In the first lesson, I said — and I meant it — that the traditional exegesis of the baptism verses by the Churches of Christ is largely correct. In particular, I emphasized John 3:5, which clearly makes water baptism a necessity.
For many, the argument ends there. But it does not. The case for non-essentiality has rarely been made well, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be made well. And we can’t claim to have reached a serious, scholarly conclusion until we’ve considered the arguments for both sides.
I’m not going to waste many words on a handful of frequently made arguments that just don’t hold water.
First, many argue that insisting on baptism as essential is somehow a works salvation. But as should be obvious, it’s not. Paul himself argued that baptism is the occasion of our salvation both in Rom 6 and in Gal 3:26-27. Gal 3:26-27 is particularly significant —
(Gal 3:26-27) 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.
The “for” in v 27 means “because.” Paul is saying that we’ve been saved through faith because we’ve been baptized!
More fundamentally, as Martin Luther argued, baptism is not a work. Works of the law are what people outside grace must do to earn salvation. Baptism is something received (when speaking of a convert, it’s always in the passive voice). Baptism is a gift from God. It’s God’s work, not man’s.
Second, some argue that Biblical references to “baptism” are references to baptism in the Spirit, not necessarily water baptism. It’s a frivolous argument. Acts 2:38 was preached at the temple, which was surrounded by baptistries built in place for use in cleansing those who’d approach the holy place. John 3:5, 1 Cor 12:13, and many other verses expressly reference water baptism. The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch is clearly in water. And the arguments go on.
Third, some argue that that the Church of Christ position is sacramentalism, and because Catholics believe in sacraments, it’s wrong. I’ll have more to say on this in future posts, but for now, just realize that “sacrament” is defined differently by different people. If by “sacrament” you mean an act we do on earth that has an effect in heaven, then I suppose baptism is a sacrament. If you mean by “sacrament” an act whereby the church bestows God’s grace, then, no, it’s not.
Finally, it’s argued that baptism is a symbol of God’s grace, and indeed it is. But a symbol can have real effect. When Jesus had the blind man wash in Pool of Siloam, his washing of mud from his eyes was symbolic, but it effected the cure of his blindness. When Elisha told Naaman to dip seven times in the Jordan River, there was symbolism in the river chosen, the washing, and the number of washings. But it was effective.
Nonetheless, the insistence of so many on making frivolous arguments hardly proves that there are no good arguments.
We have more arguments to consider than time, so I won’t finish the arguments in this lesson. But are some to get started.
Let’s start by re-defining the question. The question isn’t whether the Bible teaches that baptism is the occasion of our salvation. It is. The question is whether God will accept an imperfect baptism. After all, virtually all believers in Jesus are baptized. It’s just that many are baptized imperfectly. For example,
* Some are baptized before they come to faith
* Some are baptized by means other than immersion
* Some are baptized to obey God or join the church rather than for remission of sins
I’ll waste no time defending these mistakes. They are mistakes indeed. But they are mistakes — they are not acts of rebellion or impenitence (regardless of what someone may have told you).
And they are particularly understandable mistakes. Consider the typical believer who has not been exposed to the teaching of the Churches of Christ or other immersionist groups. The believer reads the New Testament passages declaring baptism necessary and then turns to his dictionary to see what “baptism” means. He reads something like—
A religious sacrament marked by the symbolic use of water and resulting in admission of the recipient into the community of Christians.
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin Co.: 4th
Christian ceremony in which a person has water poured on their head, or is covered briefly in water, to show that they have become a member of the Christian Church.
Cambridge International Dictionary of English (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
the application of water to a person, as a sacrament or religious ceremony, by which he is initiated into the visible church of Christ. This is performed by immersion, sprinkling, or pouring.
Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (Plainfield, NJ: MICRA, Inc., 1998).
Now, suppose this person wants to be sure the dictionaries are accurate, so he gets a Greek dictionary out and checks it. And he finds this —
The mode of baptism can in no way be determined from the Greek word rendered “baptize.” Baptists say that it means “to dip,” and nothing else. That is an incorrect view of the meaning of the word. It means both (1) to dip a thing into an element or liquid, and (2) to put an element or liquid over or on it. Nothing therefore as to the mode of baptism can be concluded from the mere word used.
Matthew George Easton, Easton Illustrated Bible Dictionary (3rd ed., Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1897). This dictionary is available on several Internet sites.
By now, our diligent researcher has been fully convinced that his baptism was done correctly, when, in fact, it was not. As you can see, English dictionaries define the term as Americans use it, not as the Greeks did. And the Greek resources often reflect the biases of the authors. Lots and lots of commentaries and other resources flatly state the infant baptism is acceptable and deny the necessity of immersion.
With this in mind, it should be obvious that a mistake is quite understandable. The question is whether God will overlook it, and the only way to find out is to learn the character of God from the scriptures.
We must be careful to avoid stereotyped or lazy thinking. For example, it’s true that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” if you’re before a judge in a criminal court. That hardly means that God will treat those who love him and believe in his Son the same way. Resort to a cliché hardly proves an argument.
In the next post, we’ll consider — purely from scripture — how God has responded to imperfect obedience in the past.