Baptism: Grace and Baptism, Part 5 (Why Grace Does Not Destroy Baptism)

the_baptism_of_the_christ_21Let’s get back to where we started: grace and baptism. Here’s the difficult thought that we need to wrestle to the ground: How can grace forgive sin (including doctrinal error — but not a lack of faith in Jesus) and not condone sin?

Recall the earlier post seeking to answer this question in relational terms. In relational terms, the answer is easy. If my child violates my instructions, he has sinned against me. But unless he is in rebellion against me — persistent rebellion evidence a lack of love and submission that is not going to get better — I won’t disown him as my child.

So does letting my son who made a mistake remain in my family somehow condone the sin? Obviously, not. On the other hand, he may suffer some very unpleasant discipline. As a good parent, I want to raise him to be obedient.

If he acted honestly believing he was being obedient, I’m not going to ground him for 2 months. I’m going to better instruct him so he learns how to better understand me.

But in church, we assume that God is not just a bad parent, but a mean-spirited parent who hides his essential commands in silences and damns those who don’t decode his hidden messages. The closest analogy I can think of is those high school teachers who love putting trick questions on the test, just to test the students’ gullibility. Teachers who fail students who know the material but who get fooled by trick questions are not good teachers.

The Bible, of course, very directly addresses the issue of forgiveness and condoning, most powerfully in the Gospels. And there are LOTS of examples.

In Luke 7, Jesus forgives the sins of a prostitute who washed his feet with her hair. Did he condone her sins? Obviously not. Did the father condone the prodigal son’s sins?

(Luk 15:21-24 ESV) 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

The son evidenced a penitent heart, and the Father forgave him — but did not condone his many sins.

And did Jesus condone theft when he forgave the thief on the cross?

In short, God’s willingness to forgive baptismal error does not condone baptismal error. Nor does he approve practicing bad baptismal theology. Therefore, when I say that grace will cover baptismal error, that’s no more scandalous or bad Bible than saying that Jesus forgave the woman taken in adultery — and will continue to forgive adultery.

The abundant generosity of Jesus is found in —

(Joh 8:10-11 ESV) 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Did Jesus condone adultery? No, but notice that he forgave her first and then instructed to stop committing adultery. He didn’t wait for her to confess, repent, do restitution, and then ask for forgiveness. He judged her heart and freely forgave her. And this is how he’ll deal with those babes in Christ who get their baptism in error.

But Jesus was not soft on adultery. He regularly preached against it and fornication (which includes adultery). He lived in the tension between forgiveness and the need to change. Indeed, the very point of forgiveness is to qualify us to be in the Kingdom in the presence of God. It’s like the Torah’s ceremonial cleansing, required to approach the Holy of Holies where God sat on the Mercy Seat above the Ark of the Covenant.

By bringing us into the Kingdom, into God’s special presence, we can then receive the personal indwelling of the Spirit — placing us in intimate relationship with the Trinity so that the Trinity can work within us to change us to become more obedient.

(Jer 31:33-34 ESV) 33 “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

The way God defeats sin in us is by, first, forgiving us, and then changing our hearts to become obedient through the Spirit.

(Eze 36:26-31 ESV) 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. … 31 Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations.

God gives his Spirit, he changes our hearts, we become obedient, and our former sins become repugnant to us. This is the new covenant that Jesus came to institute.

Hezekiah’s Passover

The closest analogue to baptism in the Old Testament is the ceremonial washing that was required to take Passover and to go to the Temple to be in the very presence of God. Taking Passover without cleansing was punishable by death. The cleansing was not to accomplish atonement but to make one eligible to participate in the life of the covenant community.

The Temple service and the other requirements of the Law had been ignored for many years in Judah when Hezekiah became king. He re-established the Temple service and ordered the celebration of Passover, which had also been long neglected.

(2 Chron. 30:1-20) Hezekiah sent word to all Israel and Judah and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, inviting them to come to the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover to the LORD, the God of Israel. The king and his officials and the whole assembly in Jerusalem decided to celebrate the Passover in the second month. They had not been able to celebrate it at the regular time because not enough priests had consecrated themselves and the people had not assembled in Jerusalem. The plan seemed right both to the king and to the whole assembly.

Notice, first, that the king decided to celebrate the Passover on the wrong day, because it
was too late to do otherwise.

They decided to send a proclamation throughout Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, calling the people to come to Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover to the LORD, the God of Israel. … The couriers went from town to town in Ephraim and Manasseh, as far as Zebulon, but the people scorned and ridiculed them. Nevertheless, some men of Asher, Manasseh and Zebulon humbled themselves and went to Jerusalem. Also in Judah the hand of God was on the people to give them unity of mind to carry out what the king and his officials had ordered, following the word of the LORD. …

Many of the people decided to travel to Jerusalem to honor God through this celebration. Since many in the crowd had not consecrated themselves, the Levites had to kill the Passover lambs for all those who were not ceremonially clean and could not consecrate their lambs to the LORD. Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulon had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.

The Law had been long forgotten and so mistakes were made as the practices commanded by God were reinstituted. The penalty for taking the Passover while unclean was death, and yet the people ate while unclean, anxious to honor God.

But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the LORD, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God the LORD, the God of his fathers—even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people.

God pardoned their sin because they had “set their heart on seeking God” despite their clear violation of the Law. Moreover, despite their clear error, God’s hand was on the people to “give them unity of mind.”

If God was this forgiving of false worship under the Law, how forgiving will he be to his sons and daughters today? The only defense the worshippers had to the death penalty was that they were trying their best to honor God and had sinned only out of ignorance. And that was good enough for God.

And the same is true of baptism today. God has not changed.

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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19 Responses to Baptism: Grace and Baptism, Part 5 (Why Grace Does Not Destroy Baptism)

  1. JES says:

    So, for my simple mind, what you are saying is that faith is the vehicle that takes us from lost to the eternal arms of Jesus, and baptism is our ticket to ride, normally. Anomalies may occur in how we get this ticket, but that’s between God & the individual.

  2. Ray Downen says:

    It’s not clear to me what you mean, Jay, by “an error in baptism.” Or why you would suppose that not doing what Jesus commands would of course be forgiven if the intention was right. Baptism is a simple act. It’s burying a seeking believer in water and raising the new person out of the water. How could that be done wrongly? If you’re saying sprinkling water or pouring water on a person is really just as good as baptizing, I hear you claiming to be equal with God, which I’m sure is not your intention. What exactly do you mean by a “baptismal error”?

    And how can anyone who loves Jesus just casually disregard Acts 2:38 where seekers are told exactly what is required for remission of sins and to receive the gift of the Spirit? I judge that those will be saved who OBEY THE GOSPEL. I hope you’re not saying obeying the gospel is not really necessary. It sounds to me as if you that is what you are repeatedly saying. But WE are not the judge of what is necessary. We do well to believe what the apostles teach and example, which is immediate baptism for new believers in Jesus as Lord. And why would we try to make excuses for some who think otherwise?

    I admit that what we think about what God will do is of little importance since He doesn’t consult us before acting. He is sure to do what is right regardless of what we think or say or do. And I appreciate your desire to respect others who may not see Bible teaching as we do. I’m NOT sure I understand what you’re saying.

  3. Johnny says:

    Mark 8:18 comes to mind

  4. R.J. says:

    “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet“.

    In the East, this signified elevation in status. From as slave(that he begged to make him) to a member of the family–his very son! Just thought I should share that tidbit that’s not obvious to us Westerners.:)

  5. R.J. says:

    “The penalty for taking the Passover while unclean was death”.

    In the Torah, the death penalty was reserved for stubborn deliberate rebellion.Weather that be obstinate sacrilege or moral delinquency. But regardless, God could have easily said…

    Tell them to leave my sanctuary at once! They have no part with me or of this celebration! Disobedience shall not be tolerated”

    But out of his rich mercy, he healed them and gave them a place at the table. Remember, they only just had repented and came from a midst of wicked Israelite’s who were going from bad to worse! They were no doubt told that one must be purified to eat the Passover. Even though they failed to do just that, their hearts were seeking god. Contrast this with Uzziah who arrogantly dared to stretch forth his hand and commit sacrilege by soiling the Ark with his hands(in that culture, touching or gazing at holy relics was like our placing dong on a crucifix or the Lincoln Memorial)!

  6. hank says:

    Jay, you write:

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

    I too, would like to know what you mean when you keep saying “error in baptism”? What all do consider to be the “errors in baptism” that you claim Gid will overlook?

    Sprinkled as an infant?
    Poured on as an adult?
    Any and everything religious people call “baptism”?

    How about the person who is convinced that baptism is not necessary to be saved and so never is? Is that too, an “error in baptism”?

    Also, have you written much on what the bible means in saying that we are baptized ” into” Christ? There seems to be more and more confusion and/or denial of that. Like, can a person be placed “into” something they are already “in”?

  7. Jay wrote: “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.”

    Ray, how much clearer could Jay write this? He spoke of how mercy for those whose hearts were set on obeying God but who were ‘unclean’ when they ate the Passover. When one’s heart is intent on pleasing God but has been inadequately taught, does God condemn him? I do not think so, and to me it is evident that this is what Jay is saying. In this, he isn’t making himself equal to God or trying to pass judgment on God’s behalf. He’s looking at how God has actually acted in the past and at how Jesus revealed the Father. In other words, he is approaching this matter through the various other ways in which God has revealed himself.

    Certainly faith gives baptism whatever power it may have. No act of obedience is efficacious apart from faith in and faithfulness toward the one who commanded! True faith without baptism is better than baptism without faith. The Unbaptized believer will be baptized when he understands; one baptized without faith has no desire to please God, and his baptism is worthless.

  8. buckeyechuck says:

    Jerry Starling, excellent analysis.

  9. hank says:

    I still would like to know what all is meant by the “error in baptism” that God allegedly over looks?

    Ive asked:

    “Sprinkled as an infant?
    Poured on as an adult?
    Any and everything religious people call “baptism”?

    How about the person who is convinced that baptism is not necessary to be saved and so never is? Is that too, an “error in baptism”?”

    Are those fair questions?

    Do others here have an explanation?

  10. Royce says:

    I agree with buckeyechuck, excellent Jerry, and by the way, Jay.

    The biblical examples Jay gives are fitting and make his point well. While I don’t agree
    with Jay 100% he is light years ahead of his many critics. What I admire most about our
    host here is that he is a truth seeker, a learner, and has an open mind. Is that not a good
    model for us all to follow? Surely it is not wrong to search the scriptures and question even
    our own long held beliefs. If we find that we are wrong on some issue, the humble man
    admits he was wrong and moves own teaching the truth.

  11. Price says:

    Jerry / Russ. Well said.

  12. Paula Robbins says:

    Jay, this is the most comprehensive, Bible-based and clear discussion I’ve ever encountered on the subject. Thank you. I think that the difference between forgiving and condoning is vexing, both in “big” issues like baptism and in very immediate, pragmatic situations. If I continue to forgive someone who continues in the same sin (admitting their sin, asking forgiveness, but soon committing the sin again), am I enabling them or practicing Matthew 18:21-22? I realize this is a different subject; perhaps one that you would care to address at some point?

  13. Randall says:

    If the traditional CofC words are not said (FOR the forgiveness of sins) does it make it an invalid baptism?

  14. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay,
    I can relate to your presentation from Hezekiah’s Passover and God’s healing them from the the punishment that the law required. I believe that we both can understand that all who were involved in this Passover knew and understood that it twas against the law. I think that we could also agree that at any time those same circumstances were not present God would not have healed them. In other words if they had attempted to perform in the exact same manner at the next Passover ignoring the rules because God healed them the last time they would have found God a lot less forgiving.
    Understanding the volume of teachings by men who are representing themselves as messengers of the Gospel who are not teaching about baptism as it is portrayed in the Gospel as it is reviled in action in the Book of Acts, it is easy to understand why many have not followed the example. What really bothers me is the volume of individuals who will believe only what they have been taught by someone they believe to be teaching truth. I fully believe that a properly taught individual will study to insure that their beliefs coincide with the Bible, rather than just accepting a man’s teachings. I believe that we are admonished in scripture to test all teachings with the Word.
    I also understand that you are promoting that these individuals who have not been baptized are receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit as they commit themselves to Christ and his teachings. Would we also then believe that the Holy Spirit would be responsible for not guiding this individual to the baptism that should have been submitted to in the fulfillment of the instructions of Christ and all His Apostles?

  15. Stephen Asare says:

    Very good presentation Jay however,i would like to point out that Christ’s death on the cross to redeem man from the bondage of sin was for the whole world but this act becomes meaningful and of great benefit to only those who are obedient to the gospel, that is only those who are ready to take up their cross and follow him as such adhering to his will that through grace we have obtained. so if baptism saves by the grace poured out and we think we can just switch to do anything we want, this grace provided will be robbed off its power.

    when the Israelites sinned against God in the wilderness and they were bitten and killed by snakes, God did forgive them when they repented from their sins however, there was one thing for them to do to save them, that was look unto the bronze snake mounted. Couldn’t God have just prevented all these from happening, i believe He could. through the grace and love God had for them he provide a way and only those who obeyed were saved.

    it is so in our case, baptism saves so until you are baptized you are not saved.this is God’s providence regarding salvation for those who would come to believe on His name.

  16. Alabama John says:

    Randall,
    That is the belief and teaching in most churches of Christ yesterday and today. There are a few exceptions today, but none I know of until a very few years ago as it was one of the basic truths of the coC. Coming up out of the water cleaned of all past sins and then are added by God to His church. Same with ALL the body had to go under and there were ones assigned to watch to make sure.

  17. Alabama John says:

    Royce,

    The problem is with many that have written books, tracts, study lessons and the like is it is impossible for so many to change their minds and teach differently from what they have written.

    How many times have we seen in the past this proven true by those who wrote and quoted scriptures on a womans covering being required during worship services, Lords Supper during early services only, Women to keep quiet when men present, Age of accountability to be baptized and many that wanted to do as we do today that were withdrawn from and kicked out to never return. many others from the past that were taught and preached.

    Everyone going to hell but us few at this church location and maybe some at other coC locatuions if they are like us and not too liberal was the regular Sunday lesson.

    It was so much easier for those not putting at the time strong points backed by many scriptures in print to change.

    I’ve seen preachers cringe when one of their printed lessons from their past came to the front and they had changed their beliefs on that subject. Some cried at those that they might have run off.

    Pays to have a more open mind when studying and not be stuck with supporting your past printed material which some still do. Hard to admit wrong.

  18. Royce Ogle says:

    True. Aren’t we to ” grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus”? Hard to grow if your gray matter is like concrete.

  19. Royce Ogle says:

    [Sorry, Royce, but if I’m to end the baptism discussion, I have to end it for everyone. We’ll surely return to the topic in the not too distant future.]

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