I had hoped that the doctrine of grace was well enough understood that this would bring clarity to the discussion. And perhaps it did for some, but it certainly created confusion for others. So let’s talk about grace.
The classic statement explaining grace is —
(Eph 2:8-10 ESV) 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Grace is “through faith.” Notice the complete absence of baptism from the discussion. No faith, no grace.
Let’s go back a few verses —
(Eph 2:4-7 ESV) 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved — 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Grace is a result of God’s character — his mercy (chesed in Hebrew), love, and kindness. Any interpretation has to be consistent with who God is.
I’m hardly the first to point out that the traditional Church of Christ approach to salvation is built on a “flat hermeneutic.” That is, we tend to treat everything as equally important. Therefore, every mistake is equally culpable. And since — plainly — some mistakes damn (or fail to save), we conclude that all mistakes damn (or fail to save).
Hence, if faith is essential to salvation, so is the correct position on baptism, and so is the correct position in instrumental music. And fellowship halls. Everything is equal.
And if a Christian is damned for a lack of faith, then a lack of baptism will just as assuredly damn. It’s all the same.
Now, just as soon as the “logic” is stated plainly, surely it’s obviously absurd because a flat hermeneutic destroys grace. If all error damns, then we’re all damned.
Deflattening our Hermeneutics
We start with —
(1Co 15:1-8 ESV) Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ [Messiah] died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Paul says that the gospel is of first importance, and he centers the gospel on Jesus, especially his death and resurrection. Not a word about baptism, yet again.
Another definition of “gospel” from Paul is found in —
(Rom 1:1-6 ESV) Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God [Messiah] in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
Again, Paul’s focus is on the resurrection, and in both passages he refers to Jesus as Messiah (Christ or the Son of God of Psalm 2). And not a word about baptism.
As I mentioned in a recent post, the Gospels define “gospel” by reference to the prophets, who promised “good news” in the coming of the Messiah. “Messiah” means Anointed One and is a metaphor for King. And the same prophecies speak of the coming Kingdom. There can’t be a Messiah without a Kingdom (Psalm 2 is quite clear).
Hence, “faith” that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is faith that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the prophets — and Lord (Psalm 18; Acts 2:25-31). (Notice how I’m following the outline of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 — Luke went to great effort to make this stuff clear.)
In short, we see in Romans, Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, Acts, and the Gospels that the gospel, which is of first importance, is centered on faith in Jesus as Messiah — the Anointed One of God promised by the prophets.
Of course, Acts 2:38 mentions baptism as our response to this, but this is the only place baptism shows up in a thread that flows from Genesis 15 (God’s covenant with Abraham), through 1 & 2 Samuel (in the covenant with David and prophecies about his lineage), through the Psalms, through the Prophets, through the Gospels, and into the Epistles. Faith and the coming Messiah are part of the backbone of all of scripture. Baptism can make no such claim.
Now, if you insist on a flat hermeneutic, your reaction to the preceding statement is to insist that the baptism verses are just as inspired, etc., as the faith verses. But I’m not remotely questioning the inspiration of the baptism verses. I’ve only said that faith is above and beyond more important — just as the resurrection is far more important than the census numbers in Numbers. It’s not all flat. Paul said the gospel is more important. The entirety of scripture supports his claim. And I believe him.
(Psa 105:7-10 ESV) 7 He is the LORD our God; his judgments are in all the earth. 8 He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, 9 the covenant that he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac, 10 which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant … .
Over and over and over, the Torah, the Prophets, etc. repeat that God will honor his covenant with Abraham. Paul explains this —
(Rom 4:3-10 ESV) 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.
(Rom 4:23-25 ESV) 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
God fulfills his covenant with Abraham by saving those with faith in Jesus. The covenant promised salvation to those with faith. Not a word about baptism.
For God to keep his promises, he must reckon graciously with those who fail to be baptized exactly right, because the promise is to “us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord.” And there are tens of millions with faith in Jesus who were not baptized quite right.
The flat hermeneutic teaches that any error in baptism makes it not a baptism at all. Because faith is plainly essential, so is having the right purpose in being immersed. So is knowing exactly when God saves vis-à-vis baptism. So is having enough water. So is having someone say the right words as you go under. So is being entirely immersed.
But if that’s so, then the gospel isn’t of first importance and God doesn’t keep his many promises to save all with faith.
Indeed, if the flat hermeneutic is true, those who go under denying that they’ll receive the Spirit as a personal indwelling are in error — and damned. And those who don’t receive the laying on of hands are damned, too. There are plenty of examples of the practice, and it’s just as associated with the receipt of the Spirit as is baptism.
And what about an imperfect confession? What if the person confesses the right words but doesn’t really know what “Christ” and “Son of the Living God” mean? And just how sophisticated does their Christology need to be?
After all, it’s all equally important.
But it’s just not. A line has to be drawn, and the scriptures draw it plainly — at faith.