In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1
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by J. C. Wenger

Christian baptism originated with the Lord Jesus Christ, but it had two antecedents: (1) the inter-Testamental baptism of Jewish proselytes, and (2) the baptism of repentance by John the Baptist (Mt. 3:6; Mk 1:4). Christian baptism, however, was something new. It is to be administered in the name of the holy Trinity to those who become disciples. Prior to His ascension Jesus declared: "The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,".All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt. 28:18-20). This was the instruction which Peter followed on the day of Pentecost. First of all, he preached the Word of God to the people; when they were cut to the heart and cried out for the way to be saved he directed them to Christ and His saving Gospel. Those who accepted his word he baptized. "And there were added that day about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:36-41).

The apostolic precedent on the day of Pentecost furnishes a beautiful model of correct procedure for the Christian Church in perpetuity: first, there was the declaration of God's Word by a man of God; second, the Holy Spirit convicted many of the hearers of their sin; third, in true contrition and repentance they turned away from their sin; fourth, they accepted the Christ who is offered as Saviour in the Gospel; and finally, baptism was administered to those who turned to Jesus, and they were thus inducted into the membership of the church. The proper steps are therefore as follows: (1) the proclamation of God's Word; (2) conviction of heart for one's sin; (3) contrition and repentance; (4) the acceptance of Jesus as Saviour and Lord; (5) induction into the church of Christ by water baptism. It will be observed at once that these steps presuppose a free church, not a religion established by state law, as well as freedom of conscience, not the employment of force to compel the acceptance of a faith or a creed. Baptism is to be administered to those who desire it, to those who have turned to the Lord in penitence and faith, and to those who are ready to assume the obligations of Christian discipleship. It may be observed in passing that these were the basic convictions of the Swiss Brethren and of the Hutterian Brethren of Moravia, as well as of the Dutch Obbenites later called Mennonites. These so-called Anabaptist groups were therefore the forerunners and founders of the free church movement. The free church concept was regarded as a dangerous and unscriptural heresy, a clever scheme of the devil, by the major groups of Christendom in the sixteenth century. (Compare Luther's polemic against the Anabaptists with their free church and their unrestricted missionary efforts, Von den Schleichern und Winkelpredigern, 1532.)

In the teaching of the New Testament baptism signifies at least four things:

1. Baptism is a symbol of cleansing from sin. When Ananias came to the contrite Saul following his Damascus Road conversion he said: "And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name." (Acts 22:16). Dr. A. T. Robertson states that the force of the passage is: "Get yourself baptized and get your sins washed away." (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, New York: Harper, 1951, p. 808.) Water is in the first place then a symbol of cleansing, the removal of the defilement of sin through the blood of Christ.

2. Baptism also symbolizes one's "death" to sin. Baptism is not a momentary burial of the physical body but the death and burial of the old life of sin. Paul represents baptism as the symbol of what Christ accomplished in this respect by His death on the cross. He begins by asserting that in our baptism we signified our intention no longer to live in sin. Just as Christ died physically and was placed in the tomb, so the Christian is to die with Christ as far as the life of sin is concerned (Rom. 6:1-5). Following his baptism he is to "walk in newness of life" (6:4). The death of Jesus is not only the symbol of the Christian's death to sin; it is the means which makes that death possible: "We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed [rendered powerless]. and we might no longer be enslaved to sin" (6:6). The conclusion is: "So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus." (6:11).

3. Peter makes a somewhat obscure statement about baptism in his First Letter. He says that just as the ark saved Noah and his family at the time of the Deluge, so baptism saves Christians now, "not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience." (I Pet. 3:21). It should first of all be observed in this connection that the Greek word for "appeal" is not at all clear. The King James Version renders it, answer; the American Standard Version as translates it, interrogation; Weymouth and Williams both employ, craving; Berkeley uses, earnest seeking; while the German has, covenant. Dr. Thayer in discussing this passage suggests the translation, "avowal of consecration" (Thayer, p. 231). It would seem that the most recent scholarship would support the translation of the Revised Standard Version, "appeal to God for a clear conscience." In any case, Peter is not representing baptism as a sacrament which automatically conveys divine grace or which washes away sin; it is rather a step which one takes in order to have a clear conscience. The step which actually insures a clear conscience is the committal to Christ to live a life of faithful discipleship to Jesus Christ, relying upon Him for cleansing from sin and for enabling grace. It would, therefore, seem that Luther's paraphrase, covenant, is quite apt. Baptism truly constitutes a covenant of discipleship with God through Jesus Christ.

4. Water baptism becomes, therefore, in the final analysis a symbol of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist baptized with water but Jesus promised that He would baptize with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5). This came to pass for the Jews on the day of Pentecost (2:4), for the Samaritans a bit later, (8:17) and for the Gentiles when Peter opened the door of faith to the family of Cornelius (10:44). And ever since the founding of the Christian Church on the day of Pentecost individual Christians have been baptized into the true body of Christ, the church, by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, who enables lost sinners to turn to Christ in repentance and faith. The Apostle Paul states this truth as follows: "But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him" (Rom. 8:9). Also, "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-Jews or Greeks, slaves or free- and all were made to drink of one Spirit" (I Cor. 12:12, 13).

The term "baptism" is therefore applied both to water baptism and to Holy Spirit baptism, sometimes in such a general way as to make it difficult to know which baptism the writer has in mind: this because of the fact that water baptism is in very truth a symbol of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. For example, "As many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal. 3:27). Does the apostle refer to water baptism or to Spirit baptism? Actually, he probably made no such distinction, although in the final analysis since the water is merely a symbol he certainly relied upon the Holy Spirit and not upon any mere ceremony for the accessioning of members to the church. p>It should be observed that the description of baptism given in the Scriptures eliminates any thought of infants participating in this ceremony. Infants are not able to hear the Word of God, they are not capable of Holy Spirit conviction, they cannot repent and exercise faith in Jesus Christ. They cannot make the appeal of a good conscience with God, they cannot promise to renounce sin and live a life of faithful discipleship to Christ, It appears, however, that at least by the latter part of the second century there were cases of infant baptism in the Christian Church, for the leader Origen, who was born about A.D. 185, states that he was baptized as an infant. As late as the fourth century there were still many cases of adult baptism, however.

In the sixteenth century when the Swiss Brethren, often labeled Anabaptists, inaugurated believer's baptism again, the leading reformers were obligated to attempt to justify the baptism of infants. Although Luther could not subscribe to the Roman Catholic doctrine of baptismal regeneration, he did assert that faith was introduced into the infant through prayer and the power of the Word. He also claimed that a baby has hidden faith, somewhat comparable to the faith of a Christian who is asleep. Luther admitted that there was not sufficient evidence from Scripture for the inauguration of infant baptism, but "in our time no one may venture - - - to reject or abandon infant baptism which has so long been practiced" (John Horsch, Infant Baptism, Scottdale. Pa.: Published by the Author, 1917, pp. 38-42. This is a remarkable collection of source material on the subject.) Luther's colleague, Philip Melanchthon, held that just as the infant sons of Israel were to be circumcised as a symbol of the Old Covenant, so Christians shall baptize their children as a symbol of the New Covenant in Christ (pp 42-45). The real opponent of the Swiss Brethren, however, was Ulrich Zwingli of Zurich. He employed the circumcision argument, the baptism of households, and the covenant concept which holds that the children of believers are included in the covenant on the basis of such passages as Acts 2:~9 and I Corinthians 7:14 (pp.52-68). It should be observed, however, that neither passage says anything about the baptism of infants. The passage in Acts merely indicates that the Gospel promise applied to the hearers of Peter, to the next generation as well, and perhaps to the Gentiles. Paul's remark in the First Letter to the Corinthians indicates only that a certain sanctifying influence emanates from a Christian parent, an obvious fact.

As far as the baptism of households is concerned it should be observed not only that the household of Cornelius was baptized but that tile Holy Spirit fell on all who "heard the word " (Acts 10:44). Those who were thus converted were "speaking in tongues and extolling God" (Acts 10:46). Obviously, these are the people who were baptized. At the time of the baptism of the household of the Philippian jailer Luke reports that the apostles "spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house.... And he rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God" (Acts 16:32-34). There is no evidence at all that Lydia was even a married woman, and therefore the baptism of herself and household (16:15) is not necessarily relevant to the present question. Scripture indicates not only that the household of Stephanus was baptized (I Cor. 1:16) but that they had "devoted themselves to the service of the saints" (16:15).

Many modern theologians assert that baptism is the pledge of a godly rearing. Concerning the necessity of such Christian nurture there is no debate at all. The only question relates to the basic meaning of baptism: Is baptism in the New Testament a pledge of Christian nurture for children or is it the symbol of a personal conversion and commitment to Christ? The basic question is not even whether there were infants in the families which were baptized; it is rather this: Are infants suitable candidates for baptism? Surely not! As to the proper subjects of water baptism see the contrary monographs of Karl Barth (1948, 1969) and Oscar Cullman (1950). The Bible does not indicate what the mode of baptism shall be. The etymology of the Greek word for "baptize" would suggest in some cases such usages as repeated dippings, to immerge or submerge, for example sunken vessels, etc. A second argument in favor of immersion is drawn from patristic evidence: it is often held that second-century Christian fathers speak of baptism in terms which would suggest immersion. The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, probably written between A.D. 120 and 180, gives the following instruction for baptism: "After giving the foregoing instructions, 'Baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit' in running water. But, if you have no running water, baptize in any other; and if you cannot in cold water, then in warm. But, if the one is lacking, pour the other three times on the head 'In the name of the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit.' But, before the baptism, let the one who baptizes and the one to be baptized fast, and any others who are able to do so" ("The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles," The Apostolic Fathers, vol. I of The Fathers of the Church, Translated by Francis X. Glimm, Joseph M. F. Marique. S. J., and Gerald G. Walsh (New York: Cima Publishing co.. 1947). p.177. Used by permission). While the mode is here not prescribed, many church historians believe that immersion was the usual practice. The present writer, however, knows of no actual proof that this was the case. The anonymous Letter of Barnabas, written between A.D. 70 and 150, does say: "This means that we go down into the water full of sins and foulness, and we come up bearing fruit in our hearts, fear and hope in Jesus in the Spirit (p. 210). It is possible, of course, that the writer has in mind only that both the bishop and the convert stood in the water for the ceremony, though most church historians would hardly accept this as the actual practice of the second-century church. A third argument in favor of immersion is that the symbolism of Romans 6 and Colossians 2 which speaks of burial with Christ in baptism requires immersion of the body in water" (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12).

It will thus be observed that the three main arguments for immersion are linguistic, historical, and exegetical. And baptism upon confession of faith should always be recognized as valid. The Mennonite Church recognizes immersion as a valid baptism, for it does not require rebaptism of those who have been baptized by immersion and who later desire to transfer their membership to the Mennonite brotherhood. The belief that baptism should be by pouring does not involve a condemnation of immersion as a valid mode. The significance of a sacramental sign does not reside in its material form but in the faith of the recipient who is sincerely looking to Christ for the blessings symbolized.

A number of considerations are also used to justify affusion or pouring as a mode of baptism. As far as the New Testament Greek word for "baptize is concerned it means neither immerse nor pour as such but rather to baptize. (Interestingly enough, the Gospel of Mark seems to use a word which might be translated baptisms more or less synonymously with a Greek word which means to sprinkle (Mk. 7:4). Perhaps the main reason that some churches defend affusion as the proper method of baptism is that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is spoken of as a pouring-out. When the baptism of the Holy Spirit took place on the day of Pentecost the Apostle Peter in his sermon quoted the prophet Joel as saying that this was a fulfillment of the prophecy that God would "pour out my Spirit upon all flesh. - - I will pour out my Spirit" (Acts 2:17, 18). In the same sermon Peter explains that it was the resurrected Jesus who from the right hand of God had "poured out this which you see and hear" (2:33). The Greek word for pour out is used a fourth time in connection with the Holy Spirit in Titus 3, where Paul explains that God "saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:5-7).

Those who believe in affusion also appeal to history in support of their view. In 1899 a Christian minister from Pennsylvania (A. D. Wenger, 1867-1935) visited the catacombs of Rome. One day he walked out the Appian Way to the catacomb of St. Callistus. "I had been in other parts of this catacomb twice before, but this time I told the guide that I wanted to see frescoes of baptism. Soon we reached one of about the end of the second century where a minister is represented as baptizing a young applicant. The minister stands on the bank and the applicant in the water. A handful of water has just been dipped and put on the head of the applicant where the minister's hand still rests, perhaps to pronounce a blessing. Small streams of water are plainly seen falling from the head of the applicant....

"We went a little farther to another fresco very similar to the preceding one, and of about the same age, but the minister's feet a~ pear to be just a little in the edge of the stream and no water is represented as falling from the head of the applicant who is in the water and standing erect. "We went still farther eastward under the hill and beneath the Appian Way.. . - Here we found the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. John stands right at the edge of the Jordan and Christ stands in the water below him. It is also so represented by the picture of it in the museum. Baptism by dipping water on the head with one hand appears to be just completed and John is bending slightly forward with his hand at the elbow of Christ to help Him come 'up straightway out of the water.' ...This is the fresco of baptism that has been assigned by some to A.D. 107. "I asked the guide to show me frescoes of other modes of baptism. He said, 'There are no other modes represented in any of the catacombs.' This is really surprising, for we know that Tertullian practiced another mode as early as A.D. 200....

"In Philip Schaff's great work Vol.11, page 249, we read, 'It is remarkable that in almost all the earliest representations of baptism that have been preserved for us, this [the pouring of water from a vessel over the bodyl is the special act represented'" (Six Months in Bible Lands, Doylestown, Penna.: Joseph B. Steiner, 1902, pp. 102-4).

Those who practice baptism by affusion also regard it as a practical mode for all climates and under all conditions.

What about the argument that the etymology of the Greek word for "baptize" would require immersion? The only answer of those who do not immerse is that the final test of a meaning of a word is what people understand it to mean when it is used, For example, the English word commencement would suggest a beginning; as a matter of fact, however, the term is now used of the exercises in a school which celebrate the completion and end of a course of study. When we of today use the word lunatic we do not mean one who is moon-struck, although that would be what the etymology of the word would suggest. The Greek word baptizo does not mean a physical immersion or a sprinkling; it means the use of water to symbolize the Christian induction of a convert into the body of Christ (See John Murray, Christian Baptism, Philadelphia: Committee on Christian Education, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1952. The author shows that the Greek baptizo does not necessarily mean immersion.)

We therefore conclude that affusion or pouring is a valid mode of baptism, and can see no reason why any Christian minister should refuse to baptize converts by pouring if they believe that pouring is a correct mode. And those who have been baptized by affusion should not be rebaptized by immersion. The present writer rejoices that there now are Christian denominations who are willing to recognize both immersion and affusion as valid modes of baptism. For the basic fact remains that the validity of a Christian ordinance does not depend upon its material form but upon the spiritual attitude of the person receiving the ordinance.

The above is from Introduction to Theology by John C. Wenger (pp. 232-240), copyright 1954, renewed 1980 by Mennonite Publishing House, Scottdale, Pennsylvania USA. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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