I really believe the Bible was written to be read and understood by common honest-hearted people. I don’t think God dropped the Bible on mankind with a laugh and said, “Ha, see if you can figure this out!” The writings of the Bible claim that they are written to be understood and applied by ordinary folks. Romans 15:4 and I Corinthians 10:11 say of the OT Scriptures that they were “written for our instruction,” not to confuse and puzzle us. They were written that we might understand and learn from them. Paul says in Ephesians 3:3-4 that “by revelation there was made known to me the mystery of Christ, as I wrote before in brief… when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ.” In II Corinthians 1:13 he says, “We write nothing else to you than what you read and understand…” Paul’s writings, like the rest of Scripture, were not written in a secret code. They were written that people might understand. The text means what it appears in its context to mean.
Last couple of Sundays we’ve done a survey of water baptism in the Bible. While it may not be the most life transforming of topics to study, I think it’s a very important one, because God’s word has a lot to say about it, and there’s a lot of misunderstanding about it today and a lot of disunity because of misunderstanding. And as we’ve been looking at the passages that speak of baptism in the Bible I’m pretty sure I’ve not been creative with my interpretations. I’ve not been explaining away the apparent meaning of the passages and redefining words or retranslating the passages in ways that you don’t find in any credible English translation. We’ve read each passage and I’ve said “Here’s what it appears to me to mean,” and you’ve looked at the text yourself and I think, at least for the most part, you’ve been saying to yourself, “Yeap, that appears to be what it’s saying.” I think we’ve been just noticing the most straightforward, natural way of understanding the passages. And I think that’s the way we’re supposed to understand the Bible, because it was written to be understood by common folks like you and me.
But many sincere Bible believing people today would say that we have misunderstood all these passages that we’ve looked at over the last couple Sundays, that they do not mean what they appear to mean to us. They would give us a different way of understanding them. I’m going to give you a few examples of some of the most common alternative interpretations of some of these passages we’ve studied. And you can judge for yourself which is the most natural, reasonable way to understand them.
Alternative Interpretations of a Few Baptism Passages
Let’s take for instance…
Jesus says to the Pharisee Nicodemus “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
I mentioned to you that there’s water baptizing going on in John 1 and water baptizing going on later in John 3. It’s a passage surrounded by water baptizing. And John the baptist had been preaching a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins and Pharisees like Nicodemus were rejecting God’s purpose for themselves by not being baptized by John (Lk 7:30). So I said to you that Jesus appears to mean that one must submit to the Spirit of God in repentance and be baptized as John the Baptist had been preaching.
But many today are saying we misunderstand that passage. One of the common alternative understandings that I’ve found is that Jesus does not mean the water of baptism; rather He means the amniotic fluid of your mother’s womb, that He’s saying that one must be born physically, of that watery fluid of a mother’s womb, and born spiritually of the Spirit of God.
If so this is the only place where physical birth is referred to as born of water. Normally it’s referred to as born of woman or born of flesh. If physical birth is what Jesus meant why did He word it in such a strange way and in a way that would likely be confused with all baptizing that was being preached and that was going on? What’s the most natural way to understand what Jesus said there?
Some Jews wanted to know what they should do about the fact that “God has made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom they crucified,” and Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” Seems pretty self-explanatory.
But many will say, “No, it doesn’t mean that.” And probably the most common alternative to understanding it that way is to take that little preposition “for” and say it should be translated “because of”. In other words it’s not repent and be baptized in the name of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, but rather because of the forgiveness of sins (because your sins are already forgiven).
But I don’t know a single credible English translation that translates it that way. I did happen to find a paraphrase that renders it something like that. But paraphrases are really more like commentaries. They are not translations of the Greek text. The Greek preposition usually means into, unto, toward or for. That’s how it’s used several hundred times in the NT. So what Peter appears to be saying is “Here’s what you do to come into or unto the forgiveness of sins: repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
“Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?”
I said it appears we are united with Christ at baptism because it says we are “baptized into Christ.” And I said it appears in baptism we also contact or appropriate the death of Christ for our sins, because it says we are “baptized into His death.”
But many are saying that’s a misunderstanding. And probably the most common alternative interpretation, at least from what I see, is that Paul is saying that when we are baptized we are identifying ourselves has having a relationship with Christ and that His death atones for our sins. It is a publican demonstration of our union with Christ and His death.
But what’s the most natural way to understand the language? If I say we stepped into this building and into the foyer, probably you would understand me to be saying that we were outside and then we took a step that brought us inside the building and the foyer, not that we were already inside when we took that step. Paul says we have been baptized into Christ and into His death. Sounds like we were outside and at baptism we came into Christ and His death, not that we were already there and baptism was to just to show that we were already there.
Why would so many today prefer the less apparent, less natural ways of understanding those passages instead of what they sound like they mean?
I don’t know if I can speak for everybody who interprets them that way, but many interpret them in those ways because it is what they have been told those passages mean by people who they think would know better than them about it. Or it is because they approach these passages with their minds already made up that baptism cannot be necessary for salvation.
I read several articles this week on these baptism passages that we’ve been studying written by people who take a different view on them than we do. And I noticed that more often than not in the articles there would be a paragraph explaining that though this passage may look on the surface like it means that baptism is necessary for salvation, we must filter our interpretations of a passage through what we know the rest of the Bible teaches on the subject. (Which is a true principle, that God’s word is not going to contradict itself. If our interpretation of a passage has God’s word contradicting itself, then we have misinterpreted something.) But then they would say “and we know that the rest of Scripture teaches that neither baptism or any other act is necessary for salvation. And so any interpretation which comes to the conclusion that baptism is necessary for salvation, has to be wrong.” These passages are not taken at face value because they are filtered through that preconception.
But could that be a legitimate preconception to have? Should we know from the rest of Scripture that baptism or any other act cannot be necessary for salvation? Should we filter our interpretations of these passages through that preconception? Why would they say we should do that? What other passages do they have in mind that convince them that baptism cannot be necessary? Well, I’m sure glad you’re asking that question in your mind, because I’d like us to consider what I see as the 3 most popular arguments from other passages against the necessity of baptism.
I. People Jesus pronounced saved in the gospels
I’ll let John MacArthur give the argument. He says in an article entitled “Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?”, “Perhaps the most convincing refutation of the view that baptism is necessary for salvation are those who were saved apart from baptism. The penitent woman (Luke 7:37-50), the paralytic man (Matthew 9:2), the publican (Luke 18:13-14), and the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43) all experienced forgiveness of sins apart from baptism. For that matter, we have no record of the apostles’ being baptized, yet Jesus pronounced them clean of their sins (John 15:3).”
You can probably recall some of the occasions that he’s referring to. In Luke 7 a woman who had a reputation in town for being a sinner, came to Jesus as He was reclining at a table having lunch with a bunch of Pharisees. And she fell at His feet weeping and wet His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair and kissed His feet and anointed them with a perfume that she brought. And among the things Jesus said on that occasion He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” and “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
And then there was the occasion when Jesus was teaching in a crowded house and then bits and pieces of the ceiling started falling and all the sudden a big chunk of the ceiling was removed and a paralyzed man was lowered down through the hole on a stretcher. Jesus said to that man, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.”
And to the thief hanging on a cross next Him, when he rebuked the other thief for mocking Jesus and said, “We’re getting what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong,” and “Jesus, remember me when You come in your kingdom,” Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” That thief was saved.
Should we conclude from those occasions that we don’t need to be baptized in order to be saved? We cannot conclude that from those occasions for at least 2 reasons.
It’s just an assumption to say that these people were not baptized. It’s actually very likely that these people were baptized.
Listen to a couple passages about who all was submitting to John’s baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. Matthew 3:5, “Then Jerusalem was going out to him [John], and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; 6 and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.” Luke 7:29, “When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. 30 But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John.” So it appears that the majority of the common folk submitted to John’s baptism. So these people that Jesus pronounced saved in the gospels had very likely been baptized.
That thief on the cross quite possibly heard what the prophet John was preaching and thought “What a wonderful deal God is offering. Simply repent and be baptized and God will forgive all my sins.” And he made a commitment in his heart to live right and was baptized. But then later fell back into sin. He stole. Perhaps he was hungry. And he got caught and sentenced to death. But he was sorry and repentant of that, and he came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, that’s why He asked Jesus, “Remember me when you come in your kingdom.”
But here’s a second thing we need to consider.
These occasions where Jesus pronounced people saved took place before His death.
And here’s why that is significant. Turn over to Hebrews 9. Let’s read v15-20 carefully, “For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. 16 For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. 17 For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. 18 Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. 19 For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, ‘THIS IS THE BLOOD OF THE COVENANT WHICH GOD COMMANDED YOU.’”
I think it’s helpful to understanding that passage to realize that the word “covenant” could be used in a couple different ways. The word “covenant” can mean simply a deal, a pact, an agreement like the deal that God made with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, where He said to them, “I will be your God and you will be my people, and I’ll take care of you and bless you in certain ways and you follow my laws.” And that deal was inaugurated and sealed with the blood of calves and goats, as he talks about here. But another meaning of the word “covenant” was what we would call a last will and testament. And he uses it in that way in v16-17 when he says, “where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives.” There he means covenant in the sense of a last will. And he states the principle about last wills, that they do not come into effect until the one who made it dies. And his point is that the new covenant, the new deal that Jesus brought about between men and God was not in effect until Jesus died. The new covenant is like Jesus’ last will. And like how the old covenant was not inaugurated until the blood of the calves was shed and splattered on the people and things, the new covenant was not inaugurated until Christ’s blood had been completely shed.
Now, think about this. Let’s say a rich man died and in his will it states, “My grandson Billy gets my Mercedes car and $100,000 once he completes his college education with a Bachelor’s degree in something.” But Billy argues with that. He says, “I shouldn’t have get a college degree to receive my granddad’s car and that money, because when my granddad was alive he gave a car and a bunch of money to my older brother and he didn’t have a college education. And he gave a car and bunch of money to my aunt Lucy and she didn’t have a college education. So I shouldn’t have to have a college education to receive a car and a bunch of money from my granddad.” Well, Billy can argue that all he wants to, but it’s not going to change the fact that if he wants the car and the money from his granddad he has to get a college education, because his granddad has died and that’s what’s stated in his will. It doesn’t matter how others got cars and money from his granddad while he was living. When he dies, one must comply with the conditions stated in the will.
The new covenant is like Jesus’ will. And there are conditions that Jesus had his apostles preach to the world that people must meet in order to come into the new covenant relationship with God and receive all the blessings of it. He had those apostles preach that entrance into the new covenant and forgiveness of sins and all the blessings of it involves being baptized as a penitent believer in Him. How people received forgiveness of sins before the death of Christ does not matter. Jesus has died and His last will is in effect. We have to comply with the conditions that Jesus has stated.
Let’s consider another common argument to say that baptism is unnecessary to be saved.
II. Cornelius and his household
I’ll let MacArthur word it for you again. He says, “The Bible also gives us an example of people who were saved before being baptized. In Acts 10:44-48, Cornelius and those with him were converted through Peter’s message. That they were saved before being baptized is evident from their reception of the Holy Spirit (v. 44) and the gifts of the Spirit (v. 46) before their baptism. Indeed, it is the fact that they had received the Holy Spirit (and hence were saved) that led Peter to baptize them (cf. v. 47).”
Let’s read the verses he’s talking about, “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.”
The assertion that many are making today is that Cornelius and his household must have been saved before they were baptized because the Holy Spirit came upon them and empowered them to speak in other tongues.
But couldn’t God send the Holy Spirit upon someone to empower that person to speak in other tongues even if that person wasn’t quite yet saved? Certainly God could do that. It reminds me of the prophet Balaam in Numbers 22-25. He’s also mentioned in II Peter and Jude. That prophet was a dirty rotten greedy fella. He wanted to prophesy doom on the people of Israel in order to receive riches from an enemy king. And God wouldn’t let Balaam do it. The Spirit of God would come on Balaam and make him prophesy good things for Israel. But Balaam really wanted to get paid by this enemy king and so he advised the enemy king on how to destroy the people of Israel. He said, “Here’s what you’re going to have to do. You’re going to have to entice Israel into sin, into idolatry and sexual immorality, because then God will fight against Israel for you.” Balaam didn’t care about the will of God or the people of Israel. Balaam just cared about money. But the Spirit of God came on him and empowered him to prophesy. I’m not suggesting that Cornelius was a dirty rotten fella. But I’m just saying it does not prove that somebody is saved if the Spirit of God empowers that person to do something.
In the case of Cornelius and his household, why did the Holy Spirit come upon them and empower them to speak in other tongues? Nowhere in the text does it say that it was to show that they were already saved. It doesn’t say that. The text suggests rather a different reason why God did this. In the book of Acts the gospel had not gone to any Gentiles yet. Most of Acts 10 is about what God had to do to bring Peter a Jew together with Cornelius and his household who were Gentiles, the visions God had to give to Cornelius and to Peter to bring them together. And Peter felt uncomfortable with the situation because he’d never associated with Gentiles all his life. And then notice Peter’s response in v47 when saw that the Spirit had been poured out on Cornelius and his household. He said, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” Why would Peter ask that? Why would he think that somebody would refuse them the water to be baptized? Because they were Gentiles and the Jews thought of Gentiles as unclean, the scum of the earth. But the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon them Peter understood as an indication by God that God wants to accept these people, that it’s okay to go ahead and baptize them.
Look at 11:2, “And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (“How could you do that, Peter? How could you call yourself a man of God when you went and associated with and ate with Gentiles?”) v4 “But Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence…” Peter explained all that took place in ch10. Look down at the part where he recounts the Holy Spirit coming upon them, v15, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 “Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.’” You see the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his household proved to the Jewish Christians that God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life. It was something God did to show the Jewish Christians that they should not stand in God’s way when it comes to saving them, that it’s okay to baptize them in the name of Christ and accept them as fellow brothers in the Lord. That’s the reason the text gives for why the Holy Spirit came upon them. It was not to show that they were already saved.
One more argument against the necessity of baptism. In about every discussion about the necessity of baptism invariably those who argue against it will quote the passages that say…
III. We are saved by faith and not by works.
They are quoted as though they mean that we don’t have to do anything to be saved.
Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.”
MacArthur asserts, “It is quite clear from such passages… that no external act is necessary for salvation. Salvation is by divine grace through faith alone.”
Is that what Paul was saying, that you don’t have to do anything to be saved?
Let’s put Paul’s words in their context. Let’s go to Romans. It’s at the end of ch3 and into ch4 where he talks about how we’re saved by faith and not by works. Virtually everybody who’s familiar with the book of Romans agrees that in the first 3 chapters he’s been talking about how everybody has sinned. The Gentiles are sinful, ch1. The Jews are sinful, ch2. We’re all sinful, ch3. There is none righteous, not even one in and of themselves. Nobody has lived up to God’s law perfectly. God does not owe salvation to anybody. Nobody deserves it. And so salvation is a gift of God’s grace made possible by the death of Christ for our sins, that He gives to people on the condition of faith. 3:23-24 is a good summary of much of what he’s been saying, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publically as a propitiation in His blood…” It is in that context that Paul says we are justified by faith and not by works. And he says because of that we have no grounds for boasting that we are saved.
Doesn’t it seem reasonable in that context that what Paul means by “we are not justified by works” is that justification is not something we earn or merit. Nobody lives such a good life that God owes it to them. We’ve all sinned. We all fall short of the glory of God. And because we don’t earn it, we have no grounds for boasting over our salvation. Like suppose you have on your shelf at home an Olympic gold medal. Now, if you actually competed in the Olympics and won that then you might have something to boast about. But if you never actually competed in the Olympics yourself, but rather that medal was given to you as a gift by the guy who actually did the work in training and competed and won it, then you have no grounds to be boasting about it. I hear Paul saying our salvation is like that. God is the one who really has done the work. He’s the one who has really paid for our salvation. We don’t earn it. So we have no grounds for boasting.
Romans 4:4 is a great verse that confirms that when Paul says we’re not saved by works he means we don’t earn it. Very good verse to remember to help people see what Paul is saying. “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.” Do you hear what he’s saying there? When Paul talks about gaining something by works, he’s talking about earning something like a paycheck, where it is not given as a favor or a gift, but as what is due. When Paul says we are not saved by works he means we do not earn it. It is a gift God gives to undeserving people on the condition of faith.
He appears to mean the same thing in the Ephesians 2:8-9 passage where he says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” You don’t earn it. So you have not grounds for boasting about it. It’s a gift given on the condition of faith.
But to say that you don’t earn something, is that to say that you don’t have to do anything to receive it? What if somebody, not because you’ve done anything for them but just out kindness of their heart and love for you, writes you a check for a whole bunch of money and extends their arm to you with the check? Well, you’ve got to take the check and you’ve got to go to the bank and endorse it and deposit it. You have to do something to receive it, but that doesn’t mean you earned it.
And to say that you’re saved by faith, is that to say you don’t have to do anything to be saved? Hebrews 11:7 says, “By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.” How was Noah saved from the flood? By faith. He so trusted God’s word and God’s power that He built the ark as God told him. He was saved by faith, because his faith moved him to do what God said. There are lots of examples in Hebrews 11. But let’s just notice one more. Hebrews 11:30, “By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days.” How did the Israelites conquer the fortified city of Jericho? By faith. They had such faith in the power and promises of God, that when God said “March around the city once a day for 6 days and then march around it 7 times on the 7th day and then everybody shout and blow the trumpets and the walls will fall flat and you will take the city,” they had such faith that they did what God said. And did they earn that victory over Jericho? No, God gave it to them. It was a gift, but they had to do something to receive it.
Let’s look at one other passage that supplements and clarifies what Paul was saying and what Paul was not saying. James 2:24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Paul says we’re justified by faith not by works. James says we’re justified by works and not by faith alone. Now, either we have a contradiction in the NT, or there is a sense in which we are not justified by works and there is a sense in which we are justified by works, and Paul and James are using the expression “justified by works” in different ways and both are making true statements. I opt for the second option.
We saw that Paul meant we don’t earn our salvation. What is James talking about?
If you read from James 2:14 to the end of the chapter it becomes clear what he’s talking about. “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works.” [You can end the quotation right there as some translations do. Someone may say “You have faith and I have works,” as though you can have one without the other. James says,] Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
So James is clearly not talking about whether we deserve to be saved and have grounds for boasting or if it’s a gift of grace paid for by another that we’re unworthy of, like Paul was talking about. James is talking about something totally different. James is talking about whether we have to do what God says to be saved or if we can just have faith. And he argues that real saving faith is faith that moves you to do what God says. It is faith like what Abraham and Rahab had that moved them to do the will of God. If your faith does not move you to works of obedience, then whatever faith that is it is dead and useless and cannot save.
So man is justified by works in the sense that we must have the kind of faith that moves us to obey God. If our faith doesn’t move us to do what God says it’s insufficient faith. But man is not justified by works in the sense that though we must obey God out of faith, we do not earn our salvation.
It’s a troubling assertion that many are making today, like MacArthur, saying, “It is quite clear from such passages (from Paul)… that no external act is necessary for salvation. Salvation is by divine grace through faith alone.” That’s not what Paul is saying. And that’s the very idea that James 2 is opposing.
– James Williams