Born of Water: My Teaching and a Few FAQs

BaptismofJesus2[Reposted from January 2015, with some updates.]

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).

Profile photo of Jay Guin

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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13 Responses to Born of Water: My Teaching and a Few FAQs

  1. Dwight says:

    Good explanation. I cannot disagree with anything here that you have written, so far.
    We often approach the scriptures as though it teaches a line between faith and action or faith and baptism, but that is our problem and we make it a point of division. The baptized may not recognize that they have faith in those words and yet they have it, because they accept Jesus and are baptized. The faithful will be baptized and may not understand that it was at the point of baptism they were saved, because to them their baptism was faith.

  2. Chris says:

    There’s been a lot of back and forth debate going on regarding this subject, so thank you for explaining your position in a way that is understandable. This may not be a FAQ, but can you please address scripture that has me rather stumped. Why did Paul tell the Corinthians that he was sent not to baptize, (especially since Jesus commanded his followers to baptize believers) but to preach the gospel? Was he trying to clearly separate the gospel basics (death, burial, resurrection) and what one’s response to the gospel should be?

    Or was he simply saying that his preeminent duty was to preach the gospel and others (elders,etc.) could baptize those who respond to the good news? Or, his focus was the gospel and not baptizing, especially since many were bragging about who baptized them. The only other option I see is he was clearly stating that baptism has nothing to do with the saving message of the gospel. This is an argument many people who believe baptism is a faith +, and therefore is anything that is a faith+ is considered a work.

  3. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Chris,

    I have a post coming on this question shortly. It doesn’t completely answer your question but it would be a good place to start a discussion.

  4. Dwight says:

    I don’t know what Jay thinks, but I have heard many sermons or invitations that seem to focus on teaching baptism above teaching Christ, in the coC. To me Paul was condemning the Corinthians who were focusing on who baptized them and was arguing that the point is Jesus, before baptism, during baptism and after baptism. Paul said he preached “Christ and Christ crucified” and didn’t mention faith, repentance, baptism, as these things should result from the Gospel. But if we notice in I Cor. Paul didn’t say he was sent to establish faith either. He was sent to preach Christ.

  5. Chris says:

    Thanks Jay. Dwight, you make some very good points!

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dwight,

    I would largely agree with your analysis — except I would see preaching Christ and him crucified as preaching faith — not in the abstract but concretely. “Faith” is not just faith. It’s faith in Jesus. Hence, to have your hearers come to faith, you preach Jesus (Rom 10 is very plain.)

    So Paul preached Jesus, and when his hearers responded with faith, he baptized them (or had them baptized). But as you say, the point was Jesus — not baptism.

  7. Dwight says:

    Jay, true and preaching Christ also meant preaching repentance and if we are to believe Acts 8 it also means preaching baptism. My point is that we preach the word and the Holy Spirit works and faith in Christ is developed as well as everything else.
    There are many who go around preaching Christ, but end up preaching faith or baptism as if that is the goal. In Acts 2 faith was never mentioned, but it was their in power among the converts and afterwards as well. Some times we want to point out the gears and don’t step back to admire the beauty of the machine as a whole. And in this case we want to focus on the parts of the plan instead of the love of the bringer of the plan and the beauty of the plan in mercy and grace in the sacrifice. Jesus Christ and Christ crucified.

  8. Ray Downen says:

    Paul had health problems. Severely so. After being stoned and left for dead, he was no longer in perfect health. Yet he could still SPEAK and tell others about Jesus even if he was not physically strong enough now to baptize them. So he left the baptizing to younger and stronger hands. Why is that not so obvious as to not need to be described?

  9. Royce Ogle says:

    How many times can you do this Jay?

    You have gone over and over this topic and when you are done you will still try to hang on to the traditional coc teaching and the passages that clearly teach salvation is by faith in Jesus. Maybe I’m just not that smart but I can’t reconcile God saving some people one way and others another way.

  10. Christopher says:

    Ray wrote:

    Paul had health problems. Severely so. After being stoned and left for dead, he was no longer in perfect health. Yet he could still SPEAK and tell others about Jesus even if he was not physically strong enough now to baptize them. So he left the baptizing to younger and stronger hands. Why is that not so obvious as to not need to be described?

    Because it is conjecture on your part.

  11. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay,
    I agree with your discussion about grace being extended to someone who has faith and believes in Jesus who either has never learned that someone should baptize them. Or that there was no possibility for a baptism to be performed in the location when they became to a faith and belief. But, I believe that when someone who has heard of the command which was given to his Apostles to baptize believers, and will not commit to be baptized, he is deliberately refusing to follow the directions of Jesus. In effect they are attempting to modify Christs instructions. By believing that they are not in need of being baptized. Therefore, when I meet someone who claims to be a Christian and I learn that they have not been baptized, it is my duty to explain that all the followers of Christ in scripture were baptized and that is an example that they should follow also. If they disagree with me it means very little but God will judge them according to their willingness to obey teachings of Jesus and his Apostles.

  12. Larry Cheek says:

    I intended to continue the concept to the effect that one who refuses to be baptized is rejected from being a member of Christ’s body. A Christian who refuses to deliver the message that an individual needs to be baptized is accepting the blood of this individual upon themselves.

  13. David says:

    The question about whether or not baptism is required for salvation is tough because it is one the Bible never deals with. The question probably never came up for years after the church was established. In NT times the question was not, “must I be baptized?”. It was, “may I be baptized”?. That seems to me to be the drift of several of the conversion accounts of Acts. Of course, the Ethiopian asked that very question. On Pentecost day, Peter convicted the crowd of killing God’s Messiah. They were conscience stricken and asked what they could do. Peter had the cure. Saul also, most assuredly, was having a conscience crisis because of his intense persecution of the church. Ananias told him what to do about it. Saul went from a hateful sinner, down in the dumps, wallowing in self condemnation, to preaching the gospel of grace.

    The book of Hebrews makes much of the value of having a clean conscience before God, and in chapter 10, connects the clean conscience to baptism. I Peter 3, connects baptism to a clean conscience. Baptism is made for man, not man for baptism.

    In the gospels, Jesus pronounced the sins forgiven, or salvation, on several people when he saw their faith. As has already been noted, he had power to actually forgive sins. If Jesus pronounced someone’s sins forgiven, they were forgiven. It can be said that his words saved them. Again, as has been noted, people of the church have authority to pronounce sins forgiven in Jesus’ name by baptizing them. If someone’s sins are pronounced forgiven in Jesus’ name, assuming they have proper faith, their sins are forgiven. It can be said their baptism saved them.

    Must one have his sins pronounced forgiven before they are forgiven? I doubt that it worked that way when Jesus was on earth pronouncing sins forgiven. If I had been there with Jesus, I would not have asked him that question. My question would have been, “May I have my sins pronounced forgiven?”

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