WAS JOHN’S BAPTISM “FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS”?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Monday, May 2, 2011 at 6:48pm
QUESTION: Mark 1:4 says that John’s baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Now, if those baptized by John had their sins forgiven there, how can John’s baptism be any different from the Christian baptism that began on the Day of Pentecost? Also, if people could receive forgiveness through John’s baptism, then why did Jesus have to die on the cross?
ANSWER: There are two questions here; we will take the second one first. Let’s grant for the moment that John’s “converts” received forgiveness in connection with his baptism. Does that mean that they actually received forgiveness “through John’s baptism”—as if John’s baptism were the source or basis of that forgiveness, thus making the cross superfluous? No. The baptism itself would be only the occasion for the forgiveness of sins; the basis for that forgiveness would still be the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ.
Some have falsely concluded and taught that no sins were literally and fully forgiven until Jesus’ sacrifice was completed on the cross. Only from that time on could sins be actually forgiven; before then a repentant sinner’s forgiveness was “put on hold,” and all sinners were kept in a kind of “holding pen” (called the limbus patrem, or “limbo of the fathers”), awaiting the great historical event that would make their forgiveness possible. Following Jesus’ crucifixion they were finally forgiven and allowed to enter Paradise with Jesus.
This is simply not true. OT saints were fully forgiven at the time when they met the conditions specified for that forgiveness. If faith was the specified condition, as with Abraham, then Abraham was forgiven (justified, counted righteous) when he believed (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3). If John’s baptism was such a condition, then those thus baptized were fully forgiven. The only way God could dispense forgiveness prior to the cross was on the basis of what He in his “predetermined plan and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23) knew was going to happen on the cross. Those who may have wondered how a righteous God could be forgiving sins in the OT era had their doubts and misunderstanding removed by the cross itself. There on Calvary God displayed Jesus publicly as a propitiation, and thus demonstrated HOW He was able to “pass over the sins previous committed” (Rom. 3:25), i.e., before the cross. Any gift of divine forgiveness, whenever bestowed and upon whatever occasion bestowed, absolutely requires the death of Jesus on the cross for its possibility.
But this takes us to the second question worded above, namely, if those baptized by John had their sins forgiven in that act, then how is John’s baptism any different from Christian baptism? First, I don’t think it is splitting hairs to note that the Bible does NOT make a direct connection between John’s baptism and forgiveness of sins. In Mark 1:4 it is described as “a baptism of repentance,” and the repentance is “for the forgiveness of sins.” The baptism of Acts 2:38, on the other hand, is directly connected with forgiveness: “be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.” In each case the word “for” translates the Greek eis, which in this case means “unto” in the sense of “for the purpose of.” Thus in John’s case the repentance is for the purpose of forgiveness; in Acts 2:38 the baptism is for the purpose of forgiveness. Thus I conclude that while Christian baptism is for forgiveness, John’s baptism was not.
What, then, is the purpose of John’s baptism? Everything about John’s ministry, including his baptism, must be understood in the light of his role as forerunner, as the one who was to prepare the way for the Messiah. Thus his baptism must be seen as in some way preparing for Christ—the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (See Mal.3:1; Matt. 11:10; Luke 1:17; Acts 19:4.) John’s mission and baptism were preparatory, thus temporary.
Just how did John’s baptism function thus? It marked out a community of people who were alerted to the coming of the Messiah and ready for his appearing. Those baptized by John were the REMNANT of that day (Isa. 10:20-22; Zeph. 3:11-13; Rom. 9:27-28; 11:4-5), the “Israel within Israel” (Rom. 9:6), a true pre-Messianic community. These are the ones who looked for their Messiah in hope, free from fear of any judgment he would bring. Those joining this remnant community thus entered into a state of eschatological self-consciousness. I.e., they knew themselves to be poised on the threshold of the new age, the Messianic age. This means that John’s baptism itself had an eschatological significance. John’s baptism functioned as a kind of initiatory rite, marking one’s entrance into this community—an informed, spiritual community.
Preparation for entrance into such a community involved real moral change in the form of repentance, and not just ritual cleansing. This made John’s baptism different both from the OT rituals and from circumcision. It was very similar to the prophets’ exhortation to “cleanse or circumcise your hearts.” John’s baptism had an intrinsic, intentional symbolic relation to this inner moral cleansing, and thus to forgiveness of sins. It was a baptism “unto [eis] repentance” (Matt. 3:11) or “of repentance” (Acts 19:4); a “baptism of repentance unto [eis] the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). See Luke 1:76-77.
Actually we cannot be dogmatic as to whether it was only a public expression of this required inner change, or a required occasion for receiving the necessary forgiveness. In my judgment, however, it was the former, in which case it would be similar to a modern “rededication.” In either case receiving John’s baptism marked one as a “true believer,” as part of the “Israel within Israel” (Rom. 9:6). It took a person as far as he could go in the Old Covenant era, thus placing him in the “starting gate” for the New Covenant and gospel preaching.
John’s baptism may be considered a true antecedent or forerunner of Christian baptism, but it must not be equated with Christian baptism as if it had the same meaning as the latter. In Acts 19:1-7, those baptized with John’s baptism had to be rebaptized. One of the main reasons why this was so was that the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit was given only from Pentecost on, and was given in Christian baptism (John 7:37-39; Acts 2:38). Another reason is that John’s baptism, unlike Christian baptism, could not be related to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, since these events had not happened yet. This latter point is probably why John’s baptism, unlike Christian baptism, was not directly related to forgiveness; only the latter is a baptism into His death (Rom. 6:3-4) and thus into contact with His forgiving blood.
(Those being baptized by Jesus’ disciples (John 3:22, 26; 4:1-2) were in the same status as those baptized by John.)