new testament study A Reader's Case For Baptism

Opening Reflections:

1. One of the questions that constantly recurs is the question of the necessity of baptism for Christian salvation. The question is never argued anywhere in the New Testament (NT). The language that Paul uses always seems to assume that his congregations are baptised people. Irrespective of religious persuasions, it is universally accepted that the earliest believers were baptised:

12The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (1 Cor 12:12-13)

26You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Gal 3:26-27)

3Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (Rom 6:3)

2. Arguments from silence are unsound; Ephesians 2:8 is often cited as evidence that only faith or only grace are required for salvation.

8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast (Eph 2: 8-9)

Proponents argue that there is no mention of baptism in the text – of course, the natural question is does the absence of any mention of repentance, commitment or even love, signify that they are not necessary for salvation? The answer is simple – do not attempt to argue from what is not said. To argue against the necessity of baptism, one must either quote a passage that speaks in the negative about baptism, or re-interpret positive statements to build a case. The first proposition is not possible from the New Testament. The second would require exegetical gymnastics so obtuse that most meaning would be lost.

3. The sinner’s prayer has no substantial biblical or early church support of any kind – see separate sheet. Acts 2:21 cannot be used in support of ‘altar call’ theology. To do so is to grossly over read the word ‘call’ – compare Matt 7:21 – merely calling the Lord’s name is meaningless.

4. The phrase ‘faith alone’ appears only once in the New Testament in James 2, where he says quite clearly that one is NOT saved by faith alone. Luther added the word only to his translation of Romans to buttress his ‘sola fide’ arguments and left the book of James out of his canon altogether. No Greek manuscript of Romans 4 has the phrase ‘faith alone’.

The 2nd / 3rd Century Church

Irenaeus talking about the Gnostic sect said:

“The class of men have been instigated by Satan a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God.” (Heresies Book 1, 21:1)

Justin Martyr wrote:

“There is no other way [to obtain God’s promises] than this – to become acquainted with Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins, and for the remainder, to live sinless lives” (Dialogue with Trypho chapter 44)

Irenaeus shows how John 3:3-5 was understood in the earliest Christian communities:

“As we are lepers in sin, we are made clean from our old transgressions by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord. We are thus spiritually regenerated as newborn infants, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Fragments of Lost Writings, no. 34)

Clement of Alexandria united the notion of baptism with grace:

“This work is variously called grace, and illumination, and perfection and washing. Washing, by which we cleanse away our sins; grace, by which the penalties of our sins are cancelled; and illumination, by which that holy light of salvation is beheld, that is, by which we see God clearly.” (Instructor Book 1 chapter 6).

Cyprian described his own baptism to a young Christian friend like this:

“Considering my character at the time, I used to regard it as a difficult matter that a man should be able to be born again…Or that a man who had been revived to a new life into the bath of saving water could be able to put off what he had formerly been – that he could be changed in heart and soul, while retaining his physical body…I used to indulge my sins as if they were actually a part of me, inherent in me. But later, by the help of the water of new birth the stain of former years was washed away, and a light from above – serene and pure - was infused into my reconciled heart. Then through the Spirit breathed from Heaven, a second birth restored me to a new man.” (To Donatus, section 3).

In his first apology, Justin Martyr explained the inextricable link between faith, repentance and baptism:

“Those who are convinced that what we teach is true and who desire to live accordingly are instructed to fast and to pray to God for the remission of all their past sins. We also pray and fast with them. Then we bring them to a place where there is water and they are regenerated in the same manner in which we ourselves were regenerated. Then they receive the washing with water in the name of God (The Father and Lord of the Universe) and of our saviour Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. For Christ said, ‘Unless you are born again you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Justin Martyr Apologia I chapter 61)

Tertullian wrote a treatise called ‘On Baptism’ to counter a woman called Quintilla, a member of a sect called the Cainites, who argued against baptism in the second century church. He wrote:

“Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life! A treatise on this matter will not be unnecessary; instructing not only such as are just becoming formed (in the faith), but them who, content with having simply believed, without full examination of the grounds of the traditions, carry (in mind), through ignorance, an untried though probable faith. The consequence is that a viper of the Cainite heresy, lately conversant in this quarter, has carried away a great number with her most venomous doctrine, making it her first aim to destroy baptism; which is quite in accordance with nature; for vipers themselves generally do inhabit dry and waterless places. But we, little fishes, after the example of our Saviour Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water; so that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes, by taking them away from the water!” (Tertullian De Baptismo, chapter 1).

The Didache was a document written about 100AD written by some early Christians to act as an instruction manual to new Gentile converts:

1 Concerning baptism, baptise thus: Having first rehearsed all these things, "baptise, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," in running water; 2 but if thou hast no running water, baptise in other water, and if thou canst not in cold, then in warm. 3 But if thou hast neither, pour water three times on the head "in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." 4 And before the baptism let the baptiser and him who is to be baptised fast, and any others who are able. And thou shalt bid him who is to be baptised to fast one or two days before. (Didache, Chapter 7).

Note what the author of the Didache said about the Lord’s Supper:

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs." (Didache, Chapter 9).

There seemed to be an implicit understanding that only the baptised could engage in the commemorative meal – a meal bringing to mind the saving events of Jesus’ ministry.

Note who these men are:

Clement of Alexandria: Lived 150-200. A church bishop in Alexandria in Egypt, who was in charge of the school of instruction there.

Irenaeus: Lived 120-205. The bishop of Lyons in France and a pupil of Polycarp, who was himself a student of the apostle John.

Cyprian: Lived 200-258. He was bishop of Carthage (North Africa) during a period of severe persecution. He led an underground church for a decade before the Roman authorities captured him and executed him.

Justin Martyr: Lived 110-165. A philosopher who converted to Christianity and became an evangelist. His works are some of the earliest in existence. He was executed during the reign of Marcus Aurelius about 165.

Tertullian: Lived 160-225. Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus was born in Carthage to pagan parents, but became a Christian at some point before AD 197. According to Jerome and Eusebius he was the son of a centurion and trained as a lawyer in Rome. Following his conversion he became a presbyter in the church at Carthage

Relevant New Testament Texts. The Meaning of Baptism in Romans 6:3-7
Or are you ignorant that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, so also we should walk in newness of life. For if we have been joined together in the likeness of His death, so also shall we be in the resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be nullified, so that we no longer serve sin. For the one that died has been justified from sin.

‘Don’t you remember what happened when you were baptised?’ asks Paul; it is plain from this and many of Paul’s other writings that he did not consider baptism an optional extra for Christians but assumes that all believers are baptised.[1] In baptism Paul says, a person’s former life comes to an end and a new life begins. They are buried with Christ when they are immersed – symbolising that a death has taken place; the death of the old self. Thus a person was raised out of the waters of baptism in a fashion comparable with the resurrection of the Messiah. As Paul argues elsewhere[2], Jesus has not simply been revived (like Lazarus who simply rose to the life he lived before he died) but had been raised to a new form of life, with a new body – indeed, he had been through the final resurrection of the dead ahead of time. In the same way, the new disciple was not merely raised to continue living as he or she had been before, but to a new way of living and being. Thus, that person could not go on living controlled by sin.

Baptism and Identity in Galatians 3:26-29

26You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.

One did, in that very act of being baptized into Christ, put on, or clothe themselves with Christ. Christ is to a new believer the toga (the Roman garment of the full-grown man, assumed when ceasing to be a child). For Paul, a Christian is "One who has put on Christ." The argument is, by baptism you have put on Christ; and therefore, He being the Son of God, you become sons by adoption, by virtue of His Sonship by generation. This proves that baptism, where it answers to its ideal, is not a mere empty sign, but a means of spiritual transference from the state of legal condemnation to that of living union with Christ, and of sonship through Him in relation to God. Christ alone can, by baptizing with His Spirit, make the inward grace correspond to the outward sign. See Romans 13:14 for the other Pauline use of ‘putting on Christ’. In this text, baptism becomes a question of identity. The people of God are those who have inherited the promises made to Abraham by having faith in the Messiah.

Baptism and Salvation in 1 Peter 3: 18-22

18For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand--with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

The difficult language of this text causes a number of problems, but in terms of unequivocal statements (the kind I said that those who argue against baptism must produce to fully endorse their case), few can place Peter’s comments in a corner: ‘this baptism that now saves you’. Really the only question is how does baptism save you? To which, Peter answers that it is not the external removal of dirt, as if simply being lowered into water could save you; it saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Once more we see in the NT epistles the linking of baptism with the new believer’s participation in the saving events of the first Easter (compare Romans 6: 1-7). Scholars over complicate Peter’s use of the Noah analogy quite unnecessarily; Noah’s ark passed through water to save himself and his family[3], new Christians pass through the waters of baptism to save themselves.

At this point I suggest that you also research the arguments for and against baptism contained in the following texts: 1 Cor 12:13; Acts 2:38; Mark 16:16; Matt 28:18-19; Titus 3:5; Col 2:11-13; John 3:3-5; Acts 22:16.

Modern Scholarly Comment on Baptism.

Consider the following musings from an array of New Testament scholars from a variety of Christian traditions:

John Macquarrie, Senior lecturer in philosophy and theology at Union Theological Seminary New York, (one of the most prestigious seminaries in the world) and an Anglican:

‘Baptism seems to have been the rite of initiation in to the Christian community from the earliest time. Just as [we saw] entry into the Christian life to be a work of the Holy Spirit, to which a man responds in faith, so baptism is also a work of the Holy Spirit through the agency of the church as the community of the Spirit and to this work of the Spirit in baptism there corresponds an answering of faith.’ (John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, page 407)

The late Anthony and Richard Hanson, twin brothers and Anglican priests; Anthony was Professor of Theology at Hull University and his brother Professor of Historical and Contemporary Theology at Manchester University:

‘But, though baptism is not essential for the Christian individual’s salvation, it is essential for the continued existence of the church on earth. Those who have lived in a wholly non-Christian culture soon realise that if in such circumstances the church does not baptise its new members, it runs the grave risk of being completely absorbed by the surrounding culture and losing its identity. In a Europe that is gradually losing its originally Christian culture, this factor is likely to play an increasing role in the future. We conclude, therefore, that baptism is entirely necessary for the historical continuance of the church.’ (Hanson and Hanson, Reasonable Belief, page 226).

The late F.F. Bruce, a staunch evangelical and formerly John Rylands Professor of Biblical Exegesis at Manchester University; one of the most well respected evangelical scholars of the 20th century:

‘From this [Romans 6:1-14] and other references to baptism in Paul’s writings, it is certain that he did not regard baptism as an ‘optional extra’ in the Christian life, and that he would not have contemplated the phenomenon of an un-baptised believer. We may agree or disagree with Paul, but we must do him the justice of letting him hold and teach his own beliefs and not distort his beliefs into conformity with what we would prefer him to have said.’ (F.F. Bruce, Epistle of Paul to the Romans, Tyndale Commentary, page 136).

Dr. G.R. Beasley-Murray wrote what I still believe to be the foundational work on baptism, from which I take this quote. He was Professor of New Testament at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Switzerland and the Southern Baptist Seminary in Kentucky. For some years he was Principal of Spurgeon’s College, London:

‘Had an early Christian teacher handed on in writing a systematic treatment of this subject [i.e. baptism] it is conceivable that he could have included in his discussion all of the six aspects we have considered with respect to baptism – grace, faith, the Spirit, the church, the good life and hope. But I cannot think it would have entered his head to round it off with a section entitled ‘the necessity of baptism’. Who would have wished to raise the question? It would have sounded as strange to the first generation Christian as many other queries characteristic of our time such as ‘Is it necessary for a Christian to join the church’? ‘Is it necessary to pray?’ ‘Is the Lord’s Supper necessary?’ ‘Is the Bible necessary?’…These considerations incline me to the view that it is desirable to avoid the term necessary when considering the meaning of baptism, since the word has given rise to so much misunderstanding. Most Christians would be prepared to accord to baptism a necessitas praecepti or necessitas non absoluta sed ordinata.[4] But is it not better to recognise positively that God has graciously given us the sacraments for our good and that it is our part to receive them gratefully?’ (G.R. Beasley Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, page 296-297,304).

Concluding Thoughts.

I shall conclude with a critique of the scholars I have quoted so as to reconcile my own position on baptism.
Macquarrie’s comments (and indeed his entire position on baptism in the book I quoted) treat the practices of the early church with casual slight and give undue credit to modern church tradition. Whilst tradition is significant and all churches have them, is it really reasonable to say that baptism was the initiation rite practiced regularly in the early church, but then continue to allow modern innovations of the rite to pervade? It is these very sentiments that Bruce highlights in his commentary on Romans – Paul clearly did not entertain the notion of un-baptised Christians, and we should not attempt to twist what he said to coincide with our preferences. We are indeed at liberty to disagree with Paul, but what we cannot do in our reluctance to be found disagreeing with the Apostle is manipulate what he says[5] so it sounds like we do agree (something which alas most Christians do at some stage). We have to change ourselves, not Paul.
The Hanson twins view is not uncommon; they treat baptism as something that just won’t go away. Regardless of the arguments to the contrary, the nagging possibility that baptism may be something more than merely ‘the outward sign of an inward grace’ hovers around mainline Protestantism like a plucky bluebottle that constantly eludes your attempts to swat it. In some ways, the view of Beasley Murray is not too dissimilar, though I am far more sympathetic to his view. Hanson and Hanson are indeed correct to treat baptism as an identity question, for it clearly is, but acknowledging that there are non-theological dimensions of baptism (like identity and unity) does not detract (or should not) from what the early church believed about it, what the New Testament says about it or its wider theological implications. In the Macquarrie book, he defends infant baptism though he acknowledges that this was most certainly not the practice of the early church, and whilst I am not suggesting that we must embrace all their practices in wholesale fashion (e.g. communal living could be taught based on some interpretations of Acts 2:42-47), understanding the meaning of their practices should surely form the basis of our decision to do so or not. It would seem to me, however, that denominational constraints take precedence.
I, like Beasley Murray find it distasteful that the word ‘necessity’ should even feature in our discussions about baptism, but he does not press the point anywhere near far enough. Why would it have been unseemly to an early Christian teacher to address the necessity of baptism? Is it not precisely because its necessity was assumed and effectively inherent in its meaning (like all the other things he mentions in his list)? Once more, I fear that reluctance to rock the boat of Protestant doctrine may lie at the root of his caution.[6]
For brevity sake I will not say more on the positions of the scholars whom I’ve quoted, except to say that their works are the very ones that have helped me form the basis of my own understanding of the topic, and they are men I respect greatly.
I will say the following finally. In the discussion of any issue where there are grey areas and disagreements (and let’s face it, that’s most of them!), it is incumbent upon us to go where the evidence leads us. Granted, our interpretation of the evidence may lead us in different directions, but what is often the case is that it leads us in the same direction, but rather our religious and philosophical commitments send us off down other paths. It would seem to me to be the unanimous position of the early church, as evidenced from the NT and the post apostolic understanding of the NT, that baptism was expected, required and imperative to enter into the correct covenant relationship with God. Ideas of faith alone, grace alone, the sinner’s prayer, altar calls and the like are relatively modern innovations with little or no genuine support from early church literature (including the NT). Quite why such a prolonged and emphatic backlash should accompany baptism is anybody’s guess, but here I agree wholeheartedly with Beasley Murray - is it not better to recognise positively that God has graciously given us baptism for our good and that it is our part to receive it gratefully?



[1] Bruce, F.F. Romans: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter Varsity Press 1985) p128

[2] 1 Corinthians 15: 35-46

[3] Part of the problem lies in the Greek word dia which means ‘through’. The question arises in the minds of some as to whether the flood water was the instrument of Noah’s salvation (i.e. in the sense that it is what kept the ark afloat) or the element from which Noah was saved. Feel free to split this hair if you so wish.

[4] Latin phrases which basically mean ‘very important, but not absolutely necessary’.

[5] Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3: 15-16)

[6] David Bercot took a far bolder stance in his book ‘Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up?’, although even he at the end of the book put his foot on the brakes and stopped short of demanding radical ideological reformation.


Andy Boakye, 21/09/2009