by Al Maxey

Issue #627 ------- July 31, 2014
Where there is much desire to learn,
there of necessity will be much arguing,
much writing, many opinions; for opinion
in good men is but knowledge in the making.

John Milton (1608-1674)

John's Baptism of Repentance
Does Mark 1:4 Suggest John the Baptist
Taught a Sacramental View of Baptism?

I have written a number of Reflections articles on the ministry of John the Baptist. I have discussed what some regard as a conflict between his ministry and that of Jesus in Reflections #588: "Pre-Pentecost Baptism Rivalry." We further examined in some depth "The 'Dirty Dozen' of Ephesus" in Reflections #585, and pondered the purpose of their baptism. That article generated some criticism by Hugh Fulford, a preacher in Tennessee who also writes for The Spiritual Sword, and I addressed his "Grandfathered Status Theology" in Reflections #586: a view that speculated on whether or not John's baptism could "carry over" for expectant pre-Pentecost disciples, precluding their need for an additional baptism. Clearly, these are controversial topics, and they have led to some heated debate over the centuries. Last week, in Reflections #626, I focused on a challenge posed to John the Baptist by a group of Pharisees, who essentially wanted to know who he was, as well as by what authority he dared to teach and baptize in the wilderness. This too generated some criticism. A minister in Texas wrote: "Quite a compilation of commentary quotes and verse references, but not a hide nor hair of Mark 1:4 anywhere. Seems pretty conspicuous to me, especially in an article that is trying to answer the question of why John the Baptist baptized."

First, I should point out that my last Reflections article wasn't really trying to address the issue of the purpose of John's baptism (i.e., the why of it), but rather sought to address the challenge posed to John by the religious elite as to his authority for performing baptisms (the very challenge Jesus cast back in the faces of the religious elite with great effect later in His ministry -- Matt. 21:23-27). As noted in my article, the legalistic Pharisees could not have cared less about John's theology, they were concerned with his personal credentials. Thus, the focus of my study was directed toward this specific challenge issued to John that day. The Mark 1:4 passage, therefore, was not really all that relevant to the purpose of my study, although I have mentioned it in passing in a number of previous articles (including those listed above). The minister in Texas does make a good point, however, by suggesting Mark 1:4 should be examined whenever one seeks to understand the ultimate purpose of the baptism performed by John in the wilderness. We will seek to do that in this current study.

Mark 1:4, in the King James Version, reads, "John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins." It should probably be mentioned, just in passing, that in the Greek text there is no definite article in the second clause before the word "baptism." Thus, it is incorrect to characterize this as "the baptism of repentance." For this reason most versions and translations read, "a baptism of repentance." Even the New King James Version has corrected this (although the American Standard Version follows the lead of the KJV on this). There were a number of washings and immersions practiced by the Jews (and also the Gentiles), and the baptism practiced by John was one of many such rites. By the use of "the" in the statement, it could be interpreted that his baptism was to be ranked above all other such religious rites of washing, and that it had come to be recognized by God as THE baptism to which men were to submit. There is certainly no question as to the importance of John's baptism, however one should not seek to affirm more than the text.

It is also significant to a correct understanding of this second clause to place the words in their proper relationship to one another grammatically. In the phrase "a baptism of repentance," one will discover that "the latter word is a genitive of description, indicating what kind of a baptism is meant. It was a baptism connected with the repentance of the individual" [Dr. Kenneth Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 1, p. 17-18]. Other biblical scholars concur, stating this phrase "is a genitive of quality. It was a repentance-baptism John was preaching; i.e., the baptism indicated that repentance had already occurred," and this act was a visible declaration of that fact [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 620]. Indeed, some scholars believe this phrase is "a Semitism, meaning 'a baptism which symbolized or expressed repentance'" [ibid]. Love, faith, and repentance are all inner realities that require an outward, visible expression. They must be shown, evidenced, manifested, demonstrated. This is why James spoke of the need to show one's faith, and it is why John refused to baptize the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a "brood of vipers," and demanding they "produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matt. 3:7-8). John's baptism was a visible testimony to the fact that one was willing to turn away from a life of sin and turn toward a life lived in accordance with God's will. It was a public proclamation of an inner determination. Those who were not truly penitent (as was the case with these religious elitists) were not "fit candidates" for this baptism. How does one testify to a repentance one has not yet experienced? Indeed, John then told these religious leaders that his baptism was "with water for repentance" (Matt. 3:11). The word "for" in that phrase is the Greek preposition "eis," which preposition is also used in a similar construction in Acts 2:38 and Mark 1:4 (more about this later in this study). Clearly, John is not saying that when they are baptized it is for the purpose of achieving repentance. They are not baptized to become penitent; rather, they are baptized because they already are penitent, and this visible act testifies to that inner reality.

One will find that there are a good number of translations and versions that have rendered this phrase according to this understanding. The Common English Bible, for example, says that John was "calling the people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives." In other words, the act of baptism itself isn't what changed their hearts and lives, rather it showed that inner change of focus and direction (it was an evidentiary act of an already present inner determination). Thus, again, they were not baptized so that they might become repentant; they were baptized because they already were repentant. By translating the Greek preposition "eis" as "for," a false impression has been left in the minds of many disciples. This use of this same preposition can also be seen in Matthew 12:41, which speaks of the response of the people of Nineveh to Jonah's preaching. It says "they repented at the preaching of Jonah." The word "at" in this phrase is the Greek preposition "eis." Once again it is clear that the preposition indicates the latter was the cause of the former: they repented because of the preaching of Jonah. The NT in Modern English, by J. B. Phillips, states that John was "proclaiming baptism as the mark of a complete change of heart." The Living Bible says John "taught that all should be baptized as a public announcement of their decision to turn their backs on sin." The New Living Translation states John "preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven." We could list others, but you get the idea. John's baptism was a visible declaration of repentance by one who had already repented; thus, baptism was reflective rather than redemptive in the theology and practice of John the Baptist.

But, there is another part to this second clause in Mark 1:4 which we dare not overlook, for it is one of those proof-texts frequently used by the sacramentalists. We are told that John was "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Here again we find the Greek preposition "eis," only this time it is not before the word "repentance" (as it was in Matt. 3:11), but before the phrase "forgiveness of sins" (which is where it also appears in Acts 2:38 ... see Reflections #515 -- "Peter's Problem Preposition"). The interpretation we have all heard is that when John baptized these people, it was at that precise point that their sins were forgiven. Yes, they tell you, these people had already repented of their sins, and their baptism was a testimony to that inner reality, BUT it wasn't until they "got to the water" that God extended His forgiveness of those sins. This makes the act of baptism in water itself the means whereby God extends His grace. And that is a sacramental view of baptism, which many of us have had drilled into us since childhood. By translating the Greek preposition "eis" as "for" in this phrase, we have conferred a sacramental power upon water baptism (which we have also done with Peter's statement in Acts 2:38). IF, in fact, the baptism of John had the ability to forgive sin, then what need was there for the Christian baptism in water (which also is said to be "for" the forgiveness of sins)? We just replace one sacrament with another, and yet both apparently served as the precise point when God forgives. It is a question some do not like being asked. The problem, however, is generated by a poor understanding of the purpose of the rite of baptism and also a poor understanding of the use of "eis." The noted Greek scholar Dr. Kenneth Wuest states this confusion is "due to an unfortunate translation of eis. ... It is clear that John said, 'because of the remission of sins.' The same holds true of Peter's words in Acts 2:38" [Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 1, p. 16].

The mistake made in this passage (Mark 1:4) is that forgiveness is being linked to baptism, when the construction, carefully considered, links forgiveness to repentance. John came preaching repentance, a turning away from sin and a turning toward the Father, which turning is visibly evidenced in baptism, and which turning (repentance) results in our forgiveness. When the sinner repents, turning toward God, the Father is right there to embrace him as His child; the rags are removed and the robes of white are placed upon him. In our present dispensation, when we repent in our hearts, a repentance born of faith in and love for the Father, God, who sees the heart, forgives. We then demonstrate the reality of this faith, love and inner conviction in an outwardly visible manner. There are, of course, many ways these inner realities may be expressed and manifested, but one specifically has been prescribed: baptism. The forgiveness comes when we, in faith, turn from sin and turn toward God, yet we manifest this in a representative act. John's baptism was a forward-looking act, in that it anticipated the Coming One; the baptism in water practiced later by the disciples of Christ was a visible acknowledgement of the fact that He Has Come, and that He atoned for our sins at the cross, and washed us clean in His blood -- a gift we accept by faith, and evidence in a participatory act reflecting a death, burial and resurrection. In neither dispensation was/is the act itself sacramental; it was/is, rather, symbolic.

I firmly believe what Mark 1:4 suggests to us is: those who turn from their sin, and turn toward God in faith, are forgiven, and this great redemptive reality we give testimony to in baptism. Baptism itself is neither "for" repentance nor "for" remission; it is a loving response of those who are now saved by grace through faith. It is a testimony to all around us of what God has done for us, and our devotion and dedication to Him. Shortly before His ascension, Jesus told His disciples, "repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47). Jesus Himself ties these two together, which I believe John the Baptist did as well. The "Gospel" is the good news that sin has been dealt with by God's Son in His sacrifice on the cross. When we turn from sin and turn to Him, motivated by faith and love, we are cleansed. This basic emphasis is especially seen in Peter's sermon in Solomon's Colonnade where he says nothing about baptism, but instead declares to the people, "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out" (Acts 3:19). This is a gift of grace, a divine cleansing, that we evidence in a symbolic act known as baptism. It is something we do as a response of faith, rather than the belief that the act itself is in some way redemptive. The world-renowned Greek scholar, Dr. A. T. Robertson, in his classic work Word Pictures in the New Testament, wrote, "Certainly John did not mean that baptism was the means of obtaining the forgiveness of their sins or necessary to the remission of sins. The trouble here lies in the use of eis." Our Lord made it clear that we are washed in His blood -- that is the source of our forgiveness. On the evening before He went to the cross, Jesus took a cup of wine and declared, "This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:28). In the blood of Christ all men find forgiveness, and this is for all who turn to Him in faith. That is why His disciples were to preach "repentance and forgiveness" to the world. Indeed, Paul stated, "Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel" (1 Cor. 1:17).

Even Josephus, the Jewish historian, noted that the baptism of John was never intended to be redemptive, but rather reflective of inner realities. It was thus perceived, even by him, as a response instead of a sacrament. "Herod slew John, who was called the Baptist, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing (with water) would be acceptable to Him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away (or remission) of some sins, but for the purification of the body: supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness" [Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 5, section 2]. We could certainly quibble with some of the statements of Josephus, but the important thing about this statement is that it comes from a Jew who lived during the first century, and who expressed what was likely a commonly held understanding of John's baptism: that it was not for the purpose of forgiving sins, but rather reflective of that greater reality. "Thus, we have here the import of water baptism. Submission to this rite is the testimony of the person to the fact that he has been saved. ... Therefore, remission of sins cannot be the result of baptism, but rather its occasion. Baptism is the believer's testimony to the fact that his sins are remitted" [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, "Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT," vol. 1, p. 17-18]. Thus, "God's direct response to true repentance is forgiveness" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 620], and man's response to God's gift is to daily devote our lives to His will to the best of our ability, understanding and opportunity. One of the leaders in our own Stone-Campbell Movement, C. E. W. Dorris (1871-1964), in his Commentary on the Gospel According to Mark, stated, "John preached that they should repent of their sins -- turn to God -- and to show their repentance they must be baptized" [p. 18]. "This means that God appointed this act as the expression of repentance. ... yet there was no virtue or efficacy in the act to bring pardon" [p. 18-19]. Dorris would likely be run out of some of our churches today for this bold statement, but what he said is true. Baptism was never designed to be redemptive, but rather reflective. It is a response of faith in which we, who have turned away from the world and unto God, show our love, repentance, faith, trust and acceptance of Him and His gift of grace. To elevate baptism in water above its true purpose and significance, and make a sacrament of it, is to completely fail to grasp the meaning and significance of this evidentiary act. The tragic result over the centuries has been the practice of rushing sinners to the river, rather than patiently leading them to Jesus.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Georgia:

Your last Reflections article ("Why Then Do You Baptize?") was outstanding, and a very helpful explanation of the exchange between John the Baptist and the religious elite. It is obvious that John was not baptizing for remission of sin as he was not authorized to forgive sin. As you correctly indicated: Jesus alone was capable of that. His baptism, as John the Baptist himself indicated, was for repentance. I'm so glad you pointed out that when called by God into action, we don't need the approval of men to do what He has called us to do. I can't wait to share this article (and the other ones you have written on John's baptism). Great info, brother. Thanks for doing such great research. By the way, your new book (From Ruin To Resurrection) is an awesome reference and study book. I bet you will get a lot of feedback on it. It is challenging for sure, and it is disrupting my previous concepts on the nature of man and his eternal destiny. But, your teaching is hard to argue with! (LOL) Keep it up, brother. I'm not done learning!

From a Reader in Texas:

As always, Al, your latest Reflections was straight from the Word. What a great review of John the Baptist and his work. Thanks!

From a Reader in Canada:

Great article on John the Baptist. Keep up the good work. I am an elder in the Restoration Fellowship Assembly (a home fellowship group). I recently received a letter from the Church of God General Council recognizing what I am. It really wouldn't have mattered, however, if they recognized the fact that I am an elder or not, because I know what God has called me to do, and I answer to Him and no other authority. John knew who had given him his commission, thus he really didn't have to answer to anyone about what he was doing. You yourself know that you have been called of God to do what you do, and that is the only authority in the final analysis that truly counts.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

I've been studying with a Jehovah's Witness, and have also been reading some of your writings with reference to the "soul" of man. I have a question pertaining to Adam in Genesis 2:7. It says Adam became a living soul; it does NOT say Adam was given a living soul by God. Why?

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