The Christian’s Obituary

Introduction:  The subject of Baptism, as Donald Macleod recently observed, remains a controversial subject on which, regrettably, Christians are deeply divided.[1] Macleod goes on to make three general comments, which I share. First, I have learned over time that there is little hope of convincing my Baptist friends on this issue (I should point out that I was once a Baptist). I don’t despair of truth or even of Baptists’ logical powers, but this is a long-standing disagreement and it is unlikely that something new to the debate will convince the other side that their position is wrong. Secondly, I don’t regard this debate between Baptists and Paedobaptists as a debate about fundamentals. There is no doubt that in practice it is difficult to have the two points of view co-existing in one church or denomination, but that is a practical, not a theological, difficulty. We here at the Church of the Redeemer have allowed for both views to be maintained. Baptistic as well as Paedobaptistic convictions and practices are permitted. We have been approached by a group of Reformed Baptists and asked if we would like to join their fellowship—if and only if we exclude our Paedobaptistic brethren (which would include me!) and their beliefs and we have (and always will, I hope) declined. We have also been solicited to join with a number of conservative Presbyterian denominations—provided we adopt a strict Paedobaptistic position and we have again always declined such invitations. We deliberately choose to remain as we are—an independent Reformed Church with room for both views. That is why we list as our confessional documents both The Westminster Standards (which represents the Paedobaptistic position) and The Second London Confession 1689 (which is the classic Baptistic confession) as representative of our core Reformed beliefs. Thus we believe that this divergence itself is not one between Christians and non-Christians. It is very much an in-house division, dividing for example, men such as the great Baptist preacher C. H. Spurgeon and his contemporary, the celebrated Angelical bishop J. C. Ryle, who were both deeply committed to the core doctrines of the Reformation. The third comment I want to make is that those of us, who adhere to the doctrine of infant baptism in the Reformed tradition, are not sacramentalists.[2]

Unlike Roman Catholics we do not believe that baptism, by itself, mechanically and invariably effects a saving change in children. We certainly do not administer it in the belief that it automatically regenerates. Romans 6 is laden with difficult terms and puzzling phrases that demand careful attention. We come today to two of those phrases: “baptized into Christ Jesus” and “baptized into His death.” These words are not only important doctrinally but, as we shall see, they are important ethically as well. Before delving into the meaning of these phrases, we need to retrace our steps a bit. What is Paul’s intent in this chapter? The Apostle was seeking to correct a gross distortion of his teaching on the grace of God. He is vindicating his gospel from the charge that it allows people to be careless and indifferent about sin. His major premise revolves around the relationship of believers to the death and resurrection of Christ. It is critically important to note how the Apostle underscores and presupposes the determinative role of doctrinal understanding. (Note the emphasis of “knowing” in 6:3, 6, 9, and 16). This has to do not only with the facts of the gospel, but with its implications as well.

There are at least three interrelated questions that surface from this passage: Why has Paul introduced the image of being entombed? What is the meaning of “into Christ” and “with Him?” And, finally, how does baptism factor into this discussion? Because of the pivotal place Paul gives to baptism in this text, we need to carefully examine this important (but widely misunderstood) biblical term. Schreiner is correct when he observes, “Centuries of controversy over baptism can easily lead us to read the references to baptism in light of ecclesiastical tradition. Indeed, baptism itself is not the central theme of the text; the main theme is the believer’s participation with the death and resurrection of Christ. Nonetheless, union with Christ in His death and His resurrection becomes a reality for believers through baptism, and thus we must examine verses 3-5 carefully in order to understand the relationship between baptism and the believers’ union with Christ.”[3]

I.          The Import of Baptism:  There are two closely related words for baptism in ancient Greek. One is BAPTŌ, “to dip,” and the other is BAPTIZŌ which conveys the notion of “change” or to wash.”[4] The Greek word BAPTIZŌ, is used by Paul 23 times, and, with the possible exception of 1 Corinthians 10:2, he uses it to denote water baptism (cf. I Corinthians  1:13-17; 12:13; 15:29; Galatians 3:27). “By the date of Romans, BAPTIZŌ appears to have become almost a technical expression for the rite of Christian initiation by water, and this is surely the meaning the Roman Christians would have given the word.”[5]

Contrary to popular Baptist opinion, BAPTIZŌ does not mean to immerse or to dip (in the sense of putting something into something and then removing it). The Baptist argument is that the Bible itself lays down that baptism must be by immersion. This is based on certain claims they make as to what the verb baptize and the noun baptism actually mean in Greek. The natural, normal, non-symbolical meaning of this word, they say, is to immerse; and therefore every instance of baptism in the New Testament is an instance of immersion. But, as Macleod again observes, “We accept that sometimes it may mean that. We accept that immersion is a valid and regular mode of baptism. But we would also argue that there are instances in the Greek scriptures, both in the Old and in the New Testament, where the meaning immerse or immersion is impossible in the light of the context. Without going into detailed analysis we can look at some examples. First, Leviticus 14:6. The background here is the ritual for the cleansing of a leper. The priest is to use two birds. One bird is to be slain and drained of its blood, and the living bird is then ‘baptized in the blood of the slain bird’. It would surely be a very difficult exercise to immerse a living bird in the blood of another bird of the same species. It is possible to sprinkle the bird. It is possible even to dip the bird. But it is, I think, impossible to immerse it. Secondly, Daniel 4:33. This occurs in the context of the account of Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity. He lived in the open like a wild beast and his body was ‘baptized with the dew of heaven’. It is very difficult to see how this can mean that he was ‘immersed in the dew of heaven’. Thirdly, Luke 11:38. A certain Pharisee was astonished that Jesus did not wash before dinner. The verb ‘wash’ (baptize) is, literally, to be baptized. There is no evidence that the Jews of this period insisted on immersion before a meal. Nor is there any evidence in the Old Testament of any rite of this kind. What Luke is referring to is the Rabbinical insistence that before a meal a Jew must wash his hands. There was very stringent rabbinical legislation as to just how far up the arm that washing had to go; but there was no insistence whatever that the Jew must immerse himself before dinner. In Hebrews 9:10 we find a similar reference: ‘various ceremonial washings’ (NIV). The Greek word here is BAPTISMOIS. It is difficult to think of any prescribed immersion, which the writer could have had in mind. The Old Testament laid much emphasis on sprinkling (the sprinkling of blood, for example), but seldom, if ever, did it insist on immersion.”[6]

Therefore, contrary to our well-meaning Baptist brethren, the word BAPTIZŌ does not simply mean immerse. Rather, it means, “to put together so as to remain together.” Accordingly, we read in 1 Corinthians 12:13 that Christians have been “baptized into one body” by the Holy Spirit. They are not dipped or immersed into one body and then removed; they are permanently united with it. Likewise in 1 Corinthians 10:2 we are told that the Israelites were “baptized” into Moses, the cloud, and the sea. They were united with Moses in these events. Boice helpfully explains, “We gain help from classical literature. The Greeks used the word BAPTIZŌ from about 400 B.C. to about the second century after Christ, and in their literature BAPTIZŌ always pointed to a change having taken place by some means. Josephus used it of the crowds that flooded into Jerusalem and ‘wrecked the city.’ Other examples are the dyeing of cloth and the drinking of too much wine. In each of these cases there is a liquid or something like it—the crowds were like a human ‘wave,’ a dye and wine are liquids—but the essential idea is actually that of a change. Jerusalem was wrecked. The dyed cloth changes color. The drinker becomes different; he misbehaves. The clearest example I know that shows this meaning of BAPTIZŌ is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles, and it is helpful because it uses both words. Nicander says that to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be “dipped” (BAPTŌ) into boiling water and then “baptized” (BAPTIZŌ) in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern immersing the vegetable in a solution, but the first is temporary. The second, the act of “baptizing” the vegetable, produces a permanent change. To get this distinction in mind is of enormous help in understanding the New Testament verses that refer to baptism, including our text in Romans, for which thoughts of a literal immersion in water would be nonsense.”[7] “Water baptism,” declares Jay Adams, “is the outer ritual that ‘uniting ordinance’ that permanently introduces Christians to the visible Church, just as Spirit baptism permanently unites Christians with the invisible Church.”[8]

II.         The Place and Importance of Baptism:  Baptism serves as the sign and seal of membership in the body of Christ. “It is apparent that as a sign or seal it should not be identified with that which is signified and sealed. That which signifies is not the thing signified and that which seals, is not the thing sealed. The sign or seal presupposes the existence of that which is signified and sealed. Hence baptism is the sign and seal of a spiritual reality, which is conceived of as existing. Where that reality is absent is the sign, or seal has no efficacy.”[9] There is another important element involved in baptism. It signifies death—death to a whole way of life—and this is the point Paul is seeking to drive home. “Christians are people who have died, and their baptism emphasizes that death. Death runs through this passage, and is mentioned in every verse up to v. 13. We should not let the modern associations of baptism blind us to the point Paul is making so strongly. He is saying that it is quite impossible for anyone who understands what baptism means to acquiesce cheerfully in a sinful life. The baptized have died to all that.”[10]

III.        The Final Purpose of Baptism:  Baptism does not bring about union with Christ. “Baptism is not the efficient cause of that union with Christ whereby the believer dies with Him in His atoning death, and is buried with Him. The efficient cause is the Holy Spirit, in regeneration. It is here that the spiritual and the Sacramentarian theories of baptism find their point of divergence. Baptism is a sign that the soul is already united to Christ, and has already died with Him.”[11] The final purpose of baptism is that it declares that we have died to the old way of life, buried[12], and are now raised with Christ that we might walk in newness of life (cf. Ephesians 5:2; Colossians 4:5). Note carefully the wording. We are said to be “baptized into Christ’s death,” in order that we would be “dead to sin.” This points to an event and a definite state or advantage and not an exhortation to a duty.[13]

Conclusion:  It is one thing to say that baptism occupies an important place in the New Testament. It is altogether another thing to speak of baptism as a supernatural infusion of grace. This would exalt baptism to a place the New Testament never gives it. Nothing supernaturally happens in and through baptism. “Rather,” writes Berkouwer, “baptism is meaningful only through its pointing at another event in which those who were dead in their transgressions are truly reconciled, in which the accusations written against them are blotted out. That is why it is so significant when Paul writes that we are baptized into Christ Jesus and into His death. The significance of baptism is so great because it is God’s sign, which involves Christ. Against ‘antinomian license’ Paul can say: Do you know that all of us who were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into death?”[14] The specific nature of this is well summarized by Sinclair Ferguson. “…the forgiveness of sins is not received in a vacuum, but in union with Christ (‘In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins’ [Eph. 1:7]). But if we have been united to Christ, we share in Him as a crucified and risen Saviour. When He was crucified, He died to sin; when He was resurrected, He was raised to new life with the Father (Rom. 6:8-10). If in becoming Christians we have been united to this Christ, it follows that (in some sense) we have died to sin with Him and been raise similarly into a new life. This being the case, how can those who have received forgiveness in Christ, and are thus united to Him, go on living in sin? They do not. Indeed, Paul’s point is that they cannot because they have died to sin. Paul’s logic is impeccable:

A.        We received forgiveness of sins through Christ.

B.        This reception involves being united to Christ.

C.        The Christ, to whom we are united, died to sin.

D.        Since we are united to Him, we also have died to sin.

E.        If we have died to sin, we cannot continue living in it.

F.         Therefore, we cannot continue in sin that grace may increase.

Justification is received by faith alone, but since faith unites us to Christ as Sanctifier, justification and sanctification can no more be separated than Christ Himself can be divided.”[15]


[1] D. Macleod, A Faith To Live By; Christian Teaching That Makes a Difference (Mentor, 1998), p. 210. Recently the debate heated up with the publication of Fred Malone’s (a Reformed Baptist) The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism Versus Paedobaptism (Founders Press, 2003). Although Malone claims that he writes in an irenic spirit and wants very much to maintain a charitable attitude on the issue (and points to the example of the “good John Bunyan and dear John Owen”) nonetheless the book is tainted in a very significant way by Malone’s rhetoric, overt dogmatism, and insinuations. Unlike Macleod and myself (we see this issue as secondary), Malone considers it a non-negotiable issue—going so far as to have the audacity to add another sola to the Reformation’s five (Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria) Solis Discipulis (Thus the title of his book.) Of course this would have excluded all the Reformers as well as the vast majority of the Puritans, like John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, the likes of Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and present day people like J. I. Packer and R. C. Sproul from the ranks of the Reformed! Malone follows the standard Baptist line by insisting that only baptism by immersion is Biblical, claiming all other forms are invalid. I found it revealing that he did not address the texts cited in this study (Lev. 14:6; Dan. 4:33; Luke 11:38). His handling of Heb. 9:10 is extremely weak and in the end he claims the text is obscure! It is obscure only because it contradicts Malone’s excessive dogmatic assertions. Finally, Malone insinuates that the chief reason for former Baptists (like myself and individuals like Doug Watson and Mike Kruger who served here at Redeemer. They began as Baptists but both became convinced of the Paedobaptistic position) becoming Presbyterians has to do more with the lack of pastoral opportunities in Baptist Churches (where the Reformed faith would be welcomed) then it does with theological convictions. I personally find that offensive since my moving from a Baptistic position to a Paedobaptistic one had to do with my understanding of the Scriptures and not with the kind of pragmatism that Malone suggests.


[2] In addition to their re-vamping the Reformation’s understanding of sola fide the advocates of the Federal Vision embrace a sacramental understanding of baptism. Federal Visionist Rich Lusk singles out the Old Princeton theologians, esp. Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield as the chief culprits in losing a sacramental understanding of baptismal efficacy in Reformed churches! (He also blames the likes of Abraham Kuyper) Lusk contends that in the waters of baptism, there is EX OPERA OPERATO the work of the Holy Spirit in incorporating the individual into the body of Christ. In other words, baptism ceases to be a sign of spiritual reality, but now baptism creates the reality. According to Lusk all baptized people are “saved” unless they commit apostasy (at which point they lose their justification and union with Christ)—and this he maintains is the real Reformed tradition! His position has more in common with Roman Catholicism and Arminianism than it does with anything distinctively Calvinistic.  Cf. his article “Paedobaptism and Baptismal Efficacy: Historic Trends and Current Controversies” in The Federal Vision eds. Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner (Athanasius Press, 2004). I found it interesting that a strict Reformed Baptist like Fred Malone, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, Federal Visionist Rich Lusk, (Malone correctly says that the position that Lusk is advocating is  “extreme Paedobaptism” p. 178) both single out B. B. Warfield (in my opinion the true representative of the Reformed tradition) as the object of their respective criticism.


[3] T. R. Schreiner, Romans: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker, 1998), p. 305.


[4] In the OT BAPTO is used frequently for dip (e.g. Ps. 67:23, of dipping the foot in the blood of enemies). BAPTIZEIN, used   rarely, is of more importance, esp. II Kings 5:14 of Naaman, who ‘dipped himself (middle, EBAPTISATO) in Jordan seven times’. Cf. also Jdth, 12:7, ‘She washed herself at the fountain of water in the camp’; Eccl. 34:25, of being cleansed from, i.e., from the defilement of, a dead body. In II Kings 5:14, BAPTIZEIN translates Heb. tabhal, which is often translated simply ‘dip’. cf. A Theological Word Book of the Bible Ed. Alan Richardson (McMillan, 1951), p. 27.


[5] Douglas Moo, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary: Romans 1-8 (Moody, 1991), p. 376.


[6] Macleod, op. cit. p. 213. I should add at this point that theologically speaking the notion of immersion without exception is difficult to maintain. For example, J. W. Scott’s observations merit serious reflection. The quantity of water necessary for baptism can be reasonably inferred, though with some uncertainty, from the circumstances surrounding various baptisms described in the book of Acts. But in one passage, namely 10:47, the wording implies that a small amount of water was employed. Peter says to the Jewish believers who have come with him to Cornelius’s house, “Surely no one can withhold (KŌLYSAI) the water, so that these people cannot be baptized.” This was said in anticipation of the baptism of Cornelius and the many other Gentile converts in the house (v. 48). Peter did not want water to be brought in, only to have someone with Jewish scruples hold it back from being used on Gentiles. Now one can “withhold” only what is in one’s possession, and it is hard to see how any of the Jews visiting in Cornelius’s house could have been about to be in possession of enough water for immersions. A bowl of water could have been brought in to the room or courtyard, and then held back, but hardly a large, heavy tub of water. If immersion were necessary, the converts would have been taken to a pool of water. In that case Peter might have spoken of someone possibly trying to keep them away from the water, but not of trying to keep the water away from them. But the translators of the NIV, apparently failing to perceive this, restructure the passage: “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” This rendering removes the implication in the original that baptism was not (or at least, did not need to be) by immersion. And since the NIV refers to the restraining of people (as one would if baptism were by immersion), rather than the withholding of water, it is agreeable to (though does not require) immersion. Cf. his “Dynamic Equivalence and Some Theological Problems in the NIVThe Westminster Theological Journal (48, 1986), p. 37.


[7] J. M. Boice, Romans: The Reign of Grace 5-8 (Baker, 1992) p. 659.


[8] Jay E. Adams from the forward of J. W. Dale, Classic Baptism: BATIZŌ: An Inquiry into the Meaning of the Word as Determined by the Usage of Classical Greek Writers (rpt. Presbyterian and Reformed, 1989). This is the standard work on the subject and shatters the widespread unfounded contemporary mythology associated with the word baptism. I was very disappointed to find that Fred Malone made no effort to interact with Dale’s work. There is no reference to it The Baptism of Disciples Alone and yet Malone’s fellow Baptists are heralding his work as the most important book on the subject to appear in the last two hundred years! One would think that a Baptist would be required to engage what is considered such an important work as Dale if  Malone wished to be thorough in his research.


[9] John Murray Christian Baptism (P&R 1977), p. 86.


[10] Leon Morris, The Epistle to The Romans (Eerdmans, 1988), p. 247.


[11] W. G. T Shield, A Critical and Doctrinal Commentary on Romans (rpt. Klock & Klock 1978), p. 152.


[12] Our association with buried is not the Jewish one. Jesus, for example, was not buried in a grave and covered with dirt. This is important to note because many have argued that baptism and immersion best described what Paul is talking about in this text; I disagree. Herman Ridderbos explains, “In Paul’s statements, themselves, it has no support whatever. So far as the water of baptism is concerned, its symbolic significance, as appears from the whole of the New Testament, is that it purifies, not that one can sink down into it and drown, to say nothing of being buried in the water. There is likewise no basis for the notion that the posture of the one baptized would suggest such symbolism. Were one able still to think of dying at the moment of immersion (‘the waters’ closing over the head, etc.), the single time that Paul speaks of ‘being baptized into his death’ cannot really offer sufficient evidence for this conception. To see this moment of immersion especially as a symbol of burial, however, seems to us entirely absurd. For not only is one not buried in water, but it is also difficult to symbolize burial by immersing oneself for an instant under water. And so far as resurrection is concerned, if the only place where ‘being raised with him in baptism’ is mentioned (Col. 2:12) were intended to denote coming up out of the water as a symbol of the resurrection, surely the preposition ‘out of’ (ek) and not ‘in’ (en) would have been used (as with dying and being buried with him in baptism). The more one goes into the matter, the more he is compelled to the conclusion that the symbolic connection thus made between baptism and the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, however frequently advanced, find no support whatever either in the texts or in the thing itself.” Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Eerdmans, 1975), p. 402.


[13] Leon Morris correctly observes that the first exhortation as such does not occur until 6:11. Cf. his The Epistle to the Romans (IVP, 1988), p. 256.


[14] G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: The Sacraments (Eerdmans, 1969), p. 117.


[15] Sinclair Ferguson, “The Reformed View” in Christian Spirituality: Fine Views of Sanctification, ed. D. L. Alexander (IVP, 1988).


Continue Reading on