I recently sent an E-mail to a friend who was in a conversation with someone who believed in baptismal regeneration. (It prompted my recent post on baptism) This friend had made a pretty long argument for his view, listing a good deal of verses and providing his prespective of them and how they fit into his theology of baptism. In the course of responding to it, I learned a great deal and found my own theology of baptism as a symbol clarified and reinforced. With my friend's permission, here is an edited version of my response.
Here is my own (hopefully charitable) summary of a theology of baptismal regeneration:
Of course I am not saying that baptism is a work by which we are able to cause or earn our own salvation. I am saying that just as God is able to graciously and freely offer salvation to us in response to our faith, He regenerates us in response to (and even indivisibly from) our baptism by submersion into water. Baptism is the visible, external side of the process of being "born again" (that is, regeneration) that Jesus speaks of in John 3:3. It happens concurrently with the inward element of baptism by the Spirit (John 3:5) and our spiritual identification with the death and resurrection of Christ. Regeneration means dying to our sin and being born again to God, and baptism (in both its senses) is the process by which God performs this great work in those who believe. It follows faith and repentance (in which the penalty for our sins is taken way by the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross) and is the beginning of our sanctification and eternal life.
This is the framework of the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, which is one system for interpreting the scriptures that deal with baptism; it is certainly possible to interpret the Bible this way. Of course we must keep in sight the truth of the Bible and an earnest desire to correctly interpret it to apply its truth in life and doctrine, but this also means we should not be more attached to any particular system of interpretation more than the facts support. So, the question is, is this interpretation of baptismal verses consistent with the rest of scripture?
I think the thesis of this view is that external, physical baptism and inward baptism by the Holy Spirit are inseparable; both are necessary components of regeneration and in fact they happen concurrently, two halves of the same coin. I will argue for the contrary view that physical baptism in water is a symbol and visible proclamation of the invisible inward baptism and regeneration that has already occurred, not a necessary component of regeneration, just as Protestants believe that communion symbolizes Christ's body and blood broken for us in the Atonement. I'll go through verses that pertain to baptism and present an alternate way of looking at them to the baptismal regeneration view.
The words of Jesus, "for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness", are certainly open-ended. Clearly Jesus was aware that baptism was part of the path God had laid for Him and His ministry, just as he was predestined for the cross (Matthew 26:42). Still, it is puzzling from both a baptismal regeneration and a symbolistic view. If baptism is one facet of the Spirit's work of regeneration, then of course Jesus, already possessing eternal life along with Godhood, did not need to be baptized, as John realized in v14. And if baptism is a symbol of our identification with Jesus' death and resurrection, then why did Jesus, who actually died and was actually resurrected, also partake in the symbol when he did the real thing? Maybe the point was simply what happened next; the heavens being opened, the Holy Spirit descending on Him, and the Father affirming Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus' baptism could also simply be another part of His total identification with us and our sins; just as He didn't need to come or take our sins on Himself, He didn't need to be baptized, but He was for our sakes.
Two other things: first, I definitely think John had a strictly inward definition of baptism in his question on v14, the baptism "with the Holy Spirit and with fire" he mentions in v11. Surely he did not mean he wanted Jesus to set him on fire! He didn't care whether Jesus dunked him in the river; he wanted the true, inward baptism by the Holy Spirit. Also, I would caution against expecting the exceptional events of Jesus' baptism to all play out in our own baptism; I think they were also markers of the start of His formal ministry, along with His subsequent temptation in the desrt.
Taking the mention of "water" here to mean literal baptism in water is somewhat inconsistent. The second birth Jesus is talking about is obviously metaphorical, about which He corrects Nicodemus, so there is no reason that "water" here can't refer to the living water (John 4:14) by which Jesus is said to cleanse us (John 13:8,10; Ephesians 5:26, Titus 3:5, Ezekiel 36:25-27)
Peter isn't necessarily equating water baptism with regeneration here. David Guzik in his commentary on the verse has an excellent insight:
"Baptism made a clear statement. In that day, Jews were not commonly baptized, only Gentiles who wanted to become Jews. For these Jewish men and women to be baptized showed just how strongly they felt they needed Jesus."
So I don't think Peter was calling these Jews to be baptized as part of their salvation, but again as a strong external symbol or declaration of it, to guard against a shallow repentance to simply minimize the guilt they were feeling. Being baptized showed that they really did trust in Jesus, and not the law and old covenant, for salvation, which they previously had not possessed.
Again, we didn't literally die on a cross, get buried, and rise from the dead with Jesus; this language reflects the spiritual, not physical reality of our salvation. Similarly, the baptism here is referring to our inward regeneration and baptism by the Holy Spirit; it is another part of the spiritual reality that is ours by God's grace and Christ's actual death and resurrection. Switching mid-sentence between literal and spritual/metaphorical interpretations of a passage makes me uncomfortable.
1 Corinthians 12:12-13
The preposition "in one Spirit" makes it clear here that Paul is saying that by regeneration we are baptized (inwardly, by the Spirit) into the body of believers.
Again, I think this passage is speaking of regeneration by the Spirit, by which we are made alive and "put on" Christ. This inward baptism is how we pass from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of God. (Colossiamns 1:13)
Again, a purely inward definition of baptism works just as well here. Again, as all these other things in the list are spiritual realities (body [of Christ], the Holy Spirit, Lord, faith, God and father), it seems natural to interpret "baptism" likewise.
Baptism is paralleled with circumcision here. It's interesting that in v10 it refers to (presumably) baptism as "a circumcision made without hands". The clear meaning is that it's hard to take this to mean physical baptism, which is generally done with hands; the implication is that it is not referring to any physical event at all but the circumcision of the heart God promises in Deuteronomy 30:6. Also, we are certainly not put in a tomb with Christ in physical baptism (v12), so again I think a spiritual, non-physical interpretation of "baptism" is in order here.
I think this verse is referring to when we repent, believe, and receive the Holy Spirit; at this time, God is said to wash our hearts clean in the process of regeneration. Again, it seems more awkward to me to read this verse as referring to a spiritual truth concurrent with a physical process.
1 Peter 3:18-22
Verse 21, when only the first part is read, is one of the main verses used to support baptismal regeneration, but in its entirety and context I think it is one of the strongest supports for the symbolistic view of baptism. Peter clearly says in v21 that the baptism that saves us is not the removal of dirt (i.e. the physical submersion in water) but the inward process of being born again and receiving Christ's righteousness. This baptism is not synonymous with physical baptism, which has no power to save but is only a declaration of regeneration that has already happened.
1 John 5:6-8
This verse is really difficult. I'm not sure it's talking about baptism at all. One of the main themes of 1 John is addressing the heresy of Gnosticism that threatened the church. Gnosticism was a dualistic worldview that believed that the physical world was evil and the spiritual world was good; we are trying to escape our evil bodies and Jesus, being God, could not have had a physical body at all but had some kind of incorporeal, spiritual body. One interpretation of John repeated use of "water and blood" here is that he is refuting Gnostics who would have denied that He was born like a human being.
Or "water" could be referring to (the physical evidence of) Jesus' baptism, and "blood" to His crucifixion. So the evidence given to us by the Holy Spirit, God the Father's testimony at Jesus' baptism, and all the miracles and wonders of His crucifixion are all in agreement that Jesus is the Messiah.
Again, not necessarily equating the physical baptism with salvation, but treating it as visible evidence of it; those who were baptized were counted among the three thousand converts.
If you really "get" the gospel and are saved, I think it's to be expected that you'll feel an urgency to get baptized as a way of proclaiming this faith.
God seems to be using Ananias here to complete Paul's journey to faith in Jesus. Presumably, he believed around when he regained his sight (v17) and was then baptized.
I think Ananias is speaking of baptism here in a symbolic way, but is being somewhat loose with his words; of course we don't wash our own sins away by baptism in water, though this is what he is literally implying.
I think the sense of urgency here is the same as in Acts 8: he didn't need to get baptized to "seal the deal" of salvation or complete it somehow, but to affirm the conversion and regeneration of himself and his family.
Just as Christian baptism ("in the name of the Lord Jesus") is a symbol and visible proclamation of our spiritual identification with Christ's death and resurrection, John's baptism (as in Matthew 3) was simply a proclamation of repentence for sins, an admission that you weren't "all right" trying to get by under the law, which was intended to prepare your heart for the gospel and the true baptism Jesus offers. John's baptism was never intended to symbolize the whole package of salvation, but it was all Apollos knew and it was likely why Priscilla and Aquila took him aside to explain things to him.
So, I have shown an alternate interpretation for these passages that supports the symbolistic view of baptism--that it is not necessary for salvation, but that it is a proclamation, affirmation, and symbol of what Jesus has done in us. For many of the passages I have argued from the text that the symbolic interpretation makes more sense. I also think there are some more general reasons to read the Bible this way.
The main reason is that making physical baptism in water necessary for regeneration and salvation creates a whole host of other theological problems. Making physical baptism a necessary condition for knwing you are saved like the fruits of the Spirit, I think, draws a misguided parallel between two different things. The condition for salvation we see over and over again is faith (John 3:16, Romans 9:30-31, Ephesians 2:8-9, &c.) Works are not necessary for salvation, but they are expected as evidence that someone really does have saving faith; they are said to "complete" our faith (James 2:22), and baptism can certainly be one of these "completing" works. Someone who is baptized but continues to live in deliberate sin clearly does not have authentic faith and is not saved, but someone who repents and displays numerous other evidences of saving faith, without being baptized, very likely is saved.
And, on a more basic level, the idea that God would deny salvation to someone because they did not get submerged in water in a certain way seems very ritualistic and difficult to fit into the rest of the Christian theology of salvation. If someone is in a situation (like a prison or a desert) where baptism by immersion is not possible, you get into the quagmire of arguing for different methods for baptism; can baptism by sprinkling save you? Partial immersion? Just how much water do you need? This is what I mean by the view of baptismal regeneration raising a whole host of other theological problems.
And, on a more personal note (meaning you can take it or leave it), I have been baptized twice: once as an infant and again when I was 22. If you hold that baptism always saves even infants without fail, then this would mean I have been saved ever since despite displaying absolutely no evidence of it for most of my life. If you hold that baptism is a necessary component of regeneration and salvation, then this would mean that my faith and all that came from it before August 2011 were false and I was still spiritually dead, which is both personally repugnant and theologically absurd to me.
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