Question #400

Isn't baptism just a ceremonial washing?

The bible seems to show a different interpretation of water baptism than what you seem to say. It was ceremonial washing and it acknowledged that God's way was right. What does water baptism acknowledge? That we receive the remission of sins in the name of Jesus.

John 3:25-26

25An argument developed between some of John's disciples and a certain Jew[a] over the matter of ceremonial washing. 26They came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him."

Luke 7:29-30

29(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus' words, acknowledged that God's way was right, because they had been baptized by John. 30But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)

The Answer:

It is regrettable that some, in an attempt to avoid the clear teaching of scripture on the purpose of baptism, make no attempt to justify that which they espouse based upon what the Bible says about baptism's purpose. They invariably go to a passage that either does not mention baptism at all or to a passage that speaks of baptism without mentioning its purpose. This question, which is more of an argument ("argument" is used in a good sense here) than a question, is a classic example.

First, a translation is chosen that uses the expression "ceremonial washing." While some translations do use that expression, the literal translation is "about purification" or "about" or "over purification."

Second, v. 26 makes clear that the dispute arose over baptism.

Third, the context makes clear that the dispute was between a Jew and John's disciples, the latter having started the dispute because they were jealous that "all" (hyperbole for "many" since John's supporters in this dispute had not themselves left John to follow Jesus).

Fourth, the language used makes clear that it was not just "washing" that was at issue, but a particular type of washing, one related to purification. Specifically, it was the washing of baptism. Note that v. 25 begins with "then," which ties it to that which preceded. That which had preceded in John's account was a) Jesus was baptizing in the Judean countryside (v. 22); b) John was baptizing in Aenon near Salim (v. 23); c) the dispute arose about purification v. 25); the purification in dispute was baptism (v. 26).

Fifth, the only thing that can reasonable be concluded from these facts is that all of the parties agreed that baptism was related to purification.

Sixth, from these facts one cannot reasonably or on any rational basis conclude that the baptism in question merely acknowledged that God's way was right. Other translations speak of God's being "just" or "righteous."

Seventh, that leaves the question, in what sense, if any, does the scripture say that the baptism of Jesus and the baptism of John related to purification? The NIV, used by the inquirer, translates Luke 7:29, "All the people . . . when they heard Jesus' words, acknowledged that God's way was right, because they had been baptized by John." Other translations render it "justified God" (KJV, ASV), "they acknowledged God's justice" (NAS), "declared God just" (ESV), "declared God righteous" (Young's Literal Translation). All of this language is similar. Thayer, in his Greek Lexicon, defines the meaning of the Greek: "edikaioœsan ton Theon, declared God to be righteous, i.e. by receiving the baptism declared that it had been prescribed by God rightly, Luke 7:29…." Thus, the language makes it clear that God rightly, righteously, and justly prescribed submission to the baptism of Jesus and of John. Indeed, if this inquirer had only read the next verse (Luke 7:30), he would have learned that, whatever its purpose, this baptism was so necessary that to reject it was to reject the counsel of God.

Eighth, having established its importance leaves its purpose undefined. The definition of that purpose in scripture is greatly different from the purpose ascribed by this inquirer. Fortunately the scripture speaks clearly on the baptism of both John and Jesus:

Mark 1:4 John came, who baptized in the wilderness and preached the baptism of repentance unto remission of sins.

Mark 1:5 And there went out unto him all the country of Judaea, and all they of Jerusalem; And they were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Notice that rejecting the counsel of God is contrasted with declaring God to be righteous and that that declaration was accomplished by submission to the baptism of Jesus and John. For the inquirer to be consistent he would have to conclude even the acknowledgement for which he contends, i.e., "that we receive the remission of sins in the name of Jesus," requires that remission of sins to come as a result of the baptism for the remission of sins. Had the remission of sins come before the baptism, the baptism could not have been "for the remission of sins."

After all of our inquirer's denials and machinations, the scripture still says that John's baptism was preceded by confession of sins and the baptism was for the remission of those sins. Whom will you follow? Jesus or the inquirer?

John 12:48 He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my sayings, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I spake, the same shall judge him in the last day.

God's Plan of Salvation

You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)

You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)

You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)

Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)