – and not baptism – is seen as the primary grounds for the forgiveness of sins; 4) baptism is seen as a ceremonial cleansing, an outward sign of the inward grace, and identifying with the Savior by obedience.

[1] Water baptism will be referenced throughout this paper as baptism while Spirit baptism will be specifically referenced as Spirit baptism.  The passages featuring water baptism include: 2:38; 8:12, 36-39; 9:18; 10:44-48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; 19:1-6: 22:16.

[2]   Constable, “Notes on Acts,” 52-3. Cf. also Saucy, 197; Malphurs, 171.
[3]  Reformed theologian W. Robert Godfrey passionately presents one of the best arguments for baptism as identity with Christ in The Agony of Deceit when he writes, “Baptism represents not only the promise of God to wash away sin, but the sinner’s commitment to look to Jesus alone as his Savior. Baptism is the public break with the old life as a rebel against God and the beginning of the new life as a follower of Jesus. For many Americans, the drama and central importance of baptism may seem foreign to their own experience. But they should listen to the missionaries’ stories from places where it is fine to ‘believe’ whatever you want about Jesus as long as you are not baptized. Once baptized, however, family, friends, and perhaps the government see you as one who has rejected his own religion and culture,” 166.

 [4] Bruce, 77.

 [5] BDAG, 164-5; Cf. also TDNT, s.v. “baptizw, by Albreht Oepke, 1 (1974): 530-1.

 [6] Kubo, 288.

  [7]The Didache is an early document (late 1st/early2nd c.) written as a summary of doctrine. It declares (7:5) that lacking cold or warm water “pour water on the head” in the name of the Trinity.

[8] This view is best expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the combined expression of 17th century Calvinism, Puritanism, and British Augustinianism: “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person. Not only those that actually do profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized” (WCF, 28:3-4 as documented in Leip, 204). The baptism of infants is also advocated in The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church (article 27). The Augsburg Confession, the standard creed of Reformation Lutheranism, states, “We condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that young infants, born of faithful parents, are to be baptized” (XX). Complete copies of each of these confessions may be found in Leith, Creeds of the Churches.

[9] Within the book of Acts. A stronger proof-text, Mark 16:16, is beyond the scope of this paper.
[10]  It would no doubt surprise a number of members of the Church of Christ to discover their founder, Alexander Campbell, did not hold the view of no salvation without baptism. While he certainly felt it was the norm, Campbell also wrote: “Therefore, for many centuries, there has been no Church of Christ, no Christians in the world; and the promises concerning the everlasting kingdom of the Messiah have failed, and the gates of hell have prevailed against his church! This cannot be; and therefore there are Christians among the sects” (Campbell, 411).

 [11] Malphurs, 168; Cf. Bates, 233-4. Lenski, a Lutheran, argues this position, combines it with the ceremonial position, but then declares baptism to provide “the remission of sins” making it “a true sacrament,” 106.

[12]  The author of this paper has spent most of his 30 church attending years among Baptists, and he has heard this argument numerous times in numerous fellowships.

[13] Dana and Mantey, 104; Robertson, 3:35. Note that both grammarians are Baptists who hold to faith alone for salvation.

[14] Marcus, JBL 71 (1953)



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Bruce, F.F. Commentary on the Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977.

Campbell, Alexander. Christian Baptism: With Its Antecedents and Consequents. Bethany: printed and published by Alexander Campbell, 1851.

Constable, Thomas. “Class Notes, 2010.” Available from www.soniclight.com. Accessed 5 September 2010.

Dana, H.E. and Mantey, Julius R. A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957.

Horton, Michael. The Agony of Deceit. “The TV Church,” by W. Robert Godfrey. Chicago: Moody, 1990.

Kittel, G. and Friedrich, G. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromily. 1964-1974. s.v. baptizw, by Albrecht Oepke, 1 (1974): 529-545.

Kubo, Sakae. A Reader’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: Zondervan, 5th ed., 1975.

Leith, John. Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present. Louisville: John Knox Press, 3rd. ed., 1982.

Lenski, R.C.H. The Acts of the Apostles. Columbus: Wartburg Press, 1944.

Malphurs, Aubrey. A Theological Critique of the Churches of Christ Doctrine of Soteriology. Doctoral dissertation. Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary, 1981.

Marcus, Ralph. “On Causal Eis.” Journal of Biblical Literature. Vol. 70, 1952.

Marcus, Ralph. “The Elusive Causal Eis.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 71, 1953.

Robertson, A.T. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934.

Saucy, Robert. The Church in God’s Program. Chicago: Moody, 1972.

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