A few days ago, I posted a criticism of my own views on baptism received from Olan Hicks. I have great respect for Br. Hicks and invited him to participate in a discussion on his critique here, and he was kind enough to do so.
At about the same time, Keith Brenton posted an article I wrote on baptism at New Wineskins. I’ll not repeat the arguments made there over here. (PS — The commenting software at New Wineskins works best with Google Chrome. I’ve not tested Safari, but Internet Explorer doesn’t work at all, and Firefox is bad to crash the comment feature.)
I’ve not yet responded to Br. Hicks’ arguments. I do so here, and I’ve advised him of this posting so he can participate in the discussion if he wishes.
Br. Hicks writes,
In Hebrews 11:6 we have the necessity of faith stated and its definition given. “Without faith it is impossible to please Him. For he who comes to God must believe that he is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.”
There is no question that those who deny salvation at baptism do so on the basis of a denial of this statement, the second part of it. They do not believe that God rewards our obedience. According to this passage that is a fatal mistake.
Interpreting Hebrews 11:6
Let’s begin with the interpretation of Hebrews 11:6.
(Heb 11:6 ESV) 6 And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
The reward promised is for seeking God, not obeying God, and certainly not for obeying a particular, specified command.
Consider the context.
(Heb 11:7-11 ESV) 7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.
Noah is commended for obedience driven by faith. So is Abraham. But Sarah received God’s blessing by faith — with no mention of obedience. Her faith was purely a matter of the heart.
Therefore, faith is not to be confused with obedience. Faith always requires a heart that will obey in response to God’s commands. Absolutely. But all those who are commended were sinners. Noah got drunk on wine. Abraham gave his wife to two different pagan kings. Sarah laughed at God’s promises!
Hence, God judges the heart based on its overall direction, not whether a particular, singular command is or isn’t obeyed.
If a failure to be baptized damns, why didn’t the sins of Noah, Abraham, and Sarah damn them? Why were their sins — far worse than a failure to be immersed out of an honest ignorance of God’s word! — covered by their faith, whereas the sins of the improperly baptized are not?
You see, Hicks seems to argue —
Major Premise. Works are essential to salvation
Minor Premise. Baptism is a work.
Conclusion: Baptism is essential to salvation
All three contentions are mistaken.
Yes, the saved do good works. Absolutely! But as we read in Hebrews, the works that evidence faith differ from person to person. There is no one, singular work that is required. Surely, not all good works are required!
The point of Hebrews 11 is that faith will surely be followed by works of obedience, not that we must obey every single command perfectly.
For to be baptized in the name of God is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself. Therefore, although it is performed by human hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own work. …
Thus you see plainly that there is here no work done by us, but a treasure which He gives us, and which faith apprehends; just as the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross is not a work, but a treasure comprehended in the Word, and offered to us and received by faith.
Indeed, baptism is uniformly referred to in the passive voice, as something to be received, not something to be accomplished by the believer.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t become a work. When we damn believers for having been falsely taught on the subject, we impose on converts — not even yet babes in Christ — the burden of learning enough koine Greek to refute the writers of dictionaries and commentaries. We insist that they be able to refute some of the greatest theologians in church history.
And yet —
(1Co 2:14 ESV) 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
Why, oh why, do we presume that all converts to Jesus may be fairly held to the standards of someone with a degree in Bible? That’s a lot to ask of someone not yet saved, who doesn’t yet have the Spirit. Indeed, we’re asking the convert to do a lot of, you know, work.
Worse yet, the tree is proved by its fruit. And the argument that baptism is an essential work is destroying many in the Churches of Christ. After all, if baptism is an essential work, then why not a cappella singing? Why not orphans homes? Why not fellowship halls? Why not having the right position on divorce and remarriage?
You see, there is nothing in Hicks’ interpretation of Hebrews 11:6 to baptism as the uniquely essential act of obedience. And this opens the floodgate holding back the wickedness of legalism.
I’m not remotely suggesting that Hicks is a legalist. But the argument necessarily leads to legalism.
The escape is to understand that God does indeed reward a believer’s obedience, but that there is no one particular command that a believer must obey to be obedient. Rather, God judges the whole person and the overall direction of his faith.
(1Sa 16:7b ESV) 7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “… For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
(1Ki 8:39 ESV) 39 then hear in heaven your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind),
Obviously, this does not excuse rebellion against the known will of God! We are not obedient if we refuse to honor well-understood teachings of God. But honest mistakes regarding a teaching that even the experts can’t agree on do not damn. If they do, there is no grace, and we are all lost.