Let’s now consider what we’ve learned regarding predestination earlier in this series and apply it to salvation and baptism. Perhaps this will give us a deeper Third Way interpretation.
When considering predestination, we noted that the New Testament is quite inconsistent as to just when we are saved. We explained this in terms of salvation occurring in God’s realm — heaven — where God’s time is independent of our time.
Therefore, the Bible can consistently speak of our forgiveness occurring (1) when Jesus died on the cross, (2) when we were first saved, and (3) continuously as we walk in the light. All are true because God does the forgiving and God dwells outside our time.
This being true, the question of when forgiveness occurs with respect to baptism is nearly nonsensical, right? I mean, we were forgiven 2,000 years before we were born! It’s not an earthly event, and so it doesn’t occur at an earthly time. God forgives where God is — in heaven.
Remember that in discussing predestination we considered the baptism of John the Baptist, and noted that the Gospels record John’s baptism as forgiving sins. This happened in anticipation of Jesus’ death, which was years in the future.
And this helps resolve the tension between the verses that declare all who have faith saved and the verses that teach that salvation occurs at baptism.
The argument is not complete, however, because Christian baptism is very different from John’s. Both are “into the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3), but only Christian baptism provides the gift of the Spirit. And the Spirit is described in the New Testament as being received at a moment in time — earthly time.
After all, the Samaritans’ baptism in Acts 8 required the apostles’ attention because those immersed “had not yet received the Spirit.” Cornelius’s household and the Ephesians in Acts 19 all received the Spirit at a particular point in time.
Now, the Bible plainly anticipates that there may be times when the receipt of the Spirit is separate from baptism — but the normal case is that the Spirit is received at baptism. In addition to Acts 2:38, consider —
(1 Cor 12:13) For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
(Titus 3:4-7) But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
In the Greek, “washing of rebirth” and “renewal by the Holy Spirit” are parallel. “By the Holy Spirit” does not modify “washing.”
But since regeneration must always precede the process of renewal and since renewal is never described elsewhere as a washing, the [interpretation that there are two distinct operations in mind] is to be preferred.
Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles, in the Tyndale Commentary series.
As noted in the last post, many commentators with a Calvinistic viewpoint simply wave their hands and declare such a meaning impossible, but such an “interpretation” replaces the words of the Spirit with the assumptions of the commentator. We need to find a way to make the words mean what they say.
On the other hand, most Arminian commentators point out the meaning but ignore the difficulties in reconciling the verses with the many “faith only” verses.
N. T. Wright, however, an Anglican bishop, is a ruthlessly honest scholar, and he forthrightly addresses the question —
The event in the present which corresponds to Jesus’ death and resurrection in the past, and the resurrection of all believers in the future, is baptism into Christ (Gal. 3.26-9; Rom. 6.2-11). Baptism is not, as some have supposed, a ‘work’ which one ‘performs’ to earn God’s favour. It is, for Paul, the sacrament of God’s free grace. Paul can speak of those who have believed and been baptised as already ‘saved’, albeit ‘in hope’ (Rom. 8.24).
Wright is unafraid to use the language of sacramentalism, but not in the sense that the baptism effects salvation regardless of faith or by means other than the blood of Christ.
And the classic Pauline way in which God makes this declaration [of justification], stating publicly and visibly that this person is indeed within the family, is through baptism — which obviously, in the situation of primary evangelism, follows at a chronological interval, whether of five minutes or five years or whatever, but which simply says in dramatic action what God has in fact said the moment someone has believed. Nothing is ‘interposed’; no ‘wedge’ is driven between the gospel and justification. You might as well say that because I declare that the starter-motor of the car is not the same thing as the petrol engine I am driving a wedge between the one and the other. The two are designed to work in close correlation; but if the mechanic doesn’t know the difference between them he won’t be able to fix your car.
Wright considers baptism the moment not of salvation but of justification, which is an interesting argument we’ve considered before here and here. But he refuses to consider justification the moment of salvation. It is, rather, the moment when the Christian is declared righteous by God as judge. See here.
Okay. That helps, but no matter how you say it, we still have this problem. It’s a timing problem. If only those with the Spirit are saved (Rom. 8:9-11), and if the Spirit is received at baptism (Tit. 3:4-7), and if our sins are washed away in baptism (Acts 2:38, Eph. 5:26, etc.), then how can we be in any real sense saved when we first believe? Isn’t there necessarily a time gap? And doesn’t even Jesus’ baptism demonstrate the receipt of the Spirit at the time of immersion?
It’s quite arguable that the New Testament simply considers the moment of baptism and the moment of faith inseparable because, in First Century practice, they occurred at very nearly the same time. When Paul made a convert, baptism was immediate. There was no 6-month catechism class or waiting for relatives to come with their cameras or even waiting for the next church service. They just went (likely to one of the ubiquitous public Roman baths) and baptized the believer.
The separation of faith from baptism is not anticipated in New Testament practice. Had someone asked Paul, “Does salvation occur at faith or baptism?” he’d have responded that they are inseparable. After all, Jesus commanded us to baptize our converts (Matt. 28:19). Why would we separate the two? Nonetheless, we do separate the two, by days if not years.
And so, in the next post, we consider the timing problem more deeply in light of God’s being outside of earth-time.