Why Baptism In The New Testament Should Normally Be Understood As Baptism In Water

It is written:

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:27)

In every New Testament passage where baptism and salvation are mentioned, baptism ALWAYS precedes salvation (cf. Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:11-14; 1 Peter 3:20-21, etc). Many of our friends in denominational churches have a hard time accepting this truth (usually because they have been taught the man-made idea that we are saved by “faith-only” even though James directly contradicts this in James 2:24).

However, sometimes our denominational friends acknowledge that baptism is part of the plan of redemption. They argue, however, that the passages which teach the essentiality of baptism for salvation are referring to Holy Spirit baptism and not water baptism.

What shall we say to this?

First, unless context demands otherwise, when baptism is mentioned in the New Testament it should be understood as water baptism. The reason for this is simple: baptism was a common practice in the first century world among the Christians, the Jews, and the pagans, and was an obvious reference to immersion in water. Since baptism was most often used in the first century to reference water baptism, that is its most logical and common meaning (unless contextual clues show otherwise).

Ferguson has well pointed out:

“Although the verb “baptize” can have a metaphorical use, the context usually gives a clear indication of this. Without such an indication, the ordinary use of the word at the time in Jewish and Christian circles for the religious immersion of a person in water should be assumed.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism In The Early Church: History, Theology, And Liturgy In The First Five Centuries, 3243 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

Ferguson was drawing on the work of other scholars as well in making this observation. He notes in footnote 488:

“Cf. Albrecht Oepke, “βἀπτω, βαπτἰζω (et al.),” in Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), Vol. 1, pp. 539-540, that βαπτἰζειν meant technically “to baptize in water” so it was unnecessary to specify the medium. Cf. Gerard-Henry Baudry, Le baptême et ses symboles: Aux sources du salut (Paris: Beauchesne, 2001), p. 5, that “baptize in water” is a pleonasm.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism In The Early Church: History, Theology, And Liturgy In The First Five Centuries, 22259-22265 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

Second, Holy Spirit baptism was a promise to be received (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5). You cannot obey a promise: you can only receive it. A person could not be commanded to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Therefore, those passages in the New Testament which show people being baptized in response to a command cannot be referencing Holy Spirit baptism.

Sometimes we are directly told about people obeying the command to be baptized (Acts 8:35-39; 10:47-48). Other times, the Greek of a passage makes it clear when a person is being water baptized. For example, the imperative mood in the Greek indicates when a command is being issued (as in Acts 2:38 and 22:16, for example).

Third, Holy Spirit baptism could only be administered by Jesus (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). Those passages therefore which indicate that others do the baptizing remind us yet again that the baptism under consideration is in water (eg, Matthew 28:19).

Fourth, Holy Spirit baptism was only for very specific persons in the first century. This is made very clear in passages such as Acts 2:1-4, where the Holy Spirit baptism fell on “them.” The group being referenced is the twelve Apostles (the antecedent referring directly back to “the Apostles” of Acts 1:26). Holy Spirit baptism seems to have been connected only with the Apostles (Acts 2:1-4), possibly the three thousand on Pentecost (Acts 2:38; 10:10:45; 11:14-17), the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-47), and those upon whom the Apostles laid hands (Acts 6:1-6; 8:14-18; 19:6; Romans 1:11; 2 Timothy 1:6). Therefore, passages which discuss baptism for all disciples of Christ must be referencing water baptism and not Holy Spirit baptism (ie, Ephesians 4:4-6; Galatians 3:26-27; 1 Corinthians 12:13).

Finally, Holy Spirit baptism was for the specific purposes of miraculously revealing and confirming the Word of God (John 14:26; 16:13; Acts 10:43-46). Passages which attach other purposes to the baptism in context are not therefore references to Holy Spirit baptism (eg, Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Colossians 2:11-14; Titus 3:4-8; 1 Peter 3:20-21).

Have you put on Christ in baptism?

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