Baptism: Grace and Baptism, Part 4 (Justification)

baptism of JesusLet’s talk about justification by faith. What does that mean? We’ve talked at length about faith, but not justification. But doesn’t it just mean “saved”? No, it does not. Rather, it means —

The acquittal, or declaration of being righteous, before God as judge. It is a central aspect of Paul’s understanding of what God achieved for believers through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Manzer & McGrath, Eds., “Justification,” Dictionary of Biblical Themes (2012).

BDAG, the most respected lexicon of biblical Greek, says,

of God be found in the right, be free of charges (cp. TestAbr A 13 p. 93, 14 [Stone p. 34] ‘be vindicated’ in a trial by fire) Mt 12:37 (opp. καταδικάζειν). δεδικαιωμένος Lk 18:14; GJs 5:1; δεδικαιωμένη (Salome) 20:4 (not pap). Ac 13:39 (but s. 3 below); Rv 22:11 v.l; Dg 5:14.—Paul, who has influenced later wr[iters]. (cp. Iren. 3, 18, 7 [Harv. II 102, 2f]), uses the word almost exclusively of God’s judgment. As affirmative verdict Ro 2:13. Esp. of pers. δικαιοῦσθαι …

Thayer’s defines “justify” as —

to declare, pronounce, one to be just, righteous, or such as he ought to be, (cf. ὁμοιόω to declare to be like, liken, i. e. compare; ὁσιόω, Sap. 6:11 ; ἀξιόω ,which never means to make worthy, but to judge worthy, to declare worthy, to treat as worthy; …)

Think about it. If “justification” is not the forgiveness itself but the declaration of a judge that I’m acquitted — innocent, really — then what does “justified by faith” mean? Well, it means that my faith evidences my acquittal. Not my circumcision, not my kosher diet, not even my scrupulous keeping of the Sabbath. My faith in Jesus declares to the world that God has acquitted me!

Thus, we read —

(Rom 3:30 NET) 30 Since God is one, he will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.

— as meaning —

(Rom 3:30 NET) 30 Since God is one, he will [declare as innocent of sin] the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.

It’s my faith that tells everyone else that God has declared me innocent so that I may be part of the Kingdom and son of God!

The NET Bible translators pick up exactly this meaning in —

(Gal 5:3-7 NET) 3 And I testify again to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be declared righteous [“justified”] by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace! 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight – the only thing that matters is faith working through love. 7 You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?

The Galatians wanted their circumcision and other Jewish practices to be boundary markers that separate Christians from the world. In their minds, the church and the world could look at their Torah faithfulness and so see that they are saved. But Paul says that it’s our faith by which God himself declares us saved.

It’s sounds a little Calvinist, but Galatians speaks quite a lot about falling from grace, so let’s not go there.

You see, there’s a sense in which the indwelling Spirit (given only to the saved: Acts 2:38; Rom 8:9-11) creates faith within us —

(1Co 12:3 NET) 3 So I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

Says what it means and means what it says. (But this is not about Calvinism, just the fact that I’ll not refuse to believe a verse because it gives aid and comfort to the Calvinist camp. I will not edit my Bible just to win an argument!)

And so God gives the Spirit, which produces a visible faith, so visible that it serves as God’s declaration that this person is his son or daughter. That’s what it means to be justified by faith.

And if that’s so, what do we make of someone with faith who has been imperfectly baptized? What does that faith say now? And if it doesn’t say that the person is God’s child, then Paul wasted a lot of ink on justification as something supposedly meaningful.

N. T. Wright is not unique in his argument, but he is the most forceful and the one who has sorted out the implications far better than most. He says,

Because Catholics, like many Protestants, have traditionally used the language of justification to describe the much wider realities of regeneration and sanctification, they have usually simply ignored the reality of which the word actually speaks, namely, the assurance in the present that my sins are forgiven because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that I have a sure and certain hope because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And where that assurance is lacking, other elements come in to usurp its place … . The tragedy of the situation is that there must have been countless Christians down the years in all churches who really did believe in Jesus Christ as their risen Lord, but who failed in this life to enjoy the assurance of salvation which was theirs for the taking, because they were never told that believers are declared ‘righteous’ in the present because of the death of God’s son.

N. T. Wright, “Justification and Current Questions: Protestant and Catholic,” Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul (2013), pp. 31-32. (A vital essay for today’s Churches of Christ.)

So what of baptism, Dr. Wright? In Jesus and the Faithfulness of God, he offers his most extensive teaching on baptism —

Baptism is a community-marking symbol, which the individual then receives, not first and foremost as a statement about him- or herself, but as a statement which says, ‘This is who we are.’ This does not exactly defuse all the anxieties of troubled Protestants when contemplating a physical event with supposed spiritual consequences, but it may suggest that the normal way of looking at ‘the problem’ is, at least, seeing things through the wrong end of the telescope. Baptism marks out this community, the messianic-monotheist, new-exodus, crucified-and-risen community, which like Israel of old then requires a commensurate way of life of its members.

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2013), pp. 421-422.

With regard to Galatians 3:27, he explains,

Here is how the sequence works. The initial statement, itself explaining the claim of verse 25 (no longer under the paidagōgos [the Law seen as guardian or custodian]): ‘For you are all children of God, through faith, in the Messiah, Jesus.’ All children of God: that is the main thing, with Messiah-faithfulness the means by which this is accomplished and marked out. … ‘You see, every one of you who has been baptised into the Messiah has put on the Messiah’ (27). This then leads to the two-stage conclusion, in 28–9: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no “male and female”; you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus. And, if you belong to the Messiah, you are Abraham’s family. You stand to inherit the promise.’ All children of God; all one in the Messiah; all Abraham’s family; all Abraham’s heirs, awaiting your inheritance. The fulcrum around which the argument turns is that they all belong to the Messiah, with their baptism into the Messiah as the key.

Here again we see baptism as the marker of the family and its identity. It is the praxis [Christian practice] which declares: here is the Messiah-family, the ones who are ‘in him’, who have ‘clothed themselves with the Messiah’. This is how baptism functions as one key element in the praxis which defines the worldview of the single, united family based on messianic monotheism.

Ibid. p. 424. In short, baptism is (among other things) the means by which the church announces that your faith has brought you into the covenant community. After all, we baptize anyone with faith and no one without faith. We rarely deny baptism, but I’ve seen it done when the congregational leaders concluded that the person requesting baptism was too young, seeking an unnecessary re-baptism, or unaware of what baptism is about and needed further instruction.

Thus, Paul is saying in Galatians 3:27 that our baptism assures us of our salvation. Just as our faith is God’s declaration of our acquittal, baptism is the church’s declaration. The church can make a mistake, of course, and we can sometimes perceive a faithless fraud as being full of faith. It’s not a perfect system, but perfection has to wait for Jesus’ return. He’ll get it exactly right.

Now, we were earlier considering why faith is absolutely essential and yet God will forgive errors in baptism. In part, it’s because God’s declaration of your salvation is essential. Only his opinion matters when it comes to Judgment Day. But the church’s declaration (through baptism) that you’re saved matters as well, but not as much. We are not God.

But since part of the purpose of faith, grace, salvation, and all is for you to become a part of the covenant community — for many important reasons, the church’s acceptance of you as a fellow Christian is key to God’s mission — and thus to the church’s mission.

Some will object that characterizing baptism as the church’s declaration that someone has been saved s0unds too, you know, Baptist. We’ll cover this in more detail shortly, but baptism is something received, not done. The voice is always passive. Therefore, someone other than the convert has to decide whether to grant this gift — and that person is a member of the church.

Even in Churches of Christ, the practice has been for at least 60 years — and surely much longer — for baptism to be generously granted, but never without question. Some people do get turned down based on the judgment of the church’s leaders. In fact, we shouldn’t baptize someone who doesn’t demonstrate faith — and so we always require a proper confession of faith.

PS — My position on baptism is unchanged. I’m not arguing the Zwinglian/Calvinist/Baptist position. I just think faith in Jesus is far more central to our atonement than our baptism. In the normal case, salvation occurs at the moment of baptism. But God’s grace will cover an error in baptism for someone with genuine faith in Jesus. An error in baptism is not fatal because faith in Jesus is the true boundary marker between the lost and the saved.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to Baptism: Grace and Baptism, Part 4 (Justification)

  1. Royce says:

    On the whole this is among your best posts. It does take away some of the impact of such good teaching when you keep giving the “Baptist/Calvinist” disclaimers that have become all to frequent.

  2. Ray Downen says:

    Despite every suggestion that salvation is by faith alone, the Bible never even once makes such a claim. Faith and obedience are required. Faith in Jesus is sure to acknowledge that baptism is an act commanded by Jesus for every NEW BELIEVER, not something to be done sometime when it’s convenient.

    We should never encourage anyone to suppose they are saved by faith ALONE. Only those who are IN CHRIST are saved. Baptism is INTO CHRIST. To tell anyone or imply to anyone that salvation precedes baptism INTO CHRIST is a mistake. Faith is NOT more important than obeying the gospel which calls for seekers to TURN to Jesus as Lord and to be baptized.

    Both repentance and being baptized are essential for remission of sins and to receive God’s gift of His Spirit. Repentance is not faith. Being baptized is not faith. The apostolic remedy for sin is for those who believe in Jesus to REPENT AND BE BAPTIZED. We do well to echo the apostolic response instead of suggesting by our words that repenting and being baptized are optional and not really necessary.

  3. Mark says:

    “…the assurance in the present that my sins are forgiven because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that I have a sure and certain hope because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And where that assurance is lacking, other elements come in to usurp its place …”

    Wow. This is one of your best Posts. As for the above quote, atonement and the Holy Ghost are two of the off limits topics. I’m glad they are now being discussed. Many of us saw the other elements which replaced assurance. Too often that included giving up on organized religion and God.

  4. hank says:

    “An error in baptism is not fatal because faith in Jesus is the true boundary marker between the lost and the saved.”

    What all falls under “error in baptism”?

    Infant sprinkling? Pouring? If someone is penitent and has faith, but does not believe that baptism has anything to do with being saved (and decides to therefore never be baptized), would you consider that to be an “error in baptism”?

  5. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay,
    I am having some difficulty understand, the following quote. In the text it appears to be your quote, but I would sooner believe that it was from N.T. Wright.
    “Some will object that characterizing baptism as the church’s declaration that someone has been saved s0unds too, you know, Baptist. We’ll cover this in more detail shortly, but baptism is something received, not done. The voice is always passive. Therefore, someone other than the convert has to decide whether to grant this gift — and that person is a member of the church.”

    I have never understood that John the Baptist, Jesus, the Apostles or any writer of the scriptures attested that baptism was gift, which was to be administered or governed by the church or any man. There is no place in scriptures where the individual who was being baptized was given the impression that he was receiving a gift. there is also no place in scriptures where the individual being baptized was instructed that this action was for the purpose of uniting him/he with other followers of Christ or the church. Baptisms identity was brought to the world from Heaven through John’s teachings. This same baptism was performed by the Apostles prior to Christs death, while he was in their presence. John understood its purpose as he administered it to those who were coming to him to escape the wrath to come. But, the very last visible event displaying the purpose for baptism is with the conversion of Saul, Ananias, made a statement that permeates the total picture of baptism from John’s teachings through Saul’s conversion.
    (Act 22:16 ESV) And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
    There has never been another use for baptism displayed in scripture.
    Men are attempting to claim this removal of sins at the point of faith and belief, show us that Saul did not have a greater amount of faith and belief than almost anyone in scripture. In fact very few men had an opportunity to communicate with the Lord, before or after their commitment was made. His commitment was made three days prior to being informed that his sins were needing to be washed away.

  6. Dwight says:

    Larry, the argument is an attempt to make baptism the work of God as opposed to a work that we do for God or in other words, we do nothing except be baptized. This argument also suggest that Jesus did nothing when He died except be put to death and be buried, except He went willingly and fulfilled the will of God in doing this, except He didn’t do it, as He was subjected to it. I guess Jesus death was a gift to Jesus as well. It was surely for a sign and not because God wanted Him to do it for Him and to His glory.

    “Baptism is a community-marking symbol, which the individual then receives, not first and foremost as a statement about him- or herself, but as a statement which says, ‘This is who we are.’ ”
    There are no scriptures that liken baptism to being a “symbol” that I know of and none are given to substantiate this concept. Baptism is called the “action of a good conscience towards God” within the context of “saving baptism”, but this could describe faith as well.
    Actually it does in Heb.10 “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
    Funny, it appears baptism is mentioned here too in connection with faith and drawing near.

    Strangely when Phillip and the eunuch went on their way and the eunuch was taught Jesus and then was baptized, this was done within the context of just them two. I suppose the only other witness was God.

    Jay, to argue, “I just think faith in Jesus is far more central to our atonement than our baptism.” argues against what the scriptures argue for, which is that faith might precede baptism, but it is never called “more central to our atonement than our baptism.”
    This is like arguing that Abraham’s faith was more central to his acceptance than his actual offering of his only Son, except that the offering of his only son is what God commanded and was the point that God accepted him as having the faith that God wanted. You cannot separate one from the other as being more central in relation to what God wanted. If Abraham wouldn’t have offered his son, are we to understand that this was an imperfect offering or that God would have been pleased with just the faith and accepted just the faith.

  7. Paula Robbins says:

    Jay, this is a wonderful explanation of what Galatians 3 says about baptism, but does not seem to incorporate what Romans 6:3-8 says. Ephesians 3 describes how our relationship with Christ creates a unique relationship with fellow believers. But Romans 6 seems to describe things that occur at the time of our baptism (being buried, being raised to a new life, being united with Christ, having the old self crucified) that only God can do, not the church. And it seems to describe a change in our essential spiritual nature and relationship to God. This is a reality that all believers share, thus the use of “we” throughout the passage. But I don’t see anything in this passage that indicates that this is something that comes from the corporate church, nor is it primarily for the purpose of group identity. Indeed, our group identity can only exist because of the changed identity we receive at baptism

    I am not trying to say that the statements you made are incorrect, but incomplete. You described one of several facets of the jewel, and did that quite well. Since I’ve spent much time reading Romans in the past couple years, it’s easy for me to focus on the facet described there.

  8. Dwight says:

    Paula, very good. Thre biggest limiting factor in this whole discussion is us. We want to make it about one thing or the other, instead of just reading what the scriptures say about it all and what was done. Jesus came to this earth to do God’s will, not just teach about doing God’s will. Jesus physically did many things and physically died to save us, but strangely there is no physical evidence of this saving, which is what the Jews wanted. Everything Jesus did physically translated to a spiritual state. The works of the Spirit are spiritual things exhibited physically in a person. As opposed to the works of the flesh that are physical fleshly things that go against the Spirit and our spirit and can damn us. We will do one or the other based on our faith in Jesus or the world.
    This discussion shows the limits of a topical study in that once a topic is chosen it becomes the focus and often overlooks the corresponding context or other topics that flesh it out. This is why I like Acts 2 it tells the story of the apostles converting others to Christ by teaching Christ, then the people responding “what must we do? “and then Peter responding with how and then they do it.

  9. Paula Robbins says:

    Dwight, Thank you for the encouraging words. You express very well the difficulty in understanding, let alone explaining, the intersection of the spiritual and physical. And the difficulties are increased when some of these subjects have such a long history of being misunderstood, misapplied or used to control and exploit others.

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