Born of Water: The baptism of John the Baptist, Part 2


So where does faith fit into the picture, if at all? Well, to a Jew, faith and repentance were inseparable concepts. How can you love your Father and not obey him? How can you trust God’s promises and refuse to care for the poor or use power to oppress the weak?

But faith, at this time, was in a Messiah yet to be revealed. It was faith in God’s messianic and Kingdom promises — combined with an eager expectation that the Messiah would soon appear and bring the Spirit promised by the prophets — that is, baptism of the Spirit, who would soon be outpoured like water falling from heaven.

So what are the salvific implications? Here’s the best I can make of it —

  • Obviously, those who submitted to John’s baptism had their sins forgiven — but Jews were saved by faith, going all the way back to Abraham. It seems improbable that God took away salvation by faith and replaced it with salvation by faith plus John’s baptism. After all, there were Jews living all across the Empire. It was physically impossible for most to be immersed by John, and many likely never heard of John until some time after the crucifixion. It was a big Empire, and communications were very slow.
  • The Spirit was not received by John’s baptism — and this is a big distinction from Acts 2:38. But neither was JTB’s baptism a one-time forgiveness. The goal was to get right with God — to restore right relationship, that is, to re-enter God’s chesed or grace.
  • To me, John seems to have been launching a national movement of repentance in hopes of obtaining God’s forgiveness for the nation as promised in Deu and Lev. God sent one final prophet cut out of the OT cloth to beg his people to repent in time for the Messiah’s coming. That is, this is more about God’s chosen people being restored as a nation to right relationship than individuals being saved to go to heaven when they die. It’s not that no Jew was saved up to this time, but that the nation as a whole was damned and the nation needed to return to God in repentance — which would prepare the way for the Messiah.
  • These are final words of the OT —

    (Mal. 4:1-6 ESV) “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.  2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.  3 And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.  

    4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.  

    5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.  6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” 

  • V. 1 is the source of JTB’s promise of baptism with fire. It’s the wrath of God on an unrepentant nation. But there’s also this promise of restoration and the return of God to Zion —

(Isa. 40:1-5 ESV) Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.  3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

  • John’s appearing thus portended both forgiveness and damnation — baptism with the Spirit or with fire. Make your choice!
  • That doesn’t mean individuals weren’t forgiven but that the goal was for so many individuals to repent that God would bring an end to the Exile, pour out his Spirit, inaugurate the Kingdom, and enthrone the Messiah.

So why not just repent? Why be immersed? Because to the Eastern mind, relationship with God was more about what you do than what you believe. More exactly, “faith” was nothing unless enacted. It was not a mere mental state. It was a choice revealed by actions.

The natural act of repentance would have been a sacrifice at the Temple — but that would have sent the wrong message. After all, God was about to provide the sacrifice! No, a new covenant soon to come required a new marker of repentance — something with deep roots in the Hebrew scriptures but not tied to a system that would soon be swept away.

To complete the story, as Paul teaches in Rom 9 – 11, most of Israel rejected JTB and Jesus. Only a remnant was faithful and so saved. The Exile only ended for the faithful few. But even though the Jews largely rejected their Messiah, God kept his covenant promises to those who believed in Jesus. He saved them by faith, and the early Jewish converts became the means by which God blessed the nations through Abraham’s children.

For the rest, well, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed a second time by pagans, and a million or more Jews were killed and many more were sold into slavery — all despite warnings by JTB, Jesus, and the apostles. In fact, one could read the early chapters of Acts as the story of God giving yet one more warning to repent and so avoid the calamity promised by the Torah to those who rebel against God.

The baptism of JTB is thus part of the warning and the promises given by God to his people, begging them to return to him in repentance before it’s too late.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to Born of Water: The baptism of John the Baptist, Part 2

  1. Price Futrell says:

    I see you making an argument for a distinction between being forgiven and being saved… Am I understanding that correctly ? It does seem that God has a history of forgiving people… or at least having mercy on folks (Ninevah)(Cain)… since the beginning.. But salvation is through the cross…and that is an act of grace and grace alone…accepted by faith and not at all through anything that we do… And, while you are correct that faith would generate the urge to be faithful, who among us would want to submit our obedience report card to see if we qualify to be saved ?

  2. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    I understand what you are saying, but I disagree with the way that you say it. The words are laden with Western baggage. We distract everyone from a better understanding by using words like “grace alone” and “accepted by faith and not at all through anything that we do.” These type phrases arose out the Reformation in response to various excesses of the RCC.

    “Grace alone” is not a Biblical term. Again, I think I understand (and concur) with how you use it, but I am speculating because it needs further explanation. The only aspect of salvation that is by “Grace alone” is the basis of salvation or the means of salvation. Once we sin even a single time, we deserve damnation. Such is the odious nature of sin. There is nothing that we can do in an entire lifetime to atone for that single sin. We require grace if we hope to be saved. God is not obligated to provide a means for our salvation, but He did – the Cross. That is an act of grace that we neither deserved nor contributed towards in terms of efficacy. Within that narrow context – i.e. the means – salvation is wholly of grace. Nothin we do of ourselves can atone or forgive sin.

    The second phrase – “accepted by faith and not at all through anything that we do” – is purely antithetical. Accepting something by faith is, in fact, doing something. Faith IS action. It is something you DO. In fact, any subsequent action that is motivated by faith can accurately be described as “of faith” or “by faith.” It is vitally important to recognize, however, that neither faith nor any action motivated by faith equate to meritorious action. Our faith-based actions or works do not merit salvation. In other words, nothing that we do can contribute to the basis of our salvation. Nothing we do can remove sin. Nothing we do can contribute to the efficacy of the cross. The summation of obedience over an entire lifetime does not mean that we can earn or merit salvation or that we can remove a single blot on our soul. It’s impossible. Thus in Luke 17:10, Christ can say, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” Obeying commands is our duty, but it also lacks any efficacy to remove sin from our soul.

    This is not to suggest that God doesn’t demand our obedience. He does. It is just that we are not saved on the basis of our obedience. This is where Calvin went a bit off track in my opinion. God is perfectly free to give us stipulations with regard to salvation; however, our obedience to those stipulations (e.g. faith) does not mean that we either earn salvation because of our compliance OR that God is suddenly in our debt because we performed x requirement. Why not? Because of sin. The only way that we could possibly earn or merit salvation is to live a sinless life – never sin a single time. Of course, no one can do that – we have all sinned and fallen short. We need grace, mercy, and the Cross as the means of our salvation and we need faith / obedience to the Gospel as the way of our salvation.

  3. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    My skill at bolding text has gone dreadfully awry.

  4. Ray Downen says:

    John’s baptism was new. The baptism commanded by Jesus was new. Neither were part of the Old Covenant. John’s baptism was for Jews who longed for the coming of the promised Kingdom. The baptism commanded by Jesus is part of the New Covenant, very much unlike the baptism of John which was only for Jews.

    Baptism INTO CHRIST in recognition of His resurrection of course could not be performed prior to His resurrection. Jesus makes baptism important. He commands it for every NEW believer. It brings the believer INTO the kingdom of Christ. It’s an immersion, by His command. It is important because JESUS COMMANDS IT. He doesn’t command the many things which help us live for Him. But baptism and the Lord’s Supper are commanded.

    We note that baptism is a one-time event while the Supper could well be shared each time His faith family gathers. Eating together is a time for sharing news and views with brethren. It’s a time when the needy can speak of their needs and those able to help can help. But we have made the SUPPER into a ceremony where no fellowship is possible. We have destroyed the fellowship intended by the call for us to eat together. And some have decided that salvation is based on faith and grace alone with no obedience needed.

  5. Ray Downen says:

    How sad it is that some imagine sinners are not called to OBEY the gospel. Only those who hear and OBEY the gospel have any reason to hope in Christ. Salvation is never promised based on grace alone or faith alone. Yet that IS what some Bible teachers claim as if it was taught by Jesus or His apostles. It’s for good reason that we have based our teaching about conversion on Acts 2:37,38. Those who promise salvation on other than what Jesus had His apostles teach are promising something they can’t deliver.

  6. Price Futrell says:

    Kevin.. I get it… mankind has always wanted to participate in our salvation… But God had the author write that we are saved by grace… there is no other addition to that.. To say grace alone isn’t to detract or diminish the text. God saves us and it’s all about Him… When one reads Romans 4 and the account of Abram…and God’s response.. we see that actions aren’t considered much at all.. It might mean something to the person… but to God, He doesn’t pay out salvation like a wage that is earned from our efforts… If you put away any prejudice and reread Romans 4 slowly and just let the test speak to you, you’ll see that God looks at the motivating factor or our attempt to be obedient.. He doesn’t look at the obedience and then reward us based on that .. Boy, am I grateful for that.. Unless He grades on a significant curve. But without a doubt our salvation is based on grace and entirely on grace alone… We can’t demand of God that He save us based on anything that we’ve done… There is nothing in the text in all of scripture that suggests otherwise. For those that want to place obedience equal with grace I simply ask how obedient must we be.. We know that only Jesus was 100% obedient.. Must we be 75% or 50% obedient.. 1%… What is the failing point ? My guess is if it is based on my performance.. I’m toast. Maybe others are more perfect than me.. Well, that’s highly likely in fact.

  7. Price Futrell says:

    Ray, how perfect must one obey the gospel… which is kind of weird.. the gospel is the “good news” that Jesus died for our sins.. How perfectly have you obeyed and continue to “obey the gospel” so that you earn your salvation ?

  8. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    Well…spent about an hour plus on a subsequent comment, Price. I should have saved it to my clipboard because the screen froze and I lost it. Lesson learned. Not sure when I will find the time to recreate it.

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