THE MEANING OF BAPTISM
T. PIERCE BROWN
Every Christian has probably encountered many efforts to deny the necessity of baptism, or its importance. Those efforts range all the way from making sneering remarks about “water salvation” or a “mere ritual” to a more sophisticated, sometimes apparently scholarly attempts to remove water baptism from the plan of salvation.
Recently, while knocking on doors and setting up Bible studies, I found a pastor of the Presbyterian persuasion who admitted that baptism MIGHT mean immersion, but in that case you could do it in sand or milk, but since it MIGHT mean “dye” as in Revelation 19:3 or “wash” as in Mark 7:4, one could not REALLY tell what it meant, but it was not a “water ritual,” and the basic meaning probably was “to be identified with,” however that might be done. He admitted that he had been immersed, but gave “his people” the choice of whatever they wanted. It would take a small booklet to deal with the errors he espoused in our short conversation, but let us consider only one or two of them in this article.
I believe one can check at least two dozen Greek-English Lexicons and ALL of them define the basic meaning of “baptize” as “to dip, plunge, immerse, overwhelm, etc.” It is true that the word itself does not define the element used. It may be fire, water, Holy Spirit, suffering, milk, or anything else in which a person might be either literally or figuratively plunged, dipped or overwhelmed.
But let us emphasize a point with which we have not had anyone deal in recent times, as far as we recall. Although the imprecise nature of our language may allow us to say that a word MEANS something when it does not, we should not allow such common usage to confuse us as to the real meaning of a term. For example, one may say in ordinary conversation, “Having a tire blow out at 70 MPH MEANS you lose control of your car.” It does NOT really mean that. Even if it ALWAYS resulted in your losing control, the word does not MEAN that. It means, “While traveling at 70 miles per hour, a tire lost its pressure through a rupture.” So, when an action RESULTS in a certain condition or state, that does not mean that the resultant condition is the MEANING of the words describing the action. When a garment is dipped in dye, it will be dyed. But “dip” does not mean, “dye.” When a cup is dipped in water often enough, it will be washed. But “dip” does not mean, “wash.” When a person truly repents, he will change his action. If he has been committing adultery, he will stop. But “repentance” does not MEAN, “stop committing adultery.” When a person is scripturally baptized into Christ, he is identified with Christ, but “baptism” does not MEAN “identification.”
So, although one may reason correctly, “The word `baptism’ does not mean `a water ritual’,” that does not prove that the command to be baptized does not INVOLVE a burial in water. And although one may reason properly, and prove from the Bible that scriptural baptism INVOLVES being identified with Christ, that does not prove that the MEANING of baptism is “identification.” If “baptism” simply means “identification,” one would have no possible way of knowing HOW to be identified. It might be by signing a card, raising a hand, closing one’s eyes, or whatever else one might imagine. In such a case, signing a card would be baptism. Also, if one word MEANS the same as another word, the second word can be substituted for the first in each occurrence. You may want to try it with each occurrence of baptism and see how impossible it is. Also, you may want to try it with a person who thinks baptism is sprinkling. If sprinkling is defined as “to scatter out in small drops,” then one could read Mark16:16as, “He that believeth and is scattered out in small drops shall be saved.”
So, although it is true that when a person is scripturally baptized into Christ, he is identified with Christ, he is united with Christ, he is buried with Christ in the likeness of his death, he has put on Christ, and he has sins washed away, the word does not MEAN any of those things. It means, “dipped, plunged, immersed, overwhelmed, etc.” and when it is done in reverent obedience to the Lord, for the right reasons, it is NEVER “a mere water ritual.”
When Naaman dipped in theJordan Riverand was cured of his leprosy, he probably would not have appreciated anyone calling it a “mere water ritual.” When the blind man washed in the pool of Siloam (John 9:7), he knew it was not a “mere water ritual.” If a person would simply be honest and thoughtful enough to try to understand Colossians2:12, surely he could see that our faith is in the operation of God, but we can show no proper faith in the operation of God until we are willing to be buried with him in baptism as he commanded. If we want to be identified with Christ, we must do it HIS way. No one in Bible times ever said, “See, here is sand or milk, what hinders me to be identified?” But it was, “See, here is water, what hinders me to be baptized?” (Acts8:36). We are convinced that honest, sincere people will try to DO what God says, not try to find some excuse to get out of it.