Okay. I’m sure this sounds like odd phrasing, but I’m trying to make a point. No one — no Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant — believes that the saving power is in the water. However, some do believe the water to be absolutely essential for the saving power — the sacrifice of Jesus — to save an individual believer. This would be the view of Catholics, the Orthodox, Lutherans, and most Arminian Protestants.
The question is, of course: What does the Bible say? Now I’ve argued elsewhere that the traditional Church of Christ exegesis of the “baptism verses” is pretty much right, although I’m not sure we build a sound theology from the exegesis. (“Exegesis” is the interpretation of the words of the Bible. “Theology” is deriving principles from the exegesis.)
Before trying to build the case for a Third Way, let’s consider some of what the Bible actually does say about baptism in some familiar and some less familiar verses.
Galatians and baptism
(Gal 3:26-27 NIV) You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
(Gal 3:26-27 TNIV) So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
The salvation by faith is “for” or “because” (gar in the Greek) of baptism. In Galatians 5, Paul condemns those who seek to be justified by works, but he has no problem with asserting that salvation by faith is because of submission to baptism.
In a letter that condemns any effort at justification by works, Paul declares we are saved by faith “because” we are baptized. Surely this cannot be ignored to suit a Calvinist presupposition.
As Leon Morris writes in Galatians: Paul’s Charter of Christian Freedom,
He is affirming that those who have accepted Christian baptism with all that that means, that is to say those who have a genuine faith and whose baptism accordingly is meaningful, have done more than engage in an edifying piece of ceremon[y]. They have clothed themselves with Christ.
Baptism into Christ
We next turn to the most familiar Church of Christ baptism verse —
(Acts 2:38) Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
“For” here translates the Greek preposition eis, translated “into” when dealing with verbs of motion. “Be baptized” is, of course, be immersed or dipped. Hence, it’s really “be immersed … into the forgiveness of sins.”
In several parallel constructions throughout the New Testament, “baptizo … eis” (or variants) is translated “baptize into.”
(Acts 8:15-16) When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized [eis] the name of the Lord Jesus.
(Acts 19:5) On hearing this, they were baptized [eis] the name of the Lord Jesus.
(Mat 28:19) Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them [eis] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
No translation translates eis as “for.” They use “into” or “in.”
It’s particularly noteworthy that, going back to Deuteronomy, a common phrase is to do something “in the name of God.” In the New Testament, the phrase in the Greek is almost always “en“ God or Christ, with “en” meaning “in.”
But when the New Testament writers speak of being baptized in the name of Christ, “en” is consistently replaced with “eis” — meaning “into.”
Why change “en” to “eis” when baptism is under consideration? Why not say “baptized in the name of Jesus,” which would have been the ordinary construction, and instead say “baptized into the name of Jesus”?
Plainly, the implication is that baptism is an event of transition into the power and authority and glory of Jesus — not a celebration of having already accomplished this (in which case, we’d be baptized “in” (en) Jesus’ name, not “into” (eis)).
(Rom 6:3-4) Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized [eis] Christ Jesus were baptized [eis] his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism [eis] death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
(1 Cor 1:13-15) Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized [eis] the name of Paul? 14 I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized [eis] my name.
(1 Cor 10:2) They were all baptized [eis] Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
(1 Cor 12:13) For we were all baptized by one Spirit [eis] one body–whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
(Gal 3:27) for all of you who were baptized [eis] Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
You just can’t use “in” in each case, particularly the last two. Some translations, showing a Calvinist or Baptist bias, use “in” whenever possible and “into” only when the text is utterly inconsistent with “in.” But it only takes one “into” to make it true. (And the more ambiguous passages should be translated in light of the less ambiguous passages.)
The exception is Cornelius, who received the Spirit first —
(Acts 10:47-48 ) “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized [en] the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
Hence, the evidence is that Cornelius was already saved, and so he was being baptized in the name of Christ. But in the ordinary case, baptism is into the name of Christ. After all, having the Spirit saves (Rom. 8:9-11).
Of course, the same construction — immerse into — appears with many other direct objects: Jesus’ death, Christ Jesus, one body — in each case indicating a transition from “not in” to “in”. (The difference between jumping in a fire and jumping into a fire, as my 6th grade teacher drilled into me.)
And there are several verses referring ironically or allegorically to baptism “into” Paul or Moses etc. as a parallel or contrast to Christian baptism.
I should add that “believe in the name of Jesus Christ” in Acts 2:38 does not use either en or eis. Rather, the preposition is epi, meaning on or onto. Here, “the name of Jesus” isn’t the object or goal of baptism; rather, it’s the object of belief. But the author again avoids the customary “en” and uniquely says “epi,” indicating that the name of Jesus is what is to be believed in, but avoiding the meaning that the listeners are to believe either into or in the name of Jesus. Rather, he plainly wanted to speak of being baptized into forgiveness.
Here’s the exact order of the Greek words in Acts 2:38–
Peter And to them: Repent ye, and let be baptized each of you on the name of Jesus Christ into forgiveness of the sins of you, and ye will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This is taken from an interlinear Greek Bible sitting in my lap. The comma placement is from the translator, not me. The Greek, of course, has no commas.
“Repent” is aorist imperative active, which is pretty much what the English is. The sense is simply a command or entreaty — consistent with every translation I’ve ever seen.
“Let be baptized” is aorist imperative passive. Of course, it has to be passive, as the implied subject is “you all,” Peter’s listeners. They must submit to baptism.
The two verbs are thus quite parallel. Neither is subordinate to the other in terms of voice or tense etc. “Let be baptized” is closer to “into forgiveness,” and so “into forgiveness” modifies it absent some reason to conclude otherwise.
F.F. Bruce in his New International Commentary on Acts finds it necessary to demonstrate that “repent ye” is tied to forgiveness, not just baptism (which no one denies nowadays) — the point being that the verb nearest the prepositional phrase (be baptized) is the most certain and natural verb to be modified by the phrase.
Jaroslav Pelikan’s commentary on Acts in the Brazos Theological Commentary series has an extended comment on baptism in Acts at 20:19. He says as to Acts 2:38,
[T]he preposition eis [is] being used here as a “marker of goals” or “to denote purpose.” … [T]he tenor of the preposition eis here would appear to be that the God who alone can forgive sins had, in sovereign freedom, chosen to attach that forgiveness to the means of grace, and specifically to baptism … .
Now, we have to be cautious in drawing our theological conclusions, and the interpretation of Galatians 3:27 and of Acts 2:38 and the several parallel passages is hardly the end. But the scriptures do say this, and we can’t just overrule this language and ignore it to suit our presuppositions. Whatever our conclusions may be, we have to deal with the actual words.
Calvinistic commentators repeatedly refuse to do this. (The Church of Christ makes this mistake, too, just as to other verses!) The commentaries repeatedly refuse to exegete the words and instead declare what they cannot mean — making the “last verse read” mistake and replacing God’s words with theirs.
Now every interpretation pretty much has its difficult verses, but when there are gobs of verses you have to override to make your case, you’re on thin ice indeed.
Of course, the argument cuts both ways. All those pesky “faith only” verses have to matter as well. And there are a bunch of them.
We’ll consider the “faith only” position in the next post, and then we’ll try to reconcile them all in a new Third Way.