Baptism Is Not Just a Symbol

The teaching of the New Testament is that baptism when done in faith is the point at which one becomes a Christian and receives the blessings that are available in Christ. In other words, baptism is not just a symbol that can be dispensed with. It has symbolism of burial and resurrection, but scripture teaches that something really happens in it. It is not just a symbol. Although this view of baptism is not popular in the religious world, ironically it is found among New Testament scholars outside churches of Christ. Frederick Dale Bruner in his A Theology of the Holy Spirit cites works by G.R. Beasley-Murray, R.E.O. White, and Johannes Schneider as examples (p. 264, footnote 52).

The late Beasley-Murray, a British Baptist, in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (I:144) writes, “Despite assertions to the contrary, it seems that baptizo, both in Jewish and Christian contexts, normally meant ‘immerse’, and that even when it became a technical term for baptism, the thought of immersion remains.” In his book, Baptism in the New Testament (p. 263), Beasley-Murray after citing a quotation from Adolf Schlatter comments, “He meant, of course, that there is no gift or power available to man in consequence of the redemption of Christ that is not available to him in baptism. On the basis of the exposition offered above, and without any attempt to give exhaustive references, the ‘grace’ available to man in baptism is said by the New Testament writers to include the following elements…” (the following is simply Beasley-Murray’s paragraph given in a list form).

  • Forgiveness of sin, Acts 2:38 and cleansing from sins, Acts 22:16, I Cor. 6:11.
  • Union with Christ. Gal. 3:27, and particularly union with Him in his death and resurrection. Rom. 6:3ff, Col. 2:11f, with all that implies of release from sin’s power, as well as guilt, and the sharing of the risen life of the Redeemer, Rom. 6:1-11.
  • Participation in Christ’s sonship, Gal. 3:26f.
  • Consecration to God, I Cor. 6:11, hence membership in the church, the Body of Christ, I Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:27-29.
  • Possession of the Spirit, Acts 2:38, I Cor. 6:11, 12, 13, and therefore the new life in the Spirit, i.e. regeneration, Tit. 3:5, Jn. 3:5.
  • Grace to live according to the will of God, Rom. 6:1ff, Col. 3:1ff.
  • Deliverance from the evil powers that rule this world, Col. 1:13.
  • The inheritance of the Kingdom of God, Jn. 3:5, and the pledge of the resurrection of the body, Eph. 1:13f, 4:30.

We can only hope that the scholarship of Beasley-Murray and others on the subject of baptism will help convince the religious world to reexamine scripture. What is needed is for people everywhere to return to the teaching of the New Testament on baptism. Baptism is not just a symbol.

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