Well, I wasn’t really intending to pick on the Calvinist-Arminian controversies for the entire series, but here’s another place where the two traditions disagree — and another place that needs a Third Way solution.
The traditional view, going back at least to the Second Century, is that baptism is the occasion or moment of salvation — it’s when salvation occurs. It remains the view of Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anabaptists, and Arminian Protestants, such as most Anglicans, Methodists, and members of the Churches of Christ.
However, Calvin separated baptism from salvation —
As the use of the sacraments will confer nothing more on unbelievers than if they had abstained from it, nay, is only destructive to them, so without their use believers receive the reality which is there figured. Thus the sins of Paul were washed away by baptism, though they had been previously washed away.
John Calvin, “Heads of Agreement on the Lord’s Supper,” from Calvin’s Tracts & Letters Volume Two (Baker Edition).
In short, Calvin argues that baptism is only a symbol. As is familiar teaching to any Baptist, Calvin considered salvation to occur at the moment of faith. Baptism merely evidences the reality that had already occurred, making baptism symbolic only.
I’ve observed that the Calvinist view of baptism has lately begun to spread far beyond the churches with a Calvinistic heritage, perhaps due to fear of being seen as intolerant of the views of other believers. And yet the notion that salvation comes before and separate from baptism is only 500 years old and has only very recently gained acceptance outside Calvinist circles.
Interestingly, the reason Calvin felt obliged to separate baptism from salvation was his view of salvation. He taught that we have no free will in matters of salvation. God unconditionally elects the saved, not based on works or faith, as faith is impossible for the unelect. The elect, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are given faith and, hence, salvation unconditionally and irresistibly. They then submit to baptism.
Had Calvin considered baptism the moment of salvation, the convert would have a choice — free will — to decide whether to be saved, which is utterly outside Calvin’s system.
The Baptists, however, have rejected these elements of Calvinism, but have never accepted the Arminian view of baptism. Rather, they combine the Arminian idea of free will with the Calvinist idea of baptism as symbolic of a reality fully accomplished at the moment of faith or, more typically, at the moment one says the “sinner’s prayer.”
The preaching of the “sinner’s prayer” only goes back to the revival preaching of D. L. Moody in the 19th Century. It only gained popular acceptance with the preaching of Billy Graham and the publication of the Four Spiritual Laws by Campus Crusade for Christ in the 1950’s. Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity (2002), 236-237.
Although the Calvinist view is relatively new (about 500 years old), and the “sinner’s prayer” is not even 150 years old, the theory has some support in scripture. In particular, scores of verses promise salvation to all who have faith. How can these verses speak the truth if the unbaptized believer is damned?
On the other hand, the salvation-at-the-moment-of-baptism position has many verses that plainly support that view. They are not easily dismissed.
As a result, the two sides argue, and argue, and argue, and no one is persuaded. What we need is a Third Way.
But the question is even more complex. You see, we in the Churches of Christ reject infant baptism. We follow the Anabaptist tradition which teaches, based on scripture, we believe, that baptism is for believers. We deny that baptism brings forgiveness to those, such as infants, who don’t believe and don’t voluntarily submit to it. Thus, we argue that infant baptism is no baptism at all.
The result is to see the vast majority of believers as un-baptized and thus unsaved. The practice of infant baptism is quite widespread and applies to Catholics, the Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians — the vast majority of believers in most countries and in the world.
Now, Baptists believe salvation is before baptism, so they have no need to re-baptize those baptized as infants to be saved. Rather, they re-baptize them to admit them to the church — the Baptists making a distinction between being saved and being in the church. Of course, the Biblical sense of “church” and the saved is identical. If you’re saved, you’re part of the church, but this is the sort of artifice one must resort to in order to preserve the Bible’s teaching on baptism while also teaching that all who faith are saved.
The question re-defined
Another way of looking at this, as suggested in my book Born of Water, is not to ask: will God save the un-baptized? but rather to ask: will God save penitent believers who’ve been improperly baptized? After all, nearly every believer has been baptized (in the broad sense of the word) — although most have been baptized before believing or else by pouring or sprinkling rather than immersion.
I’ll not re-argue the case here. Read the book. It’s another example of Third Way thinking.
It’s hard to summarize the conclusion, and so I’ll just give an example of one line of reasoning.
To be saved, we must believe, repent, and be baptized. Right? But we don’t have to have perfect faith. And we don’t have to have perfect penitence. Why, then, should God require a perfect baptism? If God will overlook our human frailty in our efforts to believe and to repent, why not overlook our frailty in trying to be baptized according to his will?
Now, this is a significant argument, but it’s not the only argument. Read the book. But in the next posts, I’m going to try to build another argument — another Third Way argument — to the mix.