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More on Baptism from Colossians 2:12

Baptism the Issue

A definitive stance on baptism in the Reformed stream of Christianity has for many become a central identity. Describing this as a doctrinal ‘discussion’ may be too light a term, it may favor ‘debate’ and sadly even ‘debate’ seems generous in favor of what often erodes into criticism and division. The debate is framed around the mode of baptism (immersion, sprinkling etc.) or means (who baptism is applied to). If you’re not aware of the debate you may be better off, but my purpose is to hopefully offer clarity to it. My intention is to be thorough but not exhaustive and present baptism within the context of and further study in Colossians. The reason I am addressing this above other topics we’ve covered in the book is that this issue is probably the most common question I am asked as a pastor, and the most common debate I have had within church, school, family etc... If you want a detailed explanation of what Grace Fellowship believes and why we practice what we do, please keep reading. If you don’t want to keep reading, we believe that the sacrament of baptism should be applied to professing believers and is most accurately shown in immersion, because of what the Bible teaches about it, but of course that may be too simplistic for many.

In discussing baptism, I believe understanding the approach of the apostle Paul is essential. He informs most of the faith and practice within our churches and speaks often of baptism. Interestingly he never speaks about mode or means, which should give an indication of their relative importance but also informs both because I believe they were obvious and understood to his audience (more on this later). It is worth mentioning that one of the troubling difficulties in the entire disagreement over baptism is that we do not have one description or depiction of a baptism in the churches Paul ministers to, and decisively little on the ongoing baptismal practice in the New Testament in this regard (the early examples in Acts not withstanding). I am not arguing that who is baptized and how baptism is to be administered are not important, but that they are not to be of upmost importance, at least in the eyes of the apostle Paul, or he would have directly instructed on them. I am also not arguing that the baptismal practice doesn’t matter. To the contrary, the act matters because we are command to by Christ (Mt. 28:19), and because of what it signifies, precisely that it points to greater gospel truths. Within Paul, baptism is not merely an act or religious rite, but a representation of the greater spiritual realities of being united in Christ, by the Spirit, through faith, which should be more unifying than divisive.

Baptism the Term

It is first important that we put the concept of baptism into its ancient context before we can discuss Paul’s use. The Greek verb βαπτίζω used exclusively by the canonical writers for baptism has a related range of meaning: “to immerse,” “to sink,” “to drown,” “to bathe,” “to wash,” you get the idea. (The noun βαπτισμός is used to refer to the same act, ‘dipping in water’, ‘immersion’[1]). The origin of βαπτίζω has naval connotations with a sense of “to be drowned”, often referring to ships, in reference to “sink or disable them”.[2] Combining water imagery and complete covering shows the purifying, immersive nature of the Christian’s union with Christ. The immersive connotation of the term used cannot be ignored and is essential for determining its application. Although many like Herman Ridderbos differ on the emphasis of immersion as the mode of baptism, he must affirm that immersion is what “‘baptize’ originally means.”[3]

To get an idea of the sense of βαπτίζω, Mark uses the term when referring to the painstaking washing of Pharisees in 7:4, the English translations use “wash”, but in the Greek “they do not eat unless they baptize” (my translation) themselves and their “cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches” (ESV) after returning from the market. Here and elsewhere, baptism symbolizes immersion, a complete ritualistic purification prior to an action that requires particular holiness[4]. Another example is used by Jesus again by Mark in 10:38-39. When the James and John ask for a seat next to Him in glory Jesus responds with, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”[5] On the eve of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus is referring to the cup of God’s wrath He must drink for sin or the complete drowning, immersion into death He must face on their behalf. But by Christ first taking the entire cup and entering into His baptism of death and resurrection into new life, they will soon follow with Him in union (10:39).

Most importantly, you cannot separate the term from its use in Paul’s context, he takes a word that is used to describe Jewish and pagan cleansing rituals and gives it a uniquely Christian meaning. Howard Marshall goes more in depth in what the use of this term implies, “βαπτίζω does not mean simply to dip in water (or even to sprinkle with water) but rather to carry out a specific rite involving such an action with water and with a religious significance.”[6] The term must be understood in its religious use and the significance with which the users understand it. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery brings in cultural clarification on Paul’s use of “baptism” to his audience. “Because water rituals were more common in antiquity then they are today, ancient people would have understood the symbolism of baptism more readily than most modern readers do.” They also confirm that ceremonial washings, initiation and purification rights were common in the New Testament era, even among many Greek temples and societies. None were more meticulous than Paul’s Jewish contemporaries. “Ceremonial washing became part of the Jewish piety in the Hellenistic period, and in the two centuries before the time of Jesus, Jewish people were immersing themselves at appropriate times,” as well as a ceremonial “baptism administered to Gentiles when they wished to convert to Judaism and wash away their former impurity.”[7]

It is therefore evident that this term would strike a chord with Jews and Greeks, especially in reference to ceremonial cleansing, religious preparation and conversion. Paul always chooses his terminology intentionally and they cannot be separated from his application of them. The use of water itself is also symbolic, and Paul’s original audience would be drawn to the cleansing element of the Christian experience. Throughout Scripture water signifies life-giving renewal for life or purification in order to live pleasing to God. The life-giving and cleansing implications to the Christian’s application of the sacrament are paramount to understanding its significance and determining its method and recipients. Peter says that baptism corresponds to Noah as salvation through water (1 Pet. 3:21). Baptism is not referring to a partial cleansing, but a complete salvific purification. Sin mars the entire human condition, those who are dirty must wash, those who are united with Christ are completely washed, holy and spiritually renewed as in Eph. 5:25-27, and Tit. 3:4-6. However, we must also mention that the sacrament has no power in itself, the external practice is subordinate to the internal reality that it represents. The baptism of the Spirit (Jn. 3:5) is a spiritual indication of the work of God in His kingdom, not directed by human action. Therefore, the sacrament of baptism is symbolic only, it does not forgive sins, guarantee salvation nor is it a requirement for salvation, and is not validated or invalidated by the one administering it.

It is striking that Paul begins his challenges to the church in 1 Corinthians with baptism, the only time he applies it directly to the sacrament. 1 Cor. 1:10-17 is the only time Paul teaches on the practice of the sacrament in the church, every other usage is purely theological. For a congregation rife with pastoral concerns, he identifies baptism as a primary issue of division, which should be a call for unity.  In appealing to baptism as a source of unity in the Lord Jesus Christ, he promotes his gospel proclamation as primary and minimizes his baptismal administration (1:17). As Paul goes to show in the remainder of the chapter, he is chiefly concerned with proclaiming the power of the cross for salvation. How would Paul address our current quarrels over baptism?

Exegesis of Colossians 2:12

In order to limit the scope of this post in light of our study in Colossians I will primarily expand on Col. 2:12. The first thing we must do is put this verse in its proper context within the book. Paul’s concern in Colossae is that false teachers are trying to take away from the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ and the fullness the saints have in Him (2:1-4). The section on fullness and union with Christ (2:9-15) is in direct contrast to the warning against man-made philosophies and traditions before (2:8) and the warning against legalism and ascetism that follows (2:16-23). Understanding the placement of verse 12 helps recognize the spiritual reality and positive benefits of union with Christ against worldly additions and negative distractions from the false teachers.

We must also notice the verbs in the union with Christ section (2:10-15), the Colossian Christians have “been filled in him,” (2:10, perfect, passive participle in the Greek) which is a completed act done to you with ongoing affects. All the rest of the verbs (2:11-15) are past-tense, completed action by God (aorist), speaking of current realities that the saints enjoy now (1:26). Furthermore, the entire letter is written to saints (1:2), commended for the faith (1:4, 2:5), reconciled by Christ (1:22) in consistent past-tense, completed language. So why does the technical nature of the verbs matter? We must interpret verse 12 and apply it based on the purpose of the writer. Paul’s concern is not to place any emphasis on the external acts of circumcision and baptism like those who offer a gospel of human tradition, but to associate these external signs to spiritual realities accomplished by God. These signs describe new life in Christ, are synonymous with conversion and regeneration and are to encourage assurance to the saints which cannot be ignored in our application. Paul’s argument is that neither the act of circumcision nor baptism is the point, the point is the reality of the security of the gospel for the saints.

There is continuity and discontinuity between circumcision in v. 11 and baptism in v. 12, both external signs speak of spiritual realities “made without hands”, neither the act of circumcision nor baptism have any efficacy in themselves. Both show aspects of new life in Christ possessed by the believer, a setting apart in circumcision and a burying and raising in baptism. The discontinuity comes in understanding the two metaphors that are complimentary but not identical. Circumcision was a covenant sign for Israel, signifying a cutting off of flesh, and a holiness that distinguished them from the pagan nations that lived according to the flesh. It is clear that circumcision did not represent salvation but separation, many of the circumcised perished because there was still a circumcision of the heart needed, that God must perform (Dt. 30:6). Paul defines this circumcision of Christ in Phil. 3:3, as those united to Christ by the Spirit who put off the entire flesh, with no confidence in it, this is what it means to truly be holy.

Baptism on the other hand, as we’ve seen earlier is a metaphor associated with drowning and purifying and a more complete sign. Paul’s contribution is adding the analogy of death and resurrection to deepen its’ meaning (2:12).  This is exemplified by the Christian having been buried with Christ, who truly died to conquer sin and death, and resurrected with Him in new life through faith (also see Rom. 6:3-14). The gospel implications of already having been associated with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection in baptism speaks to the current state of regenerated saints. I believe what Paul is speaking about here is the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 1:33). The external act of baptism is meant to declare the internal act of the Holy Spirit who resurrects the dead person (Eph. 2:1) and regenerates their hearts through a renewing wash (Tit. 3:5-6). The person has died with Christ in order to live a renewed life in Christ.

Those who have been buried in baptism are also “raised with Him through faith”. Baptism in Paul cannot be disassociated from the faith of the one baptized and has no meaning apart from being raised to new life by your Lord and united to Him (Eph. 4:5). Faith, union with Christ and baptism are inextricably linked to Paul, Galatians 3:26-27 says, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” That faith also cannot be separated from the “powerful working of God”, that same power that raised Jesus from dead raises the saints from our spiritual grave. Just like Christ’s death is meaningless without His resurrection, the baptism metaphor is meaningless without our true resurrection in Him. The rest of that section (2:13-15) speaks of the complete accomplished reality of union with Christ that is represented in the sign of baptism: being made alive together with Christ, trespasses forgiven, cancelling the record of debt and its legal demands, which are nailed to cross, and finally “disarming the rulers and authorities… by triumphing over them in him.”

Our Position on Baptism

At Grace Fellowship we approach baptism the way we do, not based on any historical precedent, denominational edict or human tradition but rather biblical intent as well as we can faithfully determine. According to Scripture, the metaphor of baptism is a visual representation of a current reality, of union with Christ by the Holy Spirit in faith through a spiritual death and resurrection, and Col. 2:12 bears that out in agreement with the clearest New Testament witness. In Paul’s theology, how you understand baptism is linked to how you understand salvation, faith, union with Christ, death and new life in the Spirit. We believe the term baptism is most accurately applied to the regenerate, who have been washed by the Spirit and united together in Christ through faith, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). True baptism is an act of God that unites us together by making us drinkers of the Spirit. Our application of the sacrament reflects what we gather from the canonical witness, and we seek to faithfully follow that pattern.

From the beginning of the church, baptism is associated with repentance and belief evidenced by the work of the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts exemplifies this pattern, which we follow, beginning in 2:38-41. (Although we do not believe all the practices in Acts are normative, the theological connections to these practices are still instructive to us.) Peter responds to the conviction of the people in verse 37 with a call to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins in v. 38, which is connected to reception of the Holy Spirit. Those who were baptized by the Spirit were baptized by water in v. 41. This promise of repentance and forgiveness through the Holy Spirit is given to everyone, not only this generation or nation “for you and for your children and for all who are far off” according to election and an effectual call, “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (2:39). Also, this process is worked out in more detail in Chapter 10. Peter is sent to “those who are far off” and preaches the gospel to the Gentiles (10:34-43), closing with the same promise as Ch. 2: those who believe will receive forgiveness of sins (10:43). The Holy Spirit evidences their belief (10:44-46), and Peter’s question in v. 47 is especially telling for our purposes, “can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Spirit, just as we have?” Peter expects that baptism would be withheld without the faith of those to whom they apply the sacrament, this faith is evidenced by the work of the Spirit.

First, we believe it is most faithful to apply baptism only to professing believers who show evidence of regeneration and new life in Christ and confess as Paul does. The means of baptism (who it is applied to) must be as closely associated with its meaning as possible. How can we discern the one who confesses? As best as Paul can, baptism in Rom. 6 applies to those who have been justified by faith (5:1) and will have a desire to no longer sin (6:1-2) as well as walk in newness of life (6:4), living as those who have been brought from death to life (6:11-14). Therefore, we will look beyond a spontaneous testimony and require further evidence of faith, over time, through testing and discipleship, and the working out of the life in the Spirit described in Rom. 8. Because our discernment is imperfect, if they have confessed, been examined, lived among the body, are baptized and still fall away, their heart has condemned them as crucifying Christ again (Heb. 6:4-6) and our consciences are clear.

Secondly, we will practice the mode of immersion since the act of completely being covered with water symbolizes completely dying to sin, being covered by the washing of regeneration and resurrected to new life in Christ. Like the purification rites for specific tasks in Paul’s day, we are purified the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5) before following and serving Christ. While the water itself is the primary symbol, the immersive element shows our drowning and dying, which must happen prior to rising and living. Just like the Pharisees did not just sprinkle their dishes to cleanse them, and Christ did not just sprinkle Himself with the wrath of God on our behalf; praise the Lord we are not just sprinkled with Christ, we are fully and wholly baptized into Him! Every time we baptize someone, we are proclaiming the gospel, the death of Christ and His resurrection to new life through the Spirit, confidently applied to them in faith.

Thirdly, our application of baptism coincides with and supports our covenant theology. God made many covenants with Israel for specific times and purposes. The covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:1-7) contained physical promises for offspring and land with a physical sign of circumcision to separate Israel from the nations (Gen. 17:1-14). But as we’ve already seen physical circumcision and outward signs were not good enough to save, an inward circumcision of the heart is needed (Rom. 2:28-29s). Yet the promises are still true to the spiritual children of Abraham through baptism into Christ (Gal. 3:27-29). The Jews broke this covenant and the covenant of Moses, which consisted of the laws, statutes and commandments of the Lord (Dt. 5:1-4). The book of Hebrews is about the fullness of Christ and new covenant completion in Him. Because these covenants were shadows of heavenly things, Moses mediated over a faulty covenant with a faulty mediator, a better covenant and Mediator were needed (Heb. 8:5-7). Christ is the Mediator of that new and better covenant (7:22, 8:6) prophesied in Jer. 31:31-34. This new covenant is not like the one with their fathers: that they broke (Jer. 31:33). God will definitively enforce this new covenant with His law on their hearts and minds, those in it will all know Him, and He will remember their sins no more (Heb. 8:8-12). Christ makes the old covenant obsolete (8:13) for a better one that cannot be broken (Jer. 33:20-21).

The better covenant: is in the blood of Christ (Lk. 22:20), which we believe perfectly atones for the elect; will be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Acts 3:25); “will banish ungodliness from Jacob; and… take away their sins” (Rom. 11:26-27); made Gentiles sufficient to be its ministers through Christ, “not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:4-6); is a covenant of freedom for everyone in it (Gal. 4:21-31); bringing near those who are far off making one man, united in Him (Eph. 2:11-18); means the promised eternal inheritance to whoever is called to it, sealed and inaugurated by the mediatorial blood of Christ (Heb. 9:15-28); brings those in it to a citizenship in Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:24). That is a better covenant on better promises because they are accomplished by Christ and can never be broken! If baptism is indeed a new covenant sign it represents complete, immersive union with the Person and Work of Jesus Christ and all the spiritual blessings in Him, and we will apply it to those who confidently prove to be united to Him in this new and better covenant.

A brief note about why we do not practice infant baptism. Without rehashing the arguments in favor (of which I am very familiar and hope to represent fairly) I will briefly state several objections:

  • We see no biblical command to baptize infants, but disciples (Mt. 28:19),
  • Baptism without regeneration is lacking the symbolism of completed washing by the Spirit and death and resurrection with Christ by being immersed in Him,
  • Infants cannot express faith or union with Christ and cannot evidence the work of the Spirit,
  • We see no biblical precedent for the vicarious faith of a parent being applied to a child,
  • Union with Christ in baptism is not a potentiality it is an actuality,
  • Baptizing infants creates an unbiblical category of those “in the covenant” but not in Christ,
  • For the reasons stated above we do not believe circumcision and baptism are equal in their significance, application and covenant symbolism,
  • And the new covenant is enacted by the blood of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit for the elect who receive the sacraments upon evidence of regeneration.

It is also worth mentioning that while we disagree with our Reformed brothers who apply the sacrament to infants or practice sprinkling, we do not consider these views sinful and allow fellowship and freedom on this issue. However, we will not teach or practice against our consciences.

We believe it is clear in Paul that baptism is less about how or when it is administered, but what it stands for and the reality of gospel. Baptism is the reminder of the gospel inheritance that all believers share in faith, an essential element in the chain of connection to our God and Father in Eph. 4:4-6. Should we not also make this our primary concern? If Paul does not extend the effort to speak dogmatically then we can certainly show some grace as well. Shouldn’t our ultimate concern then be who is hidden in Christ through faith in his death, burial, resurrection (Rom. 6:3-11) and sealed with the Spirit (Eph. 1:13), above the continual mode and means debates? Our Savior calls for us to be unified four times in his high priestly prayer (John 17:11, 21, 22, 23), hopefully this historically divisive issue can be more uniting in the future, in favor of our greater eternal union with one another in Christ.

“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God”. 1 Cor. 6:11

 

In Christ,

 

Pastor Tim Iamaio

 

 

 

[1] Henry George Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 306.

[2] Ibid., 305.

[3] Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1974, 484

[4] Snyder, B. J. (2014). Baptism. D. Mangum, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, & R. Hurst (Eds.), Lexham Theological Wordbook. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mk 10:38. (All following quotations ESV as well)

[6] Howard Marshall, “The Meaning of the Verb “Baptize.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 234: “Dimensions of Baptism: Biblical and Theological Studies.” (London: Sheffield Academic, 2002), 8-9.

[7] Ryken, Wilhoit, Longman, “Baptism,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 73.