[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?]
Every 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.]