Is Immersion an Optional Command?

The title of this article contains an oxymoron. According to the dictionary, something that is optional is “not required” while a command is defined as “a demand.” The two words cannot co-exist because they are polar opposites. “Optional” cannot modify “command.” They are like “black” and “white” or “up” and “down.”

From an earthly standpoint most everyone understands that when a command is given, the authoritative figure who gives that command expects it to be obeyed. If the police officer directing traffic raises his hand and opens his palm toward a driver, he is demanding that the driver stop. He is not giving the driver a choice. If a parent tells a child to clean her room, that parent is demanding action on the part of the child. He or she is not saying, “Clean your room if you feel like it. I leave it up to you as to whether or not you do what I am telling you.”

Both of the previous paragraphs demonstrate common sense that cannot successfully be denied. Why, then, when the Word of God commands immersion, do so many take the position that it’s just an option?

Let’s consider just one of the passages that commands immersion. In Acts 2 we find Peter preaching the Gospel to the audience on Pentecost. Some in the crowd were moved by the powerful, Divinely inspired message and asked, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). The next verse reads, “Then Peter said unto them, 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.” Two particular commands were given in Peter’s response to the question of the moment. The first was to repent and the second was to be immersed. That both “repent” and “be baptized” are commands cannot be denied. In spite of this, many choose to say that while repentance in this verse is a required act, immersion is not.

A. T. Robertson is renowned for his work, Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament. His scholarliness notwithstanding, in his comments on Acts 2:38 he clearly contradicted himself. Having established the fact that two distinct commands had been given in this verse, Robertson later wrote regarding this same passage that Peter was “urging baptism on each of them who had already turned…” There is a difference in urging and commanding. One can urge another to do something and yet not require it of him. Robertson inserted his personal view that immersion is not necessary and changed immersion from something that had been commanded to something that was merely urged. Peter did not say, “I urge you to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.”

That this idea of an “optional command” is prevalent is evidenced by additional statements culled from an internet search on the subject of the necessity of immersion. Said one writer, “Baptism (by full immersion as taught in the Bible) is an act of obedience that should be an immediate part of our acceptance of the gift of grace offered by Jesus Christ.” Do you see the evidence of the “optional command” in this sentence? “Immersion is an act of obedience that SHOULD BE…” An obvious distinction was drawn between “should” and “must.” In the sentence following he went on to say that immersion really wasn’t necessary for salvation. Another writer called immersion an “act of obedience” but concluded that it was not essential for salvation. To him, immersion is an “optional command.”

What’s interesting about all of this is that practically every religious body that calls itself “Christian” makes baptism available. Some believe it can be done by sprinkling or pouring (which it cannot, according to the definition of the word used in the New Testament – Colossians 2:12), but most every group, if not every group, practices at least what they term baptism. Isn’t it strange that something that really isn’t necessary is so widely practiced? Perhaps most unusual of all is the existence of a denomination that gets its very name from “baptism” and yet relegates it to an “optional command” of God.

Acts 2:38 is only one of several Bible passages that show immersion is a command and thus a requirement of God and also that it is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. Search the Scriptures and discover this for yourself. God has given no “optional commands” (John 14:15; I John 5:2-3).

Michael Gifford
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