Six Problem Passages for Water Baptism:
1. Mark 7:4 – “and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse [literally sprinkle] themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing [literally baptizing] of cups and pitchers and copper pots.)”
Western and Syrian manuscripts add “couches” at the end of the sentence (A.T. Robertson). For those who don’t immerse, they ask, “How would the Pharisees go about submerging “couches or beds” in their ceremonial washing? (Leviticus 15:20)” You would need a large body of water like a pool or river. So, this passage seems to permit a mode of baptism to be sprinkling or pouring. The Mishnah (the first part of the Talmud) devotes 30 chapters to the purification of vessels.
There is allowance to dismantle the beds in order to immerse and purify them. So, in Jesus’ day, these beds were constructed in a way to dismantle them when needed. Strong’s Systematic Theology is accurate when he says that every use of the word baptism in the Bible requires or allows the meaning “to immerse.”
2. Mark 16:16 – “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.”
At first glance it appears that baptism is necessary for salvation, but notice it does not say, “he would does not believe and is not baptized will be condemned.” The issue is FAITH, not baptism. The thing that condemns a person is not the lack of baptism but the lack of faith.
Why does Mark tie baptism to salvation? He is stressing the importance of baptism, which is a part of the Great Commission. A church history professor once told me, “Baptism doesn’t save anyone, but how can you be saved without it?” When we are truly saved, we will WANT to follow Jesus is believer’s baptism. If we refuse, we should question that person’s conversion.
In the rest of the NT, baptism is clearly not a part of the gospel. Paul makes this very clear in 1 Corinthians 1:17. If baptism was necessary for salvation, Paul would have been more earnest in communicating that teaching. If it were necessary, 1 Corinthians 1:14 makes no sense.
Charles Ryrie states: “The original ending of Mark’s Gospel is the subject of much debate. It is doubtful that what we designate as Mark 16:16 was part of the genuine close of the Gospel. At best, it would be unwise to base any doctrine on the content of Mark 16:9–20. However, it is also possible that if Mark 16:16 is a part of the inspired text that the reference is to baptism of the Spirit. After all, the Lord would have spoken Mark 16:16 at almost the same time as He spoke Acts 1:5 concerning the imminent baptizing ministry of the Spirit.”
Norman Geisler states: “A basic principle of Bible interpretation is that difficult passages should be interpreted in light of the easy, clear verses. One should never build a theology on difficult passages. The clear verses indicate that one is saved by faith in Christ (e.g., John 3:16–17; Acts 16:31). In Mark 16:16 it is clear that it is unbelief that brings damnation, not a lack of being baptized: “he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” When a person rejects the gospel, refusing to believe it, that person is damned.”
3. John 3:5 – Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
John 3:5 does not teach baptismal regeneration. In fact, it is not even referring to Baptism. The point is that you must be born again (John 3:3). Nicodemus asks how can a man enter his mother’s womb and be born again (John 3:4). Then comes the born of water and of the Spirit (John 3:5). Jesus is simply stating that a man must be born of water (born physically), and goes on to say that this second birth is spiritual in nature. The teaching here is not that water baptism is necessary, but that physical birth is necessary! People must be born before they can be born again. John 3:6 confirms this interpretation.
4. Acts 2:38 – Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Many claim that one must be baptized to receive remission of or forgiveness of sins, but this is easily refuted when we look at the original words of the New Testament. There is a little preposition “eis” that is translated “for” has the casual force and should be translated, “on the basis of” or “because of.” That makes a big difference.
Casual force in English is like, “He was arrested for stealing,” is better understood as, “He was arrested on the basis of stealing.” He was arrested “in order that” he might steal, makes no sense. If someone is commended for bravery, it is on the basis of his bravery, not in order to make him brave.
“Eis” does not promote purpose or result, that forgiveness of sin is the purpose or goal of baptism, but based upon the previously received remission of sins, we would engage in this outward testimony of this inward experience. Other NT examples of “eis” are: Matthew 12:41 and Luke 11:32.
Charles Ryrie states: “Baptismal regenerationists understand this verse to teach that repentance and baptism lead to the forgiveness of sins. Unquestionably baptism was a clear proof in New Testament times of conversion, whether it be conversion to Judaism, to John the Baptist’s message, or to Christianity. To refuse to be baptized raised a legitimate doubt as to the sincerity of the profession. Therefore, when the Jewish crowd asked Peter what they must do, he quite naturally said to repent (change their minds about Jesus of Nazareth) and be baptized (give clear proof of that change).
Though it is true that exegetically the text may be understood to say that baptism is unto (eis) the forgiveness of sins, it is equally true that it may say that baptism is not for the purpose of the forgiveness of sins but because of forgiveness (that had already taken place at repentance). Eis is clearly used with this meaning in Matthew 12:41—they repented at (on the basis of, or because of) the preaching of Jonah. It certainly cannot mean in that verse that they repented with a view to [or for the purpose of] the preaching of Jonah. So Acts 2:38 may be understood that the people should repent and then be baptized because their sins were forgiven.
5. Acts 22:16 – Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’
Paul is recounting his conversion experience, and some declare that a person is saved through the waters of baptism (sins being washed away).
Charles Ryrie states: “The verse contains four segments: (a) arise (which is a participle, arising); (b) be baptized (an imperative); (c) wash away your sins (another imperative); and (d) calling on the name of the Lord (another participle). To make the verse teach baptism as necessary for salvation necessitates connecting parts b and c, be baptized and wash away. But rather than being connected to each other, each of those two commands is actually connected with a participle. Arising is necessary before baptism, and calling before sins can be washed away. Thus the verse should be read this way: arising, be baptized; wash away your sins, calling on the Lord. The verse correctly understood does not teach baptismal regeneration.”
“Be baptized” is in the aorist middle imperative, which denotes urgency, while the middle voice places the responsibility to obey this command squarely on Paul. He immediately obeyed three days after his conversion, but when were his sins washed away, at his baptism or his conversion?
6. 1 Peter 3:21 – Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
John MacArthur states: “First Peter 3:18–22 stands as one of the most difficult NT texts to translate and then interpret. For example, does “Spirit” in 3:18 refer to the Holy Spirit, or to Christ’s Spirit? Did Christ preach through Noah before the Flood, or did He preach Himself after the crucifixion (3:19)? Was the audience to this preaching composed of the humans in Noah’s day, or demons in the abyss (3:19)? Does 3:20, 21 teach baptismal regeneration (salvation), or salvation by faith alone in Christ?
First, every time we see the word “save” in the NT, don’t jump to the conclusion that it is referring to our deliverance from the wrath of God and the punishment of a Christless eternity in hell (Romans 5:9-10). This passage actually says that baptism is an opportunity to be rescued from a dirty conscience. Peter is clear that he is not speaking of a dirty body (its purpose is not a bath that removes filth from the body) but it is an appeal to God for a good [clean] conscience.
A person with a clear conscience knows that no one can point a finger at him and say, “You’ve offended me, and you have never asked for forgiveness.” Baptism is an opportunity to publically set things straight. We need a conscience without offense toward God and men (Acts 24:16). Without a clear conscience, our witness is diminished (1 Peter 3:15-16) and some suffer shipwreck with regards to their faith (1 Timothy 1:19).
The point is, use your baptism as an opportunity to invite lost friends and family. Invite those you have offended in the past. Explain that God has forgiven you of your past sins and you desire their forgiveness as well.
In his commentary on 1 Perter 3:21, MacArthur writes:
an antitype which now saves us. In the NT, an antitype is an earthly expression of a spiritual reality. It indicates a symbol, picture, or pattern of some spiritual truth. Peter is teaching that the fact that 8 people were in an ark and went through the whole judgment, and yet were unharmed, is analogous to the Christian’s experience in salvation by being in Christ, the ark of one’s salvation.
baptism … through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Peter is not at all referring to water baptism here, but rather a figurative immersion into union with Christ as an ark of safety from the judgment of God. The resurrection of Christ demonstrates God’s acceptance of Christ’s substitutionary death for the sins of those who believe (Acts 2:30-31; Romans 1:4). Judgment fell on Christ just as the judgment of the flood waters fell on the ark. The believer who is in Christ is thus in the ark of safety that will sail over the waters of judgment into eternal glory (cf. Romans 6:1–4).
not the removal of the filth of the flesh. To be sure he is not misunderstood, Peter clearly says he is not speaking of water baptism. In Noah’s flood, they were kept out of the water while those who went into the water were destroyed. Being in the ark and thus saved from God’s judgment on the world prefigures being in Christ and thus saved from eternal damnation.
the answer of a good conscience toward God. The word for “answer” has the idea of a pledge, agreeing to certain conditions of a covenant (the New Covenant) with God. What saves a person plagued by sin and a guilty conscience is not some external rite, but the agreement with God to get in the ark of safety, the Lord Jesus, by faith in His death and resurrection (cf. Romans 10:9-10; Hebrews 9:14; 10:22).
The Believer’s Bible Comentary explains: First let us see what it may mean, and then what it cannot mean.
Actually, there is a baptism which saves us—not our baptism in water, but a baptism which took place at Calvary almost 2000 years ago. Christ’s death was a baptism. He was baptized in the waters of judgment. This is what He meant when He said, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50). The psalmist described this baptism in the words, “Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and billows have gone over me” (Psalm 42:7). In His death, Christ was baptized in the waves and billows of God’s wrath, and it is this baptism that is the basis for our salvation.
But we must accept His death for ourselves. Just as Noah and his family had to enter the ark to be saved, so we must commit ourselves to the Lord as our only Savior. When we do this, we become identified with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection. In a very real sense, we then have been crucified with Him (Galatians 2:20), we have been buried with Him (Romans 6:4), and we have been brought from death to life with Him (Romans 6:4).
All this is pictured in the believer’s baptism. The ceremony is an outward sign of what has taken place spiritually; we have been baptized into Christ’s death. As we go under the water, we acknowledge that we have been buried with Him. As we come up out of the water, we show that we have risen with Him and want to walk in newness of life.
An antitype which now saves us—baptism refers to Christ’s baptism unto death on the cross and our identification with Him in it, which water baptism represents.
The verse cannot mean that we are saved by ritual baptism in water for the following reasons:
- That would make water the savior, instead of the Lord Jesus. But He said, “I am the way” (John 14:6).
- It would imply that Christ died in vain. If people can be saved by water, then why did the Lord Jesus have to die?
- It simply doesn’t work. Many who have been baptized have proved by their subsequent lives that they were never truly born again.
Neither can this verse mean that we are saved by faith plus baptism.
- This would mean that the Savior’s work on the cross was not sufficient. When He cried, “It is finished,” it wasn’t really so, according to this view, because baptism must be added to that work for salvation.
- If baptism is necessary for salvation, it is strange that the Lord did not personally baptize anyone. John 4:1-2 states that Jesus did not do the actual baptizing of His followers; this was done by His disciples.
- The Apostle Paul thanked God that he baptized very few of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:14–16). This would be strange thanksgiving for an evangelist if baptism were essential for salvation! Paul did baptize some shows that he taught believer’s baptism, but the fact that he baptized only a few shows that he did not consider it a requirement for salvation.
- The penitent thief on the cross was not baptized, yet he was assured of being in Paradise with Christ (Luke 23:43).
- The Gentiles who were saved in Caesarea received the Holy Spirit when they believed (Acts 10:44), showing that they then belonged to Christ (Romans 8:9b). After receiving the Holy Spirit, that is, after being saved, they were baptized (Acts 10:47-48). Therefore, baptism was not necessary for their salvation. They were saved first, then they were baptized in water.
- In the NT, baptism is always connected with death and not with spiritual birth.
- There are about 150 passages in the NT which teach that salvation is by faith alone. These cannot be contradicted by two or three verses that seem to teach that baptism is necessary for salvation.
Therefore, when we read in 1 Peter 3:21, Baptism … which now saves us, it does not mean our baptism in literal water, but Christ’s baptism unto death and our identification with Him in it.
Not the removal of the filth of the flesh. The ceremonial worship of the OT, with which Peter’s Jewish-Christian readers were familiar, provided a sort of external cleansing. But it was not able to give the priests or the people a clear conscience with regard to sin. The baptism of which Peter is speaking is not a question of physical or even of ritual cleansing from defilement. Water does have the effect of removing dirt from the body, but it cannot provide a good conscience toward God. Only personal association with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection can do that.
But the answer of a good conscience toward God. The question inevitably arises, “How can I have a righteous standing before God? How can I have a clear conscience before Him?” The answer is found in the baptism of which Peter has been speaking—Christ’s baptism unto death at Calvary and one’s personal acceptance of that work. By Christ’s death the sin question was settled once for all.
Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. How do I know that God is satisfied? I know because He raised Christ from the dead. A clear conscience is inseparably linked with the resurrection of Jesus Christ; they stand or fall together. The resurrection tells me that God is fully satisfied with the redemptive work of His Son. If Christ had not risen, we could never be sure that our sins had been put away. He would have died like any other man. But the risen Christ is our absolute assurance that the claims of God against our sins have been fully met.
My only claim for a good conscience is based on the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The order is as follows:
- Christ was baptized unto death for me at Calvary.
- When I trust Him as Lord and Savior, I am spiritually united with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection.
- Through the knowledge that He has risen, my request for a clear conscience is answered.
- In water baptism, I give visible expression to the spiritual deliverance I have experienced.
[Based on my classes with Richard D. Leineweber, Jr. c. 2000]