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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Baptism & Ordinances

From where did baptism come? Upon reading the Bible, it can easily seem like John starts the river ministry with people out of nowhere.

The Jerusalem Connection once published an article that talked about the old testament equivalent of baptism occurring in the doorway of the temple. (It seems to me full immersion would be hard to do in a doorway. A friend of mine said it more referred to the pools outside of and near the door of the temple.)

My thinking on baptism frequently returns to a message by a pastor I visited one Sunday in Yakima, Washington, years ago who explained that baptism comes from an untranslated Greek word that means or was used the way we use the word washing. (The King James translators did not want to offend the king over something, so they just brought the Greek word into English. Thus, perhaps many Baptist churches today would more accurately be called washing churches.

As I've thought about it, using the term that way answers a lot of questions for me about baptism and divisions over baptism we see in the Church today.

After salvation, not for salvation
Some people point to 1 Peter 3:21 as baptism being something “which now saves us.” If you keep reading the same verse, however, it's clear it was not talking about “the removal of the filth of the flesh” with water, but was a spiritual washing. The spiritual washing is what cleans “the inside of the cup” and “what comes out of the mouth,” not water.

In contrast, salvation comes through words. Peter told Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Jesus specifically subordinated being washed with water to being washed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:16). The Holy Spirit provides “the washing of regeneration and renewing” (Titus 3:5).

Paul also did not make baptism a priority: “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:17). Paul's priority was “that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1).

At the risk of oversimplifying things, ordinances are the protestant alternative to sacraments. Most protestants believe nothing special happens at baptism, and sacraments are not required for salvation; they are simply symbols and matters of obedience. Yet it may be time to give second thought to this choice of term ordinance.

Outside a theological context, an ordinance is typically something that a local county or city passes—it's a law. Has Christ established two laws for His Church?

“Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). Granted, righteousness here refers to salvation and Baptists are not saying ordinances are required for salvation. Yet, to call them ordinances is still the language of the law. Christ “abolished in his flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances” (Ephesians 2:15).

Just because there are things for us to do as described in Scripture, opportunities to do things, that does not mean that every one of those constitutes a command. “Commands” is language of the law. We are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). Did Jesus call them commands? Yes, and they are a different kind of commands. They are “new commandments” (John 13:34). These are the kind that are “not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).

If we approach his new commandments as laws we must follow, then I think we will miss the point. Communion wasn't something Jesus had to do; communion, that final Passover, was something Jesus ate with them after having been craving it “with fervent desire” (Luke 22:15). Laws push from behind; desire pulls one ahead. Commands from the law bring death (Romans 7:10); grace brings life (Romans 5:17).

Note: Content from the first and last sections of this post were originally posted here as part of a larger discussion of specific church policy. The entire post was removed in 2017. This version restored some of the general doctrinal content was re-posted at the original 2013 location in 2020 with the clarifications about salvation. That was not an issue at that church.

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