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Is Water Baptism Necessary for Following Jesus?

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Question #1: 

Hi Bob, Thanks for your article on water-baptism and Holy Spirit Baptism. You confirmed my conclusions. I do not sense, and have not sensed, that the Holy Spirit is telling me to get water-baptized. I confirmed that water-baptism was not a requirement of salvation, but I also strongly felt, based solely on Scripture, that it was not required at all. Any idea why this is such a difficult issue?  Thanks! In Christ.

PS I am trying to find a biblical church that emphasizes Justification by faith in Christ, the infallible and inerrant Word of God, God's Grace, God's love, confession of sins, and following God, rather than entertainment, psychology, sports activities, denominational de-railings, the opinions of the preacher, guilt, intimidation, and money-grubbing.  This is not easy to do! Any ideas?

Response #1: 

Glad to hear that you have found these materials helpful. True baptism of the Spirit versus ritual water baptism has been a thorny issue in the Church since the apostles, as we see from 1st Corinthians and the Book of Acts. By the time of the so-called "apostolic fathers", there were already many strange practices developing around water baptism (cf. some of things mentioned in "The Shepherd of Hermes"), a good indication of the fact that the first of the seven Church ages to follow the ministry of the great apostles of the Lamb (i.e., Ephesus; see the link: “Ephesus, the Era of Transition”) was weak in the area of putting the Word of God first (resulting in problems ever since). It also shows how sentimental activities become established rituals, and then are elevated to the status of doctrines, even though they have little or nothing to do with scripture.

The reformers are responsible for part of the problem as well, although they can hardly be blamed, at least vociferously. To a certain extent they had no choice but to define themselves and their teachings in opposition to Rome, and in Roman doctrine water baptism is "big medicine", essentially “magic” without which you can't get into God's grace. Protestants went basically two ways, either reducing water baptism again to a ritual for infants (although they never completely "de-mythologized" it), or making it an important rite of passage for adults who had personally believed in Christ. Both of these approaches, while better than what the Roman church teaches, have their problems, the former skewing church practice away from learning the truth of scripture and back toward empty ritual (or at least anchoring it there), while the latter has tended, in a sort of backwards way, to make water baptism seem even more important for those who believe in the truth of being born again by grace through faith - because it is a ritual that an informed adult undertakes (so there's lots of room for guilt and fear to work their will here).

Thus water baptism is one of the many "ball-and-chains" that elements of the church visible have been dragging along for centuries and have sought to place around the ankles of good hearted believers. The best that can be said for it is that most genuine believers over the years have either been water-baptized without their knowledge as infants, or as relatively new believers in relative ignorance and under group pressure. And once it's over, it's over. However, believing water baptism to be important is a problem. For one thing, as your e-mail suggests, it obscures the importance of the baptism of the Spirit and has also been responsible for many mis-understandings about that key doctrine.

A person with absolutely no prior contact with Christianity who spent a good deal of time trying to figure this issue out from the scriptures alone would almost certainly come to balance out the more difficult to interpret passages of the book of Acts with the fact that John and then Jesus focus on the coming baptism of the Spirit as what is really important, and that this is also the key focus of all the New Testament epistles (where water baptism is only mentioned negatively: 1Cor.1:10-17; 15:29; and 1Pet.3:21). The last passage mentioned is frequently misunderstood (see the link: “The Baptism which now Saves You”), but it shows that throughout the apostles' ministry they were having to de-emphasize the water baptism that was still going on (i.e., "symbolizes" = not water [which is not in the text], contra NIV et al.). These and all the other epistle-baptism passages show what one would have to conclude with careful, unbiased exegesis anyway, that the words "baptism/baptize" in the epistles invariably refer to the baptism of the Spirit. And how would this not be true? John foretold it as the next phase (Matt.3:12). Jesus promised it as the empowerment to come (Jn.14:15ff.; 16:5ff.). Pentecost revealed the power and importance of it for the gospel beyond any doubt (Acts 2:1-13). And the things that makes the Church as it is preached and described in the epistles stand out are the power, the gifts, the enlightenment of the Spirit - not a water ritual. It is really no great leap then, when reading the scriptures without bias and preconceptions, to understand Matthew 28:18-20 in the same way. After all, how could water baptism put us "into the Name/Person" of the Trinity - unless it really were magic, something few Bible-oriented Christians are even willing to entertain (see the link: “Baptism and Salvation”).

The essential thing is this: the baptism of John was a water ritual "of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mk.1:4). Nowhere in the New Testament is another kind of water baptism described other than John's water baptism, and that is critical. How many people who preach/teach that water baptism is necessary are talking about John's baptism? No, they invariably use the "formula" of Matthew 28:19, and have it mean something mysterious (and confusing). The problem is that the idea of eis to onoma that verse meaning "under the authority of" instead of “into the Person of” is dubious when reading the Greek text, unparalleled elsewhere, and, well, what exactly would that mean? If it is "into", then it's magic, but the Spirit's uniting of every new believer with Christ, a doctrine well-known from the New Testament epistles. If it is "under the authority of", then what precisely does this new water baptism purport to achieve or effect? On the other hand, if Jesus is talking about the Spirit, as He invariably is everywhere else, then what we have here is the apostles acting as intermediaries of the gospel (as they do and are commanded to everywhere else), the result of which is the baptism of the Spirit (just as it happened to Cornelius and his household: Acts 10:27-48). It took time for Peter and Paul to see that there was no need for the water at all (if we receive the Spirit, then of course we have turned to the Lord in repentance and believed), but that is certainly not unparalleled either: the book Acts is filled with examples of the Church learning what this new gift and new age meant and how to handle things as a result.

I suppose to answer your question a bit more succinctly, the reason this issue has been so difficult is, in a nutshell, guilt and manipulation. And I believe there is also much in your observation about the "stumbling stone". There are many things in scripture which are not as clear in an initial reading as we should prefer. But then, if it were too easy, we wouldn't need teachers (so authority would be lost), and we wouldn't need much faith. Getting to the truth of the Word of God takes discipline, effort, preparation, dedication . . . and a lot of faith. But we find that not only is our faith built up thereby, but our hope and our love as well. We find that by persistence in something that is not easy we become better Christians in every way, growing closer to God day by day, and learning what our Lord is really like. He taught in parables for just this reason after all, to separate those who were truly dedicated to following Him from those who were just interested in entertainment. We should all aspire to . . .

"Justification by faith in Christ, the infallible and inerrant Word of God,
God's Grace, God's love, confession of sins, and following God"


"Entertainment, psychology, sports activities, denominational derailings,
the opinions of the preacher, guilt, intimidation, and money-grubbing"

. . . . . as you so crisply put it! My prayers go out for you that you may find a church that emphasizes all the right things and eschews all the wrong things. As you say, it's not easy to find. Trying to help answer this last question of yours was the genesis for this ministry many years ago - I didn't know of any churches that fit the bill, so at least I wanted to be able to point to a source of spiritual food that would contribute to spiritual growth (even it wasn't contained within four walls). I am glad to hear that this ministry is at least contributing to your good efforts in that direction.

Yours in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

Bob Luginbill

Question #2:

Hi. I was reading the Q and A about, re *Is water baptism required for Christians today? I followed along the reply with interest. I have many comments but as this email may I be so bold as to say/ask, " As Christians, Jesus is the Way the Truth and The life, so we should follow Him and DO as He has done. Jesus was baptized and so should we be and in the same way." Is there a chat/forum on your site? Cheers.

Response #2:

There is no chat/forum at Ichthys, but I am happy to respond to your comment.

I entirely agree that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. We are indeed as Christians supposed to follow His example, to walk in His footsteps as He gave us an example. But, clearly, that does not mean that we can or even should take this principle so literally as to do everything in exactly the same way He did - that is not what scripture means.

To take but a few of many examples, first of all, Jesus was celibate and never married. Are we required to follow Him in this? That would be a good thing in many ways if we were all capable of it, but scripture allows that this is not possible for most of us (1Cor.7:1-2). Surely we can take from His example of self-sacrifice in this regard the principle of considering God and the kingdom of God and the work pertaining thereto to be more important than our own concerns, but forgoing marriage is not meant to be the way that most of us demonstrate our commitment. Now there are some people/organizations who over-react on this point (one thinks of the prohibition for Catholic priests). For those who follow Jesus, spiritually celibacy, staying away from spiritual unfaithfulness, is even more important than material celibacy.

Secondly, Jesus went to the cross to die for our sins; He was crucified for us. Now we are to "take up our cross daily" and follow Him (Lk.9:23), and in some instances this may mean martyrdom (or even crucifixion - that, at any rate, is one tradition about the way that Peter died, though there is no biblical evidence for it). But even if it is our lot to die for the Lord, we could never ever die as He did - He is the only One who was ever qualified to atone for the sins of the world. Impossible to follow Him here in a literal sense (and unnecessary too - His death for us was efficacious for the forgiveness of all sins). Now there are some people/organizations who over-react on this point (one thinks of the recent trend in South America to hang oneself on a cross - though as far as I know no one who has done this has yet expired in the process, let alone done anything that God would ever consider a propitiation for sin). So I think that our "losing of our lives" for the Lord is spiritual rather than physical - we put Him and the kingdom first (Matt.16:25).

Thirdly, Jesus performed many miracles, of every sort. As far as I recall, though the apostles duplicated many of His miracles, He was the only One who ever gave sight to the blind. In any case, though I am not sure what your position is on the working of miracles, few people would proclaim that they are capable of doing all of the miracles that Jesus did, or to the degree that He did them. We can only function as members of His Body, the Church, according to the specific gifts we have received from the Spirit (cf. 1Cor.12:1-11). Now there are some people/organizations who over-react on this point (one thinks of any number of groups who make great claims to miraculous activities), but it seems to me that the "greater things than these" we are meant to do are in the spiritual rather than the material realm (Jn.5:20).

One could go on, but I think the point is fairly obvious: following Him spiritually rather than literally is what is important. For our Lord Jesus is clearly different from us in many ways. He is Savior of the world; we are the saved. He is the Head; we are the Body. He is the Bridegroom; we are the Bride. He and His life were unique in every way, and because of Him we have been born again into a new life, and eternal life.

And His baptism was unique too. He is the only One whom John tried to prevent from being baptized. Why? Because John knew full well that Jesus was "the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn.1:29). Jesus had no sin, but the baptism of John was a baptism "of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mk.1:4; Lk.3:3). Jesus had no need of repentance, for He had no sin. Beyond all argument, therefore, what the baptism of John meant for Jesus was different from what it meant for everyone else. Jesus went down into the water where the sins of the world had been symbolically washed off, and took them symbolically upon Himself. And when He came up (a picture of the resurrection just as the baptism was a picture of the cross), the Spirit descended upon Him and the Father proclaimed His good pleasure with the Son and His work (Matt.3:16-17; a preview of the ascension and session). It is impossible for us to duplicate the symbolism of Jesus' water baptism by our own water baptism, because His water baptism presaged His death for us on the cross. That is why He says prior to His suffering “I have a baptism to undergo”, speaking of His sacrifice on the cross (Lk.12:50; cf. Mk.10:38).

This last point about John's baptism is important from another perspective as well. John's baptism was, as quoted above, "for repentance and forgiveness" and his ministry had the purpose "to prepare a people ready for the Lord" (Lk.1:17). In other words, John's baptism was looking forward to the ministry of the Messiah and to the cross. Now that the Messiah has come and the cross is a reality, it does beg the question of why we now do not have to do exclusively with the baptism of the Spirit, for John said that he baptized with water for repentance, but the Messiah would baptize "with the Spirit" - and indeed this has been the case since Pentecost (Matt.3:11).

My point here is that the only water baptism in scripture is the baptism of John. But I have never heard of a group that water-baptizes that has that symbolism clear, i.e., water washes away sins as the coming sacrifice of the Messiah would do (and that is that). Inevitably, some other non-biblical symbolism is always present in the way water baptism is used and represented by all groups I am aware of who practice it, so that ipso facto it must be being used in a scripturally inappropriate way. One searches the scriptures in vain for any other water baptism - the New Testament epistles are filled instead with a non-water baptism: the baptism of the Spirit.

Really, its not a question of "doing what Jesus did" when it comes to water baptism. Instead, it's a case of "doing what we've always done just because we've always done it". I have no problem with that - when it is biblical. Up until Augustine's day, the Church was still squabbling over whether to baptize babies, when baptism should take place, what it meant, etc. And that is still the case today. I have to believe that if the case for the need for a new post-cross water baptism was that clear, there would never have been, could never have been such confusion.

As it is in fact, the true picture that scripture gives is clear: of a single water baptism for preparation, that of John, which is entirely symbolic, followed by a very real baptism with lasting effects: the baptism of the Spirit given as a gift for the Messiah's victory (His baptism of the cross), a powerful and real event for every believer when they believe (with the book of Acts documenting the transition from ritual to reality: Acts 19:1-7; cf. Acts 10:44-48).

We should not really even be asking “what would Jesus do?”, but “what does Jesus want me to do?” That is what our Lord always did in following the will of His Father and ours at all times. Jesus wants us to follow Him in truth (cf. Jn.17:15-19). And the only way I know to do that is to learn what is really true according to the Bible, believe it, and live it (and help others do likewise).

Please see also the following links:

        Is water baptism required for Christians today?

        Foot-washing, Bitter Herbs, Baptism, and Borrowed Faith.

        The baptism of the Holy Spirit as distinct from speaking in tongues.

        An Extended Conversation about the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.

        Sin, Baptism, and the Book of Revelation.

        Does baptism play a role in being born again?

        How important is baptism?

In the One who is the only way, the truth, and the life, our dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob Luginbill

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