What Does This Mean?


Written as he recommended the head of the household to teach his family, Luther’s small catechism is written in a series of questions and answers. As the faith is confessed in this teaching aid, Luther will rhetorically ask: “what does this mean?” He then gives an explanation of the point in question, with scripture.

When reading the scriptures, one eventually comes upon the verses that mention Holy Baptism. When one arises, the question comes up: “what does this mean?” As an FE, I took a very different understanding than what these verses say. I’ve often said that I don’t chiefly blame myself for believing an un-scriptural doctrine of baptism. After all, this is what happens when one spends 28 years of his life hearing that the words on the pages of Holy Scripture don’t mean what they say. This isn’t to say that each and every passage that mentions the word “baptize” or “baptism” is clear and easy to understand, but the clarity of some cannot be easily denied.

I was cleaning off a bookshelf recently and removed two Bibles, one with MacArthur commentary and one with Zondervan’s commentary. At one point in my life, I honestly marveled at the “great insight” of these commentaries’ authors. In hindsight, I was probably in awe that they were able to uncover such “truths” from the passages that never occurred to me when I read them. This time, removing them from the shelf, I opened a page to some of the baptism passages and wanted to compare the explanations with the plain words of scripture. What follows are the results of this experiment. For a comparison, I’ve also included sections of CPH‘s commentary from the Lutheran Study Bible.

We can see that the scriptures present a high view of baptism, a far higher view than the FE will allow. The passages are so clear, we don’t need to have commentaries help us with understanding this doctrine, unless we are in need of help explaining that the scriptures don’t mean what they say. As a reminder of some,

Those summaries use words directly from the passages. Let’s go one-by-one (not in the order presented above), and see how the Zondervan and MacArthur commentaries line up with the passages.

Matthew 28:19 English Standard Version (ESV)

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,


As a sign of their union and commitment with Christ


Ignores the baptismal language in the passage.


Those baptized in the name of the Father  have God as their father; baptized in the name of the Son, they receive the benefits of the Son’s redeeming act; baptized in the name of the Spirit, they receive the life-giving, life-sustaining power and presence of the Spirit. Christian Baptism is founded on this institution.

Acts 2:38 English Standard Version (ESV)

38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.


Not that baptism effects forgiveness. Rather, forgiveness comes through that which is symbolized by baptism.


Baptism does not produce forgiveness and cleansing from sin. The reality of forgiveness precedes the rite of Baptism … Baptism, however, was to be the ever-present act of obedience, so that it became synonymous with salvation.


for the forgiveness of sins. Chief blessing of Baptism … receive the gift of the Holy Spirit The Holy Spirit is received through Baptism.

Acts 22:16 English Standard Version (ESV)

16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’


Baptism is an outward sign of an inward work of grace. … The outward rite, however, does not produce the inward grace.

Interestingly, the commentary for this verse also points to Titus 3:5 as a “baptismal” passage (washing and regeneration). I don’t think this is typical of Evangelicals.


 Salvation comes from calling on the name of the Lord, not from being baptized.

Here, MacArthur makes a point about the grammar of the passage, that “calling…” precedes the bit on baptism. As a layman, I find this interesting, as an examination of several English translations reveals that none of them translate the sentence in the ordering that MacArthur suggests makes a doctrinal point. MacArthur’s point is nonsense though, as he’s driven a wedge between “baptism” and “calling on the name of the Lord,” as though by believing the promises delivered in baptism, one is therefore not calling on the name of the Lord. Nowhere do the scriptures teach such a point.


Ananias vividly  describes what Baptism does.

Romans 6:3-4 English Standard Version (ESV)

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.


In NT times baptism so closely followed conversion that the two were considered part of one event. So although baptism is not a means by which we enter into a faith relationship with Jesus Christ, it is closely associated with faith.


This does not refer to water baptism. Paul is actually using the word “baptized” in a metaphorical sense, as we might in saying someone was immersed in their work…


In Baptism, God applies Christ’s death to us so that we receive the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice … Baptism connects us with Christ’s work, clothing us in His righteousness. … Christ’s work is applied to us in Baptism. … We are united to Christ’s death  and burial so that we will be united to His resurrection and life.

Galatians 3:27 English Standard Version (ESV)

27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.


Refers to the Romans 6 commentary.


This is not water baptism, which cannot save. Paul used the word “baptized” in a metaphorical manner to mean “immersed” or “placed into” Christ by the spiritual miracle of union with Him in His death and resurrection.

MacArthur’s commentary seems devilish to me. Contextually, there is no reason to think that “baptized” doesn’t mean water baptism and clearly that’s where a natural reading of the passage would take the reader.


Through Baptism, God incorporates believers into union with Christ. Thus His righteousness becomes theirs.

Ephesians 5:26 English Standard Version (ESV)

26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,


Does not address baptism specifically but only general “washings.”


Does not address the baptismal language.


Baptism, by which Christ sanctified (made holy) His bride, the Church.

Colossians 2:12 English Standard Version (ESV)

12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.


…some see the passage as implying that, for the Christian, water baptism is the parallel sign of the covenant relationship.

…And still others of us see the passage implying that we were buried and raised with Christ in baptism.


The outward affirmation of the already accomplished inner transformation is now the believer’s baptism by water.


The same powerful working of God that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in Baptism. Baptism puts to death the sinful nature and resurrects us in faith to a new life in Christ. Baptism is not just a symbol of what God does through the teaching of God’s Word. It is water combined with God’s Word that makes it a washing of regeneration (Ti 3:5-7).

Hebrews 10:22 English Standard Version (ESV)

22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.


Very likely both “hearts sprinkled” and “bodies washed” allude to Christian baptism and the cleansing from sin through the sacrificial death of Christ that it signifies.


The “washing with pure water” does not refer to Christian baptism, but to the Holy Spirit’s purifying one’s life by means of the Word of God.


our bodies washed with pure water By Baptism (Eph 5:26; Ti 3:5)

1 Peter 3:21 English Standard Version (ESV)

21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,


There is a double  figure here. The flood symbolizes baptism, and baptism symbolizes salvation. … In reality, believers are saved by what baptism symbolizes

I don’t understand the insistence of taking such an interpretation. The passage clearly says which part is to be taken as symbol, and what it symbolizes. The flood symbolizes baptism, which saves. Baptism saves. Hath God really said?…


Peter is not at all [emphasis mine] referring to water baptism here, but rather a figurative immersion into union with Christ as an ark of safety from the judgment of God. … To be sure he is not misunderstood, Peter clearly says he is not speaking of water baptism.

Again, devilish. This is not a misinterpretation; this is reading with malice toward the passage. MacArthur fiendishly ignores the plain reading of the passage: baptism, which is symbolized in the flood waters, saves you, yet not on account of the physical washing but by appealing to God for a clean conscience through the resurrection of the vindicated one.


The flood is a figure of Baptism. In each case, water saves. The world was cleansed when Noah and his family were lifted up by the flood. Baptism cleanses and raises us to new life. … [more]

The commentary does eventually quote Luther saying similar things, but I think it could have done a better job with explaining the imagery in the flood. The flood cleansed because it was a flood of judgement. The Earth was cleansed when the flood waters swept away the insolent. Christ was judged in our place, as a sinner, and took on himself the curse of death. The passage from Romans shows us that through Baptism, we are identified with Christ’s death (and resurrection). Thus, the waters of baptism judge us but also vindicate us as Christ was vindicated.

One need not look too far into the NT scriptures to find the doctrine on baptism. One would think that if the FE position on baptism was the correct one that surely even ONE passage would appear that upholds the notion. Surely the apostles wouldn’t have let such Baptismal-regenerative language appear repeatedly in their letters that is purportedly opposed to the Gospel message when interpreted literally. A Lutheran Satire video captures the silliness of the FE’s position:


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