A few days ago, I asked a series of five questions regarding baptism, urging the readers to narrow the discussion to just these five questions.
I had several reasons for doing this, one being in hopes of ending the constant drone of “My verse beats your verse” argumentation — which is a colossal waste of time and energy.
I also wanted to encourage the readers to seek answers from the text rather than their denominational heritage. I mean, when you answer that the baptism is part of the gospel because baptism is essential to salvation and the baptism is essential to salvation because it’s part of the gospel, well, you’re reasoning in circles. (And the Baptist side makes just as many circular arguments.)
Christians deal with the text honestly — which means they admit the difficulties and the existence of passages that argue against their preferred position. But when it comes to boundary issues, those topics that define one denomination as against another, we feel that any argument is a good argument. The goal is victory — which is never the right goal. The goal should always be faithfulness. God gives the victory.
So here are my answers. But please pay attention more to the method than the answers.
1. Imagine that you live in the late First Century. Someone gives you a copy of the Gospel of Luke, and this is the only New Testament resource you have. Can you, by reading Luke, find salvation? Does the Gospel of Luke offer enough information to its readers so that they can be saved?
The answer surely is found in reviewing Luke itself.
Let’s first look at what Jesus says about the Kingdom of God.
(Luk 8:1 ESV) Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him,
Luke nowhere mentions Christian water baptism, only John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit. And yet Jesus was able to preach the “good news.”
In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explains how people may receive salvation:
(Luk 8:12-13 ESV) 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.
According to the parable, salvation comes by faith. Jesus taught the same lesson repeatedly,
(Luk 7:47-50 ESV) 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven– for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
But Jesus also teaches that salvation is found in following him.
(Luk 9:23-24 ESV) And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
(Luk 14:26-27 ESV) 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
And, obviously enough, these verses ask for a commitment or loyalty to Jesus.
As we’ve covered countless times, the Greek pistis, translated either “faith” or “faithfulness,” includes all these thoughts.
In short, if you were to read Luke as it was written — as a stand alone book about Jesus, you’d come away believing that faith in Jesus — a faith that includes a commitment to be faithful to him — would be sufficient to save.
Some might object that Jesus was teaching before Pentecost and the coming of the church, but this would ignore almost the entirety of the book! Jesus is speaking of the Kingdom soon to come. He is preparing for the new age about to dawn. He is not teaching a doctrine destined to last a few months and then expire.
A better objection would be that Luke was written in anticipation of Acts, and Acts includes Christian water baptism as an important theme. True enough, but it seems odd that a “Gospel” that mentions “gospel” 10 times and speaks extensively of how to enter the Kingdom says nothing of baptism.
And if baptism was as central to Luke’s theology as it is to traditional Church of Christ theology, why does he never record Jesus speaking of it? Matthew does. John might (exegetes disagree). Mark only does if you consider the longer ending original (the majority of scholars do not).
Indeed, given the utter absence of water baptism from the Old Testament, including the many Kingdom prophecies, and the near absence of baptism from the words of Jesus, with faith being an important theme of both, it’s hard to treat baptism as co-equal with faith in scriptural importance or emphasis.
That hardly negates baptism, but it does require us to restore faith in Jesus to its central place in the Bible’s teaching on salvation.
On the other hand, John’s baptism of Jesus looks ahead to Christian baptism.
(Mar 1:4-5 ESV) 4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
(Mar 1:7-8 ESV) 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
(Mar 1:9-11 ESV) In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Luke first records John baptizing with a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” “For the forgiveness of sins,” in the Greek, is identical to Acts 2:38.
John next promises that Jesus will baptize with the Spirit in contrast to his baptism with water. The main distinction between Christian baptism and John’s baptism is the Spirit.
Next, John baptizes Jesus, and Jesus receives the Spirit. Clearly, this is a harbinger of Christian baptism — in which Christians become sons of God, well-pleasing to God, and receive the Spirit. But the emphasis in the text is much more on the Spirit than the water — not that the water can be ignored. It just can’t be made co-equal with God’s gift of the Spirit.
In short, yes, the Gospel of Luke teaches enough to be saved. How we deal with baptism vis-à-vis faith will be addressed in response to the next question
2. There are dozens of “faith is sufficient to save” verses. There are several “baptism is necessary to save” verses. How do we reconcile these seemingly inconsistent passages? You MAY NOT insist that your verses somehow magically “explain” or otherwise override the other verses. The question is whether there is an understanding that makes ALL the verses true, not just the ones that support your denominational position.
This is hardly an easy question, but its difficulty doesn’t excuse the efforts of both sides of the debate to erase the other side’s passages. All the verses matter. All the verses are true.
The Great Commission of Matthew 28:19, several of the conversion accounts in Acts, and several Pauline passages plainly associate water baptism with salvation, forgiveness of sins, and receipt of the Spirit. These passages cannot be read out of the text by merely recanting — often and loudly — the many verses teaching that faith is sufficient to save, as though the texts were contradictory and we get to pick the verses we like the best.
The texts only become contradictory — arguably — when converts aren’t baptized shortly following their confession of faith in Jesus. Clearly, this was the early church’s practice, and no one was greatly concerned about when salvation happened. Indeed, an argument can be made from Acts that the Spirit (and hence salvation) wasn’t received until hands were laid on the convert immediately following baptism (Acts 8:17-19; 9:17; 19:6. Compare 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6.). But this is inconvenient for both sides of the baptism argument and so ignored by both sides, since winning is so important.
I mean, neither Baptists nor the Churches of Christ lay hands on those they baptize (as a rule; there are exceptions), and unlike the Catholics and Orthodox, neither treats chrismation (laying on of hands to receive the Spirit) as a sacrament that should follow baptism.
The point is that the early church saw confession, baptism, and laying on of hands as essentially simultaneous and gave no thought as to which accomplished which element of salvation — and so credited all of salvation to all elements without the least concern for what would happen if someone died in between. They didn’t have revival meetings where the goal was to terrify the audience into a quick baptism or Sinner’s Prayer. (And that’s an important lesson in itself.)
Baptism separated from faith
So what does God do when baptism is separated from faith by weeks or even months? Consider churches in frontier Alaska where baptisms were delayed until the water thawed in the spring. If someone died after confessing faith but before the warmth of spring, would they be damned? Does that mean they were saved in the meantime? Then what’s the significance of baptism?
Those who imagine that God is so rule-bound that he’d damn a person of faith because the water was frozen haven’t read their Bibles — especially their Gospels.
To me, it’s as simple as this.
1. It’s God’s intention that baptism immediately follow confession of faith in Jesus, and that we should see the baptism as picturing the salvation that is taking place.
2. I don’t think God or his apostles were interested in the question of when salvation occurs – at confession, at baptism, at arising from the baptistry, or at the laying on of hands, should that even happen.
3. If a person with a genuine faith in Jesus delays baptism or misunderstands the theology of baptism or is baptized the wrong way — not enough water — well, this is a new convert, a babe in Christ. The error is on that person’s teacher. The convert is only accountable for faith in Jesus at this stage of her spiritual journey.
Therefore, God will honor his many, many promises to save all with faith in Jesus despite bad teaching by the evangelist on baptism.
(Rom 10:9-11 ESV) 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
Paul seems to consider the Old Testament promises of salvation to all with faith — going back to God’s covenant with Abraham — to be entirely true, and yet he also teaches baptism. He doesn’t think he’s contradicting himself.
(to be continued).