Judging from the comments, it would be helpful for me to lay out what I teach about baptism again. It’s not complicated, but because it’s unfamiliar to most within the Churches of Christ, many readers have had trouble wrapping their heads around it — which is surely my fault.
But I think recent discussions have shown me a better way of expressing myself. Okay — here it is —
* The traditional teaching of the Churches of Christ is largely correct. We correctly interpret Acts 2:38 and all the other familiar baptism proof texts to conclude that baptism is the moment when God forgives — normatively. (By “normatively,” I mean this is what God intends to be the normal case, but God allows for exceptions.) Therefore, I teach baptism of believers by immersion into forgiveness of sins — just as Peter preached on Pentecost.
* However, unlike many in the Churches of Christ, I teach that grace applies to baptismal error — in theology or practice. Hence, a failure to be correctly baptized does not damn. A failure to correctly understand baptism does not damn.
* In accordance with traditional Church of Christ teaching, I hold that faith in Jesus is absolutely essential to salvation. So is repentance. “Faith,” in the Greek, and as typically used in the New Testament, includes not only belief that Jesus is the Messiah and Lord, but also faithfulness to Jesus as Lord and trust in Jesus to keep his promises. Therefore, we can’t have “faith” without having committed to follow Jesus, including his ethical teachings. (I will not vary from this definition of “faith” in this discussion.)
* All with faith (as defined above) in Jesus will be saved, but that doesn’t mean the moment of salvation is necessarily the moment of faith. Rather, God intends for salvation to occur at the moment of baptism, which is intended to be very shortly following faith. The New Testament is written on the assumption that baptism and faith are essentially simultaneous — and so the writers do not focus on the timing of salvation vis-à-vis baptism. Hence, some verses speak of salvation occurring at the moment of faith and others at the moment of baptism. This only becomes a contradiction in modern practice because we often separate the two, contrary to New Testament practice.
Q. So you’re taking the Southern Baptist position and are against baptism!!
A. No, I’m very much for baptism, but I’m also for grace.
I’ve noticed a tendency among both sides of the old Church of Christ/Baptist debate to insist on pigeonholing me into one camp or the other, unable to imagine that there might be a third option. Hence, BOTH sides insist that I’m in the other camp’s camp. And both insist on pulling out the century-old arguments they are accustomed to using against the other — sometimes without even bothering to read my position because they KNOW what the OTHER side teaches. But I’m in neither camp, and the old arguments are often not relevant to this discussion.
Q. So what if someone with faith (as defined above) dies before being baptized despite intending to be baptized? Perhaps they get hit by a train on the way to be baptized.
A. This is, of course, a familiar debating point made by Baptists against the traditional Church of Christ position, which denies salvation to those unbaptized. But I teach that all with faith will be saved and that grace will cover an insufficiency in baptism. Obviously, such a person will be saved. God repeatedly promises to save all with faith in Jesus (as defined above). Obedience is about the heart, and the fact that the believer intended to obey and was prevented by circumstances beyond his control does not change the fact that he had a penitent heart.
Q. So when was he saved? At coming to faith or at baptism? He wasn’t baptized, and so he must have been saved at the moment of faith.
A. This logic only works if the moment of faith and the moment of baptism are the only possibilities. Who made up that rule? There are more than two possibilities.
My view is that God saves the believer, in this rare circumstance (being killed by a train on the way to the baptistry), when he dies — which is when it matters most. Why not? God promised to save all with faith in Jesus, and so he will — and he won’t be prevented from saving him by our insistence on hammering God into the limits of the Baptist/Church of Christ debate. God is much bigger than that.
The early church taught that an unbaptized believer could be saved by baptism in blood — martyrdom. In that case, the believer would be saved at death. They couldn’t imagine God denying salvation to someone who died for Jesus before he was baptized. I can’t imagine God denying salvation to someone with faith (as defined above) in Jesus when he has promised repeatedly to save everyone with faith (as defined above) in Jesus.
Q. If all with faith are saved, you must not require repentance!
A. Pay attention! “Faith” includes faithfulness, a synonym for repentance from sin. Indeed, I believe repentance/faithfulness to require more than a mere commitment to higher ethics. It’s a commitment to follow Jesus by becoming more and more like him — all the way to the cross. Baptism demonstrates that we are to die with Jesus — not just to our former life of sin but also to commit to a sacrificial, submissive way of life.
Q. If grace covers baptismal error, why not the complete absence of faith in Jesus?
A. One of the great errors of 20th Century Church of Christ teaching — and most Protestant teaching — was our insistence on abstracting rules from the text and leaving the narrative of scripture behind. We took “faith” and “repent” out of their context and so misunderstood them in subtle but important ways.
Read Paul, especially Romans. Chapters 1 – 5 are all about the sufficiency and necessity of faith to save, explained in light of the Old Testament. Plainly, Paul sees faith as non-negotiably essential. Romans 9 – 11 make this clear beyond all doubt. Paul concludes that most of his fellow Jews are damned because they lack faith in Jesus.
The book of Acts is the story of missionaries saving Jews with faith in God by teaching them to believe in Jesus as Messiah. They were lost, despite their faith in God and moral lifestyles, without Jesus.
I reject the “available light” theory because Acts tells a different story.
Q. So you think all believers are saved? Even those who sin? Even those who teach error?
A. Isn’t that what the Bible plainly and repeatedly tells us? Isn’t that the very definition of “grace”? Why should I not believe it?
Of course, I only speak of those with faith (as above defined). Those who deny that Jesus is the Messiah and Lord, those who refuse to submit to Jesus as Lord, and those who won’t trust Jesus’ promises aren’t saved. Grace does not erase all boundaries. (I’m not attempting a comprehensive list of non-negotiables. But this is the core. All else flows from these because these define “faith.”)
Q. So some error damns and some error does not?
A. Exactly. The boundary is faith in Jesus, not error. No one is has a perfect theology, just as no one lives without moral sin. We are not perfectible during this age, but we are capable of faith (as above defined). The false teachers that are condemned in the New Testament are those who attack the core elements of faith (as above defined).