Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The semantics of immersion

Some good conversation has come up lately about baptism. For the sake of clarity, I'm simply going to refer to it as immersion, because that is what the word meant to the first century believers. Why it has been transliterated in most Bibles rather than translated into English, I don't know. But the meaning of the word is really not in dispute by anyone.

The semantics of Christian immersion is far more divisive than the Biblical treatment of the subject. No doubt some will read a few sentences and either assume I'm one "position" or the other and move on. But I hope all sides of this issue can recognize that we're all on the same side--Jesus Christ's. It's just that like so many areas of theology, men have a way of complicating things and making the Bible less understandable.

    Semantics (n.) - The meaning or the interpretation of a word, sentence, or other language form: "We're basically agreed; let's not quibble over semantics."
What everyone should be able to agree on is that believers ought to be immersed once they've confessed faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and decided to live anew for Him. I don't think that is really in dispute, if we stop and think about it. It might even surprise you that much of Christendom would find common ground with that.

Where we get into endless debates over semantics is in the idea that immersion is for the remission of sins. Acts 2:38 aside, it is the semantics of this statement that divides, not the belief of it in its Biblical simplicity. Does immersion save you, or does the grace of God alone through faith alone save you? I can answer yes on all counts, but have no desire to debate the semantics of what I believe and seek to divide believers over it.

Water itself doesn't save anyone, nor do our works--and few would actually argue that they do. But the bottom line for me is, do you believe in the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and have you been immersed in the likeness of His death? If so, welcome to the Kingdom, brother. If not, don't put it off. All examples of new believers in the new testament scriptures obeyed this command immediately.

It wasn't always a controversial, legalistic notion that a believer's immersion is the point in time when the faith conceived in his heart is born again and his sins are washed away. Even the Nicene Creed (although I'm not into using creeds), which is largely accepted by modern Christendom and goes back (in its original form) to 325 A.D., refers to "baptism for the remission of sins."

The rejection of immersion (or at least its role in becoming a reborn believer) was probably an overreaction to groups that preached the need for immersion, but seemed to be trying to "earn" their salvation by legalistic interpretations of scripture and human effort. I emphatically do not believe it is possible to earn our salvation by anything we do for Him. We are saved solely by the grace of God, and we live our lives for Him out of gratefulness for being saved from our sin. That is not Biblically contradictory to the idea that we ought to be immersed.

He loved us while we were yet in sin, and it is that love that draws us to serve Him. We could never make ourselves righteous through our own efforts, and we don't make ourselves righteous in baptism. He does that. In fact, the forgiveness of Christ in immersion is said to be the work of God, not man:

    Colossians 2:11-14 - In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. (NIV)
It remains a Biblically indisputable fact that we are clothed with Christ when we are immersed, as a result of our faith, into Him:
    Galatians 3:26-27 - You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (NIV)
He became our righteousness and took away our sin when we submitted to Him in the likeness of his death:
    2 Corinthians 5:17-21 - Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation...God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (NIV)

    Romans 6:3-10 - ...don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into 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.

    If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin--because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

    Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. (NIV)

Some oft-quoted scriptures leave no doubt that the result of immersion mixed with faith and repentance is the forgiveness of our sins:
    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. (NIV)

    1 Peter 3:21 - ...and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ... (NIV)

No doubt there are many Christians who reckon the forgiveness of their sins in Christ from a different date than when they were immersed. I don't agree with them on the date of their forgiveness, but as Alexander Campbell said, "The not understanding of this institution [Christian immersion] has prevented many Christians from enjoying its benefits; but the not understanding it does not make them aliens from the kingdom of Jesus." I welcome such people as brothers and hope that someday we may be on the same page about the role of Christian immersion.

People become citizens of the United States for all sorts of reasons. What impels one to do so may not be the overriding reason for another. So it is with Christian immersion. One person simply does it to obey Jesus Christ and doesn't realize the blessing of forgiveness comes at that time. Another recognizes that forgiveness comes at that time and does it for that reason. Both have believed in the Messiah, and have obeyed the command to be immersed. Both have been added to the Lord's body.

The Word of God is said to be the seed that produces the faith that is conceived in our heart:

    Luke 8:11 - “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. (NIV)

    1 Peter 1:23 - For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (NIV)

When faith is produced by the imperishable Word of God, we have been conceived, but we have not yet been born again:
    John 3:1-5 - Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

    In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

    “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!”

    Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. (NIV)

We should accept those who have confessed the Jesus Christ of the Bible, repented, and have been immersed. We should also nurture and love those who have been conceived by the Word but who have not yet been born again in water in the likeness of Jesus' death (Romans 6). While they may not technically be fellow citizens of the Kingdom yet (John 3:5), they are clearly on their way to doing so. We should rejoice in what they have accepted and help them see the value in obeying this awesome calling.

If Paul even found common ground with the pagans assembled at Mars Hill, shouldn't we acknowledge the vast terrain of common ground with other professed disciples of the Son of the living God? I believe we can find common ground--faith in our King, Jesus Christ--and work to encourage people in love to be buried in baptism as Christ was buried in the grave. Given Naaman's situation, it's really a small thing to ask.

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