Something old, something new …
So having hopefully avoided some of the more tedious arguments, let’s talk about something new. Well, not “new” but old. Really old.
Paul writes in Gal 3 and Rom 4 that we are saved by the covenant with Abraham in which God promised to count faith as righteousness. That covenant survives the Mosaic covenant, the Davidic covenant, and remains true today.
But faith saved Abraham without baptism. God went through an incredibly elaborate blood oath covenant to demonstrate his sincerity to Abraham in Gen 15:9-21. But God credited Abraham with righteousness based on his faith before the ceremony (in Gen 15:6), in fact, the day before.
There was no ceremony exactly comparable to baptism in Judaism. (Proselyte baptism was a human invention and dates no earlier than the First Century so far as the historians can determine.)
The closest analog would be circumcision. And if circumcision is the closest analog, then we should remember that Israel failed to circumcise their children from the time of Sinai until after they crossed the Jordan.
(Jos 5:4-7 ESV) 4 And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: all the males of the people who came out of Egypt, all the men of war, had died in the wilderness on the way after they had come out of Egypt. 5 Though all the people who came out had been circumcised, yet all the people who were born on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised. 6 For the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished, because they did not obey the voice of the LORD; the LORD swore to them that he would not let them see the land that the LORD had sworn to their fathers to give to us, a land flowing with milk and honey. 7 So it was their children, whom he raised up in their place, that Joshua circumcised. For they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way.
For 40 years, God led them through the desert and gave them victory over their enemies. They even conquered the people east of the Jordan while uncircumcised. They made covenant with God when the book of Deuteronomy was read to the children of Israel by Moses just before crossing the Red Sea. And yet they were still uncircumcised.
God required that they be circumcised before beginning their campaign to conquer Canaan, but for some, that was 40 years after they’d been born. Circumcision was a sign of a relationship with God but not the cause of that relationship. The cause was God’s election of Israel and Israel’s faith in response.
God was obviously very serious about circumcision, but it was not a sine qua non. After all, the duty to circumcise was placed on the parents, and the parents were faulted for the failure of their children to be circumcised, not the children.
Just so, when we fail to properly baptize a convert to Jesus, the sin is committed by the person teaching the convert. The convert has no more reason to be faulted for an error in his baptism than a child should be faulted for not being circumcised. Indeed, the scriptures refer to converts as children in Christ. It’s their spiritual father or mother who errs in teaching them baptism incorrectly.
It’s unimaginable that God would damn someone who comes to him with the faith of an Abraham and faithfulness of a Moses and the trust of a David because he or she, a babe in Christ, was taught baptism incorrectly. To think this way is to seriously misunderstand the roots of our religion. Indeed, it’s to turn a faith-based salvation into legalism.
But that no more makes baptism optional than circumcision was optional for the children of Israel. But it just wasn’t the basis of God’s salvation. He saved based on faith, remembering his promises to Abraham. But they were not allowed to march on Jericho until they were circumcised.
So when does God save? At the moment of faith or the moment of baptism? Well, who says it has to be one or the other or that it’s always the same? Who says that God even thinks in these terms, given that he exists outside of time as we experience time? Time is, after all, a created thing.
The cross saved the Jews as many as 2,000 years after they believed, and yet they were saved when they had faith. Or did God keep their souls on ice pending the crucifixion? When were they saved? When Jesus died on the cross? Or when they believed? Or both?
Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus at the Transfiguration even though Jesus had not yet been crucified. So they weren’t in cold storage awaiting salvation. They were already saved — surely — even though nothing had happened yet with the power to save them. Really.
A lawyer would say that the cross is a “condition subsequent,” which is an elegant way of saying that they were saved when they believed — conditioned on the obedience of Jesus happening later — which God foresaw with perfect foreknowledge and so credited before it even happened. Or credited in his own timeless realm. However you prefer to look at it. Both points of view have merit. Neither is a complete description.
In short, while it’s hardly the most important conclusion from our study of covenant theology, surely we can see that the covenant regime is built on God’s transcendence above and across time. Time is just not a barrier to God’s grace, and so arguing over when someone is saved is like arguing over how my sins could have been nailed to the cross when I hadn’t even been born at the time.
We try to fit God’s transcendent salvation into our linear time frame and so create odd metaphors — such as thinking of the cross as creating a pot of saving power that is then available in the future for the forgiveness of sins as they are committed. Which is kinda true and kinda not true. Because our sins were forgiven when Jesus submitted to the cross.
(Isa 53:5-6 ESV) 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned– every one– to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(Rom 5:6 ESV) For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
(Rom 5:8 ESV) 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
(Heb 9:27-28 ESV) 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
Jesus bore our sins before we even committed them, before we were even born. And if God can do that, then saving people baptized too early or without enough water or with less than ideal baptismal theology is no problem for the Lord of Hosts.
But that doesn’t make baptism optional or irrelevant.
(Jos 5:8-15 ESV) When the circumcising of the whole nation was finished, they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed. 9 And the LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” And so the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day.
10 While the people of Israel were encamped at Gilgal, they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening on the plains of Jericho. 11 And the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. 12 And the manna ceased the day after they ate of the produce of the land. And there was no longer manna for the people of Israel, but they ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year.
13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14 And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” 15 And the commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
I love this story. It’s filled with mystery and wonder. It reveals a God of incredible grace and patience, who gives his people what he promised them. I mean, just imagine being there, finally eating the fruit of the land, camping in the Promised Land, and finding that God has an angelic army ready to fight with you as you prepare to conquer your new home.
And then imagine someone asking, “Did you become a Jew when you were born, when you first had faith, or when you were circumcised 40 years later?” Far better to be busy following the commander of the army of the LORD into battle.