What does baptism signify? In this excerpt,1 Alvah Hovey, former President of Newton Theological Institute (1868 – 1898), explains. Some Baptists may be intrigued by Hovey’s assertion that (among other things) baptism symbolizes purification and washing from sin.
In determining the significance of baptism, our appeal must be to the language of the New Testament on this point, and to the natural import of the rite itself; for ritual acts are, to a certain extent, self-interpreting, and there can be no reasonable doubt that, in most instances, their true meaning lies on the face of them, — that they were chosen as being a sort of universal language, readily understood by men of every age and nation.
Hence, where the natural language of the ritual act accords with the explanation of it by the sacred writers, there remains no ground for doubt; assurance becomes doubly sure. And this is true in the present case.
For, looking at the ritual act, and at the language of Scripture, we remark:
1. That it symbolizes the regeneration of the subject, as being, on the one hand, a dying to sin, and, on the other, a rising to holiness,— (See Rom. vi. 4; Col. ii. 12; together with the passages cited under ” Penalty of Sin,” (I.) (1) 2 (4), and under “Nature of Regeneration”) …
2. That it commemorates the accomplished death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. vi. 3; Col. ii. 12; Mark x. 38, 39; Luke xii. 50).
Says Dr. Dollinger:
‘St. Paul made this immersion a symbol of burial with Christ, and the emerging a sign of resurrection with him to a new life.’
And Messner remarks, with equal clearness:
‘Peculiar to Paul is the manner in which he connects the two acts of the rite of baptism, as then administered; namely, the submersion and the emersion, with the idea of fellowship with Christ in his death and resurrection, —a view which, in this definite form, belongs to him alone. While the submersion symbolizes the putting- off of the old man, the emersion from the water is an emblem of the reception of a new divine life; and, because the former is considered by him as an effect of the death of Christ, the latter is brought into connection with the resurrection of Christ.
Thus Paul connects the act of submersion with the death of Christ, and that of emersion with the resurrection of Christ,—a symbolism of the baptismal rite which has lost its significance with the disappearance of the rite as then observed.’
The same explanation of the apostle’s language may be found in the works of numerous Pedobaptist scholars; and there is no good reason whatever for doubting its correctness.
3. That it represents this regeneration as a purifying change. Acts xxii. 16; Titus iii. 5 ; Eph. v. 26 (cf. 1 Peter iii.21).
To this part of the symbolism of baptism, those persons who reject immersion attach almost exclusive importance; and they maintain that this part of the meaning symbolized is set forth as clearly by sprinkling as by immersion. But there is abundant reason to doubt whether biblical writers ever express the idea of purification by the sprinkling or pouring of mere water upon a person or object.
The only passage where this seems at first sight to be the case is Ezek. xxxvi. 25, —”Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your filthiness, and from all your idols will I cleanse you,” &c. But the words “clean water” should rather be “pure water,” meaning the “water of purification,” in which the ashes of the heifer of purification had been steeped. Num. xix. 11-22 (cf. viii.5-22).
‘The sprinkling with water has likewise the shedding of blood for its foundation. It was done with such water only as had in it the ashes of the sin offering of the red heifer.” — (See Heb. ix. 13, 14.) — “It is very evident that there is an allusion in this passage to the Mosaic rites of purification; especially to the holy water, in which the ashes of the red heifer were mixed, and which served as an antidote, first to the greatest of all defilements,— contact with a corpse, —and then to defilements in general.’
But washing or bathing in water is a natural symbol of purification; and, if Baptists have not insisted on this as often as on other ideas symbolized by immersion in water, it is perhaps due in part to a reaction of feeling against the exclusive reference made to it by Pedobaptists; yet they have by no means failed to recognize this part of the meaning conveyed by the rite.
Says Dr. Chase:
‘In baptism, there is retained, in all its significancy, the idea of cleansing or purification; for the water in which we are buried is a purifying element. Thus there is a figurative washing away of sins, a putting off of the body of sinful propensities, and, as it were, a depositing of it in the grave,— from, which, in this emblem, we come forth as alive from the dead, to walk in newness of life, and at length to enter on the life everlasting.’
And this is but a sample of the language often used by Baptists.
1 Alvah Hovey, Manual of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics (Boston, MA, 1877), 320-323.