You see, the baptism verses are there, and they are true, and we understand them largely correctly — so don’t waste your time citing Acts 2:38 etc. to me. I know them and agree with them. But all those faith-only verses are there, too. We usually deal with them by reading the baptism verses second and saying the baptism verses explain them (away), while the Baptists are reading the faith-only verses and saying they explain (away) our baptism verses. Both arguments are illegitimate.
Now, consider this. Nearly every Christian denomination baptizes. The Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and most Pentecostal denominations baptize for remission of sins. However, the Calvinist churches and churches with a Calvinist heritage — the Baptists especially — insist that baptism is a mere ordinance, that is, just a command. But the Baptists are starting to return to a somewhat sacramental view of baptism. And there have always been Baptists that baptize for remission of sins.
And some groups baptize only believers by immersion, such as some branches of the Church of God and the Baptists. We are not as alone or different as we sometimes like to think.
The key differences with most (not all) other denominations is that we reject infant baptism and we insist on immersion rather than sprinkling or pouring. And I think we’re right.
But consider the plight of someone who is raised outside the Churches of Christ. They look “baptism” up in the dictionary, and the dictionary says “baptism” includes pouring and sprinkling. And countless commentaries and study Bibles say the same thing. They read the arguments on infant baptism, and learn that many of the greatest scholars in church history favor infant baptism.
My point is that it’s entirely possible to be a much better student of the Bible than most and yet conclude that the New Testament approves infant baptism, sprinkling, or pouring. You’d be wrong, but not because of a hard or rebellious heart.
Thus, the question becomes: if someone approaches God with a genuine faith in Jesus, with a penitent heart, and a defective baptism, will God reject such a person? I think the scriptures say no, for several reasons.
First, as I argue in this post more fully and continue in this post, in every “dispensation,” we can find examples of people doing exactly that and finding salvation outside the stated covenant-means of forgiveness. As an example, when David was charged with adultery and murder in his dealing with Bathsheba and her husband, he wrote,
(Psa 51:16-17) You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
This is all quite contrary to the law of Moses, which was very much in effect. I cite other examples in the posts.
Some want to argue that God can’t violate his own rules, but he can and he does. Others argue we shouldn’t presume on God’s grace — and they are right. But if you really don’t know any better, you’re not presuming.
Second, as I argue more fully here, and as I have mentioned a couple of times recently, God doesn’t require the other “steps” in our salvation to be perfect. If we had to have perfect faith, we could move mountains. If we had to have perfect penitence, we’d be sinless. Why would God require a perfect baptism when these obviously weightier elements can be imperfect?
Third, as I argue in the same post, only the saved have the Spirit, and all with the Spirit are saved.
(Rom 8:9b,11) And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. … 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
And the scriptures are clear that the Spirit’s presence should be evident to people who know you. Here are a couple of verses to consider:
(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 4:2-3a, 15) 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, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. … If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.
In each of these passages, the writer declares that faith in Jesus demonstrates the presence of the Spirit.
And there are other verses that suggest that Christians may be discerned by their behavior. For example,
(John 13:34-35) “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Therefore, the presence of a genuine faith and a Christ-like love for fellow believers indicates the presence of the Spirit.
The Spirit gives spiritual gifts to all Christians “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Moreover, the Spirit changes our hearts and thus our behavior —
(Gal. 5:16-25) So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. …
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
And so we see that the presence of the Spirit is supposed to have an ethical influence — much more than that — it’s supposed to change our hearts and thus our behavior. Now, undoubtedly, there are people who have never so much as heard of Jesus — idolaters even — who live very moral and upright lives. Mere good deeds do not prove the presence of the Spirit. But deeds done by a person of faith demonstrates a Spirit-filled heart. Isn’t that what the verses plainly say?
(I spend more words on this concept because so many in the Churches of Christ struggle to understand the passages dealing with the Spirit, even though the indwelling Spirit is a vital doctrine that permeates the New Testament.)
Fourth, as I argue in this post, the prophets and Jesus repeatedly declare that the state of our hearts is far more important than our adherence to God’s own rituals. Going back to Psalm 51, David declared by inspiration that God forgives because of a broken and contrite heart, not sacrifices, and yet sacrifices were the ritual by which Israelites received forgiveness (by the power of Jesus’ blood not yet shed). Of course, in the normal course God expects his rituals to be followed, and he would deal severely with those who refuse out of a rebellious heart. But he always accepts those who come with faith and penitence.
(Hosea 6:6) For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
(Isa 58:6-11) “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. 11 The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.
(Micah 6:6-8) With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Fifth, the character of God, as revealed in Jesus, shows that he will forgive beyond our expectations or what we deserve.
A very familiar story is told in Matthew:
(Matt. 9:1-8) Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”
At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”
Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . .”
Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.
Jesus was asked to heal the paralyzed man, but he forgave him even though he wasn’t asked to do so! The men asked for less than Jesus was willing to give, and yet Jesus gave what was needed. This is the nature of our Savior. He does not give begrudgingly to those who approach him with faith.
(Eph 3:12) In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
(Heb 4:16) Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Why do we suppose that a Baptist who asks to join the church, the body of Christ, with a saving faith and penitent heart but ignorant of the true purpose of baptism, will be denied his greatest need by a loving, gracious Savior? Why imagine that a Savior anxious to forgive will fail to do so when a faithful man or woman fails to use enough water in the baptismal ceremony? This is the same Savior who forgives the faithful who don’t even ask for forgiveness!
Sixth, God keeps all his promises — every, single one. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. God meant for baptism to be properly administered to each convert. Jesus commanded it. And yet many converts — entirely new to their faith — are taught error on this point, despite their willingness to submit to God in whatever way he asks. The fault is in the teachers’, not the converts’.
When the New Testament was written, there was no disconnect between baptism and conversion. It all happened more or less at once. But the early church soon added infant baptism, sprinkling, and pouring, and Calvin separated baptism from salvation. And now the faith-only verses and the baptism + faith verses are difficult to reconcile. How can it be true that all who believe are saved (as the Bible says over and over) and yet salvation only occurs when someone is properly baptized? Both cannot be true. It cannnot be true that all with faith are saved when those with faith and a defective baptism are not. It’s that simple.
But God is quite clear: as I’ve argued elswhere more fully, he keeps all 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.
But 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.
God condemns the rebellious. He saves those who are loyal — even if they misunderstand a detail here or there. But, of course, God’s loyal people really do try to understand his will so that they can please him.
This is grace. Grace does not contradict obedience. In fact, grace compels obedience. It’s just that grace allows the kind of obedience we’re actually capable of achieving — an imperfect, stumbling obedience that sometimes misunderstands what we are to do, but an obedience from a heart that loves and is loyal to Jesus.