Amazing Grace: Baptism, Part 1 (Reflecting on the Paradox)

 [I’m going to post two series of posts on baptism. The Amazing Grace posts are designed for Bible class, although there’s more material than is really needed.

However, some time ago I wrote another series of posts to finish out the Searching for the Third Way series, which is not really suitable for a regular adult Bible class.

The two series were written at different times for different purposes. There’s some overlap but they largely go in two different directions. And so I figured it might be helpful to post them together.

 I mean, for those of us in the Churches of Christ, how could there be too much teaching on baptism?]

grace2.jpgEvery time I teach on grace nowadays, someone raises his or her hand and asks what I believe on baptism. I’m not surprised! It’s a vitally important question. And one we shouldn’t avoid. After all, whatever God’s truth on the subject is, it’s good news.

So far, our lessons on grace have dealt with the question of how we stay saved once we’ve become saved. Now it’s time to talk a bit about becoming saved in the first place.

Hopefully, as we’ve learned more about God’s grace, we’ve become more open-minded and more open-hearted, more humble, and more willing to see grace extended to others. That’s the normal experience. And so it’s only natural to puzzle about this paradox–

* The New Testament plainly teaches that baptism is the occasion of our salvation. We receive the Spirit and forgiveness when we are baptized. And yet —

* We all know many people who bear the marks of the Spirit, who act and speak like people in whom the Spirit dwells, who give every evidence of being among the saved, and yet who’ve not been baptized as we believe the Bible teaches.

It’s a tough one. The scriptures seem plain enough, but there’s no denying the evidence of our own eyes. Now, had we never learned about the work of the Spirit, it would have been easy to dismiss such Godly, believing people as faithful but lost. But the New Testament doesn’t really give us that option — at least, not the option to do so easily.

(1 Cor 12:3) Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

(1 John 4:2) This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God … .

These passages certainly seem to say that if we see faith in Jesus in someone, or if we see that someone has yielded to Jesus as Lord, they have the Spirit — and we know that only the saved have the Spirit (Rom 8:9-11).

Some rebel at this thought, as it seems to contradict the several baptism passages. But the verses say what they say. But so do the baptism passages. And so another way of stating the paradox is this —

* Many verses teach that all who have genuine faith in Jesus are saved, and yet —

* Many verses require both faith in Jesus and baptism.

(“Faith,” of course, is usually used in the New Testament as including submission to Jesus as Lord. E.g., Rom 10:9). One way to reconcile these two facts is to insist that only those with both faith and baptism are saved, which has been the traditional Church of Christ view in the 20th Century. Another way is to consider that faith is sufficient, which was the view of Barton W. Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell.

The Campbells in particular insisted on baptism of believers by immersion, which they both submitted to even though they’d been baptized as infants. They asked a Baptist minister to do the honors. After all, there were no Church of Christ ministers around in those days!

And yet they also considered those who were not properly baptized out of ignorance nonetheless saved. Alexander Campbell wrote in response to the famous Lunenburg letter and on other similar occasions,

But who is a Christian? I answer, Everyone that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys Him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of His will.

In reply to this conscientious sister, I observe, that if there be no Christians in the Protestant sects, there are certainly none among the Romanists, none among the Jews, Turks, Pagans; and therefore no Christians in the world except ourselves, or such of us as keep, or strive to keep, all the commandments of Jesus. Therefore, for many centuries there has been no church of Christ, no Christians in the world; and the promises concerning the everlasting kingdom of Messiah have failed, and the gates of hell have prevailed against his church! This cannot be; and therefore there are Christians among the sects.

It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known.

Ignorance is always a crime when it is voluntary; and innocent when it is involuntary.

Can a person who simply, not perversely, mistakes the outward baptism, have the inward? We all agree that he who willfully or negligently perverts the outward, cannot have the inward. But can he who, through a simple mistake, involving no perversity of mind, has misapprehended the outward baptism, yet submitting to it according to his view of it, have the inward baptism which changes his state and has praise of God, though not of all men? is the precise question. To which I answer, that, in my opinion, it is possible.

I rejoice to know and feel that I have the good wishes, the prayers, and the hopes of myriads of Christians in all denominations.

I suppose all agree that among Christians of every name there are disciples of Jesus Christ, accepted of God in him, real members of his body, branches in the true vine, and therefore all one in Christ.

(Quotations are from here. Each paragraph is separately sourced.)

In short, Campbell believed, much as we do, that the Bible teaches baptism of believers by immersion for the remission of sins. However, he also believed that God would not deny salvation to the penitent faithful who failed to honor this ordinance out of ignorance.

In the next few lessons, we’ll consider whether this a fair interpretation of the scriptures.

[Note to teachers: You should read the entirety of Born of Water, a book-length study on this question. We won’t cover all the material, but you will likely get questions that require you to be able to go beyond the lesson notes.]

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Amazing Grace: Baptism, Part 1 (Reflecting on the Paradox)

  1. josh keele says:

    "To which I answer, that, in my opinion, it is possible."

    I'd like a little more than Campbell's (either ones') opinion personally. After all, I'm not a Campbellite as some are, so I'll take Peter over Campbell any day. And of course Peter says in 1 Peter 3:21 "And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,"— If, therefore, baptism saves by one motive and not by another, then the motive is not only a necessary part of it, but the most necessary part. Those who are baptized viewing it as a washing off of the dirt of the body are not saved, according to what Peter says here, for baptism saves "as an appeal"–but how can it save as an appeal unless the person being baptized makes an appeal? It can't, because then it is not an appeal.

    Let's put it this way, Jay. If we teach that a person has to be baptized as an appeal and not just as a mere sign or merely (as some say) "to obey God"–if we teach that and it turns out that Peter just was illiterate and couldn't write too well–if in short, it turns out that Campbell's doubtful opinion is right and people can be baptized for whatever purpose they want including a mere bath or washing off of the dirt of the body–what have we lost? Fellowship with the Baptists, I suppose. But if it turns out on the other hand that Peter wrote by inspiration of the Holy Ghost and not as an uninspired illiterate man (as I wot that he did) and Campbell's vaunted opinion here is wrong, and that the person being baptized must actually be baptized as an appeal for the remission of sins and not just for any reason, then what have we lost by going by Campbell's opinion? Many souls!

    In other words, you frame it as though being lenient on baptism is charitable and shows love for our fellow man, but it seems rather quite the opposite. Just as the Law said in Lev 19:17 "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him." If seeing our brother in sin and keeping our yaps shut and letting him continue in it with no mention of it is defined by God as hating our brother, then I should think that so also knowing that he was not baptized properly and pretending that he was is defined as hating our brother. After all, "to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin," and therefore if we know that it is good to inform someone that they have not been properly baptized and we chicken out of doing so for whatever reason, to us that it sin.

  2. josh keele says:

    The "as I wot that he did" should be connected to "wrote by inspiration of the Holy Ghost"–Its probably obvious that I meant that, but just in case its not.

  3. Bradley Josephs says:


    Thanks for the article. I actually come from a background in the International Churches of Christ and have recently spent a year in a traditional Church of Christ. This topic is something I have westled with, as I consider visiting different churches with my family.

    Here are some questions that I wrestle with:
    1. What does someone need to know before they get baptized?
    2. How old should a candidate for baptism be?
    3. Does an individual who views baptism as an "outward sign of inward grace" invalidate their batpism because they do not possess the correct knowledge of what baptism is?
    4. If someone "prays Jesus into their heart", are they saved or lost?

    Thank you for your insights. I will say that I disagree with the use of the two NT passages, as I believe they were contextually misrepresented – in both cases I do not see that the authors were trying to distinguish between a Christian and a non-Christian. Instead, the passages were written to Christians in order that they might see the affect of Gnosticism in their fellowship (1 John) and that the use of spriritual gifts might not become worldly (1 Cor 12).

  4. Prodigal Knot says:

    I agree with Bradley on the scripture choices.

    Campbell's second quote is the best rebuttal of the fallacy of thinking a person must understand baptism perfectly before they can be saved. The woman with the bloody discharge did not approach Christ properly, touching the hem of his garment secretly, she supposed. Yet, Christ commends her, calling her "daughter". She didn't follow the pattern of other Jesus healed, but was healed how? By faith!

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