In a day when the place and importance of water baptism in the church is being minimized by those who assert that it has been superseded by a baptism supposedly performed by the Holy Spirit, by virtue of which every believer is placed in the body of Christ, it might be profitable to devote some time to a study of this important issue. The study of water baptism must properly begin with a consideration of John the Baptist who introduced it, at least as far as the Biblical record is concerned. Learned dissertations have been written to try to prove that the Jews were accustomed to baptize proselytes as an initiatory rite, but proof for such a thesis has been singularly lacking. Note the following:
"The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of
'There was a man sent from God, whose name was John."
These and other passages seem to indicate that the water baptism performed by John was not merely his adaptation of an existing Jewish rite, but something totally new which he had been specifically sent to do. Certainly there was no O.T. precedent for water baptism. To obtain the proper view of water baptism then, we must consider the ministry of John, the Baptist, and properly relate both him and his ministry to the age of grace.continued at top of next column
As we consider the reference to John, one fact stands out beyond dispute: John was a type or personification of the law. Note the supporting facts:
1. "For all the law and prophets prophesied until John."
2. "For John said unto him (Herod, concerning Herodias), It is not lawful for thee to have her."
3. "For John came unto you in the way of righteousness..."
4. His message was one of unrelieved judgment.
5. There is no record that he baptized any but Jews.
"Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law ..."
6. John's disciples were very zealous concerning the law.
7. John's ministry had its effect upon the law-breakers, but not upon the self-righteous. "For John came unto you in the way of righteousness and ye believed him not, but the publicans and harlots believed him."
8. John was the forerunner of Christ as law was the forerunner of grace.
9. He was to prepare a people for the coming of the Lord, as law prepares them for the coming of grace.
10. John made two statements contrasting himself with Christ which are equally true of the contrast between law and grace:
"He must increase, but I must decrease."
"There cometh one mightier than I after me..."
Cf. Romans 8:3: "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh,..."
11. But it was in the act of baptism that John appeared most clearly as the representative of the law. When men and women came to him in Jordan confessing their sins, he did symbolically just what the law prescribed should be done to a law-breaker - he put them to death!
Water baptism, then; is a symbolic execution of the law
upon the confessed sinner, but being only symbolic it has no
power to terminate his guilt. However, when the confessed
sinner realizes that Christ has taken his place under the
judgment of God, baptism then becomes to him not merely a
symbol that the law is being executed upon him, but also an
identification with Christ in His death. So then in baptism the
repentant sinner is symbolically taking his place with Christ
under the judgment of God.
This view of baptism as being on one hand the execution of the law upon a confessed sinner, and on the other his identification with Christ in His death, brings into sharper focus the meanings of several N.T. passages dealing with baptism. For example, Romans 6:3-4 becomes more meaningful when viewed in this light:
"Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into (or unto - Greek eis) Jesus Christ were baptized into (or unto) his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life."
Gal. 3:27, and Col .2:12 are similarly clarified, at least in the writer's mind. This view of baptism is perhaps best illustrated by the words of Paul in Gal. 2:20:
"I am crucified with Christ: Nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me."
It is as though the believer and Christ have switched places in
the grave. Of course, this substitution does not actually take
place in baptism. The baptism is merely an illustration of a
substitution that has already taken place.
Thus far we have considered only one-half of the baptismal act: that of plunging the confessed sinner beneath the water, symbolic of the execution of the law upon him. After being put beneath the water, however, the subject was then raised, and to properly consider this raising we must leave the realm of law and look to grace. The law made no provision for raising an executed sinner to life again - such a provision is pure grace. Thus it appears that John was a double type and of two concepts which are diametrically opposed to each other. As the type or representative of the law, John symbolically overwhelmed the confessed sinner in a watery grave; but as the representative of grace he raised him, as it were, to a newness of life - for the old life had been symbolically terminated in the water. Now, it may be doubted that John would be sent as a representative both of law and of grace: yet a thoughtful consideration of the matter will convince any unbiased reader that not only was John an exponent of both law and grace, but that every minister of the gospel is charged with the same double function today. The two-fold message that the Christian minister must proclaim is well summed up by Paul in Romans 6:23:
"For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord."
The minister of the Gospel must first lay a foundation of judgment, based on the law, before sinners will be interested in the offer of pardon by grace. No one is interested in a way of escape, until he has been convinced that there is something to escape from! So, the Christian minister must stand today squarely in the footsteps of John, the Baptist; on one hand invoking and upholding the severity of the law's penalty: "The soul that sinneth, it shall die", Ezek. 18:4b; and, on the other hand pointing to the only way of escape:
" ... the lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world."
"For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ in them that are saved and in them that perish. To the one, we are the savour of death unto death, and to the other, the savour of life unto life;
II Cor. 2:15-16.