There are many Christians who do not believe that baptism is necessary for remitting or cancelling the debt of our sin. These Christians believe that repentance alone is necessary for dealing with our sin. Such people will often refer to Mark 1:4 to make their case.
Mark 1:4—John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
“See there,” our repentance-only friends tell us, “John taught that repentance was for the remission of sins.” What our friends don’t realize is that there are two ways to take that passage. John could have been preaching the baptism of repentance for remission of sins; or, John could have been preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
In Option 1, repentance brings remission of sins; in Option 2, the baptism of repentance brings remission of sins. As I was reading Mark 1 from my Greek NT a few days ago, I began to mull over these two possible interpretations and to weigh them against the context. From my perspective, the second interpretation is much more likely. And I believe that the original Greek bears this out. In this post, I want to examine the text of Mark 1:4-5 to see which interpretation is more likely.
The very next verse, Mark 1:5, goes on to tell us a little bit more about this “baptism of repentance” that John was preaching.
Mark 1:5—And there went out unto [John] all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. (KJV)
Mark 1:5—καὶ ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν πᾶσα ἡ Ἰουδαία χώρα καὶ οἱ Ἱεροσολυμῖται καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο πάντες ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν
Notice how this sentence is constructed. Mark uses an indicative verb to describe baptism (ἐβαπτίζοντο, they were baptized)—but he uses a participle to describe them repenting/confessing their sins (ἐξομολογούμενοι, confessing). The KJV retains this grammatical construction in English by using the “regular” verb, “were baptized” first—but then using an “-ing” verb, “confessing,” at the end.
Why is this grammatical minutiae important? In ancient Greek, the main action of the sentence is expressed with an indicative verb. Participles, on the other hand, usually express subordinate ideas (Smyth §2054). Because “were baptized”/ἐβαπτίζοντο is indicative, baptism is the main idea of the phrase in question; baptism is what is being emphasized. Because “confessing”/ἐξομολογούμενοι is a participle, repentance is only a subordinate idea; it is not the main focus of the sentence.
So, in Mark 1:5, Mark is emphasizing the fact that the people were being baptized; their repentance in the process of their baptism is an important, but secondary, detail. This fact should effect how we read the verse right before. Mark is not saying that repentance alone brings remission of sins; Mark is saying that the baptism of repentance brings remission of sins.
Now keep in mind, I’m not discounting the necessity of repentance and I’m certainly not saying that baptism is some magical “get out of hell free” card. Jesus said “he that believers and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16); Peter said, “Repent and be baptized…for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). Belief and repentance are necessary prerequisites for baptism. If someone gets baptized just for the sake of it, but has not believed on Christ and turned away from their wickedness to follow him—that person went down a dry sinner and came up a wet one. But just as we cannot remove repentance by overemphasizing baptism, so we also cannot remove baptism by overemphasizing repentance.
Mark’s emphasis is on baptism. John preached about the baptism of repentance, and so the people got baptized while repenting. Mark’s point was never to say that repentance alone remitted sin. After all, we call Christ’s forerunner “John the Baptist,” not “John the Repentist.”
If Mark’s emphasis were on repentance instead of baptism, Mark 1:5 would run thusly: καὶ πάντες ἐξωμολόγουν τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν, βαπτιζόμενοι ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῦ / And they all confessed their sins, being baptized in the Jordan river by him. This wording would have prioritized repentance and subordinated baptism as a secondary issue—but this isn’t the wording that Mark used. Instead, Mark emphasized baptism by making “they were baptized” the main verb while subordinating “confessing their sins” as a participle.
Baptism is an important part of becoming a Christian and receiving salvation. If you have not been baptized yet, find yourself a church and ask them to baptize you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ so your sins can be remitted. And don’t let anyone tell you that repentance alone is enough to remit your sins. Peter’s words still ring through the ages: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38).
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