We are considering Michael Shank’s book Muscle and a Shovel.
As promised, here’s how I reconcile the dozens of verses that promise salvation to everyone with faith in Jesus with the many other verses that teach that water baptism is the moment when God saves us.
The Old Testament evidence
It’s a rare study of baptism that considers the Old Testament. Indeed, we often mistakenly consider the Old Testament a dead letter — useful for digging out Messianic prophecies for a sermon on Christian evidences or for teaching middle schoolers moral lessons, but useless for such serious studies as the nature of God’s salvation.
That is, of course, an absurd conceit and our assumption that the Old Testament is irrelevant has greatly hindered our studies of the New Testament — written by Jews who quote the Old Testament on nearly every page.
We start in the Torah. I’ll offer the briefest introduction to God’s covenant with Abraham.
God called Abram out of Ur and made a covenant with him in a series of encounters. God chose Abraham and so craved a personal relationship with him that he appeared in physical form to converse with him. You know the story. Two central elements of the covenant are —
(Genesis 15:6 ESV) 6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
Paul teaches that we were admitted by faith, based on God’s covenant with Abraham.
(Galatians 3:8-9 ESV) “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Paul calls God’s promise to Abraham “the gospel” because our salvation is based on that very promise. We are saved by our faith in Jesus because God honors his covenant with Abraham.
We cannot adopt or teach a theology of salvation that contradicts God’s covenant with Abraham. And not only was Abraham not baptized, Paul makes the point that circumcision is unnecessary because it came after Abraham was deemed righteous because of his faith (Rom 4:10-12).
So why is baptism necessary if we’re baptized after we come to faith in Jesus? And why is there no prophecy that even arguably predicts water baptism in the Kingdom when so much else of New Testament salvation doctrine is found in the Old Testament prophets?
The New Testament evidence
John the Baptist
Why does John the Baptist say that he baptizes with water and that Jesus will baptize with the Spirit, when the early church clearly baptized in water and Spirit? Why doesn’t John the Baptist ever prophesy Jesus’ baptizing with water if water is necessary?
The “everyone who believes” verses
We’ve already seen in the last post several verses that promise salvation to all with faith in Jesus. I could add dozens more to the list.
But, yes, there are also several baptism verses in the New Testament. And they really say what they say, too. And we should not ignore them or exegete them out of the text. They are there for a reason. But so are the “everyone with faith is saved” verses. And yet we sometimes treat them as embarrassments, even though they come from the hand of God.
We don’t accept the truth of these verses even though they are exactly consistent with God’s promises to Abraham and Paul’s explanation of how we’re saved by God’s promises to Abraham. Even though they represent the culmination of over 2,000 years of salvation history and prophecy, finally fulfilled in the New Testament, they just don’t fit what we normally teach, do they?
Baptism as obedience
But, complains the one arguing against “faith only,” doesn’t our faith have to be proven by our obedience? Isn’t that really James’ point? And if obedience is essential, and if we mess up something as important as baptism, doesn’t that mean we’re not obedient and therefore not saved?
No! And this is really, really important. “Obedient” does not mean perfect. We all sin. Yes, even Christians sin. Even very mature Christians sin. Therefore, the fact that we’ve missed the mark as to our baptism hardly proves us disobedient. It proves us imperfect. And we’re all imperfect.
Think seriously about it. A new convert is a babe in Christ. The convert learns about Jesus, falls in love with Jesus, comes to true faith, is deeply penitent, and wants to serve Jesus as Lord. And so the convert seeks baptism. The convert is taught by a seminary graduate with multiple post-graduate degrees in Greek that pouring is a sufficient baptism. The convert reads her dictionary, and the dictionary agrees! And so, with a pure and obedient heart, she submits to pouring.
Is she obedient? Of course, she’s obedient. If this doesn’t meet God’s standard of obedience, then we’re all damned, because not a one of us can meet a higher standard.
Indeed, the theology of many members of the Churches of Christ has been perverted into a works salvation by insistence that doctrinal perfection is required, because it’s only by insisting on doctrinal perfection that we can declare an imperfect baptism disobedient. After all, no one has ever submitted to a pouring, a sprinkling, or other imperfect baptism intending to disobey God! Such people exist only in our tract racks.