Paul and Baptism
by Matthew K. Clifton
It is sometimes stated that the writings of the apostle Paul give no particular emphasis to baptism as a command of the gospel. In fact, the average “man on the street” evangelical adherent will claim that since Paul said Christ sent him “not to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17), it must mean that baptism is not a part of the gospel, nor necessary for salvation.1 But how does Paul treat baptism in his writings? Does he really isolate baptism in water from the gospel? Does Paul see baptism as unnecessary and inconsequential? If not, what purposes and needs does Paul see being fulfilled by baptism?
To begin examining the issue, it is worth reminding ourselves that “quantity” of references to baptism is no replacement for “quality.” The New Testament (NASB) mentions the word “baptism” and variations on the word 106 times. Of those 106 occurrences, only 16 are in the letters attributed to the apostle Paul. Is this an indication that Paul placed little emphasis on baptism in his preaching? This is doubtful evidence, since the word “baptism” and its variants are mentioned 49 times in the synoptic gospels, 27 times in Acts, 13 times in the Johannine literature, and only once in the letters of Peter. There are relatively as many mentions by Paul as there are by other authors of the New Testament.
What is important is the quality of the references by Paul. Baptism is definitely referred to in five of Paul’s letters: Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians. It is perhaps alluded to in Titus. What do these references reveal about Paul’s teaching on baptism? If baptism “takes a back seat to the ministry of the proclamation of the gospel and the response of conversion,”2 why did Paul use the concept as a teaching tool in his letters?
The goal of this paper will be to examine Paul’s references to baptism and attempt to understand his theological views in this area. Especially important will be to understand who Paul was writing to, what the reader would have understood by the term “baptism,” what Paul meant by using the term, and what significance Paul placed on the act. Following a discussion of each passage in Paul, a brief synthesis of his teachings will be undertaken. Finally, Paul’s teaching related to baptism will be compared to that of the other New Testament books.
Looking at Paul’s writings in canonical order, the first reference to baptism in the apostle’s letters comes in Romans chapter 6. First, it is important to note that Paul is writing to “all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints,” as is evidenced by Rom. 1:7. Therefore, it is clear that Paul was writing to Christians. Carson points out that Paul did not found the congregation at Rome, nor had he met them personally before.3 Verses 8-15 of chapter one seem to support this view. Additionally, it is almost universally agreed upon that Paul wrote to a mixed group of Jewish and Gentile Christians.4
The mention of baptism occurs in Romans 6. In verses 1-2, Paul anticipates a question his readers may have: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” He answers the question with an interjection, “Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” Following this statement that those who have died to sin should no longer sin, Paul uses the example of baptism as a teaching tool on the subject. He says in verse 3 that as many of them that had been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death. Therefore, since they were buried with Christ, and since Christ was raised, so the Christian should walk in newness of life.
To Paul, baptism meant a separation point between the “old man” of sin, and the “new man” in Christ. It marks a point at which a person is no longer a slave to sin (6:17), and is now a slave of righteousness (6:18). Paul argues that we are not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies (6:12) because a change in existence has taken place. The Christian is now a new creature!
Remembering that Paul’s audience has never met him, it is important to realize that Paul used baptism as a teaching tool that all Christians should be able to understand. He did not need to explain what he meant by the word “baptism.” Instead, he expected the readers to have had a common experience of baptism.5 Some modern evangelicals put forth the idea that Paul is talking about “baptism of the Holy Spirit” instead of water baptism. However, as Douglas J. Moo points out, it is unlikely that Paul here refers to anything other than baptism in water. Paul usually uses the verb baptizo to refer to Christian baptism in water, and the noun baptisma used in verse 4 almost always has this meaning.6 Danker cites baptisma in Romans 6:4 as meaning the Christians rite of immersion in water.7 Therefore, the understanding gathered from Romans is that Paul sees Christian baptism in water as the point at which the old man of sin is buried, and a new creation rises to walk, no longer being a slave to sin.
There are more individual references to the concept of baptism in 1 Corinthians than any other Pauline letter. A clear statement is made by Paul at the beginning of the letter that the addressees include “the church of God which is at Corinth,” and to “all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:2).
After an introductory prayer report, Paul brings up what must have been a major issue with the church in Corinth: sectarianism and division (1:10). It is in the context of encouraging the Corinthians to be “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” that Paul again uses baptism as a teaching tool. Paul has heard that these Christians at Corinth are calling themselves followers of certain teachers, such as himself, Apollos, Cephas, and Christ (1:12). Paul answers this idea by asking rhetorically, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” The implied answer to all these questions is “no.” In the next two verses, Paul expresses thanks that he had baptized few there, for fear that they might be saying they had been baptized in Paul’s name, not Christ’s (1:14-15). Paul clearly has in view here a baptism that man could perform (water baptism), and a baptism that identified a person with the teachings of Christ. The implication is that it would be wrong and divisive to be baptized in any name other than the name of Christ.
First Corinthians 6:11 is a possible reference to baptism that must be mentioned. After mentioning some specific sins in 6:9-10, Paul says that some of the Corinthians were guilty of these things, but they had been “washed” (6:11). Looking at this passage from the viewpoint of the early Christian reader, it is likely that this is a reference to baptism. If it is, it shows baptism’s connection with cleansing one of sin.
Paul continues to connect “baptism” with authority in 1 Corinthians 10:1-6. In the first chapter, Paul has shown that those baptized into a certain name are followers of the one into whose name they are baptized. In chapter 10, we see this concept alluded to once again, as Paul writes that “all our fathers” were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (10:1-2). The “baptism” Paul refers to is more or less a figurative one. But the idea is that those who submitted to the authority of Moses were “baptized” in the acts of faith (following the cloud, crossing amidst the divided sea). By submitting in faith (cf. Heb. 11:29), the Israelites also submitted to the authority of Moses as given by God. But again, Paul is not teaching specifically on baptism, but rather is warning the Corinthians about the danger of falling in the wilderness, as the Israelites had before them.
First Corinthians 12:12-13 marks another passage where Paul refers to baptism while teaching on another subject. This time Paul is speaking in the context of spiritual gifts (12:1). There are diversities of gifts, Paul says, but they all come from the same Spirit (12:11). In verse 12, Paul says that the body has many members, and the many members make up one body, and he applies this concept to the body of Christ. He goes on to say that by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, and that no racial or social divide can get in the way of that (12:13). Carlson comments that this passage shows that baptism “plays a role in the Spirit’s activity of inaugurating persons (regardless of their diverse backgrounds) into the community and the essential unity that exists therein.”8
The final reference to baptism in 1 Corinthians is in 15:29, and it is rather cryptic. Although more than forty solutions have been proposed, the reference is too obscure to be useful to our study. However, it should be noted that the baptism of the dead Paul alludes to had some connection in their minds with the return of Christ. It can be understood that the idea Paul has in mind is some sort of baptism by proxy, with living people being baptized for those who died without being baptized. Paul neither condemns the practice nor condones it, but rather uses the practice to argue in favor of a bodily resurrection.9
One of the clearest indications of Paul’s theology in regards to baptism is in Galatians chapter 3. In this letter addressed to the “churches of Galatia” (1:2), Paul is confirming the pure gospel that he preached to the Galatians, and combating Judaizing teachers who have crept in and corrupted the message. In the third chapter, Paul sets out an argument regarding the seed promise through Abraham (3:8-9). Paul tells the Galatians that it is no longer those who are laboring under the works of the Law who will be called heirs, but rather those who are living by the kind of faith exemplified by Abraham (Gal. 3:9). The promises can come upon the Gentiles outside of the Law of Moses, Paul says (3:13-14). All this being true, Paul finally says that the way men become heirs of the promise is through faith (3:26) and baptism into Christ (3:27). Those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, and are thus Christ’s, Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (3:29). Carlson comments that this is another instance of the transforming moment that is baptism, in that no matter what race, sex, or social status one holds, they all become one in the seed promise.10 All barriers are broken down in that transforming moment. Baptism in the early church was the initial and necessary response of faith.11
In Ephesians chapter 4, Paul is encouraging the readers, who he calls “saints” (1:1), to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3). In this discussion, Paul says that there is “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (4:4-6). In Paul’s theology, there is one baptism, just as surely as there is one Lord, one Spirit, and one God. The one baptism surely refers to baptism into the body of Christ, as no other would line up with Paul’s statements in other letters.12 Ephesians 5:25-27 seems to be another reference to baptism, although not all scholars would agree on this. Paul’s references to baptism in Ephesians seem to indicate his view of baptism as a unifying force, since all children of God have submitted to it, and if Eph. 5:26 is a baptismal reference, he also indicates that baptism is a cleansing which results in a pure church.
In the Colossian letter, Paul is once again writing to Gentile Christians. Paul discusses the fact that in Christ all things would be reconciled to Himself by Him, making peace through the blood of the cross (1:20). Among the people who needed to find that peace were the Gentiles, who were alienated and enemies of God at one time (1:21). In this context, Paul talks about how these Gentiles have come into fellowship with God. In 2:11, Paul tells the Colossians that they have been circumcised with the circumcision made without hands. He goes on to say that they have been buried with Him in baptism, in which they were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God (2:12). Once again Paul uses baptism as a reminder of the transformation that took place in these believers when they were baptized. They were now identified not as Gentiles, but as Christians, since Jesus had reconciled both Jew and Gentile through His sacrifice, having abolished the Mosaic Law through His death on the cross (2:14). Thielman writes that with this abolition of the Mosaic Law, “Jews and Gentiles are able to come together in Christ to form a new, third people, all of whom are at peace with God and therefore at peace with one another.”13
Although some modern scholars view Titus as the work of a “deutero-Pauline writer,”14 there are many who still defend Pauline authorship.15 Although the term “baptism” or its variants is not used, it is probable that in Titus 3:5 Paul alludes to Christian baptism when he speaks of the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” If it is true that this is a genuine Pauline epistle, it is likely that Paul is connecting baptism and regeneration.
Synthesis of Paul’s Teaching on Baptism
By briefly surveying Paul’s references to baptism, certain recurring themes begin to come into view. First of all, it should be noted that all the references to baptism in Paul’s letters are in a edification and correction setting, not in an evangelistic setting. The people being addressed are already Christians, and have already submitted to baptism into Christ. This is important to remember when studying Paul’s references to baptism. He assumes that all of his readers understand what baptism is, and its role in conversion. It should also be noted that there is no correction taking place in any Pauline letter about baptism. This could very well mean that baptism is a simple, base teaching of Christianity that was never in question among the early Christians to whom Paul wrote.
In review of Paul’s mentions of baptism, we first see in Romans that Paul speaks of baptism as a life-changing event that transforms the believer from a dead creature to a living creature, from a slave of sin to a slave of righteousness.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul implies the importance of baptism in identifying one with a teacher and teaching, and in the event of placing one in the one body.
The letter to the Galatians highlights the idea that in order to reap the benefits of the promise God made to Abraham, one had to be a partaker in that promise. The way one becomes a son of God is through faith and baptism. One is baptized into Christ, and therefore into the seed of Abraham.
In Ephesians, Paul writes that there is only one baptism that means anything, and this must be the one that puts a person into Christ (Gal. 3:27). In Colossians, the transforming nature of conversion is discussed. Paul reminds the Colossians that they were once alienated from God and His promises, but now they have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Again Paul talks about the transformation of baptism as bringing one into a new relationship with God. Finally, in Titus we see Paul allude to baptism as regeneration and renewal.
Comparing the common evangelical statement that Paul saw little importance in baptism to the apostle’s actual statements is striking. By looking at his baptismal theology, it can be ascertained that Paul saw baptism as nothing less than a transformation of a believer into a new state of being, a life in a different relationship in respect to God and sin. To God, in that the believer becomes through baptism a child of God, putting away the sinful past and launching out into a new walk. To sin, in that the baptized believer is no longer a slave to the sinful deeds of the flesh.
Comparing Paul to Other New Testament Writers
How does Paul’s view of baptism as a transformation compare with the rest of the New Testament? In Matthew’s gospel, baptism is clearly presented by Christ as the point of becoming a disciple (Matt. 28:19). This lines up very well with Paul’s view of baptism as the beginning of a new life in Christ. When Jesus says in Mark 16:16 that he who believes and is baptized will be saved, we have more agreement with Paul. If one is not raised with Christ, thereby putting to death the old man of sin, how could one be saved?
The only reference to Christian baptism in the gospel of John occurs in John 3:3,5. Although some scholars dispute that Christ was referring to baptism in this passage, the teaching that one must be born of water and Spirit dovetails nicely with Paul’s teaching in Titus 3:5 in regard to the “washing of regeneration” and “renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
While there are no explicit references to Christian baptism in Luke’s first volume, there are plenty in Acts. Peter tells the crowd in Acts 2:38 to “repent and be baptized” for the remission of sins. This fits with Paul’s teaching that in baptism we are raised in newness of life, have been freed from sin. Aside from the many references to baptism in Acts, Paul himself was told to “arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). If we believe in the unity of scripture and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it seems highly doubtful that Paul would teach differently than he himself was taught.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that the “doctrine of baptisms” (or washings) is part of the foundation of Christianity (Heb. 6:1,2). This would like up nicely with Paul’s assumption that his Christian readers would have a grasp already on the concept of baptism. And finally, Peter connects baptism with salvation (1 Pet. 3:21). Although Paul does not make a connect quite as explicit, it is clear in Paul’s writings that if one is a son of God, he has undergone the transformation that takes place in baptism. If a believer has been baptized, he or she has become a partaker in the seed promise of Abraham, and thus has received salvation.
In this short examination of Paul’s baptismal theology, it is easy to see that Paul saw great importance in Christian baptism. It was a point of transformation, at which time a person died to the world, and began to live to Christ. The sinful old man is put away, and one begins to walk in newness of life. Baptism, for Paul, was a defining moment in which a person “put on Christ,” and changed forever.
- Blomberg, Craig L. The NIV Application Commentary, 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994. Blomberg claims that 1 Corinthians 10:1-12 is a proof that baptism is not required for salvation, but in both his references (p. 46 and pp. 191-197) he fails to give exegetical support to the statement, other than to say that the Israelites were not literally immersed in water while following the cloud and at the crossing of the Red Sea. Somehow he applies Paul’s figurative use of “baptism” in reference to the Israelites to the Bible’s literal teaching in regards to baptism and conversion. [↩]
- Blomberg, p. 44. [↩]
- Carson, D.A., Douglas J. Moo, Leon Morris. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992. P. 242 [↩]
- Carson, p. 243. [↩]
- Marshall, I. Howard. New Testament Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004. P. 316. [↩]
- Moo, Douglas J. The NIV Application Commentary, Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. P. 196. [↩]
- Danker, Frederick William, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition BDAG. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 [↩]
- Carlson, Richard P. “The Role of Baptism in Paul’s Thought,” Interpretation. No. 47. P. 260. [↩]
- Blomberg, p. 299. [↩]
- Carlson, p. 259. [↩]
- McKnight, Scot. NIV Application Commentary, Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995. P. 198. [↩]
- Snodgrass, Klyne. The NIV Application Commentary, Ephesians Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996. P. 199. [↩]
- Thielman, Frank. Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. P. 402. [↩]
- Carlson, p. 262. [↩]
- Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990. See his discussion on p. 622ff. [↩]
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