Q.

Please explain 1 Corinthians 1:29. Surely it doesn’t mean that we can be baptized for someone who has died.

A.
You’re correct. People often accuse us Bible-believing Baptists of placing too great an emphasis upon water baptism. In fact, our name “Baptist” is a nickname or term of derision that was attached to our early forefathers. In reality we don’t emphasize baptism nearly as much as, say, Roman Catholics or Lutherans. And we certainly denounce the false teaching and the foolishness that is sometimes taught in this doctrine.

One false teaching is the idea that baptism has some kind of saving merit. This false doctrine seeped into Christendom during the first centuries following the completion of the canon of Scripture. It has since caused untold confusion and false assurance on the part of those exposed to it. The basis for this false teaching is a misinterpretation of Scripture, much of which came about through failure to compare Scripture with Scripture.

The epistles tell us repeatedly the new birth comes through the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit and the influence of the Word of God in an individual’s life. It never comes through an outward act that God commanded as a testimony of what has already taken place! Water baptism, through the correct mode of immersion, demonstrates to the world that the believer has died to the old way of life, has been buried with Christ, and has been raised to newness of life. The act of baptism doesn’t produce the new birth; the Holy Spirit produces it, and baptism testifies to the world concerning what has happened.

The belief that baptism is essential to salvation has brought about many superstitious rites, such as pastors and others (even medical doctors) quickly sprinkling an infant or adult who may be dying. This could justly be called a proxy type of “baptism,” as though others can “believe” for the person being “baptized.”

Similarly, we know of those, notably the Mormons, who believe in and practice another type of “proxy baptism,” known as baptisms for the dead. Yes, they go through the rite of baptism on behalf of people who have died. First Corinthians 15:29 does not teach this practice at all. If the Scriptures are true and say that salvation is totally of grace and that baptism has no saving merit, then the Mormon belief and practice of baptisms for the dead falls flat on its face.

Recently I came across some interesting information. We’re familiar with the hymn “I Need Thee Ev’ry Hour.” It was written by Annie Sherwood Hawks, a Baptist, as was her pastor and the song’s composer, Dr. Robert Lowry. But someone pointed out that in a recent edition of Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, on page 389, Mrs. Hawks is identified as an LDS! What happened? Someone was “baptized” on behalf of Mrs. Hawks—twice! The first baptism occurred in 1924. Then on May 19, 1986, she was “endowed” again. Apparently in the eyes of the LDS, this action makes Mrs. Hawks a Mormon. As the contributor of this information stated, “We wonder how many of your relatives and mine are now claimed by the Mormon church on the basis of some baptism for the dead.”

First Corinthians 15:29 reads, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?” Keep in mind not only the fact that baptism doesn’t save a person, but also that once a person dies, he has no further opportunity to trust Christ. (The account of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 teaches this truth.) When we know what the Bible says in these areas, we understand that the verse in 1 Corinthians 15 does not teach baptisms for the dead.

To find the correct meaning of the verse, we must study the context and possible word meanings. The key word is “for.” Studying the word in the original, we come up with the likelihood that the word is properly translated “in place of.” It is the preposition uper. So Paul was talking about new converts who were being baptized in place of believers who had died. If you would read all of chapter 15, you’d see that Paul was arguing for the doctrine of the resurrection. Thus when he asks this question in verse 29, he is making the point that unless one believes in the resurrection, it is ridiculous to believe that new believers would fill in the ranks of those who had died. Believers would be fighting a losing battle. Salvation and the baptismal testimony of salvation would all be in vain if there were no resurrection of the dead.

Paul was likely thinking of martyrdom. In the early years of the Church, believer’s baptism was a great badge marking the believer for possible death for his faith. But as many believers would lay down their lives for the sake of Christ, other believers would take their place. They were baptized and then took the place of the dead, in other words.

Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send to nolson@garbc.org or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.

Reprinted from the Baptist Bulletin (October 1991).
© 1991 Regular Baptist Press. All rights reserved.
Used by permission.