The following is an excerpt from article DB055-2 of the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL. The full text of this article in PDF format can be obtained by clicking here.
We have seen that the prooftexts used for baptismal regeneration do not require that interpretation. Let us now examine the meaning and importance of baptism in the New Testament, first by looking at the historical background to baptism, next by comparing the baptism of John and Jesus, and last by setting forth the meaning of baptism in the primitive church of the first century.
Background of New Testament Baptism
Scholars are unsure of the exact origin of baptism. Undeniably some form of immersion was required of proselytes to Judaism.27 Moreover, some have viewed Qumran as a possible site for John the Baptist to have acquired his baptismal practice. His call to baptism included a call for religious purity and repentance as well as a concern with the eschaton (last days), not to mention his geographical proximity to Qumran. Despite the similarities, there are important differences.
In Jewish proselyte baptism the candidate dipped himself into the water, whereas in the examples of John’s baptism (and subsequently, Christian) the verb is almost invariably passive, indicating an act performed on the candidate. This may be the reason why John received the name “the baptizer.”28 Moreover, baptism in Judaism was of secondary importance, while in John’s baptism the emphasis is on the redemptive work of the Messiah and how the convert relates to Him.29 A second distinction is that at Qumran the washings were regularly repeated, making them unlike John’s and Christian baptism, which was received but once, though the first ceremony of purification at Qumran did admit one into the community.30
There is no certainty, then, that baptism, as seen in the New Testament, came from Qumran or larger Judaism since the earliest references to proselyte baptism within Judaism belong to the latter half of the first century31 and are not well-defined. It might be safer to say that Judaism and Christianity borrowed from the same source, the Levitical cleansings of the Old Testament.32
New Testament Baptism: Comparison of John’s and Christian Baptism
John’s baptism and Christian baptism have much in common. In fact, Jesus’ baptism may be viewed as a complement and fulfillment of John the Baptist’s work. John declared to the crowds that he baptized in water, but the Messiah to come would baptize the people in the Holy Spirit and in fire (Mart. 3:11), which was fulfilled in Acts 2:1-4 and Acts 10:44-48 (cf. Acts 1:5 and 11:16).
Second, John’s baptism and Christian baptism are similar because they are both baptisms of repentance. John demanded that baptism be accompanied by sincere repentance, which it represented (Matt. 3:7-9). The people were confessing their sins as they were being baptized (Matt 3:6).
Last, John’s baptism and Christian baptism both focus on the Messiah. John’s pointed to the Messiah, who was to come, whereas Christian baptism points back to the Messiah, who did come.
New Testament Baptism: The Meaning of Christian Baptism in the Primitive Church
Baptism was an integral part of the overall experience of becoming a Christian in the earliest periods of the church. It was associated with being united with Christ (Rom. 6:4-5) and putting on Christ (Gal. 3:27). Even the forgiveness of sins is connected to baptism because it serves as the external statement of that internal event. It is even likely that baptism served analogously in becoming a member of the New Covenant community as a counterpart to the Old Testament practice of circumcision (Col. 2:11-12). The term “baptism” seemed to be used as a short form for the gospel, in which faith and repentance were expected (Matt. 28:19). At the least, it was not ancillary to the gospel, but a very real part of it. There is little question that baptism was not optional for one who named the name of Jesus Christ, and it was virtually the first thing a Christian did after responding in faith to the gospel (Acts 2:38; 8:34-38; 10:45-48; 16:31-34).
With all its importance, however, baptism was never absolutely necessary for a person to become justified before God. The New Testament insists only on the internal work of repentance/faith (e.g. John 3:15, 36; 5:24; Acts 2:21; 10:43; 15:9), this requisite given in the New Testament at least 60 times with no mention of baptism.33
Let us now put baptism into perspective for today’s church. Baptism is a necessary initiation rite for Christians today as much as it was in the first century; the biblical text never says it will lose its importance over time. Baptism is much like circumcision, which never saved anyone in the Old Testament times; nonetheless, it was not optional for one who wanted to be a part of the covenant with Abraham and a part of the Israelite community.
Baptism is not a requirement for salvation. Rather, it is to faith what words are to ideas. One may have an idea without putting it into words, but it conveys no external reality for anyone else. One may also have faith without baptism, but this has no significance outside oneself. Sometimes an evangelical preacher may give an “altar call” for people to come to the front of the church or pulpit if they truly repent in their hearts and believe in the gospel.34 This is seen as a public statement of that internal belief. This is unfortunate because in the early church the person was called to be baptized as a public statement of that faith. We have substituted the altar call (of recent origin) for Christian baptism. It was in baptism that repentance and faith in Christ were proclaimed, without which there was no divinely recognized first Christian act. To the early Christian there simply was no alternative to baptism and there was no such thing as an unbaptized Christian. To reject baptism was to reject Christ and initiation into His church.