The Fork in the Road: On Imperfect Baptisms, Part 6

Perfect baptism

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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to The Fork in the Road: On Imperfect Baptisms, Part 6

  1. Jay,

    When you see Jesus and ask who was right about baptism, He just might answer you the way He did the Pharisees in Matthew 12:7.


  2. Rich W says:

    I don't remember anywhere that the Bible explicitly says that baptism is for obedience.

    However, the Bible does explicitly say that baptism:

    saves us. 1 Peter 3:21
    provides forgiveness of sins Acts 2:38
    washes away sins. Acts 22:16
    is the point when we enter into Christ. Galatians 3:27
    defines the start of the new life as a Christian. Romans 6:3

    An understanding of any of the above is far from a perfect, all comprehensive understanding of baptism, but is plenty acceptable to God.

  3. Guy says:


    (1) This is still just a relativizing of concepts. As long as concepts are relativized, they cannot be accurately applied. If they can't be applied, then no clear conclusions can be drawn about scope or participation in those concepts. You started out complaining that when CoCers say things like "it's God's place to judge, not mine" about certain individual cases of salvation, this is just a means of dodging/avoiding the question. But i don't see how what you've done is qualitatively any different. As long as there is some vague and hazy notion called an "imperfect baptism," then i really can't answer who's been baptized and who hasn't.

    You still present baptism as a spectrum where there are pristine, ideal specimens on one end of the spectrum, and as you go down the spectrum from there, the specimens gradiently lose pristine-ness or ideal-ness. But where's the bottom? At what point is it not a baptism at all? If there's no bottom, then no one really needs baptized at all. Because if everything's a baptism to some degree, then nothing is.

    (2) You keep lumping baptism in with stuff like 5 acts of worship or instrumental music. i understand that there is a thought-trend which ropes these things together. But c'mon, biblically baptism is not in the same boat as IM or order of worship. Surely you could acknowledge that a person with a "hard" stance on baptism is not in precisely the same category as a person with a "hard" stance on instrumental music. The biblical treatment of the two topics just aren't the same.


  4. Glenn Ellis says:

    Suggest reconsider meaning of the "fork in the road" to look at its historical significance. If it's to seek widespread effectiveness in preaching the gospel, look at Alexander Campbell's record, as detailed for more than 30 years in his CHRISTIAN BAPTIST. Detailing the most significant success we have seen since Pentecost. It was by headstrong confrontation with Protestant clergy, their practices corrupting Christianity, principally within the Methodist and Baptist congregtions, that entire congregtions saw the problem and became converted.

    Look at only the first few years of that record in Christian Baptist. Afterwards Campbell became the Protestant's principal spokesman in his debates with Catholicism and Atheism. Aligned with them, much as appears to be happening and being urged in this blog. It appears to be the theme here that to become aligned with Protestant denominations becomes the key to succeeding in spreading the gospel.

    Again, read Campbell's account in the first few chapters of his book, noting the charges he made about the practices corrupting Christianity then. In many cases which exist now in the "progressive" church that bears Christ's name. This is where the fork in the road has taken us, which largely accounts for the comparative lack of success in converting aliens to Christ today, and predicts the similar lack of success of trying that approach again. .

    Glenn Ellis

  5. Ray Downen says:

    Is baptism important? Obviously Jay and many others think so. But why imply that we all think the one being baptized must know all about it for it to be "valid" baptism? I've stated, and I know most of us believe that what matters is that we who do the baptizing realize what it is that Jesus has commanded, and that we obey our Lord. It would not be right to ask any candidate for membership what all they understood about baptism prior to their being immersed. It would be appropriate to ask if they were immersed because they wanted to be a Christian? If they were and if they did, then there's nothing wrong with an immersion done in obedience to the Lord Jesus. There is something wrong in people questioning whether or not we need to obey Jesus. We do need to obey!

  6. Ray Downen says:

    Jay has written, We need to change our understanding of the scriptures in some very basic ways. Certainly, much of what we in the Churches of Christ have traditionally taught and believed over the years is true and sound. But the Bible condemns division and commands unity. Therefore, there must be something fundamentally wrong that causes us to split and split again.

    And it's this kind of thing that interests most of us, I think. Rather than asking us to give up what we know is true about baptism into Christ, the way toward unity is to help us make sure that all other Christians learn the truth about how to become a Christian. Why have some Methodist preachers in recent years begun practicing immersion or offering immersion as an option? I suggest it's because some of us have loved those brothers enough to share some truth with them which they accepted because we loved them. Shall we now decide the right thing is to accept sprinkling or pouring as acceptable forms of baptism? How could we do so? Why would we want to do so? The unity the Lord wants for us is in Him, not in union without regard for His teaching.

    May I remind every reader that Ephesians 4:4-6 is part of the inspired writings and it mentions specifically that there is for Christians ONE baptism rather than two or three baptisms. So should we think that the apostles wrote about two different baptisms, one in water, and the other performed by the Spirit? If the Bible is inspired, it will not have errors of fact such as one plus one equalling one. No inspired writer will try to bring into an apostolic church a second baptism when Jesus has already commanded the ONE baptism which is for His church. Nor will someone try to convince that this second baptism is the one they all were writing about!

  7. Jay Guin says:


    It's true Jesus may not tell me about baptism — but I'm certain I'll get to find out whether the preacher stories I've heard are true. 😉

    Actually, I won't need to ask about baptism. I'll be able to tell by who else is there.

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