I have thoroughly enjoyed reading through the Greek NT again this year. I am constantly blown away by the truths God is revealing to me on at least a weekly basis, if not daily at times. On the one hand, my faith has been strengthened immensely by the journey, but on the other hand, after I think I’ve got some topic all figured out, God throws me a curve ball by raising new questions in my mind about what I believe and understand. None of these questions have ever raised any doubt in my mind about the lordship of Christ or the existence of God, but they do compel me to dig deeper to discover more profound truths. Lest I be misunderstood, don’t think that I’m onto some new teaching the church has never seen before: I think Paul and the other apostles knew much more about God and Jesus than any one man could ever uncover in a lifetime of study, although some have come close.
Some Questions about Immersion
One area that I have striven to understand is that of “immersion,” my translation of the Greek word βάπτισμα, which translators usually render “baptism.” The word itself comes from the Greek verb βάπτω plus an intensifying verbal suffix –ιζω. The intensifying suffix in my mind is something that should not be overlooked in understanding the word. Βάπτω means “I dip”, but the intensifier adds an important nuance: βαπτίζω = “I dip all the way” or “I immerse.” I was christened as an infant in the Presbyterian church, and I find value in that practice inasmuch as it serves as a dedication to the parents and the rest of the Christian community to help raise a child in the way of the Lord. But the infant still has to grow and make his or her own choices, so I don’t see it in any way as a guarantee of salvation or inclusion in the eternal kingdom of God.
That is precisely the concept about immersion that I have wrestled with over the years: Is it an absolute guarantee of salvation just because you willingly submit to it as an adult who understands the sacrament? Is there no other means by which we can enter the kingdom of heaven other than immersion? I’ve worked through many of these questions in other posts, and I’m convinced of the efficacy of immersion as an act of obedience at the minimum, but as I continue to reflect on the subject, new questions come to mind:
- If, as some of my colleagues would say, immersion is absolutely essential, a sine qua non experience to be considered part of the body of Christ, then have we not limited God’s ability to save whom he wants to save?
- If immersion is absolutely essential for the forgiveness of sins and entry into the kingdom, then is there some mystical transubstantiation of the water into the blood of Christ, since “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins”?
Putting God in Box
Whenever we make one act binding on a person who wants to become a Christ follower, we run the risk of becoming overly legalistic about it in the first place. Second, we also by default deemphasize other aspects of Christian faith which are equally important. Someone might say, “I’m a Christian because I got immersed at camp when I was a kid,” yet he cusses like a sailor, cheats on his wife, and drinks to excess every night. On the other hand, a man might study Scripture, come to Christ according to his own understanding, and lead others to Christ as well, but has only ever known a tradition of infant christening. If I were to say “Immersion is absolutely essential for salvation,” I would feel like I was putting God in a box and denying his power to “show mercy on whom [he] will show mercy.” If God can reverse the physical laws of nature by causing the earth to change its rotation, if God can suspend the law of Moses to allow David and his men to eat the grain dedicated to the priests, then God can welcome unimmersed believers into his eternal heavenly kingdom.
Requiring immersion as an absolute essential presents another problem in my mind: It implies that we have a perfect knowledge of the Scriptural teachings on salvation at least, and by default implies that perfect knowledge and praxis of a doctrine is required for salvation. Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 13 that we know in part and prophesy in part. We don’t have perfect knowledge. Some things about God and how he operates in the world just cannot be known, and this leads into my second question: Just what is the mystery that is immersion?
Objective Truth or Subjective Mystery?
(Let me preface this section with this caveat: by “mystery,” I mean something something that cannot be known or explained by merely human reason, not necessarily a conundrum to solve. I’m using the term more like the modern day Orthodox church uses it, and as Paul used it in Ephesians.)
Here are some things I know for sure about immersion. Translations will be somewhat literal to stay close to the Greek.
Acts 2:38: Repent, and let each one of you be immersed in the name of the Lord Jesus Messiah into the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Forgiveness is a huge part of the experience of immersion. But there are other ways to experience forgiveness that are not directly linked to immersion, so immersion cannot be the only way to receive forgiveness (e.g., Matthew 6:12–15; Hebrews 9:11–28, esp. v. 22; 1 John 1:9).
Romans 6:3–4: Or don’t you know that we who have been immersed into Messiah Jesus have been been immersed into his death? We were therefore buried together with him through this immersion into death, in order that just as Messiah was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, likewise we also will walk in newness of life.
So the experience of immersion in Paul’s view in Romans is that it is linked to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. But Paul never mentions “forgiveness” in that chapter. The emphasis is on cleansing and purity.
Colossians 2:9–15: There are two allusions to blood in this passage that form an inclusio: circumcision and the cross. Immersion and forgiveness are tied together in the middle of the passage, along with the “cancelling” of the charge against us.
1 Peter 3:18–22: This is the trickiest of all passages. On the surface, it sounds like it is not the act itself that is important (“not the removal of dirt from the body”). But you still have to get immersed to make the “pledge.” Just as marriage vows have no weight without the wedding and marriage themselves, so the pledge is empty unless you demonstrate the faith to go through the water.
Here are the horns of the dilemma I find myself up against as I think about these things: On the one hand, if we are to ascribe to immersion an absolute salvific power, what is it about the act that gives it that power? If there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood, and Paul says we are immersed into Christ’s death, then is there a transubstantiation of the waters of immersion into the blood of Christ, much like the Catholics believe about the eucharistic elements? Is the mystery of becoming one with Christ that our bodies are somehow in the waters of immersion transubtantiated into Christ’s body so that we have truly experienced both his death and resurrection? If immersion is more than just a symbol of our unity with Christ, but an actual salvific event, then there is truly a mystery and a greater power at work that our human minds may never be able to comprehend fully or explain adequately.
On the other hand, if the mystery of a salvific immersion lies in the transubstantiation of the water into blood or some other mysterious power, then I cannot in good conscience deny a similar power to the eucharistic elements, the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Table. After all, Jesus said, “This is my body…. This is my blood.” Jesus never said they were “symbols” as many in the Restoration Movement (my own affiliation) have purported. We have said they were symbols because we didn’t want to be too Catholic about it. I prefer to take Jesus’s words at face value. If he and the early church instituted weekly communion as Acts seems to suggest, then like salvific immersion, there is something more powerful to the act and the elements than just symbolism, wheat, and grapes.
As I grapple these “horns,” I am coming to the conclusion that to ascribe salvific power to immersion, which is the death and resurrection of Christ, while denying salvific power (by calling it a symbol) to the Lord’s Table, which is the body and blood of Christ, is a gross theological inconsistency. Either immersion and the Lord’s Table both have a mysterious salvific power, or they are both symbols that represent spiritual truths but do not effect them (and yes, I am using “effect” correctly as a verb there).
To Transubstantiate or Not to Transubstantiate
Now I do not believe that Christ is recrucified every time I partake of the of the bread and the cup. Yet I cannot escape the very direct statements of Jesus about the bread and the cup being his body and blood, respectively. I understand that the statements could be metaphorical at least, but the reality behind that seems too profound and has too much ultimate significance to abandon to the realm of metaphor. So while I do not think the bread or the cup transubstantiate into the body and blood of Christ, I do prefer to consider there is some suprametaphorical mystery in the act of taking the bread and cup that transcends the physical elements. At the very least, the presence of the risen Lord at the Table whenever you remember the Lord’s sacrifice should put to rest that the elements are merely symbols. And if the Lord is present at the Table, those who partake may call on him for whatever needs are burdening their hearts. Even those who have been on the fence about being a Christ follower, if they recognize this deeper signification in the Lord’s Table, may partake and call upon the Lord for their own salvation.
Nor do I believe the waters of immersion transubstantiate into the blood of Christ. However, given the importance of immersion in the Scriptures, I do think it’s possible that another kind of transubstantiation takes place that I alluded to earlier. In identifying with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ in immersion, we experience the mystery of becoming one with Christ. I think I could fully embrace the concept that we are transubstantiated into the physical body of Christ on the one hand, experiencing his death, burial, and resurrection “in the heavenly realms” as it were. But when we are immersed, we also make the public signification that we are in fact Christ followers and part of the body of Christ universal, the fellowship of all the saints. If you’re not convinced of the latter, I’m not implying any judgment here. If you’re a Christ follower who has not been immersed, I for one am in no position to say that your salvation is in question. God knows your heart; he knows the journey you’ve taken with him; and I trust that he will lead you and me into all truth as we continue to follow Christ’s leading in our lives and study his Word diligently.
Salvation is not merely a point in time when we say we want to be a Christ follower, whether that is in the waters of immersion, at the mourner’s bench, or raising your hand with your head bowed in the pew. Salvation is a process that happens in our lives. If it were not a process, why would Paul say “With fear and trembling fulfill (κατεργάζομαι) your own salvation, for God, who is working in you, also wills and accomplishes good things” (Philippians 2:12b–13)? Our obedience allows God to accomplish his good will in our lives. That is another great mystery that I will perhaps explore at another time. For now…