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By John David Clark, Sr.
“And he said unto them, ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.’ ” - Mk. 16:15-16
“Baptism doth also now save us.”
- 1Pet. 3:21
From these Scriptures, we see that salvation will be given only to those who have been baptized! With that, one is confronted with an obvious question: Is the baptism that saves us John the Baptist’s watery baptism, or is it Jesus’ baptism of the holy Ghost? It must be one of these two, for the baptisms of John and Jesus are the only baptisms God ever ordained.
The very earliest believers practiced both baptisms. They performed John’s baptism of water, telling those whom they baptized to receive Jesus’ baptism of the Spirit. In doing this, they were following the pattern set by John, who told every person he baptized, “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose. He shall baptize you with the holy Ghost and with fire” (Lk. 3:16).
1. A Message
John never simply put a person into water; he always pointed the baptized person to the holy Ghost baptism Jesus would give. So, John’s baptism was comprised of two essential things: his message and water. Without the message, water baptism is not John’s baptism. Once, twelve men in Ephesus thought they had received John’s baptism, but because they had not heard about the holy Ghost, the apostle Paul disagreed. He explained to those misinformed disciples that “John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, SAYING. . .” (Acts 19:4).
Those Ephesians had been taught by Apollos, a learned, God-fearing man who knew nothing of the holy Ghost. When two of Paul’s friends explained to Apollos “the way of the Lord” more perfectly, he humbled himself to that more perfect way (Acts 18:24-28). Apollos’ first concern was not for his reputation as a great teacher; his first concern was to do the will of God. What a great example Apollos is for us all!
Receiving John’s baptism was not something that a person could do simply by deciding that he wanted it. He had to earn the privilege by confessing his sins and turning from them. Only then would John baptize him. When unrepentant souls came to John to be baptized, he was harsh: “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:7-8). There was a price to be paid if one hoped to be baptized by John – not a price of money but a price of repentance and faith. The ancient prophet Isaiah spoke of this invisible currency when he proclaimed, “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters. And he that hath no money, come ye, buy, and eat. Buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1). The blessings of the Lord are indeed free; but no one receives them who does not pay God’s price.
3. Only for the Circumcised
John’s baptism was only for the Jews. John, like Jesus (Mt. 15:24), was sent only to the house of Israel. John explained this when he declared, “In order that he [the messiah] should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water” (Jn. 1:31).
Those are the three elements of John’s baptism, and if any one of these three elements is absent or altered, it is no longer John’s baptism.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter appealed to the Jewish multitude to “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). Like John the Baptist, Peter pleaded with his fellow Jews to repent and be baptized in water, and then to receive the baptism of the holy Ghost. This was the doctrine God gave to the earliest believers, to preach and practice two baptisms. And for that time, it was right for them to do so.
The One Baptism of Christ
God sent Paul with a different message, that “there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). The only baptism Paul preached was Jesus’ baptism in spirit. Paul did baptize a few Jewish believers in water; but he later regretted it because it only promoted contention (1Cor. 1:14-16).
So, God sent Paul to preach only the baptism of Christ, while Peter and Jesus’ original disciples continued to preach both John’s and Jesus’ baptism. Paul explained God’s reason for this difference to the saints in Galatia, saying, “the gospel of the uncircumcision [Gentiles] was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision [Jews] was unto Peter” (Gal. 2:7). John’s baptism was part of the gospel for the Jews but not of the gospel for the Gentiles. At Cornelius’ house in Acts 10, God proved to Peter and to his amazed Jewish companions that He did not require Gentiles to be circumcised and be baptized in water in order to receive the baptism of the Spirit. “And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the holy Ghost.”
What an unthinkable event! The Gentiles, whom Jesus himself called “dogs” (Mt. 15:26), had received the baptism of the holy Ghost! Believers of that time, including Peter, had no doctrine that would accommodate such an act of God. It was contrary to all that they understood. God had done something to the Gentiles that no believer at that time thought He would do.
Paul was chosen by God to explain God’s new work. He taught that God did not require Gentiles to do the works of the Law as He required the Jews to do (Rom. 3:19; Gal. 5:3). This new gospel did not make void Peter’s gospel to the Jews; however, it did show that Peter’s gospel applied only to the Jews.
Paul’s doctrine was not well understood in his time. His greatest sufferings were caused by brothers who could not grasp the beauty of his teaching. To them, Paul’s doctrine seemed contrary to the way of God. After all, every godly man from the time of Moses had submitted to the Law. Jesus himself kept the Law and refused to preach to Gentiles (Mt. 15:21-28), and he forbade his disciples to go to Gentiles when he sent them out to preach (Mt. 10:5-6). But now, Paul was anointed to go to the Gentiles with a gospel that excluded the same works of the Law that Jesus himself kept, including John’s baptism. It was a radical doctrine many rejected, but it was of God. And it would prevail.
James, Peter, John, and other “pillars of the congregation” understood Paul’s gospel for the Gentiles and endorsed it (Gal. 2:9). But there is every indication that most other Jewish believers did not. Decades after the Spirit came upon the Jews in Acts 2, every Jew who believed in Christ was still zealous for Moses’ Law (Acts 21:20), and rightly so. Some of these Jews, zealous for the Law of Moses but not understanding that the Law was only for Jews, became missionaries, teaching Gentiles that unless they were circumcised the way Moses taught, they would be damned in the final judgment (Acts 15). Paul vigorously opposed them.
The controversy sparked by Paul’s gospel was the greatest doctrinal issue of his time. Paul taught the Gentiles that the only circumcision that counted with God is circumcision of the heart by the Spirit. “The real Jew is not the man who is one outwardly, and real circumcision is not something physical and external. The real Jew is the man who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, a spiritual, not a literal, thing” (Rom. 2:28-29). We could say the same about any other ceremonial work of the Law. Of John’s baptism, for example, we could say that “real baptism is not something physical and external. Real baptism is a matter of the heart, a spiritual, not a physical, thing.”
Paul’s gospel glorified Christ beyond what many saints understood then, or understand now, for he declared that only what Jesus Christ does for a man saves him. Only if Christ baptizes a man does God consider him to be baptized, and only if Christ circumcises a man does God consider him to be circumcised.
Just One Gospel Remains
Paul’s gospel of liberty from works of the Law is perhaps more misunderstood now than when it was first preached. Many continue to perform ceremonies without understanding that the only ceremonies God has ever accepted were those contained in Moses’ Law and that they were used only to introduce Christ to Israel! The Law’s symbolic worship, including John’s baptism, was needful and holy in its time. But its divinely ordained purpose was fulfilled when the Messiah came. Paul’s message was simple: Christ has come, and by his sacrificial death he has made a “new and living way” for us: the way of life in the Spirit. The way of worship with symbols is finished; the reality is here!
There are no longer two bodies of people that belong to God: Israel and the body of Christ. No longer are there two faiths: Israel’s fleshly worship in symbols and worship in spirit and truth. No longer are there two baptisms: John’s and Jesus’. But “there is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:4-6). In other words, there are no longer two gospels. The time for Peter’s gospel to the Jews has passed.
Now, my friend, can you answer the question with which we began? Do you now know which baptism we must have if we hope to be saved? Do you know to which baptism Paul was referring when he wrote that we are “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him” (Col. 2:12)? The answer you give to this question, I assure you, will be of eternal consequence.