Part Eight

by A.E. Knoch

BAPTISM sets forth death and burial with Christ. But this is true only of the Uncircumcision, not of the Circumcision. The usage of words, their figurative force, is confined to each context, whereas the meaning is common to all. Baptism may figure one thing here and another there. Even among the Circumcision there is variety when its significance is in question. John's baptism was a sign of repentance, when done in water for entrance into the kingdom, even when it was a sham and performed by unbelieving Pharisees.

Pentecost added much to its significance. John had alluded to a baptism in spirit that was future, but Peter promises the spirit to those who are baptized (Acts 2:30). Yet when he carries the evangel to the proselyte Cornelius, the baptism of the spirit came first and cleansed the believers hearts by faith, so that the baptism in water was only a confirmation needed for entrance into the earthly kingdom.


That baptism is "a saving ordinance" is put beyond question by Peter in his first epistle (3:21). He uses the deluge as a picture of the great cataclysm which precedes the kingdom. Noah and his family were saved through it. Baptism represents this as the means of saving them, if it is real, not merely a washing off of the external filth of the flesh, but the inquiry of a good conscience toward God. Baptism is essential to the salvation of the Circumcision. Moreover it will be essential after the kingdom comes. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved (Mark 16:16). What tremendous efforts have been made to "explain" away these definite assertions, or to nullify them by means of other passages, from Paul's epistles! Let us believe them and leave them where they belong. Then we are free to accept all of God's revelations, without rejecting any. Faith demands baptismal salvation for those to whom it applies, but not for us, to whom it does not apply. Only in figure, in the baptism of Christ, in His death and burial, is baptism essential to our salvation.

Nevertheless, baptism holds a much more precious burden of truth for the Uncircumcision than any its phases to the Circumcision. There was some progress even there, but Paul goes much further. In the epistle to the Romans, after having shown that none are righteous, none do good, that mankind is a complete failure in the flesh, he uses baptism to set forth death and resurrection with Christ. Undoubtedly some continued to be baptized in water while the kingdom was still in view. Yet Paul could not appeal to the experience of all, even at that early date. He does not tell them to be baptized. He ignores water baptism.

He had already set forth the basis of salvation, and had not mentioned baptism, but rather excluded it by insisting on salvation by faith alone, apart from works. He uses baptism as a figure, not as an essential rite. The truth there taught is itself sufficient to make this practice futile.

We do not seek to cleanse our flesh in water, but we discard it in Christ's death (Rom.6:3,4). The figure is an exceedingly powerful one. In water baptism we wash our own bodies to be cleansed. But this baptism into death is not our death, but His. The literal action is His, not ours. He had a baptism to be baptized with (Mark 20:22). But what need had He to repent, or have His sins pardoned, or His heart cleansed? Up to His sacrifice, none. At His offering of Himself for the sins of all mankind, He needed to be baptized more than any one else in the whole universe, for He was made a sin offering for all. His baptism led Him into death, for only so could He be saved from the sin and uncleanness which He bore. He was baptized for our sins there. We were in Him. It was not His own sins which were washed away, but ours. This is the only real baptism. It accomplishes all that the ritual only suggests, and far more than it ever meant to the Circumcision. We discard the symbol because we enjoy the substance.

We have great sympathy with the strenuous attempts made to "prove" that baptism demands immersion. It is true that baptism means dipize. But we can see that dip does not necessarily denote complete submersion when we read of our Lord and His disciples dipping their hand in the dish for a morsel (Matt.26:23; Mark 14:20; John 13:26).

If the figure were our baptism in water, as is generally supposed, then immersion would undoubtedly illustrate our burial and resurrection far better than the superficial baptizing such as was given even couches among the Jews (Mark 7:4), and in which they indulged before lunch (Luke 11:38). But the truth is not set forth, by our baptism. What is there to signify death in a mere plunge beneath the water? There should be a more suggestive action to set this forth. Immersion, indeed, is a much better picture of burial. But resurrection is weakened by the lack of anything to signify death. This is all unnecessary, for in our Lord's case, the cleansing which baptism in water merely figures, was done by actual death and burial and rousing. In our case the figure lies in our being in Him when He underwent the real cleansing at Golgotha.

Baptism in water did not break down the physical barriers which separated the saints of God, but baptism in spirit unites all into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, whether male or female (1 Cor.12:13; Gal.3:28). We are all one in Christ Jesus. In the book of Acts, where both baptisms had a place, the tendency of spirit baptism to override these barriers caused much dissension and confusion. The case of Cornelius is most instructive to show that baptism in water does not bridge the gap between the Circumcision and the Uncircumcision, but the baptism in spirit does. Peter went to Cornelius before the latter was baptized at all, and used the fact of spirit baptism, not water, to justify his fellowship with these proselytes. So it will be in the kingdom. The nations will be baptized, but that will not give them the place of Israel by any means.

Baptism in water cannot form a vital unity. Its history as recorded in the Scriptures, and as seen in the church, is ample evidence of this. Under John's baptism, which was definitely divorced from spirit baptism, the unbelieving scribes and Pharisees baptized, yet we may be sure that this external sign of unity with those who received our Lord, did not make them one with Christ, who also was baptized, neither with His disciples. Probably all of our Lord's followers were baptized, for they baptized more than John (John 3:26), many of these left Him later, and walked with Him no longer (John 6:66). Among those nearest to Him, the twelve apostles, who were counted as closely united to Him, we find Judas, who was even entrusted with the funds. Baptism did not create a living union among the disciples of John and our Lord before the spirit was given.

Although baptism is essential to the salvation of the Circumcision and is the door into the kingdom, it did not unite all who received it into one body. The great gulf between the Circumcision and the Uncircumcision remained. As shown by the conduct of Peter and the believing Jews in the case of Cornelius, no union of the two classes could be considered by them, not even with proselytes of the gate. How much less with the nations as such! And this should be perfectly understandable, in view of the promises to the physical seed of Abraham and David, which could never be carried over to all the nations without becoming void. No such commitments hinder God from uniting the saints into one body today, whether they belong to the Circumcision or the Uncircumcision, for our realm is above, in the heavens, and our blessings are spiritual. These have not been promised to anyone, hence may be enjoyed by the joint body, in which all the members are of equal rank, whether Circumcision or Uncircumcision.

In the kingdom itself the nations will be baptized, but the great disparity between them and Israel will be emphasized rather than removed. So far as we know, Israelites alone will do the baptizing and the teaching and the nations will yield obedience (Matt.28:19,20). Instead of being done away, the chasm between Jew and Greek will be greater than ever.

Modern efforts to attain church unity are greatly hindered by ignorance on this point. Large bodies of believers as well as nominal churchmen consider some kind of baptism necessary for unity, if not for salvation. Some would never part with infant baptism, on the ground that God is a God of love, and that its omission "would bring intense suffering to millions of mothers and fathers who now rejoice that if their children were called in their early years to their Heavenly Father they were already inside of the fold of God."

The prevailing view as to the place of baptism is thus expressed in the Encyclopedia Britannica: "Christian baptism is the sacrament by which a person is initiated into the Christian church." This would include infant baptism as well as believers' baptism. No doubt this idea arose from the fact that baptism is requisite for entrance into the kingdom on earth, and this kingdom is usually confused with the church. Gradually it has been further confused with other things, such as regeneration. A curious explanation was given in early times by Tertullian. At that time a figure of a fish was much used to represent a believer, because the initial letters of the words Iesous CHristos THeou Uios Soter (Jesus Christ God's Son, Saviour) spells fish (ICHTHUS). So he said, "We fishes are born in water, conformable to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." This "proves" baptismal regeneration! It was called "the great circumcision," because some held that baptism took the place of this rite.


Baptism has usually been treated as a stereotyped figure with the same force wherever it is found. Rather it is like a chameleon, which conforms to its surroundings. All figures are like that. The meaning of a word is constant in the Scriptures, but its usage, and especially its figurative applications, vary with its context. In Acts it is distinctly implied that John's baptism was not the same as the later baptism (Acts 19:3,4). Few, it seems, have noticed this, and still go back to the rite under John.

Baptism is progressive. Even before Paul's epistles there was an advance in its significance. The baptism at Pentecost had far more to it than before the sacrifice of Christ. John's was one baptism of repentance for the forgiveness, or pardon, of sins. In Acts there were two baptisms, one in spirit and one in water. Then there is a return to one, in spirit. The Circumcision always require water. The Uncircumcision demand spirit.

John said, "I come baptizing in water" (John 1:26). But Peter, on the day of Pentecost, said, "You shall be obtaining the gratuity of the holy spirit" (Acts 2:38). Henceforth, in Acts, we have both water and spirit. The Circumcision received the holy spirit after they were baptized in water. But Cornelius, although he was only a proselyte, received holy spirit before he was baptized in water. This is most significant, for before this, it seemed that water baptism was essential to the reception of the spirit. Once we see that spirit followed water with the Circumcision, but precedes it with the Uncircumcision, we should be ready to understand why there is a return to one baptism that in spirit when the Uncircumcision evangel of today was revealed by Paul.

Baptism in water certainly was a means of salvation, and will be again. The Scriptures distinctly teach it. For many years I rebelled at this, and tried to explain away the passages which taught it, because I filched the texts from the Circumcision and "applied" them to myself. How grand it is to be able to believe all Scripture and see the place which God has given each passage! Then we will not have to evade those which clearly teach salvation by water baptism. As I, myself, had undergone the rite, I was not prejudiced against it as those who had not been baptized. But I had studied Romans and could not reconcile the grace there revealed with salvation on any other grounds than grace and faith. Baptism was too near to salvation by works, which I abhorred.

Peter, in his epistle (1 Peter 3:20), confirms his Pentecostal practice. There was water enough in the deluge, and Noah and his relatives were saved through it. As a representation of this, Peter says, baptism is now saving you. And who would know better than Peter, in writing inspired epistles to the Circumcision? But he had had much experience of baptized disciples by this time. Many who had been baptized had fallen away when the kingdom did not materialize. So he qualifies his assertion to show that a mere superficial cleansing is not sufficient, it must be deeper. It is "not the putting off of the filth of the flesh, but the inquiry of a good conscience to God" (1 Peter 3:21).

Another passage, which clearly teaches salvation by water baptism, is at the close of Mark's account: He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, yet he who disbelieves shall be condemned" (Mark 16:16). I am unutterably thankful that this no longer disturbs me as it once did. Convinced as I was by my study of Romans that God alone is my Saviour, I could not understand how it could be otherwise here, until my eyes were opened to the various phases of God's operations, and the difference between the Circumcision evangel and that for today. In one, water baptism is essential. In the other, Paul thanked God that he had baptized no more, because God had not commissioned him to baptize, but to bring the evangel. For the Circumcision there must be baptism in water, even when the baptism of the spirit is added. But when God is not dealing with the flesh, then spirit baptism is necessary, and water is not needed.

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