102 Baptism and Jesus’ orientation to the law

“Immersionists” believe that baptism by any other mode than immersion is not adequate because it does not conform to the literal meaning of the Greek word baptizo nor does it follow New Testament practice. Therefore those who are not immersed must be baptized by immersion in order to be accepted as members in our Fellowship Baptist churches. I suggest that this application of baptism in our context is neither appropriate nor biblical. One way of approaching the question is to ask how Jesus addressed and fulfilled God’s Law. As our Lord, he is our pattern in all things. When we consider Jesus’ orientation to God’s Law we can understand what “radical submission” looks like since, of all those who ever lived, Jesus was the most radically submitted to the will of the Father.

The Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7) is Jesus’ manifesto of the Kingdom of Heaven. It provides us a vision of what it means to live under God’s rule. In the sermon Jesus mentions Old Testament commands and then each time goes on to say, “But I say to you….” He does so not to provide an alternate command, but to make the purpose of the original command clear as it reveals the heart and purpose of God. For example, Jesus calls for the fulfillment of the command “You shall not murder” by focusing on reconciliation and the attitude of one’s heart (Mt 5.21-24).

In Luke 11.39-42 Jesus’ gives a harsh rebuke to the Pharisees who were convinced that word for word compliance with the OT law was the only appropriate expression of obedience. Jesus’ correction focuses on the heart of the Law – justice and love – rather than adherence to the wording of the commands.

When asked about the greatest command in the Law, Jesus replies that we are called to love God and secondly to love others (Mt 22.37-39). He then states, “The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Mt 22.40), or as NT Wright translates it, “The entire law consists of footnotes to these two commandments—and that goes for the prophets, too.”[1] The laws are to be signposts back to the greatest commandments; expressions of what is most important to God, not a list of rules to be followed in addition to and separate from consideration of the greatest commandments.

Similarly, in the dispute about working on the Sabbath, Jesus declares, “The Sabbath was made for the good of human beings; they were not made for the Sabbath” (Mk 2.27 GNT). The focus is on the purpose of the command, not on specifics of how the command is to be obeyed. It seems that to deny another form of fulfilling the command when the intent and purpose of the command has been fulfilled is to miss the path of Christ.

Perhaps the most important passage for our consideration is Jesus’ view of the dietary laws in the Torah. In dismissing the ceremonial washings of Jewish traditions Jesus declares, “It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart” (Mk 7.15 GNT). The author of the Gospel then elaborates on the implication for the detailed dietary laws given by God through Moses: “By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes” (Mk 7.19 GNT). Jesus made this declaration not because he was careless with God’s commands, but because he knew the heart of God.

Jesus’ approach to the law teaches us that obedience is not found in ritual conformity to the words of a command, but through embracing and living out the purpose of the command. Carelessness with respect to the law is found in a literal adherence to the words in a way that sets aside God’s heart. Radical submission is not a matter of following commands in a word for word fashion so that we can be assured that we have been obedient. Rather it comes from looking behind the command to the Father’s will, with our eyes on the One who is the author of the command.

I suggest that this orientation to the law is a guide to how Jesus would want us to respond to the question of welcoming those who have been baptized by another mode. Where the purpose of baptism has been fulfilled and expressed, such a practice is equivalent to baptism by immersion. Even though the greater symbolism found in immersion is missing – an aspect we as Baptists will continue to practice and promote – the expression of discipleship and commitment should be respected.

Someone may ask, “Is this not raising sincerity above obedience? The command is clearly ‘immerse’ and to ignore that step of obedience because of a person’s expression of sincerity is to undermine the importance of obeying Jesus’ commands.” The answer to this objection is that the contrast between the understanding proposed here and the “immersionist” position is not between sincerity and obedience, but between obedience to the heart of the gospel and conformity to an external, literalist adherence to words that may end up marginalizing the fulfillment of baptism’s intent. Sincerity is not a sufficient requirement for faith. Misplaced sincerity does not lead to salvation. But if Jesus’ view of the law is to be taken seriously we must affirm that sincere faith in Christ expressed in baptism, whatever the mode, is acceptable to God.

[1] Wright, T. (2011). Lent for Everyone: Matthew Year A (p. 159). London: SPCK.

Mark Naylor

About Mark Naylor

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development
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