Water of Division

John, who got nicknamed “baptizer” either to distinguish him from other Yohanans or to signal the importance of his baptism, baptized and Jesus baptized — or he insisted on his associates baptizing (John 3:22-26; 4:1-2; Matthew 28:16-20). These two sorts of baptisms are not found in the Jewish world in quite the same way as among John and Jesus, for with them it was a singular and not a repeated event and by immersion (as to the right — my friend Kent baptizing DeeDee in the River Jordan). Lustrations were in the Jewish world repeated — at Qumran or in the local miqveh (see my A Light among the Gentiles for a discussion of baptisms and lustrations). Baptism was not repeatable.

The early church carried on this practice — it was a baptismal movement. Converts were baptized; the unbaptized were not converts. Baptism marked the transition from world to church. Even if Paul can say in 1 Cor 1 that he can’t remember if he baptized any of them he is not minimizing this crucial transitional moment.

Do you think baptism is the act regardless of how it is done — immersion of an adult upon profession, infant as part of covenant? Does it matter?

Our Creed, in fact, says we believe in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” The Baptistic types among us right this moment are a bit uncomfortable with connecting baptism and forgiveness, they relieve themselves for the moment by saying “Well, that’s the Creed, not the Bible.” But they are not relieved to learn John preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” they feel a bit relieved to learn John’s baptism is not enough in Acts 19:1-5, but the tension re-emerges because the apostles said “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins” in Acts 2:38. So from the very beginning baptism is connected both to repentance and to forgiveness. [By the way, the best book ever, ever on baptism is by Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church.]

Ron Heine, in Classical Christian Doctrine, says there is no evidence of infant baptism in the NT — I agree though I know the jailor and his household got baptized, and it perhaps had children, but there are no children mentioned — so we learn to say “we don’t know for sure.” But there is still the observation that no children get baptized in the NT.

He also says it was by immersion, and again the evidence is in his favor. What is most important in the NT is that it is being plunged into the life of Jesus himself — his life, death, burial and resurrection. Baptism is to be immersed into Jesus; his life becomes ours. No other explanation works. It’s the “in Christ” act — it’s the “into Christ” act. We move from world to Christ in baptism. Too many Baptist types today think nothing happens in baptism other than public declaration; irony to be known for a term (baptism) that means too little to be known for. Baptism in the NT was a colossal act.

In the Didache one had to be instructed first, mostly into the teachings of Jesus, and fast a bit and then one could be baptized. It was Trinitarian. It was to be in cold running water; if unavailable, warm water works; if no running water is available, it can be done in still water; if that’s not available, you can pour water on the head three times. Some nice flexibility here. It is largely the same with Justin Martyr, and by immersion is clear.

In the Apostolic Tradition developments are seen: it was done on Easter Sunday; three years catechumenate before; exorcisms are performed prior to baptism; the entire night prior is spent listening to Scripture; they disrobe and the order is small children, men and then women. The baptisand renounces Satan, etc, anointed with oil, baptized three times, another anointing and then re-clothe to celebrate Eucharist.

By the 3d Century infants are being baptized; Tertullian was not in favor but he knew others were performing baptism on infants. Cyprian defended infant baptism. By this time also one begins to see sprinkling as a kind of baptism.

Also Heine observes that more and more baptism was a “seal” after which the person was not to sin, leading many to postpone baptism (as with Constantine).

Baptism, designed to unite us with Christ, has become for many an inflexible rite that divides. The flexibility of the early church is admirable.


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  • Rick

    “In the Apostolic Tradition developments are seen: it was done on Easter Sunday; three years catechumenate before”

    I find it interesting that what appears to be a sense of urgency (to be baptized) in the N.T., somewhat (relatively) quickly develops into a long period of learning and preparation by the time of the A.T.

    “So from the very beginning baptism is connected both to repentance and to forgiveness.”
    But what is that connection? Is it part of the actual forgiveness process (Anglican, EO, etc…), or in response to it?

  • scotmcknight

    Well, in John and in Acts 2:38 baptism occurs “toward” or at least leading to forgiveness.

  • Mike Mercer

    IMO, it’s easy to understand why infant baptism is not seen in the NT — the NT is the record of first-generation believers. The question of baptizing infants only arises when Christian communities have to deal with issues related to raising and discipling the children of believing families.

    What is not fully realized by Baptist groups is that those who baptize infants also practice believer’s baptism when there is true conversion in the life of an unbaptized person.

    What should be common ground for all baptismal traditions is that baptism is essential and that it is not a human “work” but God’s own designated means for entering his family, signifying forgiveness and cleansing in Christ.

  • Mike Mercer

    Another huge issue in today’s churches is the practice of rebaptism, not only by baptistic traditions who are receiving members from other Christian traditions, but also within churches that use baptism to mark subsequent spiritual experiences in the life of the believer. As you say, Scot, baptism is a one-time event, marking inclusion in the Body of Christ. Its rationale is not my experience, but God’s word of promise in the Gospel.

  • Mike Mercer

    This is captured in the Nicene Creed: “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

  • Rick

    “The question of baptizing infants only arises when Christian communities have to deal with issues related to raising and discipling the children of believing families”

    It also arose when the issue of infant mortality was common.

    “What should be common ground for all baptismal traditions is that baptism is essential and that it is not a human “work” but God’s own designated means for entering his family, signifying forgiveness and cleansing in Christ”
    I agree with the goal, and I think most traditions see it as “essential”, either because it is a means of salvation, or because it is in obedience to Christ.
    However, the “work” aspect does get tricky, depending on how it is stressed. Also, the reason also becomes tricky. The “signifying” wording would probably not be the one Anglicans, EO, etc.. would agree to.

  • KentonS

    I think of baptism as the alternate to circumcision. Circumcision was the rite of initiation into Judaism, and the apostles (mainly Paul) in their zeal to open the gospel beyond the Jews emphasized baptism as the alternate rite. It was a lower barrier: painless, no deadly infections, no cultural issues.

    But now baptism has become the higher barrier: baptism breaks up families when parents of other faiths perceive the act of baptism of their believing children to be a spit in the face. In these cases baptism becomes what circumcision was to the early church.

    I’m not proposing we get rid of it as a practice – it’s highly symbolic and it’s beautiful. But I do think we ought to rethink it’s place as a requirement. I don’t think making it mandatory is any different from Paul’s opponents requiring circumcision.

  • Mike Mercer

    Re: “signifying” — I say this as a Lutheran who believes God works savingly through baptism as an ordinary means of grace. My more separatist Lutheran brethren would not agree and would argue as you do that it is not strong enough, but I am looking for common ground and think it is a good word that can cover a multitude of disagreements.

  • NathanMichael

    I think one of the tensions with baptism (as mentioned) is that we are clearly instructed to baptize. But (also as mentioned) we are not given a clear model as exactly how and when we baptize. I think that fact is not insignificant. I think that the issues of how and when are less important (but not unimportant) to the core and essence of what baptism is.

    One of the key aspects of baptism is covenant. In Colossians 2:9-12 we see Paul equating the covenant of baptism with the covenant of circumcision. Notice how Jesus was circumcised – entered into the covenant – on the eighth day (as was tradition)? If Jesus could enter the covenant as an infant, why can’t we?

    Is Baptism also an act of faith? Yes. When you are born into a family that is already in covenant with Christ, you are (at least should be) in an environment of faith and being raised / trained in faith and relationship with Christ. I think this is how we can see biblical declarations that ‘you and your household are saved…’

  • Mike Mercer

    Except that it’s commanded in the Great Commission and elsewhere.

  • bpneeley

    Baptism in my tradition (Churches of Christ) has long been the means by which we differentiated between the saved and the unsaved. We would say, “If one has been baptized, he or she has been united with Jesus. If one has not been baptized, he or she has not been united with Jesus.” Such a hard lined stance had led to troubled waters.

    We have earned a reputation that gives merit to the saying, “I’m going to make like a Church of Christ and split.” Mostly because we abandonded unity and sought uniformity. I understand the NT to teach a baptism that unites us with Jesus, thereby uniting us with those that follow Jesus, but such a unifying act should not divide. Our attitude should allow us to show grace to the misunderstandings we perceive in others as God shows grace to our own misunderstandings.

  • KentonS

    So is circumcision. (Gen 17:10ff)

  • Rick

    “But now baptism has become the higher barrier: baptism breaks up families when parents of other faiths perceive the act of baptism of their believing children to be a spit in the face.”
    But does that mean we should override Christ’s command?

  • Mike Mercer

    But you know as well as I do Kenton that circumcision is one of the “works of the law” that Paul says is not required in Christ. Nowhere is baptism put in that category.

  • Phillip

    A good book on this topic is Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God’s Transforming Work (Leafwood, 2003) by John Mark Hicks.

  • Rick

    “I am looking for common ground and think it is a good word that can cover a multitude of disagreements.”
    I agree with our goal, and “signifying” is good, and a “means of grace” may work as well.
    Do we try to read too much into what is actually taking place, and leave out too much mystery?
    Do we consider it an essential belief, or the result of believing in an essential (Christ and His saving work)?

  • KentonS

    Right, but one what authority did Paul make that declaration? Some canonized writing of his own? No. It wasn’t for a few more centuries that his writing was canonized.

    Paul just thumbed his nose at the idea. He basically said that circumcision was an empty rite that was unnecessarily destroying the gospel. At what point does baptism become the empty rite that unnecessarily destroys the gospel? I think the church should have that conversation. It’s not hard core opposition to baptism, but I do think it should be on the table, rather than treated the same way circumcision was treated in the first century.

  • KentonS

    Maybe this would help. There are two ways to interpret the command to baptize in the Great commission. One way would be to say the command is concrete. In other words “baptize” means “baptize” and that’s the end of the discussion. (Which would beg the question of why we would ever need this post.)

    The other way would be to say the command is more abstract. In other words, “baptize” could mean “baptize”, but it could mean that there should be some sort of symbolic – low barrier – event that initiates a member into the group.

    Which is it?

    The gut reaction is to say the former, but I think we ought to take some time with it.

  • Mike Mercer

    I humbly disagree, Kenton. Paul did not disparage circumcision as an “empty rite.” He viewed it as a sacred part of God’s old covenant, fulfilled in Christ. He did not hesitate to have believers circumcised if it would help bring the Gospel to his Jewish brethren. His argument against circumcision is a salvation-historical one. Christ has fulfilled the law, thus revealing the works of the law to have been temporary measures to guard Israel until Christ came (Galatians 3). When he speaks against circumcision strongly, it is because certain Jews were insisting upon its continuance as a sign of being a member of God’s people. Now, as he argues in Galatians, circumcision is no longer the signifer. What signifies belonging to the people of God is having been made a new creation in Christ through baptism and reception of the Spirit — 3:27 – “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Paul does not treat baptism as an optional “work” as many today view it, but as the actual means God uses to bring about a new creation.

  • Mike Mercer

    Rick, I find Titus 3 compelling: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” (3:4-5)

  • Ray

    One aspect which I’m a little surprised has not yet been discussed is the relationship between baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. This seems to be a rather significant point throughout the NT – especially in the Gospels & Acts (the narrative draws out this relationship/connection in different ways & stories). This relationship between baptism & Holy Spirit also seems to be germane to the discussion on finding a unity or common ground amidst different conceptions of baptism & it’s role.

    Any thoughts on this one, Scot?

  • KentonS

    Humble disagreement noted. I hope my disagreement is likewise as humble. Galatians goes on to say that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. (read ’empty’) The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Not “the only thing that counts is baptism.” I think a hard line insistence on baptism can sometimes (emphasis on “can sometimes”) fly in the face of expressing our faith lovingly. That was the point of the opposition to circumcision. It flew in the face of a loving expression of faith.

    If you want the last word, it’s yours.


  • Rick

    Good question.

    In Acts 2:38- ” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

    Is the “gift” the Holy Spirit, or is the “gift” something the Holy Spirit brings?Because in Acts 10:44-48-
    “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

  • Kyle Massengale

    Respecting what Paul said in Colossians 2:11-15, He is quick to distinguish the type of circumcision to which he is comparing their immersion – the one made without hands – that is, the one not of the flesh. From the time the Covenant through Moses was given, the faithful Israel knew of the circumcision not made with hands (Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Jeremiah 4:4; Deuteronomy 30:6). Under the Old Covenant, this type of circumcision was done by God (Deut. 30:6) as they were obedient to His command. Paul draws on this foundation to show immersion to be what the past references were foreshadowing. This passage would be lifted out of context if we were to mistakenly believe that he is referring to the circumcision of flesh and then extrapolate that infants were fleshly circumcised, then added to God’s children based upon that fleshly cutting away. It would be a perversion of scripture to return back to a faith in the law of flesh and away from the law of the spirit.

    Paul is referring to the act of faith by which his readers underwent the spiritual knife of God to cut away sin – hence, the circumcision not made with hands. This would only take place when one understood and determined for himself to undergo this surgery. Notice Paul tells us the place where God conducts this opperation – “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him THROUGH FAITH OF THE OPERATION OF GOD…”(emphasis added just for notation). When we meet God at his place of operation, he then operates upon us to cut sin – a circumcision not made with hands. Baptism is God’s operating table.

    Example: If our doctor told us that we had a tumor that must be removed or we will die as a result of it, and if he told us to meet him at the East Side Hospital at 10am to have the surgery done, and then we showed up at the West Side Hospital at 2pm, we have missed the place and time appointed to meet the surgeon for the life saving operation.

    If we fail to meet God where he has appointed (immersion in water) and the time which he has appointed (coming to the ability to know the truth), then we fail to find the Great Physician with his spiritual scalpel to cut away the spiritual death.

  • Edward Fudge

    It was lunch time at the Christian scholars conference and our table’s occupants introduced themselves around the circle. Randomly, we were evenly-divided–Baptist on one side; Church of Christ on the other. As expected, conversation soon turned to gospel baptism in the Great Commission. “Baptists are very careful to preach the gospel,” someone volunteered, “but sometimes they seem careless about promptly baptizing those who believe. Churches of Christ, on the other hand, are diligent to baptize believers,” he continued, “but sometimes they seem to be preaching baptism instead of preaching Jesus. I would like to challenge us all to do exactly as Jesus commands.
    Let us promise that we will faithfully announce the gospel–the “good news” of what God has accomplished for sinners. And let us promise, when new believers come confessing that they trust in Jesus as Savior and wish to entrust themselves to him as Lord, that we will discourage delay and baptize them promptly as Jesus instructed. Without hesitation, everyone at our table agreed to do just that.

  • Norman

    It appears John’s baptism represents Old Covenant Israel’s repentance and thus Christ baptism by him to fulfill all righteousness seems appropriate as the deliverer of Israel. This seems to draw parallel with Moses who also passed through the waters of the Red Sea which according to Paul represented a new creation Baptism (1 Cor 10:2), and indeed Jesus was the New Moses leading His people out of Egypt into the New Exodus.

    Israel crossing into the Promised Land via the Jordan also represents a final baptism through water which is often the picture from even Gen 1 where the creation is raised out of water to create the Land (representative of Israel).

    Being raised up out of the waters has a powerful OT and NT concept deeply embedded for first; the Old Covenant and then the New. Paul seems to compare those who followed Christ as being baptized as was Israel along with Moses. Moses ultimately represented the Old Covenant and died outside the Promised Land and could only see it from afar while Christ the New Moses entered the Promised land not dead but alive via His Baptism on the Cross through the shedding of blood and “water” and resurrection.

    Rom 6:3-5 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

  • Sherman Nobles

    I was raised in the Churches of Christ, was baptized when I was 9, and embraced a very exclusive doctrine/attitude seeing only a few as being my brothers in Christ, basicly only those in the Churches of Christ. When I was 24 I experienced the baptism with the Spirit (Pentecostal style). Through this I came to see as brothers in Christ most others who are followers of Jesus. Over the years, my boundaries have been increasingly challenged to where now I see everyone as my brothers and sisters, part of the family of God because of being created “in the image” of God (what I believe is a familial idiom) and because of Jesus dying for all and thus being “in Christ” because He redeemed us all.

    My understanding of baptism has also significantly changed over the years. I now see baptism:
    not as a means of getting into Christ, but as a means of helping us embrace that we are in Christ;
    not as a means of getting God to forgive us, but as a means of helping us embrace the forgiveness in God;
    not as a means of moving God to give us a new start in life, but as a means of helping us make a new start;
    not as a means of becoming a part of the family in Christ, but as a means helping us recognize that we are a part of the family and a means of the family fully embracing us.
    Baptism to me is a means of grace helping us embrace God and the family of God, and a means of helping the family embrace us because God has embraced us in Christ!

  • Sherman Nobles

    I forgot to mention that when I was 24, after being filled with the Spirit, I was one day praying again about being delivered from a, well, spirit of lust. Frankly, I could not look at a beautiful woman without illicit thoughts overwhelming my mind. As I prayed on this the Lord spoke to me saying, “Well be baptized.” I had not thought of being baptized again because I had been baptized when I was 9, and because the Pentecostal church I was attending rarely mentioned or offered baptism. I availed myself of the next scheduled baptism a few months later. By that time I had forgoten the impetus of my baptism. The day for baptism came. I got wet and didn’t experience anything nearly like I did when baptized with the Spirit. A few days later though, as I walked past a beautiful woman noting her beauty, the Lord again spoke to me saying, “Did you see that?” To which I astutely responded, “What?” And He said, “You didn’t lust after her!” I could hear the joy in His voice. I was so overwhelmed with joy I stopped in the middle of the parking-lot and had a me-only worship service! My life was changed, I had been delivered from something that had plagued me for years. This was the event that moved me towards understanding baptism as a means of grace, whether we realize it is or not!

  • Sherman Nobles

    In Acts the “gift of the Holy Spirit” is synonymous with “baptism with the Holy Spirit”, “receiving the Holy Spirit”, the Spirit being “poured out”, “falling upon”, “filled with”, “promise of the Father”, “come upon”, “receive power”. As Rick mentioned, Acts 2:38 links the gift of the Spirit with water baptism. In Acts 8 though there was a period of time between the Samaritans receiving Christ, being baptized in water, and the apostles laying hands on them and they were baptized in the Holy Spirit. And then in Acts 10 Cornelius and his household received the Spirit before they were baptized in water. For Luke it seems that the gift of the Spirit has to do with the empowering of the Spirit to prophecy, speak in tongues, work miracles, be supernaturally bold overcoming fear, etc. And it seems to me that John uses “receiving the Spirit” to equate being born again, born of the Spirit.