Henry Kriete asked an important question in a comment a few days ago —
Thanks for this article. Some great insights, especially on the character of God. My question is: when we strive to teach the truth about baptism after someone was erroneously taught at the outset and they reject the new truth (for whatever reason, pride, sentimentality, subjective experiences, traditions, etc…) do they move to a state of disobedience leading to no salvation? Will God withdraw his Spirit from them? At that point do we ‘withdraw fellowship’?
For readers new to the discussion. I’ve advocated for a long time that (a) the traditional Church of Christ position on baptism is correct in that the scriptural design is for believers to be baptized by immersion into the forgiveness of sins, but (b) we’ve been incorrect to deny the salvation of genuinely penitent believers who were imperfectly baptized in honest error. And I know of no one who has refused baptism out of a rebellious heart, choosing to ignore God’s will and yet having a genuine faith.
We’ve been commanded to baptize those we convert.
(Mat 28:19-20a) “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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
And the command to baptize is separate from the command to teach obedience to the commands to Jesus. Of course, those who are converted must be taught to baptize those they convert.
I therefore conclude that we are to teach baptism. And so I would baptize those who’ve been imperfectly baptized, particularly those baptized as infants.
However, because I don’t believe those who’ve been baptized imperfectly are lost for this reason, I treat them as fellow Christians. They are believers. And the scriptures are plain that believers are saved.
(John 3:18) 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 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.
(Rom 10:9-11) 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. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. 11 As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts [believes] in him will never be put to shame.”
So what about someone who has been imperfectly baptized and who is nonetheless saved. What if we teach that person God’s will for baptism and they refuse obedience? What happens?
The answer is simple enough, I think. Just replace “imperfectly baptized” with whatever sin you wish. Consider —
So what about someone who lives with imperfect generosity and who is nonetheless saved. What if we teach that person God’s will for generosity and they refuse obedience? What happens?
So what about someone who lives with imperfect anger management and who is nonetheless saved. What if we teach that person God’s will for controlling one’s anger and they refuse obedience? What happens?
What about the married man who stares too long at pretty girls? Or the woman who refuses to forgive the husband who divorced her for no good reason? Or the man who can’t find it in his heart to love the man who abused him when he was a child? Or those who hate Muslims or illegal immigrants? Or those who don’t pray as they should? Or who skip Sunday school class? What about judgmentalism, legalism, or arrogance?
It’s not really that easy to answer, is it? Some will want to sniff that all true believers will make an effort to get everything right, but it’s just not true. We are all weak and broken people. And we all have our pet sins.
Does that excuse not making the effort? No. Does it justify the sin? No. But —
(John 8:7) When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Jesus’ attitude toward sin is not to excuse sin or to encourage sin, but to forgive sin. He forgave the woman taken in adultery before she repented.
(John 8:10-11) Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
He didn’t ask for a confession or a declaration of penitence. He just forgave her and then told her to change her life — assuming that his grace would be sufficient motivation, although the grace preceded the command.
Our God is astonishing in his generosity to us!
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, notice this part —
(Luke 15:20-21) So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
Again, the Father’s kisses preceded the son’s confession. The son didn’t even ask to be restored to his family. He just wanted a job. The Father gave him more than he dared ask for.
And so we start with the character of God, especially as explained by Jesus. God is more generous than we are willing to ask for. God is more forgiving than we deserve.
From there, we ask what the Bible says particularly about how we fall from grace. Now Todd Deaver and I considered this question at great length at GraceConversation, and I’ll not repeat all that we said there. But the lessons all apply whether we’re talking about smoking, breaking promises, being judgmental, or imperfect baptism. God is the same God.
Therefore, in John’s way of thinking, there are only two kinds of people –
Saved Lost Walk in the light Walk in darkness Faith in Jesus Deny Jesus Admit sinfulness Deny sinfulness Obey God’s command Don’t obey God’s command Love others Hate others Do righteousness Don’t do righteousness Possess the Spirit Without the Spirit Purify themselves Continue to sin Acknowledge the authority of the apostles Reject the authority of the apostles
That’s it. The hard part to the modern, Western mind is seeing everything in the left column as neither disjunctive or conjunctive (connected by “or” or by “and”) but as necessarily going together. In other words, you cannot have faith in Jesus and also hate others. You cannot have the Spirit and continue in sin. John’s way of putting things forces us to think hard about these matters.
A legalistic mindset simply won’t do. If I see someone who is a believer and who loves others but who is messing up in some area of his life, well, I have to put him in the left column. You see, John never, ever says that you must do A and B and C and D. Rather, each of the items in the left column is explicitly said to be enough to demonstrate your saved state. But it’s also subtly implicit in 1 John that he can’t imagine anyone having one aspect of the left column and not having another.
Of course, not a one of us obeys God’s commands perfectly. Ever. And not a one of us is in perfect submission to apostolic authority (if you doubt me, go read the Sermon on the Mount one more time). Indeed, John expects us to admit our sinfulness AND obey God AND submit to the apostles AND purify ourselves. These sub-tests are not inconsistent. Not in John’s mind. Yes, we can be sinful and submissive to the scriptures all at once.
Therefore, the test isn’t whether I’ve obeyed a particular command perfectly. Rather, the test is whether I admit my sinfulness and, in faith, turn my life toward obedience. And therefore we cannot insist on any one command as a test of salvation or fellowship. That’s not how it works.
Nonetheless, a believer, a man who possesses the Spirit, a man who purifies himself — such a man will submit to apostolic instruction. John says so. But he may well disagree with my interpretation of what the apostles wrote. Within very wide boundaries, salvation is a test of penitence, loyalty, and faithfulness, not theological expertise. Right? If we disagree about the 5 points of the Synod of Dort (Calvinism), but agree about Jesus as Messiah and Lord, we are brothers — and like brothers in the flesh, we’ll likely want to argue about it. But we’ll argue as brothers, not as enemies. That’s what Alexander Campbell taught, and I imagine that he’d read 1 John, too.
Now I pick on 5-point Calvinism because, to me, the whole Calvinistic atonement scheme makes no sense. It just amazes me that people with much more theological education than I have and who’ve done vastly more for the kingdom than I have disagree with me — some even disagree after they hear my oh-so-brilliant arguments. It just amazes me how obstinant those Calvinists can be. But they’re my brothers, even though they misconstrue passage after passage. The fact that I fail to persuade them does not damn them. After all, it just might be my fault!
And so this is how I approach the baptism question. If someone refuses a less imperfect baptism but nonetheless is truly a believer, possesses the Spirit, loves others, admits his sinfulness … well, he’s saved. I’d have to deny the authority of John to conclude otherwise, wouldn’t I?
On the other hand, someone can live a remarkably moral life and be baptized 20 times by the greatest baptismal scholars the Churches of Christ have ever produced, and yet if they don’t love others, don’t do righteousness, and only admit their sinfulness for rhetorical purposes rather than out of a genuine awareness of how sinful they are, they won’t be saved.
The test isn’t baptism. It’s not knowing the answers to the Great True-False Test in the Sky. It’s what John said.