21 Jan 2009

James A. Harding & the "Design" of Baptism

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Baptism, Church History, James A. Harding, Kingdom, Ministry, Mission, Preaching, Restoration History

James A. Harding was a gospel preacher. He was president of two colleges, and had academies, graduate institutes and universities named after him. He is buried in the Fairview Cemetery in Bowling Green, Kentucky, USA Photo courtesy of Scott Harp taken 2.21.2012 www.TheRestorationMovement.comThe question about baptism and its so called “design” has gone back and forth and I doubt it will ever be solved. According to my friend John Mark Hicks, between 1897 and 1907 there were right around TWO HUNDRED (that is 200) articles on rebaptism in the Gospel Advocate, Firm Foundation, Christian Leader & The Way, and the Octographic Review? That is a lot of ink! Many articles simply degenerated into rantings and name calling … very unhelpful in any Christian dialogue. But one article stands, in my view, above the rest for its clarity of thought, its civil tone and its tackling the issues head on.

That article comes from the pen of James A. Harding and he deals specifically with the question directed towards me. “HOW MUCH IS MEANT BY THE PHRASE, ‘THE DESIGN OF BAPTISM?” [sic] was published in The Way in March 1900 covering pages 33 to 36. I will attempt to share the basic thrust of his article and supply relevant quotations from it.

First briefly about Harding.  James A. Harding was one of the most successful evangelists of his day. He traveled via train, mule, horse or walking from Florida to Canada, and California to New England. He baptized over ten thousand people.  He was co-founder of the Nashville Bible School with David Lipscomb which is now known as Lipscomb University and Harding University in Searcy is named for him.  On to the piece.

Harding on How Much a Person Needs to Know to Become a Christian

Harding begins by reminding readers of The Way of his earlier article examining two theories concerning baptism 1) actual remission or a formal ceremonial cleansing. Now he will examine two more: 1) remission of sins is the design of baptism 2) remission is part of the design of baptism. Then Harding reminds his readers “the reader should remember that the text for these articles is Acts 2.38” (p. 33).

Harding then picks up the claim that “eis” denotes the design of baptism and this design is articulated in Acts 2.38. But then he lists 17x where “eis” follows the “words ‘baptism,’ ‘baptize.” These seventeen occurrences are: Mt 28.19; Ac 8.16; Ac 19.5; Rom 6.3(2x); Rom 6.4; Gal 3.27; Mk 1.4; Lk 3.3; Ac 2.38; 1 Cor 1.13; 1 Cor 1.15; Ac 19.3; 1 Cor 10.2; Mk 1.9; and 1 Cor 12.13 (should look them up). Harding comments on this list …

“The idea of design is connected with, or suggested by, the word in every one of these places, it seems to me …” (p. 34) Then he transitions to make these comments about Christian baptism.

“From these considerations it appears clear to me that to be baptized into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, into the name of the Lord Jesus, into Christ, into Christ Jesus, into death, are in effect one thing, inasmuch as to enter into one of these relationships is to enter into all of them. This was not always true, however, of baptism into remission of sins … the inspired writers represent baptism as transferring one into the name, person, body, or death of Christ, or of the family of Christ, ten times; but only once do they represent us as being transferred into remission of sins. Is it not strange, then, that men will say remission of sins is the design…” (my emphasis)

Then Why Do Preachers Say …?

A look at central themes of Lipscomb and Harding

How did such a state of affairs come about, according to Harding? Why would       preachers in the Churches of Christ make this argument then? Harding lays the blame upon the King James Version which he, and many others, had great reservations about Here are his own words on this point …

“Moreover, in the one case (since Pentecost) in which he says we are baptized eis remission, the remission is not represented as the design of baptism, nor would any ever have supposed it was, I believe, had it not been for the incorrect translation of “eis” at this place; manifestly that which is presented in this sentence as the object to be attained by being baptized is ‘the gift of the Holy Spirit;’ no one who is not utterly blinded by love for a false translation and a false interpretation can fail to see this when his attention is called to the truth.”

Harding then quotes the Revised Version (1881) as the correct translation. He goes on to say “Peter did not say ‘FOR [sic] the remission of sins.’ The best scholarship of the world, in the best translations, has rejected ‘for’ as a rendering of ‘eis’ at this place.” So what was the goal … the end … of being immersed in Acts 2.38?

“They were baptized unto (Greek ‘into’) the remission of their sins that they might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”

Harding begins summarizing his inductive survey of baptism and eis by saying

“it is manifestly wrong to call remission of sins the design of baptism and insist that it shall be understood, or the baptism is of none effect, while no such requirement is made concerning the other passages where the same word (‘eis’) is used to show the relation or state into which the baptized is transferred.” (my emphasis)

But What About …?

But how would Harding handle one who comes from the “denominations” that has been immersed. Would he not ask him/her about the design of baptism. He says no!

“Because I doubt if there was ever a man who fully understood the design of the ordinance at the time of his baptism since Christ gave the commission. I am near fifty-two years of age; I have been a reader of the Bible, and have had my mind turned on this subject for the express purpose of studying it and getting … yet I have not arrived …”

So Just What is Required?

What then is the biblical requirement for the candidate of baptism? What would Harding ask that Baptist or Methodist that had been immersed when they come to join a local congregation of the Churches of Christ?

“Did you believe with your whole heart that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and did you confess him as Lord?”

If the person responded in the negative they would simply need to be baptized rather than rebaptized. But if they affirm positively then they are in fact a part of the family of God.

Harding’s article is a good one. He has some very thoughtful and insightful words. Maybe there is spiritual wisdom in them. I believe there is …

24 Responses to “James A. Harding & the "Design" of Baptism”

  1. Tim Archer Says:

    Good thoughts. You continue to bring forth gems from the past.

    I’ve often wondered why those that insist that baptism must be done with the intention of receiving forgiveness don’t also insist that repentance be done the same way. That is a natural reading of Acts 2:38 and is explicitly stated in Acts 3:19.

    If someone repented, but didn’t repent for the forgiveness of sins, is their repentance invalid?

    Grace and peace,

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Good write-up, Bobby.

    It does seem as if one of the basic “consequences” of allowing baptism for reasons other than “remission of sins” would be to view Baptists (and other immersed believers) as “erring brothers” rather than outside the “fold”.

    I have struggled with this for some time.

    “A broken and contrite heart thou will not refuse” … unless, of course, you were baptized in order to obey God? Hmm. Doesn’t appear that way to me.

    While I believe that baptism/immersion is the point at which God remits sins, I do not see where God requires such knowledge in order to receive that remission.

    There are many things God tells me to do, some I think I understand why, others I do not.


    Person A reads that God says “Be baptized”.

    Person A responds to that by being baptized because God said to do it and Person A loves God.

    Later, Person B asks “Why were you baptized?” Person A responds “Because God told me to be and I love God and want to do what He tells me to do.”

    Person B asks “What happened to your spiritual condition when you were baptized?”

    Person A replies “What do you mean? I was baptized because God told me to be and I love God”.

    Very, very difficult for me to see how God would ever refuse such a person. If I convinced them that baptism is the point at which sins were forgiven, I would expect Person A to respond “Wonderful! Thank you God”.

    As to the pious unimmersed, all I can say there is that I pray for God to be merciful in this confused religious world in which we live.


  3. kingdomseeking Says:

    I agree with Harding’s position. However, the love affair the CoC has and continues to have with baptism “for the remission of sins.” seems to be more a product of the culture that shaped our distinct identity as restoraiton people than a product of historical and biblical exegesis. Now I am not denying that the preposition “eis” in Acts 2.38 means “for” (NIV, KJV) or “so that” (NRSV). But given the historical fact that John the Baptist was already calling those who repent to a baptism for the remission of sins, it hardly seems feasible that had Peter simply called those 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost to be baptized for the remission of sins that this particular baptism would be any different from John’s baptism (a baptism that some of them may have already received).

    John’s baptism was inadequate not because it was not for the remission of sins but because it was not in the name of Jesus and the promise of the Holy Spirit did not accompany it. This is in fact the precise problem Paul has with the 12 in Acts 19… (“Did you 12 not receive the Holy Spirit?, Paul asked. “No Paul, we did not” they said. “Then what baptism did you receive?, Paul asks. “John’s baptism, Paul” they said. Paul responds, “not good enough, you need to be baptized in the name of Jesus.”).

    It is precisely the name of Jesus and the promised Holy Spirit that makes the baptism Peter calls the 3,000 too different from and superior to John’s baptism. If we are going to be a “people of the book”, as we so customarily like to describe ourselves as, then our emphais in baptism will be the name of Jesus and the Holy Spirit (Although Act 10 and 19 prevent us from insisting that the Holy Spirit is always received in baptism).

    To that end, the question of baptism and Christian fellowship become wide open. I do not know of a church group that does not baptize people “in the name of Jesus” or “in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit.”

    Grace and peace,


  4. BillyWilson Says:

    There you go again – bringing Greek, context and biblical thrust into the mix. Can’t imagine what you ever hope to achieve with such a shallow approach. But i’m here if you need me. =P

    ps. I notice you never mention hamsters.
    pps. Caribbean Jerk -YES! YES! YES! BABY!!! YODA-MAAAAAN!
    ppps. I heartily apologise to all of those who read my responses.

  5. Royce Ogle Says:

    Could it be that the load bearing word in Acts 2:38 is “repent” rather than “baptized”?

    http://gracedigest.com/2008/04/17/acts-238-a-second-look/ is a post I wrote on this very topic. Am I missing something?

    The founders of the Resotration Movement did not insist on an iron clad view of baptism as most coc folks do today. Here you can read their quotes. http://gracedigest.com/2007/04/08/christians-but-not-the-only-christians/

    After Pentecost when the 3,000 spread the gospel like a wildfire baptizing those who believed with all their hearts I doubt there was any discussion about the meaning of baptism. Jesus told us to make disciples and then baptize them. How difficult is that to understand?

    Good post as ususal Bobby,

  6. kingdomseeking Says:


    I have asked the same question about repentance. It seems baptism was an expression of their repentance.


  7. Anonymous Says:

    Thank you Bobby for bringing this to our attention. Like the majority in the SCM I believe that baptism is an important step in our salvation. I do not, however, believe that we must understand that baptism is for the remission of sins for God to accept our baptism.
    Major kudos to brother Anonymous’ candid assessment of Bible believers, who upon realizing they love God, are willing to express this love by being baptized because “God told me to be.”
    I do believe that this assessment fits well with Bible believing Evangelicals. We may debate the purpose of baptism(i.e., is baptism for the purpose of salvation), but if they are shown/told that God/Jesus says to be baptized they will do so because of their desire to please God.

    Brian of Tucson

  8. mundiejc Says:

    Baptism is a spiritual discipline, one that shapes our narrative, as we participate in the death burial and resurrection of our Lord.

    There’s no magic involved… where your sins magically disappear. At least in my opinion.

    But I’m of the school of thought that believes that Jesus’s death and resurrection proclaimed that all sins are forgiven… but for us to receive salvation (not just from sin, but from lives lived in rebellion to the natural order of creation… the abundant life of which Jesus speaks) we must follow the way of Jesus. The beginning point of doing so is participating in the ultimate result of a righteous life in a fallen world… death at the hands of the principalities and powers, and the promise of the resurrection into life created again, the world as it was always supposed to be. This can only be accomplished by the indwelling of the spirit… not by our own works, but by the power of God working within us through our faith.

    But I’m just an amateur (that might even be reaching) theologian… and I’d love your perspective on my thoughts Bobby.

  9. muriel b Says:

    What is your opinion of someone who was christened as a baby? Does that person need baptism to receive the holy spirt? I had a similar conversation with someone not long ago.


  10. Justin Says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Bobby. Though I’ve sat through about a million sermons and bible classes on baptism, I can say that today I actually LEARNED something about the exegesis of “eis” and its implications for understanding baptism. I’ve basically held the view Harding expressed for a long time…but it did bother me that I didn’t feel like I had a “proof.”

  11. Vonnie Says:

    Where does Grace fit into this picture? What about the thief on the cross? I know what I was taught about him – he was under the “old law”, but I don’t buy that anymore.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Regarding the thief, he was under the old law, that is true.

    I would tend to view the case of the thief that God has the ability to offer pardon to anyone anywhere anytime however He chooses. Jesus, being God, offered pardon to this thief.

    So, how have we been offered pardon? I don’t see the “sinners prayer” in the text. I don’t see anyone being told to believe in the Lord Jesus to be saved who wasn’t very promptly immersed either. And, yes, that means I’m not too worried about where the remission actually occurs, even though I do believe it happens at immersion.

    That contrasts very interestingly with the statements made here in Nashville by a very prominent “community” church pastor who said in a debate where I was present about 5 years ago something along these lines (very close to an actual quote I believe…certainly not misrepresenting what he said):

    “If someone wants to be baptized, I’ll do it, but I don’t go to any lengths to encourage it. It doesn’t matter.”

    That’s not the way the NT leaves the issue to me.

    So, thief in paradise? Certainly, since God can do whatever He wants. Can I enter paradise the same way? Only if God or Jesus appear to me and make that direct statement.

    My 2 cents. Still takes another 98 cents to get you a dollar, which wont’ buy much.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    Thanks for posting such tidbits. I heartily agree with the thrust of Harding’s spiritual wisdom, and heartily disagree with his statements about eis.

    In part, I think (this is just me) that this is an example of Harding getting the right doctrine with less than accurate exegesis. And that should give all of us hope, and help us to extend grace to all who are seeking.


    Daniel Oden

  14. Ron Exum Says:

    It seems to me that yours is a very lucid comment like that of a scientist on the interior design of the geometery of the ice crystal within a snowflake. therefore it is useful. But in a movement that has seldom in its history re-intergrated such info back into the conversation of the larger context of our need to love God and and others, or the personification of truth as it is in Jesus (I am the way, the truth..) then it seems to still leave me (a long time member of this movement) cold. Accordingly, the mystery of God and his salvation seems reduced to formula rather than relationship! Perhaps, you could address this…

  15. Johnny Says:

    Do you have a link to the article you quoted? I would like to read more.

  16. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Johnny, this article is not online yet but I hope to get it up on Hans Rollmann’s website soon. However if you send me an email at stonedcampbell@yahoo.com with a physical address I will snail mail it to you just for you.

    Bobby V

  17. Johnny Says:

    That is awfully brotherly of you. Thanks for your thoughts and your passion. I will be hanging out in your reading gallery from time to time.

  18. RICH Says:



  19. Anonymous Says:

    Why not look at baptism as an encounter with God? Is not the intent to restore us to our proper place as image bearers of God?

  20. Adam Gonnerman Says:

    The reason re-swearing in of President Obama (“just to be certain”) reminded me of the similar attitude towards baptism held by many brethren in Churches of Christ and even some instrumental Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. When I was at Harding U. one of my classmates mentioned to the class that he was going to be baptizing his grandmother-in-law or some such. He quickly tamped down our congrats by saying she was a lifelong member in her 70s and had been baptized as a girl. She was just being baptized again “to be certain.”

    Jimmy Allen was one of my professors, and I liked how he put it. It is a command to repent and be baptized, but a promise to receive remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. You can obey a command, but not a promise.

  21. Kevin P. Says:

    I hope all is well with you Bobby. I read the email and blog from you and had to respond.

    It seems that the words of men have consumed the thoughts on Baptism. The word of God should stand alone. Before Stone – Campbell was the Word …..

    Romans 6:3
    Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
    Romans 6:2-4 (in Context) Romans 6 (Whole Chapter)
    1 Corinthians 1:13
    Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?
    1 Corinthians 1:12-14 (in Context) 1 Corinthians 1 (Whole Chapter)
    Galatians 3:27
    for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
    Galatians 3:26-28 (in Context) Galatians 3 (Whole Chapter)
    Romans 6:4
    We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
    Romans 6:3-5 (in Context) Romans 6 (Whole Chapter)
    Colossians 2:12
    having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
    Colossians 2:11-13 (in Context) Colossians 2 (Whole Chapter)
    1 Peter 3:21
    and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
    1 Peter 3:20-22 (in Context) 1 Peter 3 (Whole Chapter)

    How can you be saved if you’re not in Christ? I ask this question not to trouble you but to seriously understand the purpose of looking at the restoration movement for direction on baptism or the church of Christ.

    John 12:48
    There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day.
    John 12:47-49 (in Context) John 12 (Whole Chapter)
    2 Peter 1:21
    For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
    2 Peter 1:20-21 (in Context) 2 Peter 1 (Whole Chapter)

    The prophets and apostles where given inspiration by God to write the oracles (any utterance made or received as authoritative, extremely wise, or infallible)of God.

    If any of these scriptures where taken out of context please let me know. I seek the truth in Christ Jesus not the teachings of man.

  22. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    I am grateful for you coming by and hope you will do so again. Let me make a few observations regarding your comments.

    First, I agree that the “word of God” was around before Stone or Campbell or even Harding. No one claimed any of these were or are inspired. But that is not the point.

    We are counseled in the Word of God to heed the wisdom of others who have wrestled with God, walked with God, whose lives are worthy of the faith. We have teachers, some are living and some are dead, but we can learn even about the Bible and our walk with God from people.

    “pay attention and listen to the wise” (Pr 22.17, etc)

    Even Timothy was taught by his mother and grandmother. We have mothers and grandmothers in the faith. Sometimes they help us see what we fail to see on our own. This happens to me all the time. I learn from others … even about passages that I have read straight out of the Bible many times. I am sure this is true of you too.

    So Stone, Campbell, Harding are no more … and no less … inspired than either you or me. But they have wrestled and have shared. We can be blessed by their wisdom.

    Second. Without taking anything away from what I just said, I fail to see how your response actually addresses anything in my post about Harding and the Design of baptism. Harding, nor I, said anything about not being “in Christ.” That is where salvation lies.

    Harding simply asks (and uses plenty of Bible in his discussion) where scripture demands certain understandings of baptism for it to be valid.

    Is not simply trusting obedience what God seeks? If so even a misunderstanding of the ramifications of baptism does not UNDO the act of simple trusting obedience.

    I think Harding has spiritual wisdom to share on this point.

    But perhaps I am missing something. I went back and reread my post. I urge you to do the same and show me how your response answers Harding’s exegesis.

    Blessings my brother,
    Bobby Valentine

  23. Kevin P. Says:

    Thanks for responding Bobby. I like this bloggin thing, It’s pretty neat…

    In regards to my earlier post…I re-read your comments and Hardings points on Baptism and decided to highlight the idea that encouraged my earlier response.

    Hardings thoughts – “This was not always true, however, of baptism into remission of sins … the inspired writers represent baptism as transferring one into the name, person, body, or death of Christ, or of the family of Christ, ten times; but only once do they represent us as being transferred into remission of sins. Is it not strange, then, that men will say remission of sins is the design…”

    I say no to this idea. It is not strange when scripture outlines the design.

    Hebrews 10:14-22 (New International Version)
    14because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
    15The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
    16″This is the covenant I will make with them
    after that time, says the Lord.
    I will put my laws in their hearts,
    and I will write them on their minds.”[a] 17Then he adds:
    “Their sins and lawless acts
    I will remember no more.”[b] 18And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. 19Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

    1 Peter 1, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
    To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, 2who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood:

    Transferring one into the name, person, body, or death of Christ, or to the family of Christ is remission of sin. This takes faith to believe. The sprinkling of the Blood is an operation done by God to cleanse me once and for all. My act of obedience to the will of God because of my faith in him makes the transfer happen and from that point on I live by grace.

    I can’t be taught wrong and baptised right. How can I be saved if I’m not in Christ?

    Remission of sin through baptism gets me to Christ. I will continue to study the design of Baptism, but right now it’s spelled out clear to me. I heard the Word of God which told me to believe and be baptised and I will be saved (the design to receive remission of sin). Mark 16 : 16.

    Blessings to you as well
    Bro Valentine.

  24. Wiley Clarkson Says:

    Bobby, Our propensity for elevating one verse over another (re: Acts 2:28 on immersion, or 1 Tim 2:11-15 on a different subject) to extremes has caused us so many headaches that all the asprin in the world will not take care of the pain. We are a fellowship of OCD’istic people on some things! Your last sentence in your last reply states very well the simple practice we should all follow: “I heard the Word of God which told me to believe and be baptised and I will be saved (the design to receive remission of sin). Mark 16 : 16.” I have just above my computer, three different 21st century books I have either read or am reading regarding baptism: Ferguson’s, Hicks’, and Maxey’s. None of them say the same thing and one takes about 900 pages to tell about the first three centuries of baptism in the church. I personally don’t think we will ever totally understand the “design” of baptism before Christ returns and that makes it important to follow a KISS understanding in practice. I know that my views on this subject are almost radically different from most CoC members and have come out of extended study on the Jewish practices of immersion and some of the pagans practices of immersion. Of course nothing is ever as simple as one wishes it would be in Scripture so I tend to keep them to myself and take your approach! I get in trouble enough just from my activism on gender equality in the churches of Christ!
    Between you, Al Maxey, and Edward Fudge, I always have something to ponder on!!!

    Grace to you and peace.

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