An Evangelical blogger and prison chaplain named Jeremy Myers wrote a post called “Don’t Get Baptized. Cut Your Hair!” His argument was that since Baptism was only symbolic, we should substitute for a symbol that we find more meaningful, like cutting our hair, or changing our names. From a Christian perspective, this is some of the worst advice you could ever give a person. That’s not an exaggeration. Jesus Christ tells us to get Baptized, and explicitly ties it to inheriting eternal life in Mark 16:16 and in John 3:5. So this is a call to disobey Christ. I don’t care how clever the reasons are, that’s astonishingly reckless advice.
|Victor Vasnetsov. Baptism of Prince Vladimir (1890)|
I confronted him about this, saying:
I understand that you view Baptism as strictly symbolic, and probably think it’s fine to replace one symbol with another. But given how often Scripture speaks of Baptism as something that actually saves us by washing away our sins (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21, John 3:5, Titus 3:5, etc.), shouldn’t you at least defer to the ancient practice?
After all, if there’s even a slim chance that you’re wrong, you may have just told people to violate Scripture and avoid the life-saving waters of Baptism. And what does it get them, or you, in return? A haircut? Or are you so confident that all of those Scriptural references really mean “Baptism is a symbol” that you’ll stake other peoples’ salvation on it?
His sole response was:
Much of Scripture says that water baptism saves? 2-3 difficult verses at most. And in the context, “saves” from what?
I first answered the idea that there were “2-3 difficult verses at most” by sharing this video with him:
I then rephrased my original questions to him: “(a) why should anyone ever take your reading of Scripture over the overwhelming consensus of Christians throughout history? And (b) given that, if you’re wrong, people may end up in Hell (while if you’re right, it’s irrelevant), shouldn’t you at least not urge people to avoid water Baptism?”
He responded to this by saying:
I have never denied that baptism saves. I have denied that we get eternal life through water baptism. The two are very different. Baptism does “save.” But “saves” from what?
From the response, I’m not sure if he’s saying that Baptism saves us (but not from our sins), or that Baptism saves us from our sins (but not water Baptism). So I addressed both points:
Pietro Longhi, The Baptism (1755)
Baptism saves us from our sins. Jesus, in John 3:5, says that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”
St. Peter describes it like this in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In the context, this is clearly a reference to water Baptism (see Acts 2:41). Peter is also referring to water Baptism in 1 Peter 3:21, as 1 Peter 3:20 makes clear, with its reference to those who “were saved through water.”
Ananias similarly describes the role of water Baptism as the washing away of sins (Acts 22:16). And he says this to St. Paul after Paul has already come to faith (cf. Acts 9:17-19). Paul will later say that Christ “saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5; other translations: “washing of regeneration”). And in Hebrews 10:22, “having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” is expressly tied to “having our bodies washed with pure water.”
Besides all of these direct references, there are countless prefigurements of water baptism washing away sins, from Noah’s Ark (which St. Peter explains in 1 Peter 3, mentioned above), to the Israelites passing through the Red Sea (which St. Paul compares with Baptism in 1 Cor. 10:1-2) to the healing of Naaman the leper in 2 Kings 5 (he also thought that the water element was pointless: cf. 2 Kings 5:12), to the healing of the blind man in John 9:1-11, etc., etc. Your earlier claim that there are “2-3 difficult verses at most” that describe water Baptism saving just isn’t accurate.
Johann Lucas Kracker,
St. Francis of Solano Baptizing Indians (1770)
Likewise […] there’s absolutely nothing in Scripture that says that the waters of Baptism are merely symbolic, so we should feel free to replace them with another symbol, like “getting a hair cut, or changing your name.” In fact, even on a symbolic level, cutting your hair or changing your name doesn’t preserve the washing imagery found in every single one of the Scriptural passages I referenced above. So even if you think Baptism is just symbolic… you’re ruining the symbol, the “symbol” specifically chosen by Jesus Christ.
Finally, let’s assume we can’t come to agreement on this issue: what then? Hopefully, even assuming you’re not 100% convinced that Christ established water Baptism, and didn’t make it optional (even for those who have already been filled with the Holy Spirit — Acts 10:47), you can at least see that there’s a distinct possibility that water Baptism is an important thing for salvation and that as a follower of Christ, you shouldn’t directly contradict Christ’s orders by telling people, “Don’t get Baptized.”
So my suggestion is this: even if you’re not wholly convinced, at least stop being cavalier and reckless on this issue, since if you’re wrong, you’re potentially doing a world of damage, and that’s not something you want on your conscience. God bless.
I mention this publicly for two reasons: first, Myers’ post remains public, so it seems important to address it head-on; and second, because I think plenty of Evangelical Protestants have never seriously examined the question of what exactly Baptism does (focusing instead on the age for Baptism, and its external form: whether it should be by sprinkling, partial immersion, or full immersion).
One of the reasons that I think many Evangelical Protestants haven’t looked at the issue very seriously is that the evidence is overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong: I recognize that on many of the issues dividing Christians, there’s some degree of Scriptural ambiguity, and both sides can point to convincing-sounding passages to support their side. That’s the hazard of sola Scriptura: on many of the big issues, you’re left guessing. But this just isn’t the case on the question of whether Baptism saves.
|Noah’s Ark (from an altar in Friesach)|
On this issue, I don’t see a way that Scripture could be much clearer than saying that on Noah’s Ark, “a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also” (1 Peter 3:20-21). So the Baptismal imagery in Scripture is particularly rich, and quite unambiguous that Baptism is more than a symbol.
This fact is made more apparent by contrasting it with the baptism of John, which was a baptism of repentance than didn’t impart the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). In Acts 19:1-7, Paul encounters about a dozen men, headed by Apollos, who had received John’s baptism (Acts 19:3). He then gives them a Christian Baptism, at which point the Holy Spirit descends upon them (Acts 19:5-6). Yet we’re to believe that Christian Baptism is just symbolic, that it’s less than John’s baptism (Matthew 21:25)?
So the problem doesn’t seem to be ambiguity in Scripture. Rather, it appears to be (1) some sort of dogmatic rejection of the whole idea of sacraments, or (2) a presupposition that saving faith is a formless thing that Baptism would somehow detract from. Given the clear Scriptural evidence, then, it may be time to revisit and correct those faulty assumption. Finally, to those claiming that Baptism is just a symbol, what is the Scriptural support for this?