Monday, January 5, 2009

Baptism into Christ

By Bruce Mills

I am teaching the book of Romans in my Sunday School class, and we are working our way through chapter 6. This past Sunday, part of what we studied was verse 3 which begins with this clause: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus…”

This raises the obvious question, what does it mean to be baptized into Christ? The first place to start if we are to gain an understanding is with the word “baptism.”

When John the Baptist baptized people, it was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). So the clear and obvious intent was a turning to righteousness. In receiving John’s baptism, the sinner renounced his sin and through symbolic cleansing, identified himself with the Messiah and His righteousness. Thus, baptism uniquely represented identification.

The word which is used here translated “baptized” is the Greek word baptizō. It means “to immerse.” It is used that way in both Scripture (Luke 16:24, John 3:23, Acts 8:38) and in ancient secular Greek literature. It was used when referring to dying cloth a different color, a process which requires immersing the fabric under water. It was used of someone drowning, which requires that the person be under the surface of the water. It was used of a ship sinking, which results in the ship being under the water.

When the KJV translators came to this word in the Greek text, the Church of England was already practicing sprinkling as the method of baptism. So rather than translating the word in accordance with its meaning, they simply transliterated the word and created a new English word “baptize,” and thereby avoided having to go against the accepted standard in the Church. But the word clearly means “to immerse.”

But there is more to this than simply meets the eye. To really understand what Paul was saying here, we need to go a little further into the original Greek. There were two closely related words for baptism in the Greek language, and they have slightly different nuances to their meanings. The first word is baptō and it means “to dip into.” It is also used in Scripture a few times (Luke 16:24, John 13:26, Rev. 19:13). It is a synonym for baptizō, but baptizō is the more intensified form which means “to immerse.” Now, you might ask, “Well, dip…immerse…what’s the difference?” Here’s the difference: the word baptō refers to a temporary immersion which has no significant, lasting impact on the item immersed. But baptizō implies a permanent change or impact upon the item which is immersed.

The clearest example of the difference in how these two words were used by the Greek poet and physician Nicander about 200 BC. He wrote a recipe for making pickles, and it’s helpful for us because it uses both words. Nicander said that to make a pickle, the cucumber should first be “dipped” (baptō) into boiling water and then “immersed” (baptizō) in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern immersing the cucumber into a solution, but the first is temporary. The second, the act of “baptizing” the cucumber, produces a permanent change in the vegetable, both in its nature and taste.

And when something is immersed into something else, it comes out different than when it went in. Notice that in the examples I gave of how the word baptizō was used in secular Greek literature, there was definitely a lasting and permanent impact upon the item which was immersed. If it was a garment which was being dyed, it came out a different color which was permanent. If it was a ship which sank, it was permanently beneath the water. And if it was a person who drowned, there was definitely a lasting impact to that immersion.

And in Romans 6:3, Paul says we have been immersed into Christ. We come away from that process different than when we went in. So the person who places his faith in Christ enters that relationship as Christ’s enemy, but once immersed into Him, he becomes one of His children—and it is a permanent relationship.

In 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, Paul says this: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” He says all of Israel was baptized into Moses. He cannot be referring to water baptism, because the only people who were immersed in water were the Egyptian soldiers, and they were drowned in it. The Israelites didn’t even get their feet wet. So what Paul is saying here is that the people were permanently identified with Moses as God’s spokesman and leader when they placed themselves under his authority in the crossing of the Red Sea. Up until that crossing, they were still in Egypt and could have renounced Moses’ leadership and retained their allegiance to Pharoah. But once they crossed the Red Sea, they were unable to turn back and were forever identified with Moses.

In a similar but infinitely more profound and permanent way, all of us (that is, all Christians) “have been baptized into Christ Jesus,” thus permanently being immersed into Him, so as to be made one with Him. We have submitted to His authority over our lives and are permanently identified with Christ.

This is why churches should use immersion as their means of baptism…because it properly pictures or symbolizes the relationship of the believer to Christ.

Now, many people interpret Paul’s argument in Romans 6:3-10 as referring to water baptism. However, Paul is simply using the physical analogy of water baptism to teach the spiritual reality of the believer’s union with Christ. Water baptism is the outward identification of an inward reality—faith in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Paul was not advocating salvation by water baptism; that would have contradicted everything he had just said about salvation by grace and not works in chapters 3 through 5 of Romans, which has no mention of water baptism.

Water baptism is only a public symbol of faith in Christ. There is nothing miraculous or supernatural that takes place when a person is baptized. It is only a symbol. The reason that the apostle Peter said baptism is a mark of salvation in 1 Peter 3:21 is because it gives outward evidence of an inward faith in Christ. And in Acts 22:16, when Paul said, “And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name,” he was not saying that a person is saved by water, but that water baptism is a symbol of genuine saving faith.

As I said before, if Paul was saying that the act of baptism was the means of removing one’s sins, then it would contradict everything he said about salvation by grace through faith alone. And, if baptism is required for salvation, then there is a serious problem with Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross that he would be with Him in paradise that day. Also, we must also consider all of the deathbed confessions that have taken place throughout history. So, you can’t say baptism is a requirement for the forgiveness of sins in some cases but not in others. It either is or it isn’t. So it must be simply an outward symbol of the inner reality.

The tragedy is that many people mistake the symbol of water baptism as the means of salvation rather than the demonstration of it. And when we turn a symbol into the reality, we eliminate the reality, which in this case is salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Bravo! Excellent. Thanks for expanding on this, Bruce. I really like the imagery that the word "immersion" brings to us. I want to be "immersed" in Christ every single day of my life...I hope you're doing well!