[The material on the meaning of being “called” has been moved to the following post.]
As noted in the previous post, N. T. Wright considers baptism to be the event at which justification occurs and the “call” to be the event of our salvation. Hence, as Paul writes in Romans 8:30, we are called (saved) and then justified (baptized).
Of course, going back to Alexander Campbell, Churches of Christ have taught that salvation, justification, and baptism are all concurrent. And so, I thought I’d poke around the scriptures a bit and see what light I can find on this disagreement.
I remind the reader that according to Wright (and many other commentators), “justification” is not salvation so much as God’s declaration of acquittal or vindication or “not guilty” occurring upon salvation.
Baptism and Justification
We start in Titus–
(Titus 3:4-7) But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
When I was just out of college, my home congregation asked for volunteers to sit with one of our elderly members–a retired elder–who was in the hospital quite literally on his death bed.
I sat with the gentleman one night, talking with him as he struggled to talk with severely diseased lungs. He had only hours to live. And despite his difficulty breathing, he recited this passage to me.
I had only just been introduced to the true doctrine of grace and didn’t really understand what I’d been taught. But when I saw the comfort this passage gave–a comfort I’d really never known–I had the first real inkling of what it all means.
Every time I read this passage, I still get chills.
The order, if Paul is speaking chronologically, is baptism, receipt of the Spirit, justified, heirs. And this makes perfect sense, as it replicates the events of Jesus’ baptism–
(Matt. 3:16-17) As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
The order here is baptism, receipt of the Spirit, justification (God’s declaration that this is his beloved son and that he’s will pleased). Of course, it’s really all one event, but it’s baptism that leads to the receipt of the Spirit (in the ordinary case, at least), not the other way around.
(Gal. 3:26-29) You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
The order is baptism, sons of God through faith, one in Christ Jesus (belonging to Christ), heirs.
Again, this parallels Jesus’ baptism, with baptism preceding the declaration that we are God’s sons.
This brings us to Colossians–
(Col. 2:11-14) In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 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. 13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.
The order is baptism (raised with Jesus through faith), made alive with Christ, forgiven.
Now, this plainly follows the logic of Romans 6, in which Paul describes our baptism as a mystical joining in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, leading to our joining in his immortality.
Now “forgiven” in verse 13 could easily be taken as referring to the entire process: this is how we are forgiven–but it’s hard to see “forgiven” as preceding baptism. Rather, we were dead in our sins until we were made alive with Christ as we came out of the baptistry, sharing in his resurrection.
Now, this is all very familiar to those in the Churches of Christ, although we don’t normally try to subdivide the saving process into such fine categories and usually think of justification as the entire process rather than the declaration “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased”–which comes at the end of the process.
ConclusionWell, there’s nothing in Wright’s definitions that contradicts the idea that salvation occurs at the time of baptism (in the ordinary case) and that justification occurs upon completion of the baptism, along with receipt of the Spirit. Indeed, this seems the most natural reading of the passages–and is in perfect parallel with Jesus’ baptism, which is surely an example showing us the meaning of Christian baptism.
On the other hand, this hardly means that God will not overlook mistakes in the performance of the baptism. We consider someone completely saved even though they come to God with an imperfect faith and an imperfect penitence (and who doesn’t?). Therefore, God will accept an imperfect baptism as well.
Baptism is a gift, not a test. Obviously, if someone commits error fully knowing that he is in rebellion against God in so doing, such a person is not penitent and so not saved (but when has this ever happened?)
In reality, those who receive an imperfect baptism do so as an act of faith and penitence, believing they are acting in obedience to God. God is anxious to forgive those whom he loves. He’s not looking to condemn those for whom Jesus died!
Finally, if we see baptism is a gift received, not a work performed (which surely is the case), then how can we damn the recipient of the gift for receiving an imperfect gift?
(For more on the subject, click here.)