“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” So wrote the Apostle Peter to the early Christians (1 Peter 1:18-19). He, as all the other Apostles, believed that we are redeemed, cleansed, forgiven, in the blood of Jesus Christ. Yet, there are many today who would replace the blood of Christ with the water of a baptistery. They teach that we are regenerated, made alive, cleansed, by water baptism. Some insist that it must be baptism by immersion; others say that sprinkling accomplishes the same thing. In either case, the work of Jesus Christ on the cross cannot be said to be finished and efficacious until man does something–in this case, adds his work of baptism to the work of God in Christ. Baptism is said to be the means of salvation, the method by which Christ’s work at Calvary is taken from the merely theoretical to the actual.
It is not our intention to engage in a lengthy discussion of the topic of baptismal regeneration in this article. Such would require far more space than we have available at this time! Instead, we wish to point out a basic, foundational error of the position taken by such groups as the Church of Christ and the Mormon Church–both have some doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Then, we will briefly respond to a couple of the more often used proof-texts provided by proponents of baptismal regeneration. We realize that there is a whole area of discussion that we are leaving to the side by taking this approach, that being the sacramental concept of regeneration in infant baptism. This view is found in Roman Catholicism (indeed, baptism is the original means of justification in Roman theology) and in various of the sacramentally-oriented Protestant churches.
Underlying the idea that man, by an action such as baptism, can bring about his own regeneration, is the rejection of the Biblical teaching of sin, and most especially, the truth that sin enslaves man, debilitates man, brings spiritual death to man. The Lord Jesus spoke clearly of this truth:
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:31-34).
Man in sin must be freed from slavery to sin. He cannot free Himself, but must be freed by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This is an offensive truth to the unregenerate man, as the response from these would-be self-made disciples indicates (8:41, 48). Men do not like to hear that they are, in fact, totally dependent upon God’s grace for salvation–they do not want to know that they are incapable of saving themselves, or even of coming unto Christ for salvation, outside of God’s gracious drawing (John 6:44). But as the Lord Himself said, we are slaves to sin. Slaves must be freed.
Paul describes the lost man’s condition with the graphic language of death. “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins” he tells the Ephesians (2:1). How can a dead man be made alive? Only by the work of God, just as he told the Colossians, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ” (Colossians 2:13). This deadness has tremendous results according to the inspired Apostle. First, it means that there is no man who, in and of himself, seeks after God: “There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:11). Likewise, there is no man who understands the things of God unless he is first changed from being “natural” or “carnal” to “spiritual”: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Paul says that when men are alienated from God, they are His enemies in their minds (Colossians 1:21). These are strong words, and they well describe the hatred and enmity that exists in the heart of the man who continues to live in his rebellion against God. What is even more striking is Paul’s absolute belief that this condition cannot be changed by man–not only is it not the natural man’s desire to be at peace with the Holy One, but it is beyond his capacity to do so, even if he were so inclined. Note Paul’s words in Romans 8:5-8:
For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Those who hold to baptismal regeneration would have us to believe that one passes from being a “natural man” to a “spiritual man” through baptism; yet, from whence does this desire to be baptized come? Is God not pleased when we are baptized? Of course. Yet, Paul said that the one who is still fleshly cannot please God. If such a person is the enemy of God, enslaved to sin, how is it that he is able to do such a spiritual and pleasing thing as to desire to be baptized? Obviously, this is impossible. Baptism signifies our death to the old way of life and our resurrection to new life in Christ, as Paul uses it in Romans 6:1-4. Unless we have died to sin, and been raised with Christ in reality prior to our baptism, the symbol becomes meaningless. So we see that the position that posits baptism as the means of regeneration and forgiveness ignores the most basic teachings of Scripture regarding man’s inability. In taking the position they do, the baptismal regenerationists not only make man capable of things he is not, but they reduce God’s grace to a mere aid, and make the death of Christ a theory that is dependent upon man’s act of obedience, rather than the finished and effective work that the Bible teaches it to be (Hebrews 10:10-14).
When we keep in mind the foundational truth that man is unable to save himself, but that salvation is the work of God, we are able to understand why it is said that we are justified by God’s grace (Titus 3:7), justified by the blood of Christ (Romans 5:9), and justified by faith. Grace, and the blood of Christ, are both things that are beyond man’s ability to manipulate; and faith, if it is true, saving faith, is the gift of God as well. Hence, we are justified by God’s action, not by any action of our own. Never is it said that we are justified by baptism.
In light of the fact that any review of the central passages of the New Testament that directly deal with how a man is made right with God will lead us to recognize our own inability and the great ability of our God to save, what is to be said concerning those passages, drawn from one context or another, that seem to indicate that we are saved or forgiven by baptism? First, we must point out that it is common for some to confuse the *importance* of baptism with the idea of the *necessity* of baptism. Indeed, often the fact that the New Testament takes for granted that all believers will be baptized as a profession of their faith is taken to mean that baptism is *how* they became believers in the first place! We confess baptism to be vitally important–the Scriptures are clear in this. That Paul can use baptism is a sign and symbol of our spiritual union with Christ (Romans 6:1-4) shows that it is his assumption that all believers will be obedient in baptism. We do not, by asserting the proper understanding of baptism, in any way denigrate it as an ordinance given by Christ to His Church. But just as the holy Law of God was misused by the Pharisees in Jerusalem, and the Judaizers in Galatia, so baptism has been misused by modern proponents of the works-oriented system of baptismal regeneration. Therefore, just as Paul often asserted his great respect for and love of the law of God while asserting its true nature and purpose, so we, too, assert our great respect for Christian baptism while asserting its proper place in God’s work of salvation and sanctification. We shall center our attention on three passages of Scripture that are often placed before us as “clear testimony” to the concept of baptismal regeneration. These passages are Acts 2:38, 22:16, and 1 Peter 3:21.
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39, NIV).
This is probably the most oft-quoted passage in the great baptism debate. Yet, when we read verse 39, we hear again the same concept that we saw above, which Peter himself will assert at a later date (1 Peter 1:2), and that will reappear in the Acts narrative, too (Acts 13:48)–salvation comes through the work of God’s elective choice, not the actions or plans of men. Baptism does nothing for those who are not called of God. But, one might say, what if one is called of God? Does this passage then not say that baptism is for the remission of sins?
A tremendously large number of interpretations have been set forth on this passage over the years. We believe the simplest and most consistent manner of approach is to ask a question that is frequently not asked at all: we here have a short snippet of what was obviously a longer sermon by Peter. Does Peter elsewhere tell us, in plain language, how our sins are remitted, how we are cleansed from our burden of guilt? Certainly! We began our article with the quotation of 1 Peter 1:18-19, where Peter directly teaches that we are cleansed by the blood of the spotless Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Do we then have sufficient basis to identify the waters of baptism with the blood of Christ? Surely not. Sins are remitted through our participation in the death of Jesus Christ–it is by the “one time offering” of Jesus Christ that we are made whole (Hebrews 10:10-14). What of baptism then? It is the symbol, the outward representation before men of what the Spirit of God has done in our hearts (Titus 3:5-7). Unless we have first had our sins remitted in the blood of Christ, the symbol of baptism is meaningless. But doesn’t this passage say that baptism is for the remission of sins? Yes, but what does “for” mean? We feel that Dr. A. T. Robertson’s comments from earlier this century are very meaningful:
This phrase is the subject of endless controversy as men look at it from the standpoint of sacramental or of evangelical theology. In themselves the words can express aim or purpose for that use of “eis” does exist as in 1 Cor. 2:7….But then another usage exists which is just as good Greek as the use of “eis” for aim or purpose. It is seen in Matt. 10:41 in three examples “eis onoma prophetou, diakaiou, mathetou” where it cannot be purpose or aim, but rather the basis or ground, on the basis of the name of prophet, righteous man, disciple, because one is, etc. It is seen again in Matt. 12:41 about the preaching of Jonah….They repented because of (or at) the preaching of Jonah. The illustrations of both usages are numerous in the N.T. and the Koine generally (Robertson, Grammar, p. 592). One will decide the use here according as he believes that baptism is essential to the remission of sins or not. My view is decidedly against the idea that Peter, Paul, or any one in the New Testament taught baptism as essential to the remission of sins or the means of securing such remission. So I understand Peter to be urging baptism on each of them who had already turned (repented) and for it to be done in the name of Jesus Christ on the basis of the forgiveness of sins which they had already received (A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, III:35-36).
The point being that one can (and we believe should, if one believes in the consistency of Scripture as a whole) understand Peter to be speaking of baptism on the grounds of the remission of sins that comes through belief in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10:43). But, someone will surely object, Peter himself said that “baptism saves us” in 1 Peter 3:21. Let’s look at the passage in context:
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who were disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also–not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand–with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
This is one of the more difficult passages in Scripture, due to the reference to Christ’s preaching to the “spirits in prison.” It is not our purpose to enter into the controversy over this particular aspect of this passage at this time (one might find Dr. Kenneth Wuest’s comments enlightening; see Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament II:92-109). Instead, we point out that foremost in Peter’s mind, again, is the death of Christ as the sacrifice for sin. Men are brought to God, not by what they do, but what God has done in Christ Jesus (v. 18). Upon the heels of this he mentions God’s act of judgment in the days of Noah. At that time eight souls were saved through water. Peter then says that this water “symbolizes” baptism (as the NIV translates the Greek term antitupon, literally, “antitype”). Baptism now saves us, Peter says–just as the water “saved” Noah and his family. But, of course, we know that Peter was not asserting that there was some salvific aspect to the flood waters themselves–God shut up the ark, and God saved Noah and his family. But the water is a symbol, Peter says, a symbol seen now in baptism. But is Peter dropping the symbolization so as to make baptism the means of salvation? Certainly not. Dr. Wuest has commented so well that we give his words at length:
Water baptism is clearly in the apostle’s mind, not the baptism by the Holy Spirit, for he speaks of the waters of the flood as saving the inmates of the ark, and in this verse, of baptism saving believers. But he says that it saves them only as a counterpart. That is, water baptism is the counterpart of the reality, salvation. It can only save as a counterpart, not actually. The Old Testament sacrifices were counterparts of the reality, the Lord Jesus. They did not actually save the believer, only in type. It is not argued here that these sacrifices are analogous to Christian water baptism. The author is merely using them as an illustration of the use of the word “counterpart.” So water baptism only saves the believer in type. The Old Testament Jew was saved before he brought the offering. That offering was only his outward testimony that he was placing faith in the Lamb of God of whom these sacrifices were a type….Water baptism is the outward testimony of the believer’s inward faith. The person is saved the moment he places his faith in the Lord Jesus. Water baptism is the visible testimony to his faith and the salvation he was given in answer to that faith. Peter is careful to inform his readers that he is not teaching baptismal regeneration, namely, that a person who submits to baptism is thereby regenerated, for he says, “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh.” Baptism, Peter explains, does not wash away the filth of the flesh, either in a literal sense as a bath for the body, nor in a metaphorical sense as a cleansing for the soul. No ceremonies really affect the conscience. But he defines what he means by salvation, in the words “the answer of a good conscience toward God,” and he explains how this is accomplished, namely, “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” in that he believing sinner is identified with Him in that resurrection.
What, then, of Acts 22:16? Here, Ananias, having confronted the blinded Saul, says, in context:
Then he said: “The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
We again see the common theme of the calling and sovereignty of God in the context of this passage as well (“God…has chosen you”). Verse 16 presents us with a significant construction in the original language. The terms “arise” and “call” (anastas and epikalesamenos) are aorist participles; “be baptized” and “be cleansed” (baptisai and apolousai) are aorist imperatives. These terms form two sets–the first, “arise and be baptized,” the second, “wash away your sins, calling upon the name of the Lord,” or more literally, “wash away your sins, having called upon the name of the Lord.” The remission of sins is effected by calling upon the name of the Lord in this passage–it is represented, as elsewhere, by baptism. One thing is for certain: given what we have seen previously of Paul’s own theology of justification, he certainly did not interpret Ananias to be teaching any form of baptismal regeneration!
In conclusion, we must again insist that the Scriptures must be taken as a whole–when we find in the direct, clear statements of Scripture truths that are contradictory to assumptions based upon passing comments, we must take the clear statements over the assumptions. In the issue of salvation, we must take the clear statements of Scripture regarding the work of the Spirit of God in regenerating lost sinners seriously. By teaching baptismal regeneration, people do despite not only to the sovereignty of God and the finished work of Christ, but to the real purpose and meaning of baptism as well. While some like to refer to the evangelical doctrine of baptism as a “mere symbol,” we respond by pointing out that an ordinance, given by Christ to His Church, in which the great and marvelous work of God in salvation is pictured for all to see is not properly described by the term “mere.” Instead, Christian baptism must be understood as representing a true and inner reality–one that is brought about by the grace of God in a person’s life. When we properly present baptism as it is presented in Scripture, we glorify God’s grace and magnify His work of salvation in Jesus Christ.