I am more and more convinced that the appropriate way to refer to baptism is by the translated, rather than the transliterated, word. While “baptism”, being transliterated from the Greek baptizo, can be interpreted to mean anything from pouring, to sprinkling, etc, the translated word “immerse” leaves absolutely no doubt as to what God means. Thus, from this point forward in this essay I will refer to “baptism” as “immersion”.
The Christian immersion was foreshadowed by such Old Testament practices as the washing of the priests before the entered the Holy Place, and by such events a the Flood, the Red Sea crossing, and the healing of Naaman. However, I think the most pertinent place to begin a study on the relevance of immersion to salvation would be at the issuing of the Great Commission. It is at this point when Jesus first lays out the most basic job of His disciples/apostles and the rudiments of the New Covenant gospel. If we can establish beyond question the message in Christ’s final instruction, then we can use that conclusion and understanding to discern exactly what the apostles, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, meant to say during their evangelism and in their epistles. After all, if they were acting and writing in accordance with Christ’s Great Commission, then their actions and words would harmonize with, and not contradict, Christ’s instructions. Thus we are obliged to carefully study and understand those instructions before advancing to Acts and the epistles.
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:18-20 (NASB)
And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” – Mark 16:15-16 (NASB)
While the words of the two accounts seem wildly dissimilar, the core message remains absolutely harmonious. First, let’s look at them broken down to their most basic command. Once we trim away the clarifying statements we find that both Matthew and Mark deliver the same statement.
“Go therefore and make disciples.” – Matthew 28:19
“Preach the gospel.” – Mark 16:15
This command to make disciples (the purpose of preaching the Gospel) is the core of what Jesus is saying. Everything within the Great Commission is built upon that single objective. They are not merely related to that objective, but integral to it. Along with commanding them to make disciples, He tells them why and how. So, having identified His basic, root command in these passages as “make disciples”, let’s look at the other parts we trimmed away.
– “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” This is why. Jesus now rules the earth as King. He now has the authority to send ambassadors forth to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom.
– “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” – This is how. First, He tells them to make disciples (“preach the gospel”), then instructs them to do so by immersion. Therefore we can logically conclude that one has not been made a disciple unless he has been immersed.
– “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” This is also how. One cannot be made a disciple unless taught the commands and ways of him to whom one is a disciple. “How shall they hear without a preacher?”
In all three of these clarifying statements, as well as the root command to “make disciples, both Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16 are in perfect harmony. Since the second statement (“baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”) is at the moment the one in question, I will focus on that.
Let’s look at Christ’s statements and commands regarding immersion.
“…make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” – Matthew 28:19
“He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved, but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” – Mark 16:16
Notice first, as I have mentioned before, that the basis and root purpose of everything Jesus is saying in these passages is His express command and desire that the apostles/disciples go out and make more disciples. This root purpose is the driving force behind all Christ says in the excerpts above. Thus when He commands that new converts be immersed, it is not an unrelated sidenote. It is utterly relevant, integral to the making of disciples.
Suppose that those to whom Christ issued the Great Commission had neglected to obey the command of Jesus to immerse new converts. They would hen have been acting outside the sanction and command of Christ, and the disciples they had made would in fact not have been disciples of the Christ who commanded that they be immersed but of a different Christ altogether – a Christ who had not commanded the apostles to immerse – a Christ of the apostles’ own making – a false Christ. The apostles would have been creating a generation of unwitting idolaters out of those whom the real Jesus Christ had commanded to be immersed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Note also that the command to immerse new disciples is directed at the men standing about, moments before watching Christ ascend. If the immersion of which Christ speaks is so essential in the creation of a disciple is an immersion of the Holy Spirit, then how could mere men administer it? No, it is inescapable that this immersion is something else, something literal and material. Men cannot administer the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Only Jesus Christ has that power (Matthew 3:11, John 3:33, Luke 24:49, Acts 1:5 and 8). If one seeks to make disciples but fails to immerse them as per the Great Commission, trusting God to do the immersing, they are shirking their duty, ignoring the command of Christ Himself, and becoming responsible for leading the new convert astray. If you carefully read the above references to Jesus’ power to administer immersion of the Holy Spirit, you will find that He only promised that immersion to the apostles and to no one else. It is the responsibility of the gospel-teacher to perform the immersion, as per the explicit command of the Great Commission.
Now we turn to Mark 16:16, a highly debated passage made simple if we firmly adhere to the context of the Great Commission. Keep in ind that Jesus, being Himself the Word of God as we read it in our Bibles, does not contradict Himself.
I have heard the “faith only” arguments about this verse. Usually the response is something like the following.
“Yes, Jesus said he who believes and is immersed will be saved. But we know all you really have to do to be saved is believe, because He also said he who doesn’t believe is condemned. He doesn’t say, ‘He who does not believe and is not immersed will be condemned.’ So all you have to do to be condemned is not believe, and thus all you have to do to be saved is believe. Thus, immersion isn’t necessary for salvation.”
I don’t think people realize what they’re doing when they say things like that. They are using the second half of the verse in an attempt to disprove the first half. They are, in what can only be described as a fit of schizophrenia, trying to use Scripture to argue against Scripture. It’s bad enough to pit Scripture verses against each other (as in using John 3:16 to argue against Acts 2:38), but when they try to disprove a verse by turning it on itself, it’s the worst possible excuse for exegesis and the best possible example of eisegesis.
Remember, Jesus does not contradict Himself. When He said, “He who believes and is immersed shall be saved”, he spoke in perfect harmony with “He who does not believe will be condemned”.
To illustrate, suppose I told you the following:
“If you buy a ticket and get on the plane, you’ll get to Orlando. If you don’t buy a ticket, you aren’t going anywhere.”
Would you take that to mean, “All you have to do is buy a ticket, and you’ll end up in Orlando”? Of course not! Why? It would be silly and illogical. You would understand that you need to first buy a ticket, then board the plane. If you didn’t buy a ticket you wouldn’t get on the plane, and thus never reach Orlando.
The same reasoning applies to Mark 16:16. There is nothing complex or hidden about Jesus’ statement. “He who believes and is immersed will be saved. He who does not believe will be condemned.” Will someone who doesn’t believe in Christ submit to immersion? Most likely not. And even if they did, their lack of belief would render their immersion void.
Finally, keep in mind that every command issued in the Great Commission was with the express purpose of making disciples. Each time Jesus mentions immersion in His final commands to His disciples it is in direct correlation with preaching the gospel and making new disciples.
Based on this examination of the Great Commission, we can hereby conclude the following:
1: Preaching the gospel includes the immersion of new disciples.
2: Making new disciples necessarily includes immersion.
3: Immersion is directly tied to salvation.
4: Immersion of converts is commanded by Jesus Christ.
5: Since men cannot administer Holy Spirit immersion, the immersion of the Great Commission must be literal and material.
6: A Christ who does not require immersion of new disciples is not the Christ who issued the Great Commission, and thus false.