Saturday, September 11, 2010

Baptismal Regeneration

The first century Jewish historian, Josephus (37 – c. 100 AD), a law-observing Jew, said of John the Baptist,

"John, that was called the Baptist…who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness." -Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.2

John’s water baptism was, according to this first-century historian, not for the forgiveness of sin. Baptism did not purify the soul but was an outward sign for those whose souls were already purified. Baptism was a sign or symbol of a work already done in the soul of the recipient of John’s baptism.

Many Protestant church historians believe that the doctrine of Baptism was one of the first to drift from that of Historical Orthodoxy. This was probably due to the fact that attention was directed toward other doctrinal issues and, through neglect, the doctrine of baptism fell into error. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, ch.7, part 92, notes that the early church fathers did not have a refined understanding of original sin. This led church fathers to say such things as:

“According to the Pelagian Julian of Eclanum, Chrysostom taught: We baptize children, though they are not stained with sin, in order that holiness, righteousness, sonship, inheritance, and brotherhood may be imparted to them through Christ.”[1]

The lack of controversy in the early church over the issue of baptism (controversy often led to a clearer understanding through examination and debate of a doctrine and the reasons for it) allowed a mishmash of beliefs and teachings about the purpose and work of baptism to develop.

Tertullian, in On Baptism 13, comes close to contradicting his fellows and agreeing with the Orthodox view. He said that Abraham was saved, apart from any baptismal waters, by faith alone. This would certainly be the nail in the coffin of those holding to baptismal regeneration because the very author of Galatians, Paul, says the example of our “faith alone” Christianity is Abraham. If it is true, as Tertullian wrote and as Paul teaches in Romans and Galatians, that we are justified in Christ apart from works, this would logically include the work of baptism. After all, baptism is not a “non-work” but a work, is it not?

Baptismal regeneration belief ran strongly into the Middle Ages. Christian missionaries traveled extensively throughout Europe baptizing hordes in mass baptism ceremonies. But, as was frequently the sad story, these so-called converts would revert rather quickly to their pagan ways as the missionaries were “walking out the back door.”

In the year 597, Augustine of Canterbury, along with 41 fellow missionaries, landed on the island of Thanet, where the king received them. Baptisms to the tune of 10,000 converts in one day were reported. Vast numbers of these alleged converts were said to quickly revert to worshipping their pagan gods. The Kent king himself, Eadbald, was said to have been one of those who quickly apostatized.[2] Water baptism seemed to have availed a whole lot of nothing.

Water baptism offered the barbaric Anglo-Saxons a chance at a bath but nothing much more than that. They were baptized as pagans and came up out of the waters as pagans. A spiritual rebirth, a regeneration, did not occur as spelled out in Ezekiel 36:25-27:

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will be careful to observe my ordinances.”

And, though this experiential evidence shows a lack of changed lives that the waters of baptism could not impart, the ultimate test is to what do the pages of Scripture attest?

Signs of the covenants with God never bring anyone into the Kingdom of God. In the Old Testament, the sign of an individual’s covenantal relationship with God, circumcision, could not save any one. Jeremiah 4:4 and 9:25-26 are two texts of Scripture in which the author makes distinctions and comparisons between physical circumcision of the flesh and “foreskins of your heart.”[3] The author uses language like “circumcised and yet uncircumcised”[4] and “uncircumcised of heart[5] to show that the sign of the covenant, circumcision, did not mean that all who had received the sign were truly of the circumcision. In other words, you could not enter the Kingdom of God because you had the sign of the covenant. You had to be “circumcised of the heart.”

In the New Testament, Paul uses this same reasoning and language:

“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”[6] (Emphasis mine)

In fact, the Apostle Paul makes the argument from Romans 2 – 8 that no man can be saved by the works of the law (any law) but only by faith. By faith, righteousness is credited to man’s account with God and not by any work. If receiving the sign of the Old Covenant, circumcision, cannot save, why do some within the New Covenant think that the sign of one’s membership in this covenant, baptism, can save?

Perhaps in the “baptismal regeneration” camp there have been those who did not understand that no matter how badly they want to see water when they see the word “baptism,” it isn’t always so. The word baptism can mean different things depending on the immediate and remote context in which the word appears.

If I were to tell you, “After kicking the red ball in the yard, I went into my house and told my wife that we had to go to a ball at eight o’clock. On the way home from that ball, I told my wife I had a ball at this ball with all the exciting music we danced to.”

The word “ball” in the above example would not mean the same thing in each instance. The context is what defines the word “ball” and how it is used. In the first instance, it means a round-shaped toy that can be kicked or thrown about; in the second and third usages, it mean a “dancing event;” in the fourth instance, it means, “I had a good time;” the fifth usage was, again, “the dancing event.”

The Scripture examples abound where baptism can mean something other than something involving water. John the Baptist himself used baptism in two different senses in the same paragraph:

“As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fir to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”[7] (Emphasis mine)

Many within the groups who advocate the Baptismal Regeneration doctrine point to Paul’s letter to the Galatians (3:27) as a proof text for salvation by the work of water baptism. (The inherent problem with offering “a verse” of Scripture as a proof of an entire doctrinal system is that it rarely works. No one gets it right, as is seen in this case). The immediate and remote context of Scripture is radically ignored, and preconceived ideas end up being forced upon the texts of Scripture.

"...for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ."[8]

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was one correcting a grave problem. The immediate context (the entire letter.) was one in which Paul was reproving the Galatians for abandoning the one and only Gospel (the Truth) and turning to a fraudulent one that mixed Grace with works and thus could not justify them before God. The content of this fraudulent gospel was one in which circumcision was required to enter into a relationship with God through the Messiah. This was false; it wrought not righteousness, without which no man shall see God, but only death. The overall point of the letter in which Galatians 3:27 appears is that Grace plus works equals death. From justification to sanctification, beginning in the faith and being completed in the faith, always has been and will forever be by faith in Christ alone. Why, then, would the great Apostle reverse his reasoning and add baptism as a requirement for eternal life? He wouldn’t.

Paul used “baptism” in a “non-water” sense in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, referring to being baptized “into Moses.”

“For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea…"

In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul again uses “baptism” in a “non-water” sense:

"For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit."

No water is in view in these texts in their immediate and remote contexts. So, what do these verses mean, including Galatians 3:27, if they do not refer to being immersed in water?

The word “baptize” in the Greek text comes from the “dyer’s trade.” When someone wanted to change the color of a piece of white cloth, he or she would go to the man or woman in the village who had vats of colored dyes. The customer would request a specific color and the dyer would then dip, submerge, immerse, or baptize the cloth into the desired color. When the cloth was removed and dried, the cloth would have changed. The color of the cloth would now be identified or be in union with the color into which it was baptized.

“Union with” is what is in view in Paul’s use of the word in I Corinthians 10: 1-2. Paul uses comparative language to show the similarity and the same sense of the word “identification.” The Jews went through the redemption of the Exodus by their “union” with Moses. They were “identified” with him in the deliverance. In the same sense, all Christians are baptized into Christ in union or identification with His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension (See Romans 6 and Colossians 3).

In the 1 Corinthians 12:13 text, Paul is referring to yet another use of the word baptism. This usage refers to the agency of the Holy Spirit whereby all believers are placed (incorporated) into the Body of Christ. The act of water baptism is a great symbolic sign that teaches the baptism of the Holy Spirit, that act of placing into the Body of Christ or New Covenant the believer.

In Galatians 3:27, as I wrote previously, there is no mention of water. This text does not teach a baptismal regeneration in the waters of baptism. What this text does teach is that through the God-given gift of faith, we are justified apart from the works of the law or from works, period! The word “baptism” here means we are united in the likeness of the Person and Work of Christ. We are not miniature Christs. We are identified as having been placed in Him and having put Him on. We’ve been placed into the dyer’s vat and have come out changed and clothed with His righteousness. A careful reading of Romans 6, written by the same Apostle Paul, in my view, defines the Galatians 2:27 text.

A very interesting point is that if this is teaching the possibility of salvation through the waters of baptism, if through the baptismal waters one could be regenerated, born again, then why did John the Baptist refuse to baptize the Pharisees? If baptism could save one soul from hell-fire damnation, then why didn’t John line up the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to where he was baptizing and push them into the water?

Instead, John said to them:

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance…”[9]

The conclusion is that water baptism does not regenerate anyone. Regeneration and repentance precedes water baptism.

[1] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, ch.7, part 92

[2] SOURCE: J.H. Merle d'Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, trans. Dr. H. White, Vol. V (Rapidan, VA: Harland Publications, reprinted 1846 London edition), pp. 683, 685.

[3] Jeremiah 4:4, 9:25-26

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Romans 2:28-29

[7] Matthew 3:1-11; See also Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33

[8] Galatians 3:27 (NIV)

[9] Matthew 3:7-8