We’re not finished. We have to work through Ephesians, Colossians, and some more beyond them. But I’m in the mood to consider what conclusions we might tentatively draw so far.
We could wait to consider the other passages, but I’m finding it difficult to go on without a working theory or two. I need a framework to work from. And the meanings of the remaining passages are all highly controverted.
So let’s speculate a little.
1. It could be that baptism is just as essential to our salvation as faith and that salvation therefore doesn’t occur until we are baptized in faith. Unbaptized believers would be damned under this theory.This would suit both the Lutheran and the Church of Christ understanding. We could defend baptism against Galatians (which insists that we are justified by faith, not works) by pointing out that baptism is no work of the Torah.
This conclusion is easily defended from such passages as Matt 28:19-20, Mark 16:16, and Romans 6. A more subtle but, to me, more persuasive argument is that salvation is concurrent with receipt of the Spirit (as Paul argues in Gal 3), and Christian baptism is baptism with the Spirit, as taught by John the Baptist in all four Gospels as well as Acts 2:38. The prophets had promised an outpouring of God’s Spirit that would continue until the end of time, and John the Baptist and Peter at Pentecost plainly associate this with baptism.
But Galatians insists that not only is faith sufficient, but also we can’t add anything to faith as an additional condition to salvation without teaching a different gospel. That’s a serious problem. And Galatians is powerfully supported by dozens of passages teaching that all with faith in Jesus are saved. Indeed, this is also plainly a central theme of John.
2. It could be that we are saved immediately upon coming to faith, and baptism is merely obedience to a command (Zwingli taught this, and many Baptists would agree). But so far, we’ve not seen baptism expressed as a command to be honored. It’s rather spoken of as the moment the Spirit is received and therefore when salvation occurs. Remember, each of the four Gospels tells us that Jesus would baptize with the Spirit.
Some seek to reconcile baptism in Spirit with salvation at the moment of faith by insisting that Spirit baptism occurs at the moment of faith, with water baptism to follow as a sign of Spirit baptism. But Ephesians 4 says there’s but “one baptism” and the scriptures normally speak of a singular baptism. I can accept that “one baptism” is normative with exceptions, but I can’t accept that Paul would say “one baptism” when the universal practice is baptism with the Spirit upon faith followed by water baptism.
Moreover, I’ve never bought the argument that all New Testament references to baptism after John the Baptist are references to Spirit baptism separate from water baptism. That theory just can’t be made to fit (especially in light of Eph 4:5, but also in light of Acts and many other passages showing Christian baptism to also be water baptism).
3. It could be that we are saved at the moment of faith but when we confess our faith to the Christian community we are received into community (the body) through baptism. Again, this would be a very Baptist understanding. But how does such an understanding cope with the many references to the Spirit coming at the time of baptism? The Messiah baptizes with Spirit!
4. It could be that we are saved at the moment of faith but we receive from God, by means of baptism, the assurance of our salvation. This is the understanding of Thomas Campbell. Indeed, Gal 3:26-27 is assuring Paul’s readers of their salvation because of their baptism, in contrast to circumcision: why be circumcised to be saved when the baptism you already have assures you of your salvation?
Such a theory makes the opinion of the church — their acceptance of the convert’s confession — the basis of his assurance. And that’s not entirely unreasonable. In fact, I think there’s a lot of truth in it. It’s just that the Spirit is received at baptism.
N. T. Wright reaches much the same conclusion, but by different means. He points out that “justification” is a legal term, the verdict of acquittal read by the judge, announcing that the accused is “not guilty.” “Justified” means “found innocent.” But since it’s a judicial verdict, it follows the trial and testing. Therefore, Wright concludes that justification follows salvation. We are saved and then announced as saved. We are saved and then baptized. Baptism is God’s announcement that we’ve been deemed innocent!
Faith is the badge of membership, and, as soon as there is this faith, God declares ‘justified’. For Paul, faith is the result of the Spirit’s work through the preaching of the gospel (read 1 Cor. 12.3 with 1 Thess. 1.4-5 and 2.13); this is not driving a wedge between gospel and justification, but explaining how the gospel works to produce the faith because of which God declares ‘righteous’.
And the classic Pauline way in which God makes this declaration, 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.
There is doubtlessly some truth there, but Wright doesn’t give due weight to the passages associating baptism with the receipt of the Spirit. Moreover, demonstrating that baptism is associated with baptism (which is true) hardly demonstrates that baptism is only associated with justification. Indeed, Romans 6 and Gal 3:25-27 say nothing of “justification” but speak of being baptized “into Christ” and “clothed with Christ” — neither of which sounds like just a metaphor for God’s declaration of “innocent.” Yes, it’s that, but the language certainly argues for much more.
(Rom 6:3-5 ESV) 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Paul isn’t arguing for immersion versus pouring — he’s arguing that baptism puts us into Christ and therefore into his atoning work on the cross. This doesn’t sound at all like a post-salvation declaration that we’ve been saved. It’s sacramental — the baptism itself effects entry into the work of Christ and therefore into his reward: resurrection.
John’s baptism, the foundation of Christian baptism, was not simply a special kind of ritual washing away of sin: it was an eschatological sign, the sign that the true crossing of the Red Sea and Jordan river was at last taking place. Christian baptism, as we saw in Romans 6 and could note in Colossians 2 and elsewhere, was not a ritual designed to earn God’s favor, but the effective sign of joining the community of God’s renewed people. It was all about forgiveness of sins, the long-awaited blessing promised by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
Wright struggles (as do I) in reconciling the association of baptism with forgiveness of sin and an assurance of salvation while also holding firmly to the many promises that all with faith will be saved.
5. Forgiveness occurs in heaven, where God is, and heaven is unquestionably outside of time as we know it. The Bible speaks of our forgiveness occurring when Jesus died on the cross, when we were baptized, and as we sin. The timing is unclear because, to God, we aren’t forgiven at a particular point in time.
And this is true: forgiveness doesn’t happen in earth-time. But we receive the Spirit at a particular moment. This is how it’s pictured in the Old Testament and in Acts and Paul’s epistles. Unlike John the Baptist, we Christians aren’t born with the Spirit in anticipation of our future faith. We receive the Spirit when we are saved.
(Gal 3:2-6 ESV) 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain — if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith — 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
Paul clearly pictures the Spirit as received by the “hearing with faith.” Of course, he doesn’t say “immediately upon hearing with faith” but “by hearing with faith.” Nonetheless, Paul’s point is that the Spirit comes by faith, not faith plus something else, such as circumcision. That’s his argument.
Still, while the God-is-outside-time argument is valid, it doesn’t fully resolve the problem. God is outside time, but we’re not — and the scriptures plainly, repeatedly picture the saved as being moved from a lost to a saved state at a point in time.
6. It could be that the New Testament writers don’t even think in these terms. They see “believe, repent, confess, be baptized” as a single event, separated only by minutes or, at most, hours. Therefore, they see no need to carefully distinguish between one or the other. Thus, the event at which we are saved, receive the Spirit, etc. is any one of these, depending on the subject at hand or what’s rhetorically convenient. Call it metonymy.
And I think there’s a lot of truth to this. The writers aren’t dealing with infant baptism, where faith might follow by years. Nor are they dealing with a church that only baptizes quarterly. In New Testament times, the evidence of Acts is that baptism immediately followed faith — by hours at most. Therefore, it’s very likely that Paul gave no thought at all to what happened to a Christian between coming to faith and baptism.
But that observation, while true enough, doesn’t resolve the Galatians problem. Did Paul consider baptism as absolutely essential to salvation? And if so, how correct must the baptism be? And if baptism is essential, why isn’t it a work?
7. As I argued in Born of Water, it could be that, as a rule, salvation and the Spirit are received at baptism, but that God won’t deny salvation and the Spirit to someone with faith because of a misunderstanding regarding baptism. That approach has the advantage of being fully respectful of both the faith + baptism verses and the faith-only verses. It makes sense. But we aren’t nearly finished.
And that’s a whole bunch of could-be’s. It doesn’t take a lot of humility to realize that the traditional Church of Christ position, while entirely sensible, isn’t necessarily exactly right. It has serious problems, the most serious of which is insisting that there are hundreds of millions of people with submissive, genuine, obedient faith in Jesus who will be damned because the church taught them an erroneous doctrine of baptism.
I don’t have to have all the answers to know that one answer is certainly wrong — and it’s certainly wrong that 99% of all penitent believers are damned because they were baptized too soon or without enough water or an incomplete understanding that was incomplete the wrong way.
The mikveh lesson, again
And this takes us back to the lesson we learned weeks ago regarding mikvehs. Before John the Baptist, those wishing to become ceremonially clean in a mikveh washed themselves. There was no immerser — just a person immersing himself.
But John the Baptist baptized people. The rite involved two people, and that has been the universal practice of Christianity ever since. A Christian baptizes a non-Christian.
A Christian can’t baptize someone who hasn’t confessed, because there’s no other way to know whether the convert has faith! Therefore, since the beginning, the gospel has been preached by the church to the lost, the convert has come to faith, repented, and confessed his faith to a member of the church, and a member of the church, accepting that confession, baptizes the convert. That’s how it happens.
(I’m not remotely saying that someone on a desert island with a Gideon Bible can’t baptize himself. But I don’t know if that has ever happened. It’s certainly not the design of baptism. Nor am I saying that a baptism is invalid if administered by a lost person. But baptism is, in fact, always administered by someone considered to be a member of the church.)
Now, a critical part of the gospel, often overlooked by Westerners, is that our baptism into Christ is baptism into his body, which is baptism into a community of believers. The command to “love one another” can only be obeyed in community. And the design of baptism compels a convert to be in contact with the Kingdom community. That is, in part, Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 1 when he argues that, because we’re baptized into Christ, we can’t be divided. The church is the body of Christ, and we are baptized into a community that is Christ on earth and therefore must not be divided. There is but one body — and Christians must be a part of it.
If the convert comes to a genuine, penitent faith in Jesus and the one presenting the gospel teaches a false doctrine of baptism, the sin is on the teacher, not the victim of the teacher. The church is charged to baptize its converts (Matt 28:19, for example). If the church gets it wrong, the church violates Jesus’ command — but it’s impossible that God damns the convert with genuine faith who obeys what he knows to obey. After all, the Bible says over and over that all with faith will be saved. I believe it.
It’s a mistake, I think, to put the burden on the convert to sort out the Biblical doctrine of baptism at a level that even the great scholars of history can’t agree on. It would be like damning over, oh, I don’t know, Premillennialism. Who would be that Pharisaical?
Of course, we tend to insist that baptism is a non-negotiable because it’s part of the “plan of salvation.” It defines the Churches of Christ as separate from and superior to “the denominations.” And we very much want to be separate from and superior to the denominations. Yes, the Bible teaches baptism and commands the church to baptize its converts. No, the Bible doesn’t damn those who are imperfectly baptized by a church that ought to know better.
What is quite clear is that God expects converts to be baptized. Call it a “pattern,” “plan,” “ordinance,” or whatever, the outcome is much the same: get yourselves to the baptistry! Therefore, I’m a big fan of this YouTube video –
[more to come]