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.