Baptism Debate Theology Essay

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Theology: The Baptism Debate

Peter's encouragement sermon on the Day of Pentecost -- "repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38) has been the source of raging debate, marred by conflicting views on i) whether Peter was referring to spirit or water baptism; and ii) whether through the phrase 'be baptized…the forgiveness of sins', Peter was identifying baptism as a requirement for salvation[footnoteRef:1]. In other words, should Peter's exhortation be interpreted at face value, or should it be understood some other way? This text purposes to interact with the opposing views on these issues, examine their theological and syntactic viability, and then conclude with an interpretation that aligns with both the immediate and the larger contexts of the verse in question. [1: 1 Bruce Compton, "Water Baptism and the Forgiveness of Sins in Acts 2:38," Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 4 (Fall 1999):3]

The Purpose of Baptism

Should baptism be regarded as a condition for salvation or as a consequence of salvation? Whilst it remains largely undisputable that baptism is performed to make one a witness to Christian faith and as a show of obedience to Christ's ordinance; there still is no consensus on what the actual purpose of baptism is. Is it a means of strengthening one's already-acquired salvation, or is it a way through which an individual acquires salvation and receives forgiveness for their sins?

Baptism as a Consequence of Salvation

Supporters of this perspective interpret the phrase 'for the forgiveness of sins' as a modification of the baptism command, such that salvation (forgiveness) is not the outcome of baptism, but the motivation or basis for it[footnoteRef:2]. In this case, the preposition 'for' is interpreted as a causal antecedent for baptism, and Peter's exhortation is therefore understood as "repent (and after you have done that)…be baptized for the remission (forgiveness) of sins"[footnoteRef:3]. In this regard, Peter is appealing to those who have accepted his message and repented to be baptized because their sins have already been fully forgiven. This perspective enjoys support from outstanding theological scholars including Nigel Turner, Kenneth Wuest, Charles C. Ryrie, A.T. Robertson, Julius R. Mantey, and W.A, Criswell; and is based on two lines of reason; first, it maintains an "evangelical theology since it holds that salvation is by faith alone and not faith plus baptism"[footnoteRef:4]. Ephesians 2:8-9; Acts 16:31; and John 1:12 are among key Scripture references identifying faith as the only requirement for salvation[footnoteRef:5]. Proponents of this view further express that the fact that Paul does not mention baptism in his Gospel outline (1 Corinthians 15:1-8) makes it (baptism) a rather insignificant aspect of the Gospel. Christ's death was all that was needed to grant us salvation; adding conditions to the act of salvation, therefore, only implies the contrary -- that we ought to append our virtuous deeds atop Christ's death in order to secure salvation[footnoteRef:6]. This, according to a posting by the Got Questions Ministry, would "make salvation dependent on our works, instead of dependent on the perfect and complete sacrifice of Jesus Christ"[footnoteRef:7]. [2: 2 Compton, "Water Baptism and the Forgiveness of Sins in Acts 2:38," 13] [3: 3 Lanny Thomas Tanton, "The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 2:38," Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 3 no. 1( Spring 1990)] [4: 4 Tanton, "The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 2:38," n.pag] [5: 5 "Is Baptism Required for Salvation?" Got Questions Ministries, Accessed September 18, 2014,] [6: 6 Kenneth Samuel Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament for the English Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1973), 104] [7: 7 Got Questions Ministry. "Is Baptism Required for Salvation?"]

A second defense for this interpretation arises from the comparisons drawn between Peter's exhortation and parallel Scripture references (Matt 3:11; 12:41 and Romans 1:16; 11:32) that depict a causal relationship. Kenneth Wuest makes specific reference to Matt 12:4, which states that Nineveh repented at (because of) Jonah's preaching[footnoteRef:8]. In his perspective, it would be unreasonable to say that the men of Nineveh repented 'in order to' or 'for' Jonah's preaching, as suggested by opposing interpretations. [8: Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament for the English Reader, 16]

Despite having outstanding defenders, this interpretation has three significant drawbacks, the first being that ancient writers did not often pay significant attention to the difference between telic and causal[footnoteRef:9]. Moreover, a closer scrutiny of the identified parallel passages appears to discredit the prospects of a causal interpretation -- in Matt 12:41, for instance, the interpretation that Nineveh repented because of Jonah's preaching misses the point -- rather, the preposition 'at' symbolizes the direction towards which their act of repentance looked[footnoteRef:10]. Parallel references in this regard include the phrase 'repentance towards God' in Acts 20:21[footnoteRef:11]. Supporters of this interpretation have been accused of selective misrepresentation. The phrase 'for the forgiveness of sins' appears in five different contexts in the New Testament (Acts 2:38; Luke 24: 47; 3:3; Mark 1:3; and Matt 26:28). In Matt 26:28, during the Last Supper, Christ says that "this is the blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" - one may then ask, why haven't the proponents of causal usage for Acts 2:28 argued for the same interpretation for Matt 26:28[footnoteRef:12]? [9: Tanton, "The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 2:38," n.pag] [10: Tanton, "The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 2:38," n.pag] [11: Tanton, "The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 2:38," n.pag] [12: Tanton, "The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 2:38," n.pag]

Baptism as a Requirement for Salvation

This perspective interprets Peter's exhortation in Acts 2:28 at face value -- that the phrase 'forgiveness of sins' is a synonym for eternal life and salvation; and one would have to be baptized in order to receive the same. Towards this end, baptism is a necessary condition for salvation and eternal life[footnoteRef:13]. Proponents of this perspective include Baptismal Regenerationists (those who regard baptism as a work of obedience, which when combined with faith, earns salvation) and Sacramentarians (those who regard the act of baptism as a means through which an individual is imparted with God's grace)[footnoteRef:14]. In this interpretation, the phrase, 'for the remission of sins', is taken as a modification for both the 'be baptized', and the 'repent' commands[footnoteRef:15]. The preposition 'for' is taken to indicate a goal or purpose, so that Peter's message is then interpreted as 'be baptized… so as to receive salvation'. In this regard, a believer cannot have his sins forgiven unless these are formally washed away through the act of baptism[footnoteRef:16]. [13: Tanton, "The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 2:38," n.pag] [14: Compton, "Water Baptism and the Forgiveness of Sins in Acts 2:38," 4] [15: Compton, "Water Baptism and the Forgiveness of Sins in Acts 2:38," 5] [16: Alexander Campbell, Christian Baptism: With its Antecedents and Consequents (1853), Google Ebook, 253]

Proponents of this interpretation base their arguments on comparisons drawn from parallel references (Mark 16:16; Acts 22:16 and John 3:5) that depict baptism as a requirement for salvation. Mark 16:16 commands Christians to venture out into the world and proclaim the Gospel, that anyone who believes and receives baptism shall be rescued from eternal damnation, but those who do not believe will lose their souls. Campbell's interpretation regards belief and baptism (the two conditions for salvation according to this verse) as equal players, such that if belief is interpreted as a requirement for salvation, then baptism has to be interpreted in a similar fashion[footnoteRef:17]. Elsewhere, in Acts 22:16, Ananias encourages Saul of Tarsus to be baptized and, thence, to have his sins washed away[footnoteRef:18]. Notwithstanding the fact that he had seen the risen Christ and believed, Saul had been in pain for three days; and Ananias expresses that he would only be saved if his sins were washed away. The passages in John 3:5 and 1 Corinthians 12:13 further point to baptism as a condition for salvation. In John 3:5, baptism is depicted as a requirement for one to enter God's Kingdom. 1 Corinthians 12:13 further expresses that there are only two kingdoms (God's and Satan's); one can only be a member of either; yet in John 3:5, Jesus expresses that one cannot enter God's Kingdom unless he is born of water and spirit. [17: Campbell, Christian Baptism: With its Antecedents and Consequents, 223] [18: Tanton, "The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 2:38," n.pag]

Judging from the facts presented in the case of either argument, I find the causal usage interpretation to have a strong theological background, but a relatively weak lexical background. Nonetheless, I conclude that despite having a relatively weak theological background, the necessity interpretation has a very strong exegetical basis, and is, hence, a better reflection of Peter's exhortation. Its exegetical strength derives from four major…[continue]

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