By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)
It is no secret that oftentimes, members of the churches of Christ are looked down upon for teaching that baptism is part of God’s plan of salvation. Although Jesus and His Apostles clearly taught this (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4, etc.), the vast majority of Protestantism rejects the truth in favor of the false notion of salvation by “faith only” (see James 2:14-26 for the New Testament’s teaching on this doctrine, and please pay special attention to James 2:24 which is the only place in the Bible where the words “faith only” appear).
Sometimes, critics of New Testament Christianity refer to the members of the churches of Christ with derogatory terms such as “water dogs.” I myself have been labeled this on several occasions.
Recently, while I was doing a linguistic study on Galatians 3:26-27, and I came across a fascinating book on the subject of baptism. It is written by a Baptist preacher named Stanley Fowler, who has been carefully studying the subject of New Testament baptism over the years and who has made some incredible discoveries.
In this article, we will examine some of the fascinating elements of this book. The following quotes are from Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock (unless otherwise noted).
A Brief Description Of The Purpose For The Author’s Book
Why did Fowler write his book?
“For the last few months, I have been part of a national study team considering the possibility of a small change to the policy of my denomination about the relation between baptism and church membership. That experience has made me aware once again that tinkering with baptism among Baptists brings all sorts of strong feelings to the surface, but it also reminded me that Baptist emphasis on baptism tends to focus on the details of the human action, rather than what God might be doing in the event.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 18 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
While describing his overall assessment of baptism as taught and practiced in the Baptist churches, Fowler became troubled:
“Anyone who takes seriously what we call the Great Commission (Matt 28: 18–20) has to admit that baptism is about initiation into discipleship and thus very significant, but long ago I became convinced that my own tradition undervalued it.” ((Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 23 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
It is at this point that our author begins informing us about some important elements of his upbringing. Being reared in the Baptist faith (especially among the very strict Primitive Baptists who are extremely Calvinistic), Fowler began to learn some interesting lessons. He writes:
“My maternal grandparents were Primitive Baptists, and my grandfather was a deacon in their church. I can still remember visiting that church occasionally, especially singing hymns from the shaped-note hymnal, and watching the members walk to the front to deposit their offering in the plate….Primitive Baptists have sometimes been called hardshell Baptists or anti-mission Baptists, because of their opposition to modern methods that they consider unbiblical….On principle, they did not affirm a universal offer of the gospel, leaving all the work of calling sinners to Christ with God himself. However, in spite of this essentially fatalistic attitude, my grandfather was fervent in prayer. When I was three years old, suffering with viral pneumonia and appendicitis simultaneously, offered no hope by doctors, my grandfather prayed for days, and I lived to tell the story. Later, when I was a pastor, he prayed for me every Sunday at just the right time of day. We can be grateful that sometimes our practice is better than our theology.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 41-49 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
He recalls the conversion of his parents to the Regular Baptist church. It is around this time that Fowler begins to carefully observe how many in the Baptist faith considered other denominations:
“My parents’ conversion occurred when I was eleven years old, after relocating to the Indianapolis area. It was through the witness of longtime friends and in a revival meeting in a Baptist Church, but it was Regular Baptist and neither Primitive nor General….One of the emphases of the Regular Baptist church was doctrinal purity and separation from apostates, which meant that I frequently heard attacks on the false doctrine of other kinds of churches. I don’t recall that the unity of the wider church was ever a preaching theme. I will never forget the sermon that referred to the “backward collar Whiskeypalians,” thus dealing with clericalism and drinkers in one neat phrase. Pastors in our circles were fond of dismissing others by labeling them, and it was crucial that we identify ourselves as “fundamentalists” instead of “neo-evangelicals.”” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 59-64 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
How interesting that the gentleman here begins describing his encounters with the churches of Christ:
“Some of our strongest criticisms were directed at the churches in what is often called the Stone-Campbell tradition, sometimes at the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ (the ecumenically-oriented stream), but more often at the a cappella Churches of Christ (the most exclusive stream). There were various points of tension, but clearly the most significant was baptismal theology. The Churches of Christ were often called Campbellites, because of Alexander Campbell, the preacher who led the movement in the 19th century, and this division over baptism goes back to battles in that century between Campbell and the Baptists. The heart of the debate is whether we get baptized to testify to a previously completed conversion experience (Baptists) or to experience the remission of sins (Churches of Christ). Do I come to baptism as a confirmed believer (Baptists) or as a repentant sinner turning to Christ (Churches of Christ)? Do I get baptized because I have been saved (Baptists) or in order to be saved (Churches of Christ)? Must I have a conversion narrative to tell prior to baptism (Baptists), or is confession of faith in Jesus Christ adequate (Churches of Christ)? The debate can be phrased in various ways, but it deals with the most fundamental realities of Christian experience, and therefore, it is an emotionally charged debate. In my experience at that point, there was little contact between the two camps—we talked about each other rather than to each other. I can still remember my pastor’s assertion that we believed in the “power of the blood,” but they believed in the “power of the tub.” The idea that baptism was instrumental in the experience of salvation was condemned as works-righteousness and a false gospel, and my sense was that members of the local Church of Christ were not to be considered brothers and sisters in the faith. Of course, the same attitude prevailed on the other side of the divide. They did not think of us as brothers and sisters, because we had not been baptized intentionally “for the remission of sins” (in accord with Acts 2: 38).” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 68-82 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
This last quotation is unfortunate in a few ways.
First, it is apparent that our author considers the church of Christ to be another human denomination, one started by Alexander Campbell. In truth, the church of Christ is simply the individuals that God has saved from the world and added to His church when they obey the Gospel (Acts 2:37-47; Colossians 1:13). Campbell may have been involved in helping to bring about the American Restoration Movement, but he did not start the church of Christ. Instead, Jesus built the church Himself (Matthew 16:18). Furthermore, the church is continued through the continual preaching and teaching of God’s Word, which is the seed of the kingdom (Luke 8:11; Matthew 13:19).
Of the existence of the church through the ages (Daniel 2:44; Hebrews 12:28), there is abundant proof from a variety of historical sources.
But secondly, this quotation is a testament to the division that occurs when disciples of Christ divide over party names and slogans. Several refer to the churches of Christ as “Campbellites,” believing that we are the followers of Alexander Campbell. Throughout history, there have been many “restoration movements” pursued by sincere disciples of Christ from every corner of the Earth.
Campbell himself, in response to the question, “What Is Campbellism?” Had this to say:
“It is a nickname of reproach invented and adopted by those whose views, feelings and desires are all sectarian – who cannot conceive of Christianity in any other light than an ISM” (Christian Baptist, Vol. V.270).
It is unfortunate that the religious world is as fractured religiously as it is, and i am sorry to say that all too often churches of Christ have been the cause of much unjustified division.
However, the influence of the churches of Christ on Fowler certainly had an impact. He began to see that several of the arguments against baptism that were raised by his peers did not “hold water” (pun intended):
“But at the same time, I had to admit that there were several baptism texts in the New Testament that seemed to say that baptism was instrumental in salvation, and I found myself somewhat discontent with the standard Baptist rhetoric.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 87 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
After becoming a preacher, Fowler became familiar with the writings of author G.R. Beasley-Murray. This scholar had written a revolutionary book on the subject of baptism that had (and continues to have) a profound impact on the Baptist churches:
“During those years I became acquainted with G. R. Beasley-Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament, which had been published about a decade earlier. Here was a book commended by scholars across the denominational spectrum, written by a British Baptist, treating every baptismal text and allusion in the New Testament in detail, and then synthesizing all of that into a theology of baptism in a way that I found utterly compelling. The book is still in print and is still considered by many to be the book on baptism. I suppose this was the first time I had ever encountered a Baptist who insisted that baptism is a “sacrament,” a means of grace that in some sense conveys what it signifies. Thinking through the argument of Beasley-Murray’s book helped me to clarify my own thinking about baptism and to articulate a way of thinking about it that enabled a natural reading of biblical texts about baptism, while also avoiding what I took to be the overstatements of my Church of Christ friends.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 102-106 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
While he was still not completely convinced regarding the subject of baptism and salvation in the New Testament, the author began to see a connection between the two:
“In the process, I became more convinced than ever that baptism in biblical terms is conversion-baptism, and thus a meeting-place of grace and faith, the sacramental seal of the experience of union with Christ.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 102-106 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
As he continued his studies, Folwer came to realize that the work of Beasley-Murray was only a small indicator of changes taking place in the Baptist churches (especially in England) regarding baptism:
“By that time I had become aware that the work of Beasley-Murray was actually the culmination of fresh thinking about baptism that had been going on for decades among British Baptists.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 131 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
Over time, Folwer began to realize that the writings of his earlier Baptist brethren were very similar to the writings of members of the churches of Christ on the subject of baptism:
“When I began reading the foundational Baptist literature of the seventeenth century, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the early Baptists often spoke of baptism in the ways that I had come to appreciate, freely describing it in sacramental terms and sounding more like Church of Christ theologians than the Baptists around me.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 135 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
As Folwer began to realize the profound truths of the New Testament regarding baptism and salvation, he felt the need to begin teaching on these topics. He soon found resistance among his friends, although some were open to the subject. However, he writes about some of the discouraging hardships that he and some of his similarly-minded friends encountered:
“My book has been well received by Baptists in various parts of the world and is frequently referenced in later works on baptism, but it has not been as widely read or easily accepted in North America. Shortly after its publication in 2002, I was at a meeting of Baptist historians and theologians in Kansas City, and I was showing a copy of the book to two friends there. One of the men, who essentially shared my view, said that when he teaches the topic in his Baptist school, on the first day the students think he is a heretic, but by the second day they are more receptive. My other friend indicated that he was having a hard time getting to day two.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 155-160 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
One of Fowler’s critics made the argument that his beliefs in the essentialist of baptism could lead to sympathy towards the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. He responds:
“I understand the concern, even though I believe that his critique is overstated. As I have stated above, my concern is not about terminology, but is in fact about letting the baptism texts of the New Testament speak naturally, and with that in view to test the adequacy of typical Baptist ways of stating the meaning of baptism. It is ironic that Baptists, in spite of their name, often minimize baptism in practice. For them, conversion is typically thought of as complete prior to baptism, so that baptism is reduced to sheer obedience, often as nothing more than a final hoop to jump through for church membership.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 176-180 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
Indeed, this is what we must do! We must return to the Scriptures and allow the Word of God to lead and teach us.
“Given the traditional Baptist emphasis on the unique and final authority of Scripture, we should be prepared to take a fresh look at the biblical witness to baptism and ask whether our ideas about baptism are an adequate way to describe that witness. That may be radical, but surely it is right.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 185 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
Why Many Baptists Come To Believe That Baptism Is Not Essential To Salvation
One might wonder how so many people come to the (mistaken) conclusion that baptism is not essential to salvation, when every passage in the New Testament Scriptures which mentions baptism and salvation places baptism clearly BEFORE salvation (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:37-38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:12; 1 Peter 3:20-21).
In addressing this question, Fowler provides this insight:
“What often happens is that we develop a doctrine of conversion and salvation from a select group of texts in the Pauline epistles. These texts emphasize the “faith alone, grace alone” nature of salvation, and then the baptismal texts are forced onto that grid on the assumption that “faith alone” means “by faith and not by baptism.” But it seems to require some interpretive gymnastics to make the baptism texts of the New Testament fit that grid, with Acts 2: 38 being only one of the most obvious examples. Now, what would happen if we tried to develop a baptismal theology based on the actual baptism texts? Although that seems like an obvious approach to take, it is often not done.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 203-207 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
So many of our denominational friends focus on the passages which speak of salvation through “belief” or “faith,” and then (incorrectly assuming that such faith disavows obedience) arrive at the conclusion that baptism is thus not part of the plan of salvation. Perhaps if our denominational friends would consider that saving faith in the Bible includes obedience (James 2:14-26; Hebrews 11) they would be able to see that faith and baptism are not mutually exclusive in regard to the salvation of the sinner.
Studying Specific Texts
Fowler’s next section focuses on specific passage of Scripture which examine baptism in great detail. Let’s notice some points from his studies.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had given the Great Commission with these words:
Matthew 28:19-20-19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
In studying the language of the passage, we are told:
“As has been pointed out by many contemporary teachers, there is grammatically one imperative in the text (make disciples), one aorist participle (having gone, go), and two present participles (baptizing, teaching). An aorist participle normally denotes action that is logically (if not temporally) prior to the action of the main verb, 5 leading to a translation like “Having gone, make disciples” or “Go and make disciples.” Matthew’s use of this Greek word (poreuthentes) in this construction elsewhere (2: 8; 9: 13; 11: 4; 17: 27; 18: 12; 22: 15; 26: 14) suggests that the participle essentially takes on the imperatival nuances of the main verb, and this supports the translation, “Go and make disciples.” On the other hand, a present participle in Greek normally denotes action that occurs simultaneously with the main verb of the sentence, 6 and that implies that baptizing and teaching are not done after making disciples, but instead are done at the same time as making disciples. Baptizing and teaching are, therefore, the means by which disciples are made or the manner in which they are made. In other words, one becomes a disciple by baptism and grows as a disciple by ongoing obedience to Christ’s commands.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 241-253 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
The old argument that a person becomes a saved disciple and then is baptized afterward is thus refuted by the clear study of this passage.
Yet just as informative is the significance of the phrase “in the name” that is used in this passage, in which a person is baptized. Fowler writes:
“This text also describes baptism as a means by which we are brought into connection with the Triune God. The words of Jesus are typically translated “in the name of . . . ” and the phrase is routinely spoken in the act of baptism—for some, the validity of the baptism depends on the liturgical phrase. However, we need to note that the Greek preposition used in the phrase is not en but eis, a preposition that commonly conveys directional nuances and thus is often rendered “into.” The word is often used with the verb pisteuō (“ believe”) to indicate that faith in Christ is about attachment to or commitment to Christ. So we might appropriately translate Jesus’ words as “baptizing them into the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” In biblical usage, “the name” of God is really another way of denoting God himself, so that “baptizing into the name” of God is equivalent to “baptizing into God”, i.e., baptizing into communion/ fellowship with God. Baptism is Trinitarian in nature, because in it we experience reconciliation with the Father through faith in the Son, having been drawn to faith by the Holy Spirit (who is also bestowed on us by the risen Son as a benefit of the new covenant). All this is further evidence that the words of Jesus describe baptism as a means by which we enter into communion with God, not as a mere symbol pointing to a prior reality.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 264-274 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
This phrase “into the name of” often carried the idea of into the “ownership” or “fellowship” of something.
“The Greek phrase “into the name of ” (εἰς τò ὄνoμα) occurs mainly in commercial or legal documents and carries the idea of “into the ownership or possession” of someone. The Hebrew phrase “into the name of ” ( ) carries the idea of “with reference to,” defining the intention or purpose of the act, or even in some instances “in worship to.” 446 A Hebrew background has greater probability with reference to Matthaean usage, but the practical results may not have been greatly different. Something done by a person as an act of worship toward another brought the first person into a relationship of belonging to the object of the act, and someone to whom a person belonged or was obligated received acts of homage from that person.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism In The Early Church: History, Theology, And Liturgy In The First Five Centuries, 3005 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
“Another controversy of the religious world concerns the purpose of baptism. Many people, correctly rejecting the false doctrine of salvation upon the basis of works of human merit, have erroneously concluded that no works-of any type-are involved in salvation. Hence, they have overlooked the clear connection between baptism (which is not a work of human merit; cf. Titus 3:5) and forgiveness of sins in such passages as Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, 1 Peter 3:21, etc. One interesting passage in this connection is Matthew 28:19, 20 where the Lord’s followers are instructed to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” What did Christ mean by baptizing them “into the name” of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? Many scholars were uncertain. Then archaeologists began to uncover numerous Greek papyri containing the phrase eis to onama, “into the name.” It was a technical expression denoting “into the possession” of someone. A slave was sold into the name, i.e., into the possession, of his owner. So, as Moulton and Milligan comment: “The usage is of interest in connection with Matthew 28:19, where the meaning would seem to be ‘baptized into the possesssion of the Father, etc.'”. What a thrilling concept! When one, in believing penitence, turns to the Lord by the obedient act of being immersed in water, by that submission, he becomes the possession of the divine Godhead.” (Wayne Jackson, Biblical Studies In The Light Of Archaeology, 56; Montgomery, Alabama; Apologetics Press).
When carefully studied, we see that Matthew 28:19-20 clearly teaches that baptism is essential to salvation.
When the people on Pentecost asked “what shall we do” after they had been pricked to the heart, coming face to face with their guilt, Peter told them these words:
Acts 2:38-Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Speaking of the specifics of this passage, Fowler writes:
“The words are “repent and let each one of you be baptized . . . ” with the plural command to repent being addressed to the entire crowd, all of whom could change their mind simultaneously, and the singular command to be baptized being addressed to them individually, as they would each in turn express their repentance in the ritual act. Baptism is clearly an integral part of the conversion demanded, sufficiently so that Luke’s description of their response is in terms of their baptism, not explicitly in terms of their repentance (2: 41). This text seems to say quite clearly that baptism is done as a means of experiencing the benefits of saving union with Christ, but that is not easily affirmed by the many Baptists (and others) who see a threat to salvation by faith alone, apart from works.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 280-285 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
The first thing about this statement that stands out to me is how Fowler immediately refutes one of the oldest Baptist arguments used against Acts 2:38.
Through the years, some have claimed that the command to “be baptized” cannot be joined to the phrase “for the remission of sins.” It is claimed that because the command “repent” is second person plural, and because the command “be baptized” is third person singular, they both cannot be joined to the phrase “for the remission of sins.” Thus, it is claimed that only “repentance” is needed “for the remission of sins.”
A number of years ago, brother Thomas B. Warren entered into public debate with a gentleman named L..S. Ballard. The discussion centered on the subject of salvation by faith alone and the place of baptism in God’s plan of redemption. When Ballard raised this objection to Acts 2:38, brother Warren produced a mass of scholarship on the matter. I quote the following from his second affirmative:
“All right. Next he came up here and brought up an argument on Acts 2:38, that we could not connect both of those verbs with the expression “unto the remission of sins.” Now, I went to the trouble to find out what men who are real grammarians say about that. These men are recognized in the outstanding schools of our nation. They are men who, by reason of academic attainment, are recognized by their fellow- men to be the greatest among us today. I want to show you what they say about it. I have never put myself up as a Greek scholar, but I here and now say that I shall not allow Mr. Ballard to misuse it. I am not a Greek scholar, but I know where to go to those men who are scholars on these technical points. Mr. John Reumann of Luthern Theological Seminary, “In that passage cited, Acts 2:38, I see no grammatical reason why one couldn’t take the phrase ‘eis aphesin hamartion,’ ‘for the forgiveness of sins,’ with both verbs, repentance and baptism.” Marvin K. Franzmann, Concordia Seminary, “As regards the expression in Acts 2:38, it is grammatically possible to connect ‘eis aphesin’ with both verbs.” D. A. Penick of the University of Texas, in reference to my diagram where I’ve connected both of those verbs with the expression “unto the remission of sins,” says, “your diagram is correct.” Carl H. Morgan, dean of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, “I would agree with the statement which you quote from Mr. H. B. Hackett, where he says, ‘we connect naturally with both the preceding verbs’.” Notice again the statement of Thayer in which he says, “the ‘eis’ expressing the end aimed at and secured by”— what— “by repentance and baptism, just previously enjoined.” Again, D. A. Penick, University of Texas, ” ‘Repent ye,’ the writer then wishes to be more emphatic, so he says ‘hekastos baptistheto’ ‘let each one of you be baptized.’ This distribution of a plural subject and predicate by the use of ‘hekastos’ and a third person singular is quite common in all Greek, and is frequently used in the New Testament.” H. B. Hackett, foremost Baptist Commentator, says in his Commentary on Acts, “We connect naturally with both the preceding verbs.” J. W. Wilmarth, a great outstanding Baptist scholar, “This interpretation compels us”— that is, to try to separate the two verbs— “either to do violence to the construction, or to throw the argument or the course of thought in the context into complete confusion. Indeed we can hardly escape the latter alternative if we choose the former. For those who contend for the interpretation ‘on account of remission’ will hardly be willing to admit that Peter said ‘Repent’ as well as ‘be baptized on account of remission of sins.’ This is too great an in- version of natural sequence. Yet to escape it we must violently dissever ‘repent’ and ‘be baptized’ and deny that ‘eis’ expresses the relation of ‘repentance’ as well as ‘baptism’ to forgiveness of sins. But the natural construction connects the latter with both the preceding verbs. It enforces the entire exhortation, not one part of it to the exclusion of the other, as Hackett says.” Ballard says you can’t, but these men— scholars, recognized to be among the greatest in the world— have said that you can connect, that it is possible, to connect both of them. Henry J. Cadbury, member of the Revised Standard Version Committee, which Ballard introduced a moment ago, has this to say, (reading from a letter) “The gram- mar of the sentence in Acts 2:38 is perfectly regular and better Greek than if the author had kept the second person plural ‘baptize’ after using the singular ‘each.’ I have no doubt that another author would have written ‘Do ye repent,’ and ‘be ye baptized,’ each of you. But this writer seems to have preferred the less loose construction. I think that there would be no essential difference in meaning.” Whether you said “Do ye repent, and be ye baptized each of you,” or as it stands exactly, there would be no essential difference in meaning. Now, Mr. Ballard says, “Why, you can’t do that! According to Greek grammar you can’t do it.” Well, it’s strange that all of these men who are outstanding in their field— Greek grammar— say that you can. They say that there is absolutely no reason why you couldn’t do it!” (Thomas B. Warren & L.S. Ballard, Warren-Ballard Debate On The Plan Of Salvation, 2040-2070 (Kindle Edition); Glasgow, KY; National Christian Press)
In Fowler’s words, he clearly refutes this argument against Acts 2:38.
Yet what of the claim made by some that the phrase “for the remission of sins” as used in Acts 2:38 actually means “because of” remission of sins? In other words, some say that believers are to repent and be baptized-not to be forgiven-but because they already have been forgiven. After citing one famous Greek scholar who made this claim, Fowler observes:
“There is no doubt about Robertson’s ability as a Greek scholar, but there are many reasons to reject his interpretation of this passage. First, the very existence of the causal sense of eis is a disputed point among Greek scholars. 8 Second, and more to the point, the wider use of eis with “forgiveness of sins” as its object consistently shows forgiveness to be the result of eis, not the condition of eis. Matthew 26: 28 describes the forgiveness of sins as the result of the pouring out of the blood of Christ. Luke 24: 47 (in some manuscripts) envisions the forgiveness of sins as the result of preaching the gospel to all nations. Both Mark 1: 4 and Luke 3: 3 describe John’s baptism as a request for forgiveness of the sins confessed in baptism. It is, then, natural to read Acts 2: 38 as a statement that forgiveness is sought by baptism. Robertson’s statement of his view makes it clear that his conclusion is determined by prior theological commitments, not by the natural sense of the Greek words in the text.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 290-302 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
Thus, there is no doubt that Acts 2:38 enjoins repentance and baptism to believers to have their sins forgiven and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
When Paul became a believer in Jesus, we are told that for three days and night he showed his repentance by praying to the Lord and fasting (Acts 9:1-11). Yet at the end of these three days, he was still in his sins and was told:
Acts 22:16-And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’
Speaking of this passage, we read:
“Paul’s own experience of conversion includes baptism as an appeal for the forgiveness of his sins, in that baptism is the event in which he called on the Lord for that forgiveness. That is to say, baptism is seen here as a kind of acted prayer, not unlike the baptism of John, in which penitent sinners confessed their sins and sought forgiveness for entrance into the kingdom of God. That should alert us to avoid any thought that Paul drives a wedge between faith and baptism in his epistles, to which we now turn.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 364-370 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
Baptism is the ultimate “sinner’s prayer” for salvation.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church of Rome, he reminded them of what had taken place when they had turned to the Lord:
Romans 6:3-4-Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
This is perhaps one of the most clear passages in the entire New Testament that shows us what takes place in baptism. It is in baptism that we are buried with Christ; it is after baptism that we are able to walk “in newness of life.”
What of the common argument that this passage is talking about Holy Spirit baptism? Fowler addresses this with these insightful words:
“However attractive that option might seem to be, it does not appear to be on target. The language of this text looks like the language of water-baptism, not Spirit-baptism, in the wider NT usage. The linguistic link between water and Spirit goes back to the words of John the Baptist: “I baptize you in water for repentance, but he will baptize you in the Spirit” (with slight variations in the Gospel accounts). But notice that in the comparison, Christ is to Spirit-baptism what John is to water-baptism, i.e., the baptizer. In Romans 6, Christ is not the baptizer, but instead he is the goal of the baptism, the one to whom believers are connected by this baptism. That is not the language of Spirit-baptism. Furthermore, the Romans language of baptism “into Christ” (eis Christon) recalls the Matthew 28 language of baptism “into the name” (eis to onoma), and that text is clearly talking about water-baptism. The only reason why one might argue that Romans 6 is not talking about water-baptism is the assumption that such realistic language about the efficacy of baptism would be foreign to Paul, but according to Acts 22: 16, Paul was very comfortable with such language.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 380-391 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
1 Peter 3:21
The final passage we will consider is found in the Book of 1 Peter.
While describing how Noah and his family were saved “through” the water of the Flood, the Apostle Peter writes:
1 Peter 3:20-21-who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. 21 There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
Peter clearly teaches that the Noahs were saved “through” (dia- through the instrumentality of) the waters of the Flood. Furthermore, this salvation foreshadowed (type and antitype) how disciples would one day be saved through the waters of baptism.
How were they saved through the water? Very simply, the Noahs were in a sinful state, and then the water came; and they were set down to a new cleansed state. In the same way, believers are saved through baptism.
Writing of this (and in particular about the word “answer,” “appeal,” or “pledge” that is used in verse 21, Fowler notes:
“Clearly Peter is saying that baptism saves in some sense, but in what sense? Ultimately, of course, it is God who saves, and he does so “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ”—any saving efficacy related to baptism is due to its connection to the risen savior. Furthermore, Peter clarifies that it is not the “removal of dirt from the body” (i.e., the physical act itself) that is crucial in the human response. What counts is the inner reality that is expressed in baptism—“ the pledge of a good conscience toward God.” There is, admittedly, some debate about the exact meaning of the word eperōtēma. The KJV translates it “answer,” but that is almost certainly not the meaning. Contemporary commentators have defended both “pledge” and “request” as the meaning of the word. The latter may well be the point of the word, given its relation to the verb eperōtaō (to ask or request), 12 but in either translation the point of the statement is that the commitment of the inner person is the crucial aspect of baptism. Still, it is true that the physical act of baptism is the means of expressing this commitment. It is here, as in Acts 22: 16, an acted prayer that reaches out to the risen Lord for salvation.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 439-444 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
Fowler draws this part of his book to a close with these words:
“As I have argued above, the baptism texts point toward union with Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Spirit as benefits received through baptism….The writers of the New Testament do not separate faith and baptism, and neither should we….The right question is, how does God intend baptism to function? And the answer of the biblical text is that God intends it to serve as a defining moment of conversion, the way in which the penitent sinner formally says yes to the gospel and receives the salvation offered by God through Christ.” (Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections, 492-517 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf & Stock)
While I am not comfortable with everything in Fowler’s book, I am encouraged to see a denominational friend and neighbor who has the courage to study these important issues with a fresh heart and mind. I pray that I may have this same mindset and determination, having an attitude of seeking to do God’s will no matter the cost.
Further, we all need to have the conviction to carefully examine our beliefs and to see if they are truly founded in the Word of God.
Christ came to save us through His death, burial, and resurrection on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).
Why not today as a believer repent and be baptized into Christ to receive the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38)?
If you are a child of God who has turned from the Lord, will you not today repent and pray for forgiveness (1 John 1:9-2:2)?
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.