“Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” (Ezek 36:25-27).
I studied for my theology degree in the Baptist college of Sydney (for the record I’m Anglican) during the 2005-2008. During one of the lectures in a large class, the lecturer asked us to indicate who had been baptised. Only a handful of us raised our hands. I was shocked – theology students training in a Baptist college who haven’t been baptised? How wonderfully ironic, I thought.
Baptism is one of the many doctrines which have been hotly disputed ever since the Reformation. The Reformers, for example, who insisted on the right of the believer to interpret scripture without reference to anything but the scriptures, made rebaptism practiced by the Anabaptists a capital crime, despite the Anabaptists regarding Catholic baptism as unbiblical and believers therefore needing to be rebaptised. And we’re told that Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich, had one of them sewn up in a sack and thrown alive into the river to drown, mocking him as he did so. And the Catholics were even crueller in their persecution of Anabaptists. However, it must be said that the Anabaptists weren’t angels, either; they made a point of disrupting Reformed worship services and were often provocative; and one group resorted to arms. The irony is that both Reformed and Anabaptist took their teaching and practice form the same bible but reached different conclusions.
Ever since the Reformation, Protestants believe and practice that baptism is symbolic, and because of this many Protestant Christians treat it lightly, as if they can take it or leave it, with no consequences. But there are a number of verses in the New Testament which reveal the necessity and effects of baptism, which verses are overlooked or ignored, particularly by evangelicals and fundamentalists. And they have their roots in Ezekiel 36:25-27, as quoted at the top of this page.
Jesus: Baptism is Necessary to Salvation
Minutes before Jesus ascended to heaven he gave this instruction to his disciples: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost….” (Matt 28:19).
Mark has: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believe not shall be damned” (Mk 16:15-16).
Furthermore, Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5).
These verses tell us that baptism was ordained by Christ himself and is therefore mandatory for all believers. We are also shown here that baptism is to be coupled with faith as an essential part of the gospel and is the seal of salvation, as circumcision was in the Old Testament.
The Apostle Peter: Baptism for the Forgiveness of Sins
Peter, who was one of those present when Jesus gave these instructions to his disciples and thus to the Church as a natural consequence, also stresses the essential condition of baptism in salvation, binding it with repentance as a key element of the Gospel. Immediately following his first sermon, in which he told the Jews that they were guilty of murdering Jesus but that God had not only raised him but made him “both Lord and Christ”, we’re told: “Now when they heard this they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:37-38).
Mark (who wrote what was essentially Peter’s gospel), and Luke, quote Jesus as saying that John the Baptist preached “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3).
Baptism and New Birth
And not long after this, the Roman centurion Cornelius and his associates were saved, having listened to Peter’s preaching: “…the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word….Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” (Acts 10:44-48).
Baptism Saves Us
Furthermore, Peter compares the effects of the Flood in Genesis with baptism: “….which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us…by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 3:20-21). Here we see that the figure is the Flood; the antitype is baptism.
The Apostle Paul
Paul told the Corinthian believers: “I thank God that I baptized none of you….For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor 1:14, 17). At first sight and taken on its own this looks like a convincing argument for believers not to get baptized. Perhaps it was all the excuse needed by many of my fellow theological students to justify not being baptized. After all, if Paul not only said that he was glad that he hadn’t baptized any of the Corinthians and that he hadn’t even been sent by Jesus to baptize them, then what more justification do we need to not get baptized and not to baptize?
There are two good reasons why that argument is invalid. The first is that Paul was addressing the problem of division and party spirit in the Corinthian church. Paul complained that “…every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I am of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius; Lest any should say that I had baptized in my own name” (1 Cor 1:12-16). And in chapter 3, he writes: “For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase….For we are labourers together with God….” (1 Cor 3:4-7, 9). Paul wanted to stress the fact that it is God who saves through the Gospel, not any man; and that he was sent by God to preach that Gospel. If anything or anyone else is put before that, it is a false gospel (Gal 1:1-12).
However, he is not saying that baptism is unimportant. In the above quote from his letter (1 Cor 1:13), he acknowledges that the Corinthian Christians had been baptized. And while Paul only personally baptized a handful of new believers in Corinth, we learn from Acts that his associates baptized many there. “And Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).
And it would appear that it was standard practice for Paul and his associates to baptize every new believer. For example, when he found out that there were some believers who had only received John’s baptism, Paul corrected that immediately by baptizing them in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 19:1-7). Lydia of Thyatira was one of them “….whose heart the Lord opened, she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul. And….she was baptized, and her household…” (Acts 16:14-15). And when the Philippian jailer saw what God had done, he said to Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house…and [he] was baptized, he and all his, straightway” (Acts 16:30-33).
So if we take Paul’s words out of their context within his letter to Corinth, and conclude that he was not allowed to baptize, or that he never baptized anyone at all, what do we do with these passages which tell us otherwise?
And the second reason that the objections to Paul not baptizing new believers because he said that God didn’t send him to baptize but to preach the gospel, is that if he didn’t baptize as standard practice, he would be disobeying Jesus’ commission to the Church to teach and baptize all nations (Matt 28:19-20). And if God didn’t want him to baptize, he would be inconsistent because Jesus’ commission was for all the Church for all time to teach and to baptize.
Wash away your sins
It may surprise some to discover that Paul was told to wash away his sins by getting baptized. When he was giving his defence to the Jews and describing how he became a Christian, he told of how Ananias, “a devout man according to the law” (Acts 22:12) whom God sent to Paul to tell him what he (God) wanted of him, Ananias said to Paul: “For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard. And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:15-16). In this passage baptism is coupled with faith as an essential condition for the removal, or washing away, of sins.
If we take this verse as read, we could easily come up with the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. And it is possible, by selecting the appropriate verses, to do just that. But, while baptism is a requirement for salvation, as was circumcision in the OT, it has not the same power and effect of faith or repentance. If we believed that water baptism can literally wash away sins, we would be no different to those millions of poor, ignorant Hindus who go to the Ganges every year to wash away their sins in its putrid waters. Despite that Paul was told to “be baptized and wash away your sins”, water baptism cannot wash sins away; it is symbolic of the new birth – Peter says as much when speaking of baptism saving us: “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 3:21). But despite baptism not being an optional extra, lest we fall into the wrong understanding of baptism and give it more weight than it can carry, Matthew Henry commenting on this verse says: “The external participation of baptism will save no man without an answering good conscience and conversation [life]” (Henry, Matthew, 1994, 1997, p. 2133).
Baptism can be likened to circumcision, a physical act signifying a spiritual reality and relationship to God. While circumcision is merely the removal of a piece of flesh, no male could be part of the nation of God and thus be saved, if he wasn’t circumcised. “And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant” (Gen 17:14). And God was deadly serious about it. When Moses, after having been called by God to go to Pharaoh, started his journey with his family, we’re told: “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he [God] let him go….” (Exod 4:24-26).
So, getting back to Paul’s being instructed to wash away his sins in baptism, Matthew Henry says it nicely: “He had in his circumcision been given up to God, but he must now by baptism be given up to God in Christ – must embrace the Christian religion and the privileges of it in submission of the precepts of it. This must now be done immediately upon his conversion and so was added to his circumcision: but to the seed of the faithful it comes in the room of it; for it is, as that was to Abraham and his believing seed, a seal of the righteousness which is by faith. The great gospel privilege which by baptism we have sealed to us is the remission of sins: be baptized and wash away your sins. ‘Receive the comfort of the pardon of your sins in and through Jesus Christ and lay hold of His righteousness for that purpose, and receive power against sin for the mortifying of your corruption’; for our being washed includes our being both justified and sanctified, 1 Cor 6:11)” (Henry, Matthew, 1994, 1997, p. 1853).
The Church is sanctified by baptism
Paul tells us that the Church – the body of Christ – is made holy through baptism. “…even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27).
In this passage, baptism is coupled with the word i.e. Scripture. The candidate for baptism must be taught from the bible what baptism is and does and must demonstrate faith before baptism can be effective. When the Ethiopian eunuch had heard and believed the gospel preached to him by Philip, he asked, when they approached a body of water: “See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him…and he went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:36-39).
Paul and John – the washing of regeneration
In a discussion with a Pharisee named Nicodemus who had come to Jesus secretly, by night, the apostle John tells us: “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God….Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God”.
Paul gives us clarity on this when he writes: “But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:4-5).
Paul elsewhere reiterates the new birth through baptism: “Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 6:8-11).
He then, by the Holy Spirit, further pursues this idea. “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened [made alive] together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:11-14).
And: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ…..And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:27, 29).
And so, from the passage in Ezekiel where God said he would sprinkle water upon his people, giving them new birth, cleansing them, filling them with his Spirit, and sanctifying them (see verse at top of page) we see it being fulfilled throughout the New Testament.
Henry, M. 1997, “The Matthew Henry Study Bible: King James Version”, copyright Thomas Nelson Inc., pub Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA.
All scripture references are from the King James Version of the Bible.