103. Religious Preciseness and Baptism

In the article Baptism and Jesus’ orientation to the law I cited Luke 11.39-42 as evidence that Jesus’ concern is with the purpose or heart of God’s commands that can often be fulfilled without word for word compliance. A reader responded that such an understanding ignores the final phrase of the last verse: “it is these [justice and the love of God] you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others [tithing mint and rue and herbs of all kinds].” The person understood this last phrase (“without neglecting the others”) as a commendation of the Pharisees’ carefulness in following the literal instructions of the law and derivatively as an indication of how Jesus would like us to follow God’s commands. In other words, Jesus is advocating full and radical obedience by following BOTH the heart of the command AND by being precise about the literal wording.

This comment is helpful in illustrating how my interpretation of Scripture contrasts with that of the Immersionists. If Jesus’ point is that we are intended to follow a both / and scenario in obeying biblical commands, then the Immersionists are correct in their insistence that baptism means BOTH full and radical commitment to Jesus AND being fully immersed in water. Leaving out either would be disobedience and invalidate the act, just as the Pharisees would be disobedient even if they practiced justice and the love of God and yet failed to “tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds.” Following this line of reasoning Jesus’ commendation to the Pharisees for their carefulness in fulfilling the literal description of the law in the smallest detail would then be a critical guide for how we should interpret and apply God’s laws. This is a powerful argument because Jesus is our Lord and Master whom we follow radically and without reservation. If this was indeed Jesus’ concern and message then, like Jesus indicates with the Pharisees, we too need to be religiously precise in following all of God’s laws.

I would like to argue that this understanding is not consistent with Jesus’ concerns and does not appropriately appreciate Jesus’ and Paul’s message about how believers are to follow biblical commands. I suggest that Jesus was not commending the Pharisees for their preciseness in following the law, but for their concern to obey God’s law. Jesus’ actions and message throughout his ministry do not point to a precise following of the words of God’s commands, but to a hunger for the complete fulfillment of the will of God. Fulfilling the will of God is such a weighty notion that, in comparison, a ritual fulfillment of any symbolism has little significance. Thus through the rebuke to the Pharisees Jesus was not communicating to his disciples, “Make sure that you practice justice and the love of God AND also be sure to tithe any mint and rue and herbs of all kinds.” Instead he was saying, “Make sure that you practice justice and the love of God AND also be sure to follow God’s will in every command he gives, whether large or small.” In this latter interpretation the focus is not on the preciseness of the wording but on the intent of God’s concern and purposes.

The difference can be illustrated by contrasting an artist’s painting with those who seek to replicate a great artist’s work by following a paint-by-number kit. In the original the artist is immersed in the light, colors and message of the painting. In the kit colors and numbers are matched as the person attempts to paint within the lines. Such a stilted process does not do justice to the artwork and a true artist can break commonly understood rules (such as what constitutes proper perspective) in order to fulfill the purpose of the painting. Similarly, a “word for word” approach to God’s law can miss the point of the commands and this becomes evident when the obedience of those who have been less precise, yet have fulfilled the purpose of the commands, is not recognized and valued.

Sometimes unions call upon their members to “work to rule” when they are not to do any work beyond the precise instructions of their contract. As a result, even though they do their job and technically fulfill their responsibilities, they do not fulfill the heart and purpose of their position. However, when a person’s heart is in their profession, they are capable of judging when a precise reading of the rules is unnecessary based on the accomplishment of the intent.

My argument is that when a believer has received baptism through another mode it is as legitimate as full immersion baptism, as long as the purpose of baptism as commitment to Christ is fulfilled. The greater consideration of the meaning of baptism makes the preciseness of the word “immerse” insignificant. To put it another way, the Immersionists’ dismissal of the legitimacy of baptism where immersion is not practiced is a form of setting aside the weightier aspects of God’s concerns. There is a vast difference between being religiously precise and following the heart of God, and I believe that Jesus teaches us that the weightier matters do fulfill the command completely, even if the preciseness of the wording has not been followed. In fact, I would go so far to suggest that the religious preciseness of any command needs to be constantly revisited and questioned in order to determine whether or not we are actually following the heart of Christ in the way God desires.

Once when Jesus was asked about the greatest command and he gave his famous answer (Lu 10.25-37), the response came back, “Who is my neighbor?” This was a request for preciseness; in order to fulfill the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the man needed to identify his “neighbor.” Jesus transcended his thinking and answered a different question. He taught the man what it meant to BE a neighbor. The hero of the story is not a mint and cumin tithing Pharisee, but a rejected Samaritan. Jesus was not commending someone focused on being precise about God’s laws but someone who believed and lived out the heart of God despite a lack of religious preciseness.

My conclusion about Jesus’ response to the Pharisee in Luke 11 is that Jesus is not advocating for literal preciseness in following God’s laws, but he is advocating the posture of attending to all of the laws. As Christians we do not attend the Bible in order find commands that we can obey with religious preciseness, as if the center of our lives is about obeying the laws of God. Instead we study the commands of God in order to grasp the heart and character of God so that we can be true image bearers and children of our Father. Jesus is not advocating that we be BOTH precise AND understand the heart of God. Rather it is by following God’s heart that the purpose of the law is fulfilled, whether or not we are religiously precise. In baptism, this principle should also hold. The precise word is “immerse,” but the heart of the command is turning from self and committing to Christ. To deny the fulfillment of the heart of the command in someone’s life because of strict adherence to the literal wording places us on the side of the Pharisees and undermines the concerns of Christ. Such a posture sets aside the weightier aspects of the law for the sake of the symbolism that only serves as a means to embrace the significant purpose of baptism.

Avatar photo

Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

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