Baptism has been a problematic doctrine for centuries. Everything from changes in the mode to changes of the purpose of baptism has become part of Catholic and Denominational doctrine. Sprinkling, pouring, immersion as a symbol, have been contentious issues for a very, very long time.
It’s not because the Bible is unclear about the mode and purpose of baptism. It is one of the clearest teachings of the Bible. The problems people have on the doctrine of baptism comes from their preconceived notions, not what the Bible actually says. Rather than admit their preconceived notions are wrong they attempt to change what the Bible says about it. It is the same problem people have with many biblical teachings. We cannot come to a full appreciation and acceptance of the truth of God’s word until we are willing to throw out all of our preconceived notions on anything we are studying.
Unfortunately, even among those that acknowledge the problems with denominational views on baptism, there remains a limited view and application of biblical teaching on the issue. For most, it seems, the only concern for whether a person’s baptism was Scriptural or not is whether they understood it to be immersion for the remission of sins or not. That is, if a person understood that they were being immersed for the remission of sins then their baptism was doctrinally correct (i.e. Scriptural). But is that all the Bible has to say on the issue of New Testament baptism? No, it isn’t.
There is much, much more to the doctrine of New Testament baptism than that it is immersion for the remission of sins. It is also true that the more a person studies about baptism the more they will appreciate the fullness and great depth of meaning in what actually happens when a person is baptized into Christ. My own understanding of baptism is much fuller now, 20 years after the fact, than it was when I was baptized. So, please don’t think that I am saying a person must understand everything there is to know about baptism. I wouldn’t even say that I, after 20 years of biblical study, understand everything there is to know about baptism. But when it comes to what a person must know when they are baptized, all we need to do is look at the biblical examples of what prospective converts were taught. When we do that we will see that they knew much more than that they were being immersed for the remission of sins.
Let’s look at the first example of people being commanded to be baptized for the remission of sins in Acts 2:38. First of all, there was a great deal of teaching that took place (Acts 2:14-36). They were taught that the events of that day were the fulfillment of Scripture (Acts 2:14-21; Joel 2:28-32). They were taught that these things confirmed that the kingdom of Christ had come (Acts 2:22-36). The emphasis of Peter’s sermon on Pentecost is Christ as King, the fulfillment of God’s promise to David (Acts 2:29, 30, 34, 35). So, when those in the audience asked the question, “what shall we do?” they knew they were asking what they had to do in response to Jesus being the reigning King of God’s people. What more Peter might have told them after this initial response in Acts 2:38, 39, we are not told. We just know that “with many other words he testified and exhorted them” to be saved (Acts 2:40). When it says in Acts 2:41 that “about three thousand souls were added,” there is absolutely no doubt that they knew they were being added to the Kingdom of Christ, the church of Christ (cf. Acts 2:47; Col. 1:13). Obviously, they knew more than that they were being immersed for the remission of sins. They knew they were being immersed for the remission of sins to be saved by the sacrifice of Christ and to be added to His church.
The actual sermons of the examples in Acts 8 are not as detailed as that of Acts 2 but it is still very clear that the audience understood much more than simply immersion for the remission of sins. When Philip went down to Samaria it just says that he “preached Christ to them” (Acts 8:5). In Acts 8:12, it gives a little more detail saying he “preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” Later in the chapter, when Philip preaches to the Ethiopian eunuch, it again simply states that Philip “preached Jesus to him” (Acts 8:35). It is obvious that Philip taught him about baptism (so “preaching Jesus” would include teaching someone about baptism) because in the very next verse the eunuch wanted to be baptized. Do you suppose that Philip told the eunuch that Isaiah was talking about Jesus so now you need to “get baptized for the remission of sins”? Or do you think there was more to it than that? I have no doubt that Philip took the time to explain to the eunuch that Jesus came to give His life for our salvation, and that having died for our sins God raised Him up to sit on the throne of rule over God’s people, and because Jesus now reigns over His kingdom from heaven that we must be immersed into Him to have our sins washed away and become newly born citizens of His kingdom.
I have no idea how long Philip was in the chariot with the eunuch but I do know from experience that it doesn’t take that long to teach a receptive hearer everything I believe Philip taught the eunuch (cf. Acts 8:12, things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ). I also have no idea what became of the eunuch after he went on his way rejoicing (Acts 8:39). I do know from other examples, including this very chapter, that the apostles made it a point to seek out new converts to impart spiritual gifts (cf. Acts 8:14, 15; Rom. 1:11). I also know that the early church relied on these spiritual gifts, prior to the completion of the word, for “the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). The indication I got from one preacher in a recent discussion was that he believed the eunuch just went away not knowing anything other than that he had been baptized for the remission of sins. I supposed he thinks that the eunuch went away as an immersed Jew to continue the practice of Judaism. How absolutely absurd!
In Peter’s first sermon to a Gentile audience, there is a Kingdom element to his message. He taught Christ as “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). He presented Jesus as the Anointed One of God (Acts 10:38). He taught them about the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Acts 10:39f). He taught them that Jesus will be the Judge of all (Acts 10:42). He taught them that remission of sins is only available in Christ (Acts 10:43). So, when they were baptized (Acts 10:48), they obviously knew much more than just baptism for the remission of sins.
In Paul’s first recorded sermon, in Acts 13:16-41, there is a very clear Kingdom emphasis. He taught them that Jesus was the fulfillment of all the promises God had made for a coming Messiah – Prophet, Priest, and King. The Gentiles there were taught the same thing (Acts 13:42). So, obviously, those who obeyed the gospel in that place knew much more than just baptism for the remission of sins.
Notice how the preaching of the apostles and evangelists is commonly described in Acts. After the resurrection, Jesus spoke of “things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Philip “preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:12). Paul spoke boldly in the synagogues “reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). Paul said that he had preached “the kingdom of God” (Acts 20:25). Paul “testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets” (Acts 28:23). The last statement of the book of Acts refers to Paul “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31). From Acts 1:3 to Acts 28:31, we have the account of how the church spread from Jerusalem to Rome through the preaching of the kingdom of God. So, where would be the example of anyone ever being baptized for the remission of sins without knowing that they were becoming citizens of God’s kingdom?
Despite this very clear pattern of preaching and teaching from Acts, there are many that believe as long as a person was baptized for the remission of sins they were Scripturally baptized and became a Christian. That is to say, they were born again (Rom. 6:3, 4), they became a saved person (1 Pet. 3:21). According to that thinking, any person that believes they were being baptized to receive the remission of sins from Christ’s sacrifice did, indeed, become a saved person. There are many Pentecostal denominations that teach baptism for the remission of sins in the name of Jesus. The Apostolic Church denomination teaches baptism for the remission of sins in the name of Jesus. There are sects of Baptists that teach baptism for the remission of sins in the name of Jesus. I’m sure there are many “non-denominational” churches that teach baptism for the remission of sins in the name of Jesus.
Let me see if I can reason out how that would work. A person is baptized for the remission of sins in the Apostolic church, for example. According to the view of anyone being baptized for the remission of sins in Jesus name being a saved person, the above person would be saved at the point of his baptism. Would he still be a saved person when he continued in the Apostolic church? Would he still be a saved person believing that the teaching of the Apostolic Church is the true expression of New Testament Christianity? If not, then does that mean that the Lord added that person to His church while that person believed the Apostolic church was the Lord’s church? Is there an example in the Bible of someone being taught wrong and saved right? If so, please show me!
When I say that a person cannot be Scripturally baptized in a denomination, I am absolutely NOT talking about the building or person doing the baptizing being a denominational building or person. I’m talking about the teaching and understanding of the person being baptized. It makes no difference at all if a person is being baptized for the remission of sins in the name of Jesus if they don’t know the truth about the kingdom of God – the church of Christ – when they are baptized.
The purpose of baptism is much more than just the remission of sins. I hate to say just the remission of sins because it sounds like I’m lessening the importance and magnificence of that fact. But there is more to baptism than that. Baptism is also the point at which we become children of God in Christ (Galatians 3:26, 27). It is also the point at which we begin our new life, the point of our new birth, in Christ (Romans 6:3, 4). It is also the point at which we become citizens of the kingdom of God (Acts 2:41, 47; Col. 1:13). So, please explain to me how a person could be added to the kingdom of Christ and not know it? Or how a person could become a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven when they believe that denominationalism is the expression of that kingdom?
It seems to me that those holding such a view have forgotten the first thing required in the process of conversion. That is, to hear the word of God (Rom. 10:17). If a person believes they can be New Testament Christians in a denomination, then they haven’t heard the word of God! Any more so than those Jewish converts that believed the expression of New Testament Christianity was in the continued practice of Judaism. Nearly everything that is said in the Epistles about the necessity of turning from Judaism finds principle application today in the necessity to turn from man-made denominationalism.
I look forward to your feedback on this important issue.