Immersion can seem to be an impractical imposition resulting in an undignified outcome for the recipient. However, by performing this modern humiliation, the baptized is saying that he is dying to self and living in Christ.
This week I have been reading John Owen and have been struck how much he diverges from scripture. John Owen was a confident and powerful rhetorician in the Cromwell Era of British history. Although he was an able theologian and a godly Christian, he was not without his faults. To me, much of his writings about covenants amount to bald assertions since they cannot be tied to scripture. Therefore, along with his other Puritan friends, he confuses Israel with the Church and applies O.T. circumcision to baptism, and thus becomes a paedobaptist. This confuses the biblical concepts.
Is Baptism a Sacrament?
In itself, neither baptism nor observing the Lord’s Supper impart grace. What I mean is, these observances can bless the believer greatly, but, by themselves, are not devices for dispensing grace. Instead, the one being baptized is conveying a message. He is really giving something instead of receiving grace. He is saying that he is identifying himself with Christ, leaving his old ways and, hence forth, living a Christ-filled life. The whole rite is meant as a sort of confession, a testimony, a stand.
It is a bit off topic, but the Lord’s Supper has the same purpose of communication as does baptism. Paul explicitly says that the observers are, in a sense, preaching by performing the rite, For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1Cor. 11.26 NIV).
Sacraments don’t really exist. I mean, think of the concept: a rite to impart grace? The bible says grace is given through faith and not works. In the final analysis, it is unavoidable to not see works raising its head as a means of grace for those who want to have a sacramental understanding of baptism.
Also, another issue is making baptism a necessary requirement of salvation. It is not. The Rite of Baptism is a wonderful display of a cognizant believer desiring to make his confession of faith. However, for various reasons, not all Christians, in history, will have performed this observance. Nonetheless, if they know Him, they are accepted by God in heaven.
The Candidates for Baptism
Though heart circumcision signified redemption in the O.T., and baptism is a confession of faith signifying prior salvation, they are not equal. Both reference salvation, but this fact does not mean baptism and circumcision are interchangeable. The rite of biblical circumcision points to the truth of not relying on the flesh for acceptance from God. I believe this O.T. rite is interpreted and defined by Paul in Phil. 3.3: For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh (NIV).
Circumcision was much elaborated in the Mosaic Law, though it was first given to Abraham in Gen. 17.11: You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you (NIV). Notice that it was a symbolic rite pointing to a spiritual reality that Abraham was redeemed by faith prior to the act of circumcision, and, of course, all the requirements of the Mosaic Law. This fact Paul makes much of in Rom. 4, Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! (vss. 9-10 NIV). Blessedness and salvation are by faith, and therefore only a cognizant person, not an infant, is the candidate for baptism.
Please notice also, the issue in Rom. 4 above was about Gentile circumcision. They were actually requiring literal circumcision and not baptism. This implies that these rites were never confused with each other in the way that paedobaptists want to conflate them today. I mean, just think of it, if they were the same, why couldn’t the person say: “I’ll take the baptism instead of the snip.”
In Col. 2. 11-12, Paul notes that the rite of circumcision and baptism symbolically refer to salvation: Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead (NIV). All these actions are performed by someone with the capacity to make eternal decisions: “through your faith.” Therefore, one cannot transfer the sprinkling of infants (and call it baptism) for circumcision in Moses. Since, in that case, the subjects were unwitting. Furthermore, Paul is speaking of Spirit Baptism in the Colossians passage, which happens to the believer at the point of faith. The rite of Christian Baptism is subsequent to faith and constitutes a testimony by the person being baptized to indicate what has occurred in his heart earlier.
Why would anyone follow the Mosaic statute of the Old Covenant (of circumcising 8-day-old males) by baptizing infants, when the original circumcision of Abraham occurred when he was 99 years old and a conscious believer? Christians are saved through the promise to Abraham and not in keeping the Law, which no one could observe perfectly. The Purpose of the Law was for humans to recognize they were hopeless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression (Rom. 4.15 NIV). Infants of Christian parents are holy (1Cor. 7.14) and don’t need an additional rite.
The Mosaic Law was only given to the Jews and was an intercalation until Christ fulfilled both the regulations and temple sacrifices. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise (Gal. 3.17-18 NIV). Why would any Christian think it valid to adopt a feature of a covenant not given to them with practices that have now passed and been fulfilled, all without biblical warrant? Paedobaptists cannot have accuracy as to what the sign means since the rite they are performing on an unwitting child doesn’t reference salvation in the New Covenant. The subject is unwitting, and no one can believe for another.
Also, “household baptisms,” such as in Acts 16.32-33, were performed upon those whom Paul spoke to prior to their baptism, and therefore were witting recipients, Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house…then immediately he and all his household were baptized (NIV). An honest examination of the scriptures of these matters yields a position of believer’s baptism.
The Mode of Baptism
Furthermore, the bible employs Greek words for “pouring” and “sprinkling” in other contexts unrelated to baptism. Therefore, if the bible wanted to express those concepts to reference this rite, the authors could have used these terms but never do. No, the Greek term baptizo means “dipping under water”, “immersion.” This immersion method conveys the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, which neither pouring nor sprinkling do. A Christian who wants to correctly keep this rite of baptism will express this stance, subsequent to believing, by being immersed in water.
Old Testament Baptism
Paul interprets for us certain O. T. acts as baptism in 1 Cor. 10.1-2: For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (NIV). Everyone of the O.T. images of baptism picture a total engulfment of the persons without any idea of sprinkling or pouring. Also, a metaphorical death and burial of the recipients seem to be portrayed, in that, when Pharaoh’s army tried the feat, it was destroyed.
Gospels Era Baptism
Undoubtedly, Jesus was immersed in His baptism since the rite John the Baptist was performing required a certain depth of water, …Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River and As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water (Mt. 3.6, 16a NIV). It is very clear that this rite featured immersion and all that this image conveys. Also, it wasn’t the Jordan River, per se, that the Baptist employed, since he moved his operation of baptism to a place of sufficient depth at another time: Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized (John 3.23 NIV).
There were certain Mosaic Covenant directives in the O.T. that referenced a cleansing after certain defilements which involved complete immersion in water. The Mikveh featured prominently in Second Temple Judaism and was specifically designed for immersion. We know of these mikveh through archeological finds, especially around the Jerusalem area. The sites may have been known only through word of mouth, when they were operational, since pilgrims would either have undergone cleansing previously, if they were observant, or a priest showed them the site for their cleansing prior to offering sacrifices.
There seems to be scant textual witness to these “baptistries,” but normally such sacred rites are very personal and private, and therefore, would hardly be recorded. Clearly, these Mosaic cleansing practices and John’s Baptism seem to transmit the idea of newness and immersion. One was a required biblical command for metaphorical cleansing, while the other was a sign of repentance.
After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the apostles continued this same procedure of immersion to the new Christian converts, such as the Ethiopian Eunuch, Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him (Acts 8.38b NIV). How then is it possible for some Christians to adapt a biblical established rite with all its signs and references and apply it to infant sprinkling or pouring?
Covenant or Dispensational Theology?
John Owen was a champion for Covenant Theology and infant baptism. These critiques of mine are not novel or excessive. However, critics have been known to go too far in their opposition. One such overreach by critics involved constructing a completely new synthetic theology: Dispensationalism. Evidently, they thought by developing a rival system, they could defeat the mistake of infant baptism. This new synthetic idea of dividing the bible into specific epochs with their unique means of salvation was worse than the original disease of Covenant Theology. They should have stuck to their guns without resorting to half-baked ideas. Instead, they crafted an additional synthetic grid to superimpose upon scripture.
A better reading than either of these synthetically-devised schemes is an organic promise given by God and traced progressively throughout the bible. This promise was Gen. 3.15 of a Savior who would suffer a fatal metaphorical snakebite. This progressive tracing results in a subtext where sacrifices feature prominently throughout the divine disclosure and speak to the readers about the mystery of God: Christ.