Does God require a perfect faith to save someone? Or a perfect penitence? Then why on earth would he require perfect baptism when faith and penitence are are of the essence?
There’s a strain of thought in 20th Century Church of Christ thought that selectively insists on perfection in certain matters, while denying the need for perfection in others.
We can be imperfect in our love for our neighbors and still go to heaven — so long as we aren’t rebelling against God, of course. But we’d better have 5 and exactly 5 acts of worship on Sunday morning, or else we’re going straight to hell. So evidently perfection is not required for the most important things — like love — but is required for acts of obedience found in the silences of the scriptures. It’s a devilish, double standard.
Just so, we understand that a convert can have imperfect faith and yet be saved. After all, we don’t require new converts to be able to move mountains to be accepted for membership.
And we don’t require perfect penitence. After all, perfect penitence would mean living sinlessly. We expect genuine, real, honest-to-God penitence in the broad sense of the word, but we don’t expect our converts to have complete doctrinal knowledge or to obey what they do understand perfectly. Rather, we’re looking for a certain state of heart.
And yet … we insist that the baptism be flawless. The convert has to know the purpose behind the baptism — not just that God has asked him to be baptized and that he should respond out of submission to Jesus. He has to know that baptism has to be for the “remission of sins.” And he has to know koine Greek so well that he knows baptizo — in this context — means “immerse” not “wash,” even though baptizo can take the meaning “wash” in Biblical Greek. This is true even though some of greatest Greek scholars in history disagree and major Bible Dictionaries disagree.
Easton’s Bible Dictionary states,
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. The word has a wide latitude of meaning, not only in the New Testament, but also in the LXX. Version of the Old Testament, where it is used of the ablutions and baptisms required by the Mosaic law. These were effected by immersion, and by affusion and sprinkling; and the same word, “washings” (Hebrews 9:10, 13, 19, 21) or “baptisms,” designates them all. In the New Testament there cannot be found a single well-authenticated instance of the occurrence of the word where it necessarily means immersion. Moreover, none of the instances of baptism recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (2:38-41; 8:26-39; 9:17, 18; 22:12-16; 10:44-48; 16:32-34) favours the idea that it was by dipping the person baptized, or by immersion, while in some of them such a mode was highly improbable.
The gospel and its ordinances are designed for the whole world, and it cannot be supposed that a form for the administration of baptism would have been prescribed which would in any place (as in a tropical country or in polar regions) or under any circumstances be inapplicable or injurious or impossible.
You see, we create a very high bar for baptisms to count. It’s not so high if you grew up in the Churches of Christ and have heard only our side of the argument. But if you grew up Baptist or Anglican, even a very learned, intelligent person could reach a different conclusion. And such a person could easily come to question the portrait of God that we paint.
Yes, we make a fine, technical argument. Yes, I think we’re right that baptism is designed to be immersion of believers and the moment of salvation. No, I don’t think God is going to damn anyone who comes to him with a genuine faith and true repentance for getting this doctrine less than perfect.
After all, most people baptized in a Church of Christ in the 20th Century came out of the water fully persuaded that they would not receive a personal indwelling of the Spirit. They misunderstood one of the distinguishing features of baptism taught in Acts 2:38 — the key distinction between the baptism of John, which does not save, and the baptism of Jesus, which does. The indwelling Spirit matters! And yet I’m sure those baptized with this misunderstanding were saved — just as those Baptists who denied the first part of Acts 2:38 were saved, too.
Now, if I’m right, the church of Christ is vastly larger than those congregations listed in the Yellow Pages as “Churches of Christ.” Indeed, all penitent believers in Jesus, who seek to obey Jesus as well as they can, are brothers and sisters in Christ. They are, of course, imperfect, as are we in the Churches of Christ. But they are fellow saved people.
And I’m convinced that when we all meet Jesus, I’ll ask him who was right about baptism, and Jesus will assure me that I got the effect and mode of baptism exactly right — and all those Baptists and Methodists and Anglicans will be so embarrassed. But they’ll be embarrassed in the arms of Jesus.
(Rom 10:4, 9-10 ESV) 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. … 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.