Reliance on baptism
Of course, the role of baptism in bringing converts into Christian community is not all that happens in baptism. There are many other blessings associated with baptism.
There’s forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of Spirit —
(Act 2:38 ESV) 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Newness of life, resurrection —
(Rom 6:4-5 ESV) 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.
“Made alive together with” Christ, forgiven, debt canceled —
(Col 2:11-14 ESV) 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
In fact, there’s not much associated with conversion that isn’t tied to baptism in the scriptures. Does this mean the church holds a veto over salvation? That God only saves those approved by the church? No, of course, not. But the ordinary practice was (and is) that a convert confesses his faith to the congregation of God’s people, who respond with baptism.
So what happens if the church messes up and does it wrong? What if we refuse to baptize someone we shouldn’t? What if we wait to long and the convert dies in the meantime? What if we don’t use enough water? What if we teach our converts they’re already saved? Or that they won’t receive a personal indwelling of the Spirit?
Well, that’s a critically important question, for lots of reasons. First, the answer will tell us whom to treat as brothers and sisters in Christ. Second, our answer will tell us whether we teach a works-salvation.
Here’s how I’ve got it figured —
1. The Judaizing teachers considered circumcision as an absolutely essential requirement to be a Jew and among the elect. It didn’t earn salvation (God’s unmerited election of the Jews through Abraham did that), but it was an essential mark of Jewishness. Thus, an uncircumcised man was no Jew and not right with God, no matter what.
2. If we teach that a properly executed baptism is absolutely essential to salvation — faith, penitence, and love notwithstanding — then we’ve made baptism into a work.
However, if we teach that in the normal case baptism is the moment of salvation and receipt of the Spirit, entry into the body and family of Christ, but that God will accept all with faith in Jesus, who come to him obeying what they know to obey, then baptism is not a sine qua non for salvation. It’s God’s plan and desire — and his command to the church for its converts; but it’s not the ultimate mark of salvation. Only faith is.
That does not for a moment excuse a church from teaching and practicing baptism (as though there were any real risk of that). We know God’s will on the matter and therefore that’s what we must teach and practice. But that does not justify damning those who somehow made what we consider to be a baptismal mistake.
When does salvation occur?
It’s a not a trivial question, but it doesn’t merit the importance tied to it by so many. You see, the “when” question often presents itself as a proxy or substitute for the deeper question of Calvinism versus other theories of salvation (soteriologies). Baptism seems to be a favorite battle ground over the doctrine of unconditional election and irresistible grace, and the argument is so often couched in terms of “faith” vs. “works” with, frankly, very superficial, clichéd answers being given by both sides. It gets old.
Just so, the Churches of Christ and Baptists have swapped members back and forth for two centuries, and the Baptists also baptize believers by immersion — but they have a more Calvinist slant on the meaning of baptism than the Churches of Christ. And since we are so similar in so many ways, we focus on the few differences — to the point of obsession. We sometimes define our own teachings by contrast to the Baptists.
[My brother-in-law once said in a sermon that he was glad the members of his church didn’t know the Baptists entered their church building through the doors, or else the good Church of Christ membership would insist on entering through the windows!]
But in a more objective analysis, the fact is that the question of when someone is saved is hardly central to the gospel. I mean, if God were to reveal tomorrow that he saves at the moment of faith and not baptism, we’d still baptize our converts by immersion on a confession of faith in Jesus. Jesus would still be Jesus. The gospel would still be the gospel. Church would still be church.
The only truly practical questions that arise in this context are —
* Will God save someone who dies after coming to faith but before baptism? Answer: Of course. (All those revival sermons claiming to the contrary preached a false, graceless God to manipulate people into the baptistry through fear. It was wrong to do.)
* Should we treat as saved someone baptized imperfectly — by the wrong mode or as an infant — but who otherwise evidences the work of the Spirit in his heart? Answer: Of course. (The scriptures are very clear that the ultimate test of salvation is receipt of the Spirit.)
* Should we baptize our converts with water, by immersion, into the remission of sins? Answer: Of course. (We’re commanded to baptize our converts in Matthew 28:19. Acts 2:38 is still in the Bible.)
* Is it inconsistent to insist on baptism by immersion into forgiveness of sins while accepting those who received sprinkling or baptism as an act of obedience? No. Rather, it’s a matter of accepting God’s promises —
(Mark 9:23) “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.”
(John 1:12-13) Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
(John 3:14-18) Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 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 3:36) “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
(John 5:24) “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
(John 6:29) Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
(John 6:35) Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
(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.”
(John 7:38-39) “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
(John 11:25-26) Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
(John 12:46) “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”
(John 20:31) But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
(Acts 10:43) “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
(Acts 13:38-39) “Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.”
(Acts 16:31) They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”
(Rom. 1:16-17) I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
(Rom. 3:22-24) This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
(Rom. 3:25-28) God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
(Rom. 4:4-5) Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.
(Rom. 5:1-2) Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.
(Rom. 10:4) Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
(Rom. 10:9-13) 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. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
(1 Cor. 1:21) For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
(Gal. 2:15-16) “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”
(Gal. 3:2) I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?
(Gal. 3:22) But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.
(Gal. 5:6) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
(Eph. 1:13-14) And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
(Eph. 2:8-10) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
(2 Thess. 2:13) But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.
(1 Tim. 1:16) But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
(Heb. 10:39) But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.
(1 John 3:23-24) And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
(1 John 4:2-3) 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, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
(1 John 5:1) Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.
(1 John 5:3-5) This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.
(1 John 5:13) I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.