Believer's Baptism? A Response to John MacArthur

This is somewhat of a special article on this website. I don't normally publicly respond to online content. However, I couldn't stay silent on this particular issue. John MacArthur is a very well-known "Evangelical" preacher. He has written many books, and there are several study Bibles with his name on them. In fact, some people who have read those study Bibles have admitted to reading MacArthur's notes more than the Bible itself. MacArthur has a huge following. On more than one occasion, I have heard him called the "Evangelical Pope." Thousands upon thousands of people believe anything that he teaches without question every day.

Before we get into what this article is all about, I first want to explain what it is not. I am not an online "troll." I'm not picking a fight. I am not attacking John MacArthur directly. I am not saying that everything he teaches is false.

With that in mind, we get into what this article is about. John MacArthur is just a man, just like I am. We are not inspired by the Holy Spirit the way the apostles were; therefore, we are subject to mistakes.

James 3:1-2: Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.

I recently heard a teacher say publicly, "If you hear me say anything about Scripture that is incorrect, you would be my best friend if you corrected me." I hope John MacArthur has that attitude. There have been times that someone has corrected me with a spirit of humility, and I have had to repent of a false teaching. If your teacher is unwilling to be corrected, perhaps you should not be learning from him or her.

The YouTube Videos

This entire article has come about because I have watched and listened to three YouTube videos. 

The majority of this article will be referencing the third video, since much of what MacArthur says in "Does Water Baptism Save?" and "Baptism and Salvation" can be found in "Believer's Baptism." I will be referencing his videos in a Video#:Minute:Second format. For instance, when I want to reference something MacArthur says in Video 3 at 12 minutes and 57 seconds, I will put V3:12:57 as the citation. The timing is approximate.

Baptism Is...

MacArthur does a great job defining the act of baptism and defending his definition. His definition of baptism is, "A service in which a person is immersed into water" (V3:12:00). Biblical baptism requires "much water" (John 3:23). It requires at least the one being baptized to go "down into the water" (Acts 8:38) and come "up out of the water" (Acts 8:39; cf. Matthew 3:16). Baptism is described as a "burial" (Romans 6:3-4Colossians 2:12). I agree with MacArthur that immersion is the only proper way to define baptism.

V3:12:57: The noun, baptismo, is always used in the New Testament in the book of Acts, always to refer to a person who is confessing Christ being immersed fully into water. So whether you’re talking about the verbs or the nouns, all of them refer to a complete dunking in water, a complete immersing in water.

It is important to recognize that MacArthur boldly states that every time baptism is mentioned in the book of Acts, it is a reference to "a complete immersing in water." 

The Symbol of Baptism

Over and over in Video 3, MacArthur calls baptism a "symbol" (V3:22:34). I agree that it's a symbol. When we are baptized, we are not taking a bath for the sake of our physical bodies (1 Peter 3:21). Baptism symbolizes a spiritual circumcision (Colossians 2:11-12). Those who practice "baptismal regeneration" believe that the act of baptism can save by itself. That's why they are content to baptize babies who have no need of repentance or forgiveness of sins and are incapable of believing. If baptism itself saves, then all Christians would be throwing their neighbors in the closest body of water as soon as possible, regardless of what their neighbors believe. Just like the Lord's Supper is not literally Jesus' body and blood, but it symbolizes our Savior's body and blood, baptism is also a symbol. It does not save by itself. 

However, MacArthur says that baptism symbolizes that your sins have been forgiven (before the point of baptism). I contend that the Bible teaches that baptism is the point at which your sins are forgiven. Baptism itself does not forgive, but it is the point of obedience that the Lord has granted forgiveness of sins. For instance, when a forgiven soul points to the moment he was forgiven and transferred into the community of the saved (the church), does he point to the moment of belief, repentance, or baptism? The answer is all three at the same time.

Acts 16:29-24: And he [the jailer] called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.

When the Philippian jailer wanted to know what to do to be saved, the simple answer was to "believe." For him to believe, he had to hear the gospel taught, show his repentance through washing the wounds of the men he had beaten and jailed, and be baptized immediately. Only after that did he rejoice and was considered a believer.

Similarly, in Acts 8, we read the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

Acts 8:35-36: Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 

Verse 35 simply says that Philip preached Jesus to him. However, the Ethiopian came to the conclusion that upon belief, he must be baptized. After his baptism, verse 39 says that the Ethiopian "went on his way rejoicing."

Is There Water In Romans 6 or Not?

One cannot discuss the biblical nature of baptism without bringing up the beautiful passage of Romans 6:1-7.

Romans 6:1-7: What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.

Paul says that those who have been baptized have been "baptized into His death" and have been "buried with Him through baptism" and raised to "walk in newness of life." It's impossible to miss the parallel of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). MacArthur states the following. 

V3:20:55: This water immersion is a picture, it is an object lesson, it is a symbol, it is a physical analogy of a great, profound, spiritual reality. And here’s the point, it is the way God wants to teach the most wonderful truth of all, the union of the believer into the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ which is the salvation reality.

I completely agree with that. The salvation reality is that the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is the only source of true salvation. Romans 6:3 claims that baptism is the point that we are placed into His death, the salvation reality. We die to sin (repentance), are buried with Christ (baptism), and we're raised to walk a new life with Him (coming out of the grave of baptism). That is why people in the New Testament were baptized as soon as they believed in Christ and repented of their sins. Then, after baptism, they rejoiced. When we repent, we are dead to sin. What do you do with a dead body? You bury it! What do you do with a repentant believer? You bury him or her in baptism!

MacArthur later states that water immersion is "the symbol of the believer’s union in the death, burial, resurrection of Christ" (V3:37:35). Notice he links water with Romans 6. However, later at V3:38:46, he says that Romans 6 is "dry" and that there is "no real H2O here." See also (V1:1:19). He gives no evidence as to why he believes that. It is just a bold claim with nothing to back it up. At one point, he says that in Romans 6, it is "water immersion" (V3:20:55). He later says that in Romans 6, "there is no real H2O here." I'm now confused, Mr. MacArthur. Is there water in Romans 6 or not? Please be consistent in your teaching.

How Many Baptisms?

Though MacArthur sometimes teaches that Romans 6:3-4 does not refer to water baptism (without evidence), it goes against a major teaching in the New Testament. In the New Testament, there were different baptisms mentioned. MacArthur even touches on that briefly (V3:20:00). Different teachers taught different baptisms at different times in the New Testament. Notice how the baptism into Christ replaced the baptism of John.

Acts 19:3-5: And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “ John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

This clearly shows that the baptism of John had been outdated by the baptism of Christ. Though Jesus supported John's baptism while it was valid, the very first time Jesus commanded baptism by His own authority was after His resurrection. 

Matthew 28:18-20: And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The baptism that Jesus preached was for all nations to obey. The baptism of John was not. In fact, when Apollos was preaching the baptism of John, Priscilla and Aquila "took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately" (Acts 18:24-26). Baptism in water was the baptism that held a "promise [...] for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself" (Acts 2:38-39). As the early church matured, all baptisms in the New Testament phased out, except for water baptism into Christ. By the time the book of Ephesians was written, Paul could boldly say the following.

Ephesians 4:4-6: There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

There is one baptism. Since that is the case, whenever we see the teachings of baptism beyond the resurrection of Christ and the matured church, we can be confident it is a reference to the water baptism that Christ commanded for "all the nations," providing a promise for "as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself." MacArthur believes this, too.

V3:45:49: In Ephesians 4 when it says there’s one Lord, one faith, one baptism, that’s talking about water baptism as the symbol of salvation.

However, since MacArthur believes baptism is not essential for salvation, he has to claim there are multiple baptisms valid today. For instance, he would claim that the Ethiopian was baptized with real water (Acts 8:38-39), but Saul was only figuratively baptized in Acts 22:16 (see Video 1 and Video 2). Again, I'm confused, Mr. MacArthur. Is there one baptism or multiple? Please be consistent in your teaching.

Literally?

Acts 22:16: Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.

Any time that the Scriptures clearly link baptism, forgiveness of sins, and salvation together, MacArthur quickly recognizes that he is in a bind. He will either have to admit that the verse means what it clearly says, or he will have to explain it away with "advanced theological reasoning." A couple of times he says that those Scriptures like Romans 6:3-4, mean that "You are literally immersed into, buried into, submerged into the body of Christ" (V3:19:51). See also V1:1:26. Literally immersed? Jonah was literally immersed into the body of the big fish when he was swallowed (Jonah 1:17). However, how is someone literally immersed into the body of Christ? Either Christ Himself would have to swallow that person, or the church (known as the body of Christ, Ephesians 1:22-23) would have to swallow that person...literally

MacArthur's Strongest Arguments

In Video 3, when MacArthur comes to the part of his lesson where he addresses whether or not baptism is essential for salvation, he brings up three arguments why he believes it is not. All three are common among many who believe the same as MacArthur.

The 1 Corinthians Argument

V3:43:35: Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius." Now let me tell you something. If baptism saved, Paul would have been baptizing everybody. He said, “I did baptize the household of Stephanas, beyond that I don’t know whether I baptized anybody else. Christ sent me not to baptize but to preach the gospel.” This is a disclaimer on Paul’s part for any saving virtue in H2O.

This passage is easily misapplied when pulled out of context. On the other hand, it's easily understood when read in its context. Each person that Paul was talking about had already been baptized. The issue was not whether or not baptism was important or how many of them had been baptized. Instead, they were competing over who baptized whom.

1 Corinthians 1:10-17: Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.

The division in the church in Corinth was over which teacher to follow. It is clear that some in the church were feeling superior to others because of who taught them the gospel and had baptized them. In fact, some were even claiming they were baptized in the name of their teacher. That's why Paul said he was glad that he baptized none of them, "so that no one would say you were baptized in my name" (1 Corinthians 1:15), not because it had no connection to salvation.

The "Because Of" Argument

V3:44:15: You say, “Well wait a minute, it says in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.” I take it that the construction indicates there when paralleled with Matthew 12:41, “Repent and be baptized because of the remission of sins.”

MacArthur claims that Acts 2:38 and Matthew 12:41 parallel each other. Here they are side by side.

Acts 2:38: Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew 12:41: The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

Am I blind? Sorry, Mr. MacArthur; I don't see the parallel. The only similarity is that repentance is mentioned in both verses. If we are going to parallel Acts 2:38 with a passage in Matthew, it would be Matthew 26:28.

Acts 2:38: Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew 26:28: for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.

Jesus says that His blood was poured out "for forgiveness of sins" ("for the remission of sins," KJV, NKJV). Peter says repentance and baptism are "for the forgiveness of your sins" ("for the remission of sins," KJV, NKJV). The same words are used in both of these verses in both Greek and English. MacArthur says that baptism is "because of the remission of sins." To be consistent, he would have to say Jesus' blood was shed "because of the remission of sins," which would go against the entire message of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). The truth of the matter is, no where in the New Testament does a reputable English translation render εἰς as "because of," including in Acts 2:38.

Further, since repentance and baptism are connected in Acts 2:38, whatever you say about baptism must also be said about repentance. So, if baptism is "because of the remission of sins," so is repentance. Does MacArthur seriously believe that one can have his sins forgiven before repentance? 

1 John 3:4 (ESV): Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.

Matthew 7:23: And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness."

As outlandish as it seems to consider an "Evangelical" preacher to teach that you can have your sins forgiven before you truly repent, there are far less passages in the Bible that link salvation and repentance as there are that link salvation and baptism.

The Theif on the Cross Argument

V3:46:25: Now salvation is by grace through faith, not of works, right? Any doctrinal treatment of salvation makes it clear that salvation does not depend on water. You can use the thief on the cross as an illustration, if you need to.

Anyone who knows the basic teachings of the Bible knows that we are saved by the grace of God. We have all sinned (Romans 3:23), and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Even if I had a million good works to do for a million years, I could never earn my salvation by works. No one could. However, that does not mean that salvation is unconditional. God will not force His salvation on anyone. That means something is required on our part to be saved. I'm convinced that John MacArthur and his disciples teach that belief is a condition of salvation.

John 8:24: Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.

Hebrews 11:6: And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

In John 6:29, Jesus calls belief a "work." We must believe in order to be saved, but that doesn't mean we are saved by our works. We are saved by the grace of God, who has offered us salvation freely, but not unconditionally. We still must accept His gift on His terms (Hebrews 2:3).

I also want to reiterate that we are not saved by the water. If we were, then we should all be dunking all of our neighbors— both believers and not— in the water. Because of the promise of God, however, we are saved by God once we have believed, repented, and been baptized.

The "Thief on the cross" argument has been growing in popularity lately. The truth of the matter is, for three good reasons, no one can be saved like the thief on the cross today.

  1. To be saved today, we are required to believe more than the thief on the cross was required to believe. Since he died before the resurrection of Christ, he could not "believe in [his] heart that God raised Him from the dead" (Romans 10:9).
  2. The thief on the cross lived and died under the Old Law. Christ's death is what made the Law of Moses obsolete (Hebrews 8:6-139:15-17). Before the cross, Jesus taught people that the way to eternal life was through the commandments of Moses (Mark 10:17-19). Afterward, He taught belief and baptism (Mark 16:16).
  3. The thief on the cross died before Jesus ever commanded baptism (Matthew 28:18-20).

To be saved like the thief on the cross, one would have to go back in time before Jesus ever died.

Is Baptism a Bath?

1 Peter 3:21: Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you— not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In Video 1 and Video 2, MacArthur tries to explain this verse away by saying this is a metaphor and does not refer to water baptism. Again, if he really believes that, then he goes against his own teaching in Ephesians 4:5 that says there is "one baptism." MacArthur's argument that the baptism of 1 Peter 3:21 is metaphorical comes from how Peter says that baptism is "not the removal of dirt from the flesh." Of course, baptism is not the same as taking a physical bath. I don't know of a single person who believes baptism is for literally cleansing the body. However, what does this verse say in context? What does Peter mean by, "Corresponding to that..." What is that?

1 Peter 3:20-21: who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you— not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Peter says that the water of Noah's day saved the eight people on the ark. Then, he says, "Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you." Why would Peter even bring up the physical water in the days of Noah if the baptism in verse 21 is not a reference to water baptism?

What Are You Saying, John?

The thing about Scripture that appealed to me the most when I first started studying it was that it is logical. It does not contradict itself. For the most part, it is easy to understand. What is commanded in one passage is implied in another. What is implied in one passage, we see the first Christians carrying it out. On the other hand, when I try to approach MacArthur's teaching on baptism, I run into some logical contradictions.

MacArthur calls baptism a "direct command" (V3:3:18) and a "very explicit, clear command" (V3:5:53). He also says that some who believe but have not been baptized are being defiant and disobedient (V3:9:53), yet he would also teach that these people can remain in that state and still be saved. 

Hebrews 5:8-9: Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.

Christ saves those who have an attitude of obedience, not disobedience.

V3:46:33: And one who refused baptism would be one who refused Christ cause they would say, “Repent and be baptized.” That’s how they preached in the book of Acts. “Repent and be baptized. Repent and be baptized.” And if you refused to be baptized, you would, in a sense, do so because you refused to repent.

Again, MacArthur would say one could be saved and still refuse to be baptized. Yet he also says to refuse baptism is to refuse Christ. Can one be saved and refuse Christ at the same time? The Bible is consistent on what it teaches about baptism. Unfortunately, Mr. MacArthur is not.

As I stated above, I am not attacking John MacArthur, and I am not saying that everything he teaches is false. We just need to do exactly as the Bureans did before believing any teacher. 

Acts 17:11: Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.

The Truth About Baptism

MacArthur states that to believe that forgiveness of sins and salvation are connected with baptism is to have a "simplistic understanding" of passages like Acts 2:38Acts 22:16; and 1 Peter 3:21. Is he contending that we need to have a "complex understanding" of those passages? Do we need to go to seminary for four years before we understand what the Bible really says? The first people that preached Christ (and baptism) were uneducated fishermen (Acts 4:13). I'm convinced that their understanding of Christ and His commandments were a "simplistic understanding." If it was good enough for the inspired apostles, it's good enough for me.

Once we hear a teaching on something, especially from a teacher we trust, it's really hard to consider anything else. I urge you, however, to do your best in the next few minutes to have an open and honest heart to God's word. I once heard of a preacher who was asked to preach on baptism and what it meant. He was happy to oblige. He did so by simply reading the verses in the New Testament that talked about baptism, providing no commentary. Are you willing to encounter those verses? Read through these passages, better yet, read through your own New Testament, so context is not left out, and simply ask the question, "What is the logical conclusion of what the Bible really teaches about baptism?"

Matthew 28:18-20: And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Mark 16:16: He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.

Acts 2:38-39: Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”

Acts 8:35-39: Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing.

Acts 22:16: Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.

Romans 6:3-7: Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.

1 Corinthians 12:12-13: For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Galatians 3:26-27: For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Colossians 2:9-12: For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

1 Peter 3:21: Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you— not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

All Scripture references and quotations are from the New American Standard Update, unless otherwise noted. This article was originally posted on 18 June 2014.

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