We are considering Michael Shank’s book Muscle and a Shovel. And we’re continuing a consideration of the Bible’s teaching on baptism and faith.
[Two posts today and nothing on Muscle & Shovel tomorrow. I figured the readers needed to read both parts before drawing conclusions.]
Honoring the baptism verses
Baptism is closely tied to salvation in several passages. Doesn’t saving all with faith write those verses out of the Bible? Do they mean anything at all?
Some hold that baptism is merely symbolic of a salvation that occurs when faith is first realized. That’s Zwingli’s position, and he’s been followed by most Calvinists and by denominations with Calvinistic roots, such as Southern Baptists.
I think most of the Church of Christ debating points against that position are right. I think we’ve interpreted Acts 2:38 largely correctly (except for those of us who ignore the gift of the Spirit).
But the Churches of Christ have been debating the Baptists on this point for over 100 years — so long that we assume that the only possible positions are our traditional view and the Zwinglian/Baptist view. We don’t even consider whether there might be a third way. But there is.
I make this proposal for your consideration: Salvation occurs when the Holy Spirit is received, and this is normally at water baptism (Acts 2:38; Romans 8:9-11). Yes, the baptism verses are true. However, God is not bound to only give the Spirit at water baptism. In fact, he makes exceptions when it suits him, and it suits God to keep his promise to save all with faith.
Baptism is for novices, new to Bible study. To hold that a flawed baptism damns is to require a novice — sometimes even a child — to understand Greek grammar better than many professional translators. God never meant for it be that hard to be saved!
In New Testament times, faith, water baptism, and the receipt of the Spirit almost always happened in close proximity. In the normal case, there was no question of faith without water baptism. But there were exceptions. Acts plainly shows that there is no great law in heaven, binding on God himself, that he may only pour the Spirit onto those being water baptized. Clearly the apostles and Cornelius did not receive the Spirit and salvation and water baptism simultaneously (if the apostles received Christian water baptism at all).
God keeps his promises — all his promises. (Numbers 23:19; Joshua 23:14;; 2 Corinthians 1:20;Titus 1:2; 2 Peter 3:9). And sometimes God does even more than he promises! And if God promises to save all with faith in Jesus, that is exactly what he’ll do.
Jesus describes God in the Parable of the Day Laborers as a master who pays some of his servants more than they have earned while others receive only the wages they deserve. When some servants complain, God replies,
(Matthew 20:15) “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
When we are unhappy that God might be more generous to others than to us, we act just like the envious day laborers — and we sin in so doing. We should rather celebrate serving a gracious Lord. God loves the world so much that he gave up Jesus to die for our sins so that we might be saved through faith in him. How can we dare criticize God for making exceptions?
Every one of us deserves damnation. That’s what sin means. And we’ve been saved on the thinnest of technicalities — the fact that Jesus promised to serve our sentence for us. Thank God for exceptions! And may he forever make exceptions generously!
And, no, I’m not making exceptions for God. I’m not speculating. God explicitly and repeatedly promises to credit faith as righteousness. And he’ll keep that promise — every single time.
A perfect baptism?
We don’t require a perfect faith or a perfect penitence as a condition of salvation. No one being baptized has yet moved a mountain, and no one has yet stopped sinning altogether following his baptism. And if an imperfect, immature faith and imperfect, immature repentance suffices — by grace — why wouldn’t an imperfect, immature baptism suffice as well? To conclude otherwise is to make baptism more important than faith in Jesus, but the promise by which we’re saved is God’s covenant with Abraham — based on faith. Abraham was never baptized.
Salvation outside the covenant terms
In every age, God has forgiven sins outside the prescribed covenant means of grace. When Jonah preached to Nineveh, God forgave them without circumcision. When David sinned with Bathsheba, God forgave him without sacrifice. Melchizedek was a priest of God even though he was not part of God’s covenant with Abraham. Naaman was approved by God without circumcision or animal sacrifice. The Jews of the Northern Kingdom who attended Hezekiah’s Passover while unclean were accepted by God, even though the Law requires the death penalty, because they didn’t know any better! (2 Chron 30, an excellent chapter to read). Our God is a God of exceptions.
And this is true even when the exception requires contradicting a plainly mandatory command, such as the command to offer a bull for sins in Leviticus 4 and the many commands to be circumcised — and this one —
(Lev 15:31 ESV) 31 “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”
Threatening death to those who enter the Tabernacle (or, later, the Temple) for entering unclean. The Passover lamb could only be sacrificed at the Temple. And God allowed the Jews who’d traveled far for the Passover to enter unclean — because they were intending to obey with the purest of hearts.
And so God always accepts those who come to him with faith and penitence. It’s easy to find examples of those accepted outside the covenant rituals. There’s not a single example of someone coming to God with a genuine faith and penitence who was rejected by God.
In short, the problem of baptism — of flawed baptisms administered for the wrong reason, at the wrong time, or with the wrong quantity of water — is solved, not by dissecting the baptism verses, but by contemplating the grand narrative of the Scriptures, indeed, the purposes of God as revealed from Genesis to Revelation.
From the time of Abraham, God’s promises were built on faith — not a faith that is a mere intellectual acceptance of a fact but a faith that leads to faithfulness, that is, to penitent living.
When we insist on making any one act of obedience the essential, non-negotiable test of salvation, we turn salvation by faith into salvation by works — and we destroy the gospel.
Thus, to be true to the gospel, we must admit that an honest misunderstanding of baptism does not damn. But, of course, that no more means we stop preaching the truth about baptism than God’s willingness to forgive David means we stop preaching against adultery and murder!
We love God and we love the things of God. Baptism is a gift from God, a blessing, and we are commanded to preach and practice baptism. And so we must. We are privileged to understand baptism better than many and to preach God’s truth soundly. But never should we let baptism — which is one of the seven “ones” in Ephesians 4 — become a basis for division of brother against brother. What a sad perversion of a blessing from God that would be!
The grave danger is that we become so obsessed with baptismal perfectionism that we let the truth of baptism supplant God’s many promises to save all with faith in Jesus. And when that happens, we turn the Bible upside down and inside out.
(Ephesians 2:8-10 NIV) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.