N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 48 (Faith and baptism, Part 3)


N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.

The sacramental nature of baptism

Of course, in the Churches of Christ, Rom 6 is a famous prooftext for the necessity of baptism as a condition of salvation. In our traditional teaching, baptism is in fact the fifth and final step of five steps essential to being saved: hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized. Hence, we would quite seriously argue that no one could be saved based on the many salvation passages in Rom 1 – 5 because they mention only faith in Jesus not baptism. Which entirely misses Paul’s point.

If you’ve read the earlier posts and, more importantly, the earlier chapters of Romans, you know that Paul most certainly does not, in Romans, present baptism as the fifth and final step for how to be saved. In fact, he’s just spent the largest part of chapters 1 – 5 to demonstrate that both Jews and Gentiles are saved by faith in Jesus — because God made a covenant with Abraham to count faith as righteousness (covenant faithfulness). And if we’re saved by faith because of God’s covenant with Abraham, well, there’s nothing in Genesis about Abraham being baptized.

Paul’s point in chapters 1 – 5 is not that works do not save (although he teaches this). The larger point is that faith is sufficient to save — as we covered in yesterday’s post. And because faith in Jesus is sufficient, there is no reason to have to do “works of the law” or “works of the Torah” in order to be saved. Therefore, whether or not baptism is a “work” isn’t really the right question. We have to ask whether baptism is grammatically a part of “faith” or pistis (in the Greek).

And it’s just not. I mean, go through Romans and try to replace “faith” with “faith including baptism” everywhere that “faith” appears. It works in some places, but in some of the most important places, such as in chapter 4 dealing with the faith of Abraham, it doesn’t work at all, because Abraham was not baptized. Note the absurdity —

(Rom. 4:1 ESV) 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God [and was baptized], and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly [and is baptized], his faith [which includes baptism] is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” 9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith [which includes baptism] was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 

Not only was Abraham not baptized, neither was Israel prior to Pentecost — which is about 1,500 years of salvation history. And so baptism cannot be part of the covenant — just as circumcision cannot be part of the covenant because God required circumcision after he promised to credit faith as righteousness — as Paul argues in Rom 4.

For that matter, if you read the “new covenant” passages in Jeremiah and the other prophets, they make no mention of baptism. They do often compare God’s salvation and God’s Spirit to water — which is important — but no one says that faith will be superseded by faith + water baptism.

Might God have changed the covenant? Well, in a sense, he did. He opened the way for Gentiles to be a part of the faith-community called Israel through Jesus. But Paul explicitly teaches that we’re saved by faith because we’re heirs of the promises made by God to Abraham — and so God did not change this aspect of his covenant.

(Rom. 4:3-5 NET)  3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”  4 Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation.  5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness. 

(Rom. 4:13 NET) 13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 

If we insist that God added baptism to faith in Jesus as a step toward salvation, then Paul’s opponents could have argued that God himself added circumcision as a step toward salvation because he required Abraham to be circumcised. But Paul refutes this argument by pointing out that the promise of salvation by faith predates the command to be circumcised — by maybe 10 or 15 years. It predates the command to be baptized by over 2,000 years! That is, any effort to amend God’s covenant promises to Abraham by adding terms to “faith” contradicts and even defeats Paul’s core argument.

The great False Dichotomy [JFG]

In the late 19th Century, long after the Stone-Campbell Movement (or Restoration Movement) was an international phenomenon, and after the founders had all died, a Texan named Austin McGary founded the Firm Foundation to argue that baptism does not save unless the person being baptized believed himself to be having his sins remitted as he went under the water. This began as a minority position, as the Campbells, Barton W. Stone, Walter Scott, David Lipscomb, Tolbert Fanning, and countless others considered Baptist teaching on baptism erroneous but not damning.

The result of McGary’s teaching was to split churches across the country and to create a very ugly spirit of legalism. After all, if misunderstanding baptismal theology would damn a babe in Christ — a babe who’d heard, believed, repented, confessed, and been baptized!   — then error on instrumental music, church organization, the church treasury, etc. were also damning — and so the 20th Century was marked by countless divisions over issues that seem absurd today — even forgotten. I mean, some churches damned and split over fund raising using a bake sale. Others split over the authority to have a hired, located minister. Really. It was a huge issue in its day. And the divisive, factious spirit of Austin McGary is alive and well among many of our churches even today.

Hence, for readers who are just as tired of the endless wrangling over the timing of salvation vs. baptism as I am (and I’m very tired of it), I can’t let it go because it’s the root of our contentious, sectarian, divisive spirit. It’s destroying our denomination — and has to be rooted out.

As a result of McGary’s heresy (and Alexander Campbell declared that same teaching, decades before McGary, as “heresy”), we in the Churches of Christ are hard wired to believe that there are two and only two possibilities regarding the salvific nature of baptism. Either (1) Austin McGary was right and you must not only be baptized but baptized with the specific intent of having sins remitted (on penalty of damnation) or else (2) you must accept the Sinner’s Prayer theology so commonly taught among the Southern Baptists (which many are beginning to reject).

Reconciling the two camps [JFG]

But who says these are the only possibilities? Is it not possible that there is a third possibility we ought to consider? I mean, while Romans plainly teaches that we’re saved by faith in Jesus, it just as plainly declares,

(Rom. 6:4 NET)  4 Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life.

How can these both be true? I mean, Paul was no idiot, and he saw not the least reason to mention baptism in chapters 1 – 5 when discussing how people are reconciled to God, saved, and justified. And then he jumps into a discussion of baptism in chapter 6 without any evident awareness that he’d just contradicted himself — and  yet we insist on either believing chapter 6 or believing chapters 1 – 5, but we (and our Baptist friends) are utterly unwilling to accept both. And I think it’s all true. Every bit of it.

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  1. The sacramental nature of baptism, sounds very binding according to Webster.
    SACRAMENT’AL, a. Constituting a sacrament or pertaining to it; as sacramental rites or elements.

    SACRAMENT’AL, n. That which relates to a sacrament.
    SAC’RAMENT, n. [L. sacramentum, an oath, from sacer, sacred.]

    1. Among ancient christian writers, a mystery. [Not in use.]

    2. An oath; a ceremony producing an obligation; but not used in this general sense.

    3. In present usage, an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace; or more particularly, a solemn religious ceremony enjoined by Christ, the head of the christian church, to be observed by his followers, by which their special relation to him is created, or their obligations to him renewed and ratified. Thus baptism is called a sacrament, for by it persons are separated from the world, brought into Christ’s visible church, and laid under particular obligations to obey his precepts. The eucharist or communion of the Lord’s supper, is also a sacrament, for by commemorating the death and dying love of Christ, christians avow their special relation to him, and renew their obligations to be faithful to their divine Master. When we use sacrament without any qualifying word, we mean by it,

    4. The eucharist or Lord’s supper.

    SAC’RAMENT, v.t. To bind by an oath. [Not used.]
    Ephesians 2:8-10

    This statement makes it sound like it is powerful, doing the every things that Christ and Paul taught. .
    “Thus baptism is called a sacrament, for by it persons are separated from the world, brought into Christ’s visible church, and laid under particular obligations to obey his precepts.”

    Has Webster defined it incorrectly? We can be assured that it was not a creation of man, Christ validated that it was from heaven.

  2. The flaw is that faith was established or perfected by actions.
    Romans 4:2 “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”
    James 2:21 “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?”
    These two scriptures can’t obviously contradict each other, so we must be missing something.
    The works of Romans must be without faith, while the works of James is with works, but justified.
    Baptism works because it as I Peter 3 says, “There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,”
    The act was an act towards God in faith and out of faith, and it was the answer God required.

  3. Dwight
    In legal matters, people can be justified two ways, by receiving a pardon or by showing their innocence. Paul, in Romans, was probably speaking in terms similar to a pardon, while James was speaking of justification in terms similar to showing innocence. Abraham was justified by faith and then his faith was tested. He showed that he would truly keep his covenant with God. We are justified by faith and then our faith is tested, We pray not as severely as Abraham’s was.

    That may not be the way a Biblical scholar would explain it, but its the way I explain it to myself.

  4. David,
    That is a very good point. Thinking about how not only Abraham but many other servants of God were tested, I could list a very long list, but the discomfort if there is any, of being baptized is not the deterrent, but it seems that a greater deterrent is that an individual has to make public a submission to God. So a person who becomes a believer and that leads to faith, doesn’t show submission by just declaring his belief. Of course, any believer who has faith in God/Christ would actually be renouncing that belief and faith by refusing baptism. Knowing that what would you consider would be the first attack of Satan, if he can convince the new believer that baptism is not necessary he will have duplicated the first seduction that Eve believed. Remember, he tempted Christ knowing that he was God’s Son, would you suppose that he would not attempt to do the same to an adopted son? Baptism is something no one should fear. I don’t believe that any one has ever died or even attracted a sickness from being baptized. We broke the ice on the water so several of us could be baptized.

  5. We are followers of Jesus right? It is therefore strange that Jesus himself, even though he didn’t need it for salvation, insisted on baptism by John. I believe for the same reason as stated in 1 Peter 3 “but the answer of a good conscience toward God”. This as we know was pleasing to God as God states, ““This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
    Now we on the other hand are told to be baptized so that we can stand clean before God for forgiveness in Acts 2. But this also means that we aren’t forgiven before the baptism. If baptism is reminiscent of the OT cleansings, it allowed the people to stand before God .You could not enter the Temple without being clean. Faith in God allowed people to be clean internally, by washing externally…sound familiar.
    But faith in God was tested and made sure and made real by actions required. Now actions didn’t equal faith, but faith equaled actions, lack of faith equaled no actions. Peter walked on the water due to faith in God, but sank when his faith was shifted to the water.
    But baptism isn’t a test, but a response. Going back to Naaman, Naaman was simply supposed to do something in faith, but thought that anything else could be an expression of faith as well, but it wasn’t. Now arguably Naaman’s faith in God was expressed when he dipped in the water, but he wasn’t healed before it.
    But I am unwilling to place my forgiveness in either faith or baptism. Forgiveness is from God.
    Within context we are neither justified by faith or baptism, but by God, who we aim to please.
    It is easy to replace “faith in Jesus is sufficient to save” with “faith is sufficient to save”, but it is wrong. While the covenant faith of Abraham wasn’t expressed in baptism, but it was expressed in doing the commandments of God in faith.
    Covenants are simply agreements and Abraham made a covenant with God before he was circumcised, but this still hinged upon Abraham following God. Doing God’s will. Faithfully. A rejection of God’s will is not being faithful to God.

  6. I would argue that baptism IS a part of faith in that obedience is a part of faith. That is, Abraham was obedient to what was asked of him. He was never asked to be baptized (which would have made no sense), but he did do what God asked of him. Had he not done so, we wouldn’t be able to say that he believed God.

    The jailer in Acts 16 was told to believe. He was baptized, then rejoiced that he had believed in God. I think his actions (including baptism) were part of that belief.

    If I claim to believe in my doctor, yet refuse to do what he says, then I haven’t believed. Faith/faithfulness cannot be limited to intellectual activity.

    I do agree that the actions that defined Abraham’s faith are not the same that define our faith. But just as he would have been faithless if he had never moved to Canaan, we cannot claim to have Abraham’s faith unless we do what God asks of us.

  7. Tim(if I can call you that), you make a very good argument in the case of the doctor. Doing what is asked of us is an example of our faith. Now can we do things without faith, yes, in fact the Jews were being slammed because of faithless works, but as noted in James, “show you my faith by my works.”
    Arguing that Abraham didn’t have to be baptized, still doesn’t argue that he wasn’t required by God to show his faith and thus be pleasing in God’s sight. Ironically Abraham was asked to do things we aren’t asked to do, but he still did them out of faith. Faith is doing what we are asked by the one we trust.
    Why does God want us to do things out of faith…I believe it is commitment. It is easy to think something, but acting it out is a sealer of our faith to God and ourselves.
    It makes it real. Solid. It shows acceptance of God’s will.

    It should be noted that after “faith” the Jews in Acts 2 they were told to “repent and be baptized”, but didn’t their question of “what must we do?” reflect faith and repentance?
    Why ask them to do something they were doing, like repent?
    Because while they had conviction, they didn’t have faith until they made the turn and took a step towards God. While faith isn’t a step, Baptism I would argue is. A step of accepting faith.
    I can be guilty of doing something and know the pain, but this doesn’t mean that I have committed myself in faith.
    Going back to Tim’s doctor, I can be assured that I am sick and know it, but putting my faith in the doctor that I will be healed is different. I work in the medical field and know there is a wide gap between being sick and knowing it and actually trusting the doctor to fix it and believing it.
    The whole book of Romans wasn’t written to the lost, but the saved. Romans was written to encourage those who had committed themselves to Christ to continue in Christ as one people made up of Jews and Gentiles.
    vs.5-6 “Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ.”
    Thus justification is living in God by faith and not just doing Godly things in works.
    vs.17 ““The just shall live by faith.”
    Living by faith means that everything we do is in Christ, not just things of baptism, worship, etc.
    A work is momentary, but life is always in motion.

  8. Jay,
    Just to clarify what seems a little unclear by much of your post about these separated messages chapter 1-5 then chapter 6.
    As you express yourself in this statement, “And I think it’s all true. Every bit of it”. I understand that to mean that you cannot condone that either of these concepts are complete, you are committed to the fulfilling of both, in other words faith, belief and baptism are all equally necessary to added to the Kingdom. That would also require that not fulfilling all these actions would declare one as still lost/condemned.

  9. One of the things I think most of us overlook is the fact that “salvation” is a promise yet to be realized. So all of the things we talk about as points of salvation are really meaningless in many ways if our path is not to God and we are seeking him in the Spirit.
    Are we saved before baptism?
    Are we saved by faith?
    Are we saved at baptism?
    We are saved by Christ, by being in Christ.
    We might not even be saved after it if we don’t follow Christ to the end.

    And faith, this unseeable force within us, is what will propel us to the end if it is God directed.
    The difference between relying on faith and works is that we live by faith, not by works, because works are momentary points of action, but faith is all points of action and thinking. The Jews who lived by works saw their actions like worship in the Temple, rituals, etc. as justifying them, but those who lived by faith loved their neighbors, fed the homeless, worshipped at all times, etc.

  10. Dwight,
    It sounds like we can always know our location within the process. There are no guesses. The only way that we will loose the status of being “saved” is when we remove ourselves from faith, belief and action.

  11. I believe that we have made a mess of it in placing salvation at faith in a point instead of faith in Jesus and then trying to go His will. And a process it is. But the biggest things is not rejecting the Savior to whom we are bound and not rejecting those around us in love.

  12. Dwight said: “The flaw is that faith was established or perfected by actions.”
    John replies:
    James 2:22 faith was completed by his works (ESV); faith was perfected-(NASU); by the actions the faith was made complete (CJB); He proved that his faith was real by what he did (CEV); His faith was made perfect by what he did (Easy-to-Read Version); His faith was shown to be genuine by what he did (GOD’S WORD); that faith expresses itself in works? (THE MESSAGE); His actions made his faith complete. (NLT); faith was brought to completion by the works. (NRSV)

    Paul speaks often about “works” and being judged by them: Rom. 2 & 1 Cor 3, but not in regard to “justification.”
    It is not that feeding the poor (Matt. 25) saves, but a mark of the saved is that they do feed the poor. “Works” of righteousness become part of our spiritual nature, as natural as our beating hearts (Jay, may YOUR heart keep beating!). Not that there is merit toward salvation in them: “All of us are like someone unclean, all our righteous deeds like menstrual rags; we wither, all of us, like leaves; (Is. 64:6 CJB). Could God, through Isaiah, speak any more clearly?

    We can have faith in Christ and belief in Christ (same Greek work “pisitis”), but we are NOT “faithed” into Christ or “beliefed” into Christ, but baptized into Christ (Rom. 6 & Gal. 3 the only occurrences of INTO CHRIST in the NT.) It is then “in Christ” (89 times in the NT [ESV]) that we have all spiritual blessings (Eph 1:3).

  13. John, I agree, but no works is a sign of poor faith, would you not agree?
    This is why James says, “I will show you my faith by my works” and not “I will show you my works by my works.”
    He wasn’t trying to establish justification by works, but rather justification by a faith that works.

  14. (I am teaching topically through James right now.)

    James doesn’t say “if a man has faith,” but “if a man claims to have faith.” James isn’t speaking of real faith but claimed faith. And if we miss that point — which he makes abundantly clear at the beginning of his lesson — we get very confused indeed. Here (James 2:14-26) “faith” is used sometimes to mean mere intellectual belief in God’s existence, a faith even the devils share (v. 19), a dead (vv. 17,20, 26), useless and fruitless (vv. 14, 16) faith; and sometimes it has the ordinary Christian meaning of faith as the activity of a believer seeking to obey God. Therefore, we make a serious mistake we take the — “faith” of demons — and treat that faith as the faith being spoken of in John or Paul or James, as though a faith without works could be a faith at all. James’ point isn’t that we need faith PLUS works, but rather faith without works isn’t really faith at all. It’s dead faith, whereas true faith is living.
    “Faith” in NT is not mere intellectual assent except when James speaks of dead, inadequate, pretend faith. The faith that saved people have is a 1) a faith that repents, 2) a faith that submits to Jesus as Lord, 3) a faith that is loyal, 4) a faith that is faithful. Faith and faithful are virtually synonyms.

    James 2:22 faith was completed by his works (ESV); faith was perfected-(NASU); by the actions the faith was made complete (CJB); He proved that his faith was real by what he did (CEV); His faith was made perfect by what he did (Easy-to-Read Version); His faith was shown to be genuine by what he did (GOD’S WORD); that faith expresses itself in works? (THE MESSAGE); His actions made his faith complete. (NLT); faith was brought to completion by the works. (NRSV)

    Our works / displays of faith become expressions of thanks, songs of praise, gifts of love, and offerings of appreciation. Our lives become a living, flowing demonstration of what it means to be a Christian; a living testimony to the beauty of the Christian life attracting others to the Savior. When truly submitted to Christ, we could no more fail to walk in “deeds of righteousness” than we could fail to breathe – it is a part of our very nature – part of a renewed DNA – part of being a new creation. The Holy Spirit indwells us, leading us with a gentle breeze into the very presence of God. This does not mean we live a perfect life — we still have to “put to death” the deeds of the flesh (Col. 3:5; but as we do put them to death through the Spirit (Rom. 8:13), we will live.)

  15. I agree John F. Faith lives through works and just doesn’t lead to them. Thus baptism isn’t a work, but rather to be seen as an expression of a living faith.

  16. I will be finishing the above thoughts this Sunday in class. Have not been called heretical . . . yet.

  17. John F,
    Your comment really does display the truth. I also noticed that much of what you have identified is not visible by the world through the church. Individual Christians yes, but most of the assemblies of the church do not contain enough dedicated Christians with the description you have given to overshadow those who are not living that visibility. Therefore, the church is not the light to the world, but many individual Christians are. We must remember that Satan has infiltrated the churches, and even Christ gave orders to not attempt to remove all the tares because it would destroy some of the good grain.

  18. Larry, which church are you talking about? The church, as in local church or the church as in the people, because it is as you say the people who are a light to the world, thus the church is. I would agree that our local groups or church systems fail because they are made of people and as a group are inefficient in this.
    In the coC we often separate faith from works and often focus on the work aspects and yet seem to do very little of it aside from that which is done in the assembly on Sunday or Wednesday.
    I used to believe that James was an argument for works, but now believe that James is an argument for faith that works.

  19. Dwight,
    I was definitely referring to the assemblies which the world sees, the physical church assembled. The Spiritual Church, where the Spirit dwells within Christians is many times not even visible to many Christians. The assemblies have become so much social clubs that the values that the church should be (the light to the world) is not visible.
    But, then as I think about this further, each individual Christian is supposed to be the light, the assemblies are to edify and build up the Church (the members). The assemblies were not designated as the light. So I would actually be saying that the Church is not being the light through the members daily activities in the world.

  20. I agree. We are to be lights to the world. Jesus said to his followers, “you are thenjoying light of the world”, not to an assembly.