I was recently asked this question during a discussion on baptism. This brother believed that unless one holds to a specific understanding of Acts 2.38 their obedience is not good enough. Here is the question: "But what about Acts 2:38 and its application/relevance today--if any? Again, baptism is what the original concern was about." I will here make an attempt to offer some insight from our Stoned-Campbell heritage on the matter ...
The question about baptism and its so called "design" has gone back and forth and I doubt it will ever be solved. According to my friend John Mark Hicks, between 1897 and 1907 there were right around TWO HUNDRED (that is 200) articles on rebaptism in the Gospel Advocate, Firm Foundation, Christian Leader & The Way, and the Octographic Review? That is a lot of ink! Many simply degenerated into rantings and name calling ... very unhelpful in any dialogue. But one article stands, in my view, above the rest for its clarity of thought, its civil tone and its tackling the issues head on.
That article comes from the pen of James A. Harding and he deals specifically with the question directed towards me. "HOU MUCH IS MEANT BY THE PHRASE, 'THE DESIGN OF BAPTISM?" was published in The Way in March 1900 covering pages 33 to 36. I will attempt to share the basic thrust of his article and supply relevant quotations from it.
Harding begins by reminding readers of The Way of his earlier article examining two theories concerning baptism 1) actual remission or a formal ceremonial cleansing. Now he will examine two more: 1) remission of sins is the design of baptism 2) remission is part of the design of baptism. Then Harding reminds his readers "the reader should remember that the text for these articles is Acts 2.38" (p. 33).
Harding then picks up the claim that "eis" denotes the design of baptism and this design is articulated in Acts 2.38. But then he lists 17x where "eis" follows the "words 'baptism,' 'baptize." These seventeen occurrences are: Mt 28.19; Ac 8.16; Ac 19.5; Rom 6.3(2x); Rom 6.4; Gal 3.27; Mk 1.4; Lk 3.3; Ac 2.38; 1 Cor 1.13; 1 Cor 1.15; Ac 19.3; 1 Cor 10.2; Mk 1.9; and 1 Cor 12.13. Harding comments on this list ...
"The idea of design is connected with, or suggested by, the word in every one of these places, it seems to me ..." (p. 34) Then he transitions to make these comments about Christian baptism.
"From these considerations it appears clear to me that to be baptized into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, into the name of the Lord Jesus, into Christ, into Christ Jesus, into death, are in effect one thing, inasmuch as to enter into one of these relationships is to enter into all of them. This was not always true, however, of baptism into remission of sins ... the inspired writers represent baptism as transferring one into thename, person, body, or death of Christ, or of the family of Christ, ten times; but only once do they represent us as being transferred into remission of sins. Is it not strange, then, that men will say remission of sins is the design..."
How did such a state of affairs come about, according to Harding? Why would preachers in the Churches of Christ make this argument then? Harding lays the blame upon the King James Version which he, and many others, had great reservations about Here are his own words on this point ...
"Moreover, in the one case (since Pentecost) in which he says we are baptized eis remission, the remission is not represented as the design of baptism, nor would any ever have supposed it was, I believe, had it not been for the incorrect translation of "eis" at this place; manifestly that which is
presented in this sentence as the object to be attained by being baptized is 'the gift of the Holy Spirit;' no one who is not utterly blinded by love for a false translation and a false interpretation can fail to see this when his attention is called to the truth."
Harding then quotes the Revised Version (1881) as the correct translation. He goes on to say "Peter did not say 'FOR [sic] the remission of sins.' The best scholarship of the world, in the best translations, has rejected 'for' as a rendering of 'eis' at this place." So what was the goal ... the end ... of being immersed in Acts 2.38?
"They were baptized unto (Greek 'into') the remission of their sins that they might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost."
Harding begins summarizing his inductive survey of baptism and eis by saying
"it is manifestly wrong to call remission of sins the design of baptism and insist that it shall be understood, or the baptism is of none effect, while no such requirement is made concerning the other passages where the same word ('eis') is used to show the relation or state into which the baptized is transferred."
But how would Harding handle one who comes from the "denominations" that has been immersed. Would he not ask him/her about the design of baptism. He says no!
"Because I doubt if there was ever a man who fully understood the design of the ordinance at the time of his baptism since Christ gave the commission. I am near fifty-two years of age; I have been a reader of the Bible, and have had my mind turned on this subject for the express purpose of studying it and getting ... yet I have not arrived ..."
What then is the biblical requirement for the candidate of baptism? What would Harding ask that Baptist or Methodist that had been immersed when they come to join a local congregation of the Churches of Christ?
"Did you believe with your whole heart that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and did you confess him as Lord?"
If the person responded in the negative they would simply need to be baptized rather than rebaptized. But if they affirm positively then they are in fact a part of the family of God.
Harding's article is a good one. He has some very thoughtful and insightful words. Maybe there is spiritual wisdom in them. I believe there is ...