The Answer

Peter not only states that baptism saves, but himself explains in what sense baptism saves:

  • “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.”
  • (1 Peter 3:21-22).

Pupil of Veit Stoss, Baptism of Christ

In his own words, Peter is saying, it is NOT this, BUT that; it is NOT one thing, it is ANOTHER (ou. . .alla). He says it is NOT the outward rite (the washing with water) which saves, but the inward answer of the conscience toward God, i.e., the faith of the baptismal candidate. We are presented with an antithesis, where two terms are placed in opposition. It should not be necessary to stress this point with capital letters, except that people have a strange tendency to mishear Peter, and think, though he said it is NOT this BUT that, he really meant to say 'it is this PLUS that.' If he said that it was the one PLUS the other, then someone could make a case for baptismal regeneration. But where he explicitly rules out the outward performance as saving, but explains it is the inward testimony which saves in baptism, then he is not contradicting Paul's teaching of salvation by faith, but saying the very same thing. What saves in baptism? Not the water, but the confession of the inward man towards God.


Death and Resurrection

Baptism is, in short, 'symbolic speech:' it is an action that means something, and its importance and significance lies in the content not the form, what is meant not its wrapper. It is the meaning, the believer's 'Yes' toward God, which saves. To what is the believer assenting when he heads down toward the baptismal pool? To death:

  • “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
  • (Romans 6:3-11).

God is not proposing a minor rehab job which will leave the existing structure intact yet renovated and adorned, but a tear-down and rebuild from scratch job. The believer's "good conscience" says 'OK.' This message gives structure to its medium or envelope. When people die, they are not sprinkled with earth, but put down into the earth, as Jonah was entombed in the whale's belly. Immersion answers to the likeness Paul is sketching as does no substitute such as sprinkling.

"Baptism is called in the Greek language baptismos, in Latin mersio, which means to plunge something entirely into the water, so that the water closes over it. And although in many places it is the custom no longer to thrust and plunge children into the font of baptism, but only to pour the baptismal water upon them out of the font, nevertheless the former is what should be done. . .This usage is also demanded by the significance of baptism, for baptism signifies that the old man and the sinful birth of flesh and blood are to be wholly drowned by the grace of God, as we shall hear. We should, therefore, do justice to its meaning and make baptism a true and complete sign of the thing it signifies." (Martin Luther, A Treatise on Baptism, Chapter 1, Works of Martin Luther, Volume I, Kindle location 723).

New Birth

Baptism signifies the new birth. It is a pantomime re-enacting the new birth, a picture, a diorama, a living re-enactment. It is a vivid and unforgettable way for a "good conscience" to answer 'yes' to God. Or is it, in fact, the very substance of the Christian's rebirth, as Alexander Campbell surmised? Or is it the 'switch' that turns on the divine action of regeneration, as Roman Catholics think? Jesus said that none could see the kingdom of God without being born again:

"Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." (John 3:3-8).

It would stand to reason that people who wish to defend this interpretation of John 3:3 must defend the idea that those not baptized cannot be saved. Roman Catholics, however, will defend no such thesis; instead they posit a kind of baptism not known to the Bible, 'baptism of desire,' which they guarantee will suffice in cases where water baptism was not available or was deferred. Those disputing with them cannot help but notice that they do not even believe their own interpretation. Why should anyone else take it seriously? Instead of inventing an unknown form of baptism to clean up the damage left behind by defending a bad interpretation of John 3:3, they should correct their interpretation to conform to what they themselves admit to be the fact, namely that persons not baptized, such as the thief on the cross, can enter the kingdom.

Another baptismal regeneration proof-text is found in Mark, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." (Mark 16:16). But the two clauses are not balanced equally; baptism is found in the first not the second:

1.) Belief + baptism = salvation
2.) Unbelief = loss

Sometimes people fill in the 'missing' clause as,

3.) Belief - baptism = loss,

but since Mark doesn't ever say that, it's up to them to prove their case. It does not follow logically from 1.) and 2.), which Mark does state.


Ethiopian Eunuch

In an echo of Peter's definition, Stephen sets one condition for the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch:

  • “Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.”
  • (Acts 8:35-39).

It is surprising how often people are willing to remove the condition Peter and Stephen place upon baptism, and 'baptize' those unable to make an answer from a good conscience, or to believe in their heart. As Peter explains, baptism like that cannot save. Believers' baptism is the norm for scripture:

"Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them." (Acts 2:41).

Those who defend infant baptism point to a text which, discordantly, demands belief,

“And he brought them out and said, 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. . .And immediately he and all his family were baptized.” (Acts 16:30-33).

The household must have included infants, they say. And no doubt, were infant baptism found suitable, they would have baptized any infants present in the household. Were it not, they would not. It is like saying, 'the whole household votes Republican,' meaning, those in the household competent to vote, vote Republican.


Put on Christ

Paul explains that in Christian baptism we 'put on' Christ:

"For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." (Galatians 3:27).

What are the implications of being 'in' Christ?: "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:13). How can one be many or many one?:


Much Water

John chose a certain place to baptize, because there was "much water:"

"And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized." (John 3:23).

If sprinkling were deemed sufficient, any place might have been the right place; why trek to the Jordan River, when water ample for sprinkling is available right at home? Any place fit for human habitation must have at least that much. And if it is not necessary to go down into the water, then why does the New Testament speak about people coming "up out of the water"?:

"And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:. . ." (Mark 1:10, Matthew 3:16).

In the early years of the church, baptism continued to be carried out by immersion, though as seen here, the Didache, an early church manual, permits effusion in case of water shortage:

"Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: after you have reviewed all these things, baptize 'in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit' in running water. But if you have no running water, then baptize in some other water; and if you are not able to baptize in cold water, then do so in warm. But if you have neither, then pour water on the head three times 'in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.'" (The Didache, 7:1-3).

Justin understands baptism as a 'washing,' which is not very efficiently accomplished by sprinkling. Justin continues to understand the fit subjects for baptism to be those fully convicted believers who have repented of their sins:

“I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, 'Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.' Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: 'Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.'” (The First Apology of Justin, Chapter LXI).

The idea that these people would be brought "where there is water" does not suggest only a small amount of water, say a pitcher-full, because there is nowhere that human life is conducted that lacks even a pitcher full of water. People cannot survive without water! Rather, it suggests the presence of a meaningful amount of water. The only "sprinkling" of which Justin was aware was carried out by pagans. The 'Apostolic Constitutions' (which are not especially apostolic) continue to understand baptism as a paired 'descent/ascent' to be undertaken by the repentant only:

“. . . After that, either thou, O bishop, or a presbyter that is under thee, shall in the solemn form
name over them the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, and shall dip them in the water; and let a deacon receive the man, and a deaconess the woman, that so the conferring of this inviolable seal may take place with a becoming decency. . .

“This baptism, therefore, is given into the death of Jesus: the water is instead of the burial, and the oil instead of the Holy Ghost; the seal instead of the cross; the ointment is the confirmation of the confession; the mention of the Father as of the Author and Sender; the joint mention of the Holy Ghost as of the witness; the descent into the water the dying together with Christ; the ascent out of the water the rising again with Him. The Father is the God over all; Christ is the only-begotten God, the beloved Son, the Lord of glory; the Holy Ghost is the Comforter, who is sent by Christ, land taught by Him, and proclaims Him.

“But let him that is to be baptized be free from all iniquity; one that has left off to work sin, the friend of God, the enemy of the devil, the heir of God the Father, the fellow-heir of His Son; one that has renounced Satan, and the demons, and Satan’s deceits; chaste, pure, holy, beloved of God, the son of God, praying as a son to his father, and saying, as from the common congregation of the faithful, thus: “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. . .” (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 3, Section 2, Chapters XVI-XVIII, pp. 857-858).

This author describes baptism as a "figure," i.e., a symbol: "Nay, though he be but a catechumen, let him depart without trouble; for his suffering for Christ will be to him a more genuine baptism, because he does really die with Christ, but the rest only in a figure." (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 5, Section 1, Chapter VI, ECF 0.07, p. 873). As to the mode, Cyril chimes in with a "plunge:"

"This grace was not in part, but His power was in full perfection; for as he who plunges into the waters and is baptized is encompassed on all sides by the waters, so were they also baptized completely by the Holy Ghost. The water however flows round the outside only, but the Spirit baptizes also the soul within, and that completely." (Cyril of Jerusalem, The Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 17:14).

A subject who has had water poured or sprinkled on his head has not been "encompassed" by the waters. Christian baptism is in continuity with Jewish conversion rites, which included the requirement of a bath: "For R. Zera said in the name of R. Johanan: One does not become a proselyte until he has been circumcised and has performed ablution; and so long as he has not performed ablution he is a gentile." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakoth, 47b.) Or, "Just as one who is to be admitted to Judaism must first submit to the thee ceremonies of circumcision, baptism, and sacrifice, so Israel did not receive the Torah until they had performed these three ceremonies." (Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Volume 3, Kindle location 1029).

"When a man entered the Jewish religion from heathenism, it involved three things — sacrifice, circumcision and baptism. The Gentile entered the Jewish faith by baptism. . .As he was in the water, he made confession of his faith before three fathers of baptism and certain exhortations and benedictions were addressed to him. The effect of his baptism was held to be complete regeneration; he was called a little child just born, the child of one day." (William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans, p. 84).

Of the proselyte, it is said, "'When he comes up after his ablution he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects.'" (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 47b). John the Baptist redefined all Israel, not only those with a heathen family background, as converts in need of cleansing. Just as evangelicals understand all Christians to be converts,— no one is born a Christian,— so John did not perceive any essential difference between the born Jew and the newly-made convert.

A new feature that enters with Christianity is the three-fold invocation, upon which some celebrants elaborated. In some cases early believers employed triple immersion:

"When the one being baptized goes down into the water, the one baptizing him shall put his hand on him and speak thus:
"'Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?'
"And he that is being baptized shall say:
"'I believe.'
"Then, having his hand imposed upon the head of the one to be baptized, he shall baptize him once. And then he shall say:
"'Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit, of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate and died and was buried, and rose up again on the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the right of the Father, about to come to judge the living and the dead?'
"And when he says: 'I believe,' he is baptized again.
"And again he shall say:

"'Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?'

"The one being baptized then says: 'I believe.' And so he is baptized a third time." (Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 394i, pp. 169-170, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume I, William A. Jurgens).
"After these things, ye were led to the holy pool of Divine Baptism, as Christ was carried from the Cross to the Sepulcher which is before our eyes And each of you was asked, whether he believed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and ye made that saving confession, and descended three times into the water, and ascended again; here also hinting by a symbol at the three days burial of Christ." (Cyril of Jerusalem, The Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 20:4).

"And as regards emerging in baptism, I know not why it came upon you to ask, if you have accepted that immersion fulfills the figure of the three days. For it is impossible to be baptized three times without emerging as often." (Basil the Great, Letter CCXXXVI, p. 201, Loeb edition, St. Basil, The Letters, Volume III.)

So says Tertullian: "When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel." (Tertullian, The Chaplet, Chapter 3, pp. 172-173 ECF). This was so as late as Leo the Great: ". . .for in the baptismal office death ensues through the slaying of sin, and threefold immersion imitates the lying in the tomb three days, and the raising out of the water is like Him that rose again from the tomb." (Leo the Great, Letters, Letter 16, To The Bishops of Sicily, Section IV.) The rubrics attached to the Apostolic Constitutions try to make an issue of it:

“If any bishop or presbyter does not perform the three immersions of the one admission, but one immersion, which is given into the death of Christ, let him be deprived; for the Lord did not say, 'Baptize into my death,' but, 'Go ye and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.'” (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 8, The Ecclesiastical Canons, p. 1003).

While Jesus did lay three days in the tomb, He did not die three times nor rise three times, so perhaps this once widespread practice is an over-elaboration of the Biblical ordinance.

Jacques Joseph Tissot, The Baptism of Christ

John Chrysostom remarks on the ease with which water parts, an irrelevance if sprinkling is used:

"Not only on this account did he call death a baptism but also because of the ease with which he would rise again. For just as one who is baptized in water easily rises up because the nature of the water poses no hindrance, so, too, Christ rose with greater ease because he had gone down into death." (John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, Homily VIII, p. 226).

Immersion maintains the similitude with death, without which there is no rebirth. Therefore those churches which pattern themselves upon the early church baptize believers by means of immersion. It was Aurelius Augustine in the fifth century who persuaded the church that all infants must be baptized. Infants however cannot receive Biblical baptism, which is the "answer of a good conscience toward God"; all they can do is get wet: they can submit to physical washing, which Peter pointedly explains does not save. Infants do not offer the heart-felt answer which God seeks, they don't even hear the question. Augustine did not bestow upon infants the gift of baptism, which they cannot receive rather he took it away from all others; for a thousand years thereafter scarcely anyone was baptized after the Biblical pattern.

The practice of the early church was revived during the time of the Reformation by the Anabaptists, persecuted by the mainline Protestant Reformers. The practice had erupted from time to time during the preceding dark period, however, as among the Petrobrusians:

"It was in such a population as this that the first antisacerdotal heresy was preached in Valloise about 1106, by Pierre de Bruys, a native of the diocese of Embrun. The prelates of Embrun, Gap, and Die endeavored n vain to stay his progress until they procured assistance from the king, when he was driven out and took refuge in Gascony. For twenty years  he continued his mission. . .Persecution at length became more active, and about the year 1126 he was seized and burned at St. Gilles.
"His teaching was simply antisacerdotal— to some extent a revival of the errors of Claudius of Turin. Paedo-baptism was useless, for the faith of another cannot help him who cannot use his own— a far-reaching proposition, fraught with immeasurable consequences. For the same reason offerings, alms, masses, prayers and other good works for the dead are useless and each will be judged on his own merits." (Henry C. Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Volume I, Kindle location 1277).

Under successors like Henry this teaching achieved such penetration in the south of France that St. Bernard lamented, "The little ones of Christ are debarred from life since baptism is denied them. The voice of a single heretic silences all those apostolic and prophetic voices which have united in calling all the nations into the Church of Christ." (Henry C. Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Volume I, Kindle location 1310). In subsequent disputes with the Cathar gnostic heretics, the Henricians claimed a wide following: "These Henricians boasted that their sect was numerously scattered throughout all the lands of Christendom, and their zeal is shown  by an allusion to those among their umber who perished at the stake." (Henry C. Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Volume I, Kindle location 1341). Fortunately God's gift has been reclaimed and is available to whosever will receive it.