1. God is a God of exceptions — at least when it comes to insisting on the covenant-means of obtaining forgiveness. In the Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian dispensations, we see God making repeated exceptions from the stated pattern of how grace is to be obtained.
God further evidences his willingness to make exceptions in that he has allowed some of his faithful followers to escape even the curse of death. More precisely, God is not a rulebook — he’s a person, and as such, God’s words cannot be understood without first understanding his personality. I mean, how many times has any of us thought, “You would not have misunderstood me if you really knew me”?
2. On the other hand, in even the exceptional cases, God insists on faith and repentance as essential requirements for forgiveness. Melchizedek had faith. Naaman had faith. Those who celebrated Hezekiah’s Passover had faith. Those baptized by John the Baptist had faith. Those forgiven by Jesus while in the flesh had faith. The thief on the cross had faith. Certainly the apostles had faith. None of those for whom God made an exception were acting in knowing rebellion.
I can find no case where genuine faith and penitence were insufficient to gain God’s favor. This fact seems pretty important to me.
4. If a baptism that is improperly conducted but is believed to be proper is a barrier to salvation, then for the last several hundred years, the overwhelming majority of the faithful have been lost. Indeed, C. S. Lewis, Charles Wesley, Fanny J. Crosby, and nearly all the authors of our best books and composers of our best hymns are damned in their sins!
For that matter, very few, if any, were saved from the time infant baptism became generalized until the Anabaptists reinstituted the baptism of believers 1,500 years later. In fact, if this is the case, the church was defeated for over a millennium!
5. Of course, the baptism verses are still in the Bible. When the “faith only” verses were written and when the “faith plus baptism” verses were written, they created no paradox, because faith and proper, scriptural baptism nearly always went hand in hand. (The exceptions for the apostles, the Samaritans, and Cornelius and his household, and the likely reasons for those exceptions have already been discussed.)
Today they don’t. They should. But they don’t. And today, it cannot be simultaneously true that all who believe will be saved and that only those who’ve been “born of water and the Spirit” (John 2:5) will be saved. Which is the weightier doctrine? Which is closer to the heart of God?
6. The far, far greater emphasis that scriptures give faith over water baptism has to be accorded its fair implication. Indeed, how could Paul declare, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17) unless faith in the gospel is of far greater importance than water baptism?
And, of course, it’s not just the number of references-it’s also the character of the references to faith. For example-
(Mark 9:23) “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.”
(John 1:12-13) Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
(John 3:14-18) Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
(John 3:36) “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
(John 5:24) “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
(John 6:29) Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
(John 6:35) Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
(John 6:40) “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
(John 6:47) “I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life.”
(John 7:38-39) “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
(John 11:25-26) Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
(John 12:46) “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”
(John 20:31) But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
(Acts 10:43) “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
(Acts 13:38-39) “Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.”
(Acts 16:31) They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved-you and your household.”
(Rom. 1:16-17) I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
(Rom. 3:22-24) This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
(Rom. 3:25-28) God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
(Rom. 4:4-5) Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.
(Rom. 5:1-2) Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.
(Rom. 10:4) Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
(Rom. 10:9-13) That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile-the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
(1 Cor. 1:21) For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
(Gal. 2:15-16) “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”
(Gal. 3:2) I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?
(Gal. 3:22) But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.
(Gal. 5:6) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
(Eph. 1:13-14) And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession-to the praise of his glory.
(Eph. 2:8-10) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
(2 Thess. 2:13) But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.
(1 Tim. 1:16) But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
(Heb. 10:39) But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.
(1 John 3:23-24) And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
(1 John 4:2-3) 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, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
(1 John 5:1) Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.
(1 John 5:3-5) This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.
(1 John 5:13) I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
Now, be careful. This is not the last-verse-read argument. Rather, we have been forced by circumstances to choose between two Biblical promises both of which were true when written. How do we choose? Well, certainly not based on our presuppositions or our choice of denomination or fellowship.
Rather, we still must look to the Bible for guidance, and let the Bible tell us which of the two promises is more fundamental — which is closer to the heart of God. And nothing could be plainer to even the casual Bible student than that the central element of the gospel is faith — not baptism. Which is why Paul preached faith — not baptism.
Also, we can’t help but notice the number of times that Christian faith is compared by New Testament writers to Abraham’s faith (Rom. 4; Gal. 3; Heb. 6). But Abraham was saved without baptism and, as Paul points out in Rom. 4, without circumcision. Just faith.
Ultimately, though, what I find persuasive is the vigor with which the New Testament writers assure us that all who believe will be saved. We should not be embarrassed by these verses. We shouldn’t feel compelled to explain them away. They say what they say, and say so thanks to God’s inspiration that surely foresaw the problems we have to wrestle with today.
8. Of course, we are saved by faith in Jesus; we are not saved by faith in baptism. And yet, the way the 20th Century Churches of Christ taught the gospel, if the convert did not believe his baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, his faith in Jesus was completely unavailing. Hence, faith in baptism was a requisite to salvation.
This is utterly contrary to countless passages that teach that the content of faith is Jesus (for example, 1 Cor. 15:1- 8). We don’t confess baptism to be baptized, nor do we hear and believe baptism. And yet, the poor convert who was instructed regarding Jesus but not regarding baptism is considered damned! How can this be?
9. Our God keeps his promises (Num. 23:19; Jos. 23:14; 2 Cor. 1:20; Titus 1:2; 2 Pet. 3:9).
In these times, we find God presented with a choice: He must either dishonor his promises that he will save all who have faith; or else he must create an exception from his requirement that salvation is only for those born of water and the Spirit.
Well, plainly, God is going to keep all his promises, and the only way he can do so is to save the penitent faithful who’ve been wrongly taught about baptism.
10. While God can and does make exceptions, we are not God and we have no right to make exceptions for him. Therefore, if a penitent believer who has not been properly baptized enters our influence, we are obligated to teach him God’s will on the subject.
Baptism is a bigger issue than simple obedience. For example, notice Matthew’s version of the Great Commission:
(Matt. 28:19-20) “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Notice that Jesus tells his apostles to evangelize the world, to baptize their converts, and to teach them to obey his commandments. He distinguishes baptism from obedience to commandments. Baptism is thus not just another law to be obeyed. We are commanded to baptize our converts — and that is a matter of obedience.
Therefore, for those who wish to be a part of my congregation, I am compelled to teach baptism — even more so than other forms of obedience. As Beasley-Murray writes —
Finally we should observe that the authority of Christian Baptism is of the weightiest order. It rests on the command of the Risen Lord after his achieving redemption and receiving authority over the entire cosmos; it is integrated with the commission to preach the good news to the world, and it is enforced by his own example at the beginning of his messianic ministry. Such a charge is too imperious to be ignored or modified. It behooves us to adhere to it and conform to it as God gives grace.
G. R. Beasley-Murray, 92.
So suppose that this person declines baptism, do we treat him as a member of the congregation? I think not. In theological terms, therefore, I suppose I’m against “open membership.” This is because we are dealing with an exception to a rule here — not a rule.
If we aren’t careful, we’ll quickly allow the exception to swallow the rule, and we’ll stop bothering to baptize our converts. It’s an easy path from believing that God will overlook the failure of a penitent believer to be properly baptized in good faith to believing that baptism is just unnecessary. We can’t allow that to happen. Indeed, we are commanded not to allow that to happen.
Now I don’t want to be understood as agreeing with many who teach that baptism is a condition to church membership but not to salvation. Baptism is indeed the occasion of our salvation. This brings me to a pet peeve. The new fashion is to speak of the “churched” and “unchurched” rather than the “saved” and the “lost.” Evidently, the assumption is that all who have a Christian church home should be presumed saved and thus not someone to be evangelized. But quite obviously, this is not always the case — even if we were to completely ignore the doctrine of baptism.
Take, for example, the millions who are nominally Catholic, Orthodox, or Lutheran but who’ve never been to church since confirmation. In many countries, being a church member is little different from being a citizen. People are just born Catholic and are never really converted. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but some countries have church attendance rates of less than 3% while having membership rates of nearly 100%. These “churched” people need a Savior!
On the other hand, I can fully appreciate the feelings of those who take offense at Church of Christ members going around seeking to “convert” people who’ve already been saved. We can do better, I’m sure.
It would be great if we could present the gospel as Paul did to the Ephesians: “Have you received the Holy Spirit?” This would, after all, moot all the other issues. But there aren’t many people who could intelligently answer that question (and it would treat as lost many within the Churches of Christ who have received the Holy Spirit but refuse to admit it).
And so, how do we distinguish those whom we ought to convert from those who are already on the path to heaven? It’s just not enough to ask, “Have you been baptized?” or even “Have you been baptized by immersion on a confession of your faith for the forgiveness of sins?” Not that these are bad questions — it’s just that they aren’t the sorts of questions that speak to the heart.
And it’s really more important that we learn about the heart of a potential convert than his or her baptism — isn’t it? I mean, what are faith and repentance if not issues of the heart? And how else would we rescue those who’ve been baptized without a true commitment?
I’ve heard some ask potential converts whether they’ve made a commitment to Jesus. This question speaks both to faith and to repentance and so seems a good place to start, to me.
And so, to wrap up, we in the Churches of Christ are right about baptism. Scripture really does teach baptism — meaning water immersion — of penitent believers into forgiveness of sins. We should continue to preach baptism.
I disagree with Max Lucado, who suggests that baptism is only a symbol. It is a symbol, of course, but it is a symbol that, in the ordinary case, is the occasion of our salvation. Our sins are very truly washed away in baptism.
I also disagree with many Baptists, in that I don’t believe we are normally saved at the moment of faith, or the believer’s prayer, and are therefore baptized after salvation. We are supposed to be baptized into salvation.
However, I believe that when a person who has genuine faith and who genuinely repents genuinely believes that he or she has satisfied the command to be baptized, God will honor his many, many promises to save all who believe in Jesus. God keeps his promises. All of them.
Therefore, we in the Churches of Christ erred when we left the original principles of the Restoration Movement and insisted on considering the vast majority of believers from Constantine until now as lost on technicalities. This approach has greatly marginalized us, separating us from the community of most of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
It has also lured us into seeking to “convert” the saved, distracting us from much more useful work among the lost.
Recently, we’ve sometimes over-reacted to this error by committing what may be an even worse mistake — considering all who are nominally Christians of one sort or another as saved. I know many people who have been baptized, by immersion or otherwise, who are almost certainly lost in their sins, having never made a commitment to Jesus. These people shouldn’t be left behind in our conversion efforts.
Now, for many of us, this leaves the line between the saved and the lost uncomfortably unclear. We can clarify the line considerably, however, by focusing on what matters most — whether someone has received the Holy Spirit and whether that person has a true faith and true commitment to repentance.
Perhaps we aren’t called to judge — but when the answer is not obvious from that person’s life, I think we do need to ask.
I conclude with a quote from Alexander Campbell:
All the good and virtuous in all [Christian] sects belong to Jesus Christ; and if I belong to him, they are my brethren. … Many, I hope, will stand on the right of the Judge in the great day, who cannot now walk on the same side of the street.