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Stress-testing the
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Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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Baptism as a pledge of allegiance

Baptism is a public renouncement of one’s former enslavement to Satan and the other spiritual rulers of this present darkness, and a vow of fealty to the enthroned king, Jesus.

Mark 16:16 is a classically troubling text to many Christians who recognize the errors of either baptismal regeneration or works-righteousness:

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.Mark 16:16

It doesn’t do much good to argue that Mark 16:16 is probably not original to Mark, because the sentiment is echoed elsewhere, as we’ll see shortly. So how should we understand this? Is baptism required for justification?

There are several things we could say about the logic of Mark 16:16, but what I want to focus on is the rhetorical structure. The verse is a kind of antithetical parallelism—a figure of speech in which two similar but opposing ideas are contrasted. Parallelisms trade on symmetry: what is true of the first part must also be true of the second (in this case, in reverse).

The reason I bring this up is that there is an apparent asymmetry here: the first part mentions both belief and baptism; the second part mentions only belief. But since what is true of the second part must be true of the first—only in reverse—we can see that belief-and-baptism in the first is being identified as meaning the same thing as just belief in the second. Jesus does not say that whoever does not believe and is not baptized will be condemned; he says only that those who do not believe will be. But given the structure of the parallel, he is speaking about the same thing in the second part as in the first. It therefore follows that baptism must be a kind of merism that describes what it means to believe.

But how can that be? In what way does baptism describe belief? How can it be considered somehow synonymous with believing?

Faith as allegiance

This is actually easy to answer—although doing so does challenge the emaciated evangelical understanding of sola fide:

The Greek term pistis, which is usually translated as belief or faith, doesn’t typically mean mere intellectual agreement. Rather, it often refers to allegiance or fealty toward a king.

For example, in 3 Maccabees 3:2 (NRSV) the Jews are said to continue to “maintain goodwill and unswerving loyalty [pistis] toward the dynasty.” In a similar statement in 5:31, Ptolemy notes that they have showed “a full and firm loyalty [pistis]” to his ancestors. The Greek expansions to Esther 3 similarly describes Haman’s relationship to King Artaxerxes as one of “unchanging goodwill and steadfast fidelity [pistis]” while Josephus, writing c. 75 AD, uses pistis routinely to refer to allegiance or loyalty (some examples cited by Matthew Bates in his book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, are: Antiquities 12.47, 147, 396; The Jewish War 1.207; 2.341).

So if pistis is as much about allegiance as it is about belief, Mark’s identifying baptism with pistis suggests that being baptized is a paradigm case of showing allegiance; a token that stands in place of pistis itself. Although this sounds odd to our ears, it is a typically Jewish way of thinking—in terms of wholes rather than their parts, and in terms of combining rather than dividing or categorizing, as we tend to. It’s called Semitic Totality.

This suggests that Mark sees baptism as a kind of pledge of allegiance. I think this is corroborated quite explicitly by 1 Peter 3:21—another classically troubling text for Protestants. Peter sees baptism precisely in these terms. If this is right, the parallelism of Mark 16:16 is saying, in effect, that “whoever places allegiance and pledges allegiance will be saved, but whoever does not place allegiance will be condemned.”

Baptism as a pledge of allegiance in 1 Peter

So why do I think that Peter imagines baptism as a pledge of allegiance? Here’s the text:

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as a pledge [eperotema] to God of a good conscience [syneidesis], through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.1 Peter 3:21

BDAG and others note that eperotema can mean both pledge and appeal. This is reflected in the divided translation choices that different Bibles make: the NIV, NET, HCSB and others say pledge; the ESV, NASB, NHEB and others say appeal; the BLB even says demand. Others try to hedge their bets in various ways; Faithlife’s LEB translates it appeal, but in the study notes it adds, “a pledge of loyalty to God;” the NLT preserves the ambiguity by rendering eperotema as response.

I think surely this last choice is basically right, in that it recognizes both ways as valid: Peter is using a double entendre. This is a pledge of the kind of allegiance that appeals to God’s mercy.

By the same token, syneidesis (“a good conscience”) refers at least as much to attentiveness to obligation as mere moral knowledge (cf. 1 Timothy 1:5; 1 Corinthians 10:25, 27-29; Hebrews 9:9, 14). I.e., it is not just a moral compass that “points us north,” toward God; rather, it is our particular effort of going north, toward God; of heeding the needle’s pull. Peter isn’t merely saying that we appeal to God for a clear conscience in baptism. He is saying that we pledge fealty to God from/with/out of a clear conscience.

Translating verse 21 this way also makes much more sense of 1 Peter 3:22, which emphasizes Jesus’ kingship over all things. The thought-sequence is consistent: baptism saves us as a pledge of allegiance, made to the king out of a clear conscience, relying on the resurrection as the power and proof of our adoption into his family (cf. 1 Peter 1:3).

Other strands of evidence

Romans 6:3–4 further links baptism to an identification with Jesus’ resurrection. There is an analogy between Jesus being raised from death, and our being raised from the water. Since the resurrection was how God publicly testified that Jesus was his now-reigning king (Romans 1:4), baptism is, by analogy, how we testify that Jesus is our now-reigning king.

Moreover, Christian baptism has its roots in John’s baptism, which was a public profession of repentance (Matthew 3:6; Acts 13:24 etc). This is why Peter tells the Jews to repent and be baptized—it is a parallelism that required no further explanation, because they already understood that to be baptized just was to publicly repent: to turn from one’s loyalty to self and sin and other gods (cf. Psalm 82:1; Exodus 12:12; 1 Corinthians 8:5 etc), and to pledge allegiance to Jesus. Now, obviously there was a qualitative difference between the baptisms of John and Jesus, which is why the latter was necessary—but the point is that baptism itself as a public profession of faithfulness was taken for granted (cf. Acts 16:15).

This view of baptism as a pledge is also reflected in the early church. Tertullian, writing early in the third century, observes:

When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel.Tertullian, Of the Soldier’s Crown, 3

Interestingly, Tertullian elsewhere refers to baptism as “the solemn declaration of the sacrament” (Of the Soldier’s Crown, 14)—and the Latin word sacramentum itself originally referred to a pledge or oath; as, for instance, a Roman soldier’s oath of allegiance to the emperor.

Obviously there is more we could say here, and I’ll have more to say about baptism and 1 Peter 3 at another time. But the takeaway for now is that baptism is a public renouncement of one’s former enslavement to Satan and the other spiritual rulers of this present darkness (Ephesians 6:12 etc), and a pledge of allegiance to the enthroned king, Jesus.

5 comments

  1. Mike Bull

    Excellent!

  2. Nick

    Recall the story of Naaman that Dr M Heiser uses frequently, justification is by faith alone. (Aside: was Naaman’s decision to immerse himself in the Jordan in effect a baptism of sorts?)

    But the evangelical view is indeed emaciated, and it’s dangerous.

    My wife has just discovered the MOPS (Mother’s of Pre-Schoolers) handbook which explicitly states to “keep Christian talk to a minimum”. It even goes on to provide examples of phrases to avoid, such as “God is so good”.

    I kid you not, this international church outreach program explicitly instructs its female leaders to avoid saying “God is so good”. This is all out of fear of offending the unbelieving mums whom they’re (supposedly) trying to witness to.

    One of the Christian leaders has become aware of a friend who is considering getting an abortion, and this Christian mum is struggling with what to say to her. That’s the problem with the whole seeker sensitive ideology. People become afraid of breaking relationship with the unbeliever, a relationship built on compromise to begin with.

    This is a huge problem in the church. It’s a spiritual power, a wickedness in a high place, that we need to conquer for Christ.

    You need a bigger platform Dominic.

  3. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Good words Nick. I’ll take any platform God gives me :)

  4. Gloria Urban

    Hello. John’s repentance was for the remission of sin. Jesus came as the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. The water covering, prior to Jesus appearing, was not enough for salvation as the blood was needed for a sin covering. I had not really thought about this until I read this article, but how and where did the water baptism initiate? I have heard and read that when Jesus went to be baptized it was to fulfill the priestly washing requirement as he had no sin, but yet, needed to fulfill the Levitical law. I guess this is what good articles should do. Provoke us to more study.

    My mind is picturing lines of people repenting with John, but what happens if they fail to see Jesus as their Messiah? Like the rich young ruler, he knew he needed more but was sad at what Jesus asked him to do.

    Thank you,
    Gloria Urban

  5. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Gloria. I’d agree that Jesus was baptized to fulfill the requirements of the covenant of Levi, so that he could stand before God as a priest—although this is attenuated by Hebrews which indicates he was a priest in the order of Melchizedek rather than Levi, not being a Levite by birth. Doug van Dorn talks about this in his biblical theology of baptism, Waters of Creation.

    In terms of the origin of baptism, most straightforwardly it evolved out of the Jewish mikvah washings.

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