Baptism & Forgiveness, Part II

Some follow-up questions about baptism and forgiveness.  See Part I for the first installment of this article.

Matthew 3:11 “I baptize you with water for repentance…”- Could this be saying you receive repentance through baptism?

It could be saying this, but at least two things argue against such a reading.  First, repentance is typically something that the individual determines to do, not something that that the individual receives.  Salvation is received because the individual has repented, but to speak of receiving repentance would be nearly incomprehensible.  Second, as we see in the quote from Josephus I mentioned earlier, it is clear that everyone back then understood that the baptism took place in response to repentance, not as a means of it.  This also fits the normal usage of the terms in the New Testament.  The Greek term eis, here translated “for” (as in “…for repentance”) often has the meaning “in response to (cf. Mt. 12:41).

 Luke 1: 76,77  “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;  for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” They would use this to show through baptism your sins are forgiven since John came baptizing. I think you clarified this through your explanation about John’s “baptism of repentance” in the last email, but is there anything else in this verse that points to repentance rather than baptism?

 I actually don’t think that the text here even points to repentance per se.  The concept in view is the ministry of John as a herald of the coming King, announcing salvation which is spiritual rather than political.  Here, it is “salvation which is achieved through forgiveness” rather than “salvation which is achieved through military might”.  Neither baptism or even repentance is really a central concept.  This is merely an explication of the kind of salvation which is being announced.

 Matthew 3:16 “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” They use this to say you do not receive the Holy Spirit until you have been water baptized, since you can’t find anywhere that the Spirit was with Jesus beforehand…personally I think this is a weak argument, but am curious what you think.

 Yes, weak argument.  True the Spirit descended upon him at this moment, but this is not an arrival of the Spirit signaling salvation, since Jesus didn’t need to be saved.  Therefore, this is clearly not the same kind of thing as when a believer receives the Spirit.

 Mark 10:39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with,” Jesus here is referring to his death, and yet John didn’t partake in the same “baptism” unless it is referring to water baptism as noted in Romans 6 below.

 OK, but we have no record that John even experience water baptism either, do we?  (I can’t think of any indication that the disciples were baptized by Jesus).  John and the others may have been baptized by Jesus or even John the Baptist, but neither seems to be what’s in view.  Also, Jesus uses a present tense verb here rather than a past (“the baptism I was baptized with” which might have referred to his water baptism with JB) or a future (“the baptism I will be baptized with” which would probably indicate his physical death).  The use of the present tense means that this was something Jesus was experiencing at the moment he spoke the words, and possibly something that was ongoing in nature.  Given that, it’s obviously metaphorical to a great extent.  It might be death if we think that he was already experiencing the anguish of death that would culminate in his physical death, but that seems a bit thin.  In any event, I can’t see how this could be taken to be a reference to water baptism.

 Romans 6:3-5 “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” They say that it is literally a death like his because the passage says we’re buried into his death through baptism.

 I’m not quite sure I understand their reasoning here and don’t want to respond to a misunderstanding.  We certainly don’t experience the same kind of death.  His death was crucifixion and at least partly due to the pain and anguish he suffered when separated relationally from the Father (e.g. “Why have you forsaken me?”).  So, our death can’t be like his.  More importantly, the death for us in view is the death to sin (very evident from the larger context of the passage), so the death here is metaphorical.  I suppose you could argue that this metaphorical death to sin is accomplished by water baptism, but it’s not at all clear that the baptism here is the physical/water baptism.  It seems more likely that he’s using baptism in a figurative sense to indicate that our affiliation with Christ results in our death to sin and our resurrection to new life.  Baptism is frequently used in the NT with this obvious connotation and those verses can’t be used to argue for or against the necessity of water baptism…they’re simply speaking of a completely different kind of baptism.

 Acts 22:16  “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”-Romans 6 and this one are now the most confusing ones for me.

 Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what to make of this verse.  If this were the only statement in the Bible on the subject of baptism and forgiveness, I might be inclined to agree that baptism is necessary for forgiveness.  However, there are numerous other statements which seem to clearly refute the idea that baptism is necessary for forgiveness,  so the larger witness of Scripture guides my thinking about this verse.  Given that, the grammar of this verse is interesting.  Literally it’s “Arising, be baptized and wash away your sins calling on his name”  There are four verbs here.  The first is a participle, the second and third are imperatives and the fourth is another participle.  Participles in Koine Greek are pretty complex things and can have a number of different meanings.  In this case, it appears that the participle is functioning adverbially, indicating the circumstances which accompany the action.  So here it would be “arising, be baptized” and “calling upon his name, wash away your sins”  The position of the participles at the beginning and ending like that make it very unlikely that either participle is supposed to accompany both imperatives, so it’s not “arising and calling, be baptized and wash away your sins”.  Consequently, the sentence structure seems to associate the washing away of sins with the calling upon the name of Jesus (which would make a great deal of sense theologically) and the arising with the baptizing (which again makes sense since you can’t be baptized while seated on the land). 

 It’s also interesting here that the verb for baptize is in the middle voice, which is typically used to say “do this to yourself” (here it would be “baptize yourself”).  I’m not aware of any other instances in which baptizo is presented in the middle voice.  Of course, there are only two instances in which it occurs as an imperative (command)…here and in Acts 2:38 where it occurs in the expected passive voice (i.e. “have this be done to you”).  While most translations opt to translate the middle voice in Acts 22:16 as a passive, (i.e. “be baptized”) that’s not what it actually says in the Greek.  But I have no idea why it would be in the passive voice.  The literal translation would have Ananias telling Paul to baptize himself.  I don’t know what that means.  Did Ananias not want to baptize him?  Is it allowable for one to baptize oneself?  Possibly…but all of that’s to say that this strikes me as a rather odd verse and I’m very reluctant to build much in the way of doctrine off a verse that presents so many interpretive difficulties.