Searching for The Third Way: Baptism, Part 1

three-thumb.jpgWell, I wasn’t really intending to pick on the Calvinist-Arminian controversies for the entire series, but here’s another place where the two traditions disagree — and another place that needs a Third Way solution.


The traditional view, going back at least to the Second Century, is that baptism is the occasion or moment of salvation — it’s when salvation occurs. It remains the view of Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anabaptists, and Arminian Protestants, such as most Anglicans, Methodists, and members of the Churches of Christ.

However, Calvin separated baptism from salvation —

As the use of the sacraments will confer nothing more on unbelievers than if they had abstained from it, nay, is only destructive to them, so without their use believers receive the reality which is there figured. Thus the sins of Paul were washed away by baptism, though they had been previously washed away.

John Calvin, “Heads of Agreement on the Lord’s Supper,” from Calvin’s Tracts & Letters Volume Two (Baker Edition).

In short, Calvin argues that baptism is only a symbol. As is familiar teaching to any Baptist, Calvin considered salvation to occur at the moment of faith. Baptism merely evidences the reality that had already occurred, making baptism symbolic only.

I’ve observed that the Calvinist view of baptism has lately begun to spread far beyond the churches with a Calvinistic heritage, perhaps due to fear of being seen as intolerant of the views of other believers. And yet the notion that salvation comes before and separate from baptism is only 500 years old and has only very recently gained acceptance outside Calvinist circles.

Interestingly, the reason Calvin felt obliged to separate baptism from salvation was his view of salvation. He taught that we have no free will in matters of salvation. God unconditionally elects the saved, not based on works or faith, as faith is impossible for the unelect. The elect, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are given faith and, hence, salvation unconditionally and irresistibly. They then submit to baptism.

Had Calvin considered baptism the moment of salvation, the convert would have a choice — free will — to decide whether to be saved, which is utterly outside Calvin’s system.

The Baptists, however, have rejected these elements of Calvinism, but have never accepted the Arminian view of baptism. Rather, they combine the Arminian idea of free will with the Calvinist idea of baptism as symbolic of a reality fully accomplished at the moment of faith or, more typically, at the moment one says the “sinner’s prayer.”

The preaching of the “sinner’s prayer” only goes back to the revival preaching of D. L. Moody in the 19th Century. It only gained popular acceptance with the preaching of Billy Graham and the publication of the Four Spiritual Laws by Campus Crusade for Christ in the 1950’s. Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity (2002), 236-237.

The problem

Although the Calvinist view is relatively new (about 500 years old), and the “sinner’s prayer” is not even 150 years old, the theory has some support in scripture. In particular, scores of verses promise salvation to all who have faith. How can these verses speak the truth if the unbaptized believer is damned?

On the other hand, the salvation-at-the-moment-of-baptism position has many verses that plainly support that view. They are not easily dismissed.

As a result, the two sides argue, and argue, and argue, and no one is persuaded. What we need is a Third Way.

But the question is even more complex. You see, we in the Churches of Christ reject infant baptism. We follow the Anabaptist tradition which teaches, based on scripture, we believe, that baptism is for believers. We deny that baptism brings forgiveness to those, such as infants, who don’t believe and don’t voluntarily submit to it. Thus, we argue that infant baptism is no baptism at all.

The result is to see the vast majority of believers as un-baptized and thus unsaved. The practice of infant baptism is quite widespread and applies to Catholics, the Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians — the vast majority of believers in most countries and in the world.

Now, Baptists believe salvation is before baptism, so they have no need to re-baptize those baptized as infants to be saved. Rather, they re-baptize them to admit them to the church — the Baptists making a distinction between being saved and being in the church. Of course, the Biblical sense of “church” and the saved is identical. If you’re saved, you’re part of the church, but this is the sort of artifice one must resort to in order to preserve the Bible’s teaching on baptism while also teaching that all who faith are saved.

The question re-defined

Another way of looking at this, as suggested in my book Born of Water, is not to ask: will God save the un-baptized? but rather to ask: will God save penitent believers who’ve been improperly baptized? After all, nearly every believer has been baptized (in the broad sense of the word) — although most have been baptized before believing or else by pouring or sprinkling rather than immersion.

I’ll not re-argue the case here. Read the book. It’s another example of Third Way thinking.

It’s hard to summarize the conclusion, and so I’ll just give an example of one line of reasoning.

To be saved, we must believe, repent, and be baptized. Right? But we don’t have to have perfect faith. And we don’t have to have perfect penitence. Why, then, should God require a perfect baptism? If God will overlook our human frailty in our efforts to believe and to repent, why not overlook our frailty in trying to be baptized according to his will?

Now, this is a significant argument, but it’s not the only argument. Read the book. But in the next posts, I’m going to try to build another argument — another Third Way argument — to the mix.

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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9 Responses to Searching for The Third Way: Baptism, Part 1

  1. cobbmic says:

    A quick point about common arguments for the view that baptism is necessary for salvation:

    Most of the verses that we use to prove baptism are in the following form: *If you are baptized, then your sins will be forgiven.*

    In logic, such a statement is called a conditional.

    I have often heard it stated that such statements *show* that if you aren't baptized, then your sins will not be forgiven. But that is a logical fallacy ("Denying the antecedent";

    We need to be careful in arguing this way. Now, other verses and other considerations (the function of baptism and the absence of anything else doing that function) could prove the necessity/efficacy of baptism, but verses with the above-mentioned form cannot.

  2. rey says:

    Calvin was a murderer who murdered anabaptists who taught baptism by immersion and for believers only. Why anyone would follow the murderers teaching that baptism is a mere symbol or that infant baptism is just as valid as baptism of believers, or any of the murderers other doctrines, knowing that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him, is beyond me.

    This site
    has some good quotes showing that Calvin murdered Servetus and later said he'd like to do it all over again.

    A quote they missed is this, where Calvin said: "He (Servetus) showed the dumb stupidity of a beast . . . He went on bellowing . . . in the Spanish
    fashion: "Misericordias!" Misericordias, of course, is Spanish for mercy.

    Calvin didn't believe in mercy for those who opposed his teachings; for them was only murder and hate. He actually said that his god is not unjust in that he "banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts; that he commands paternal love and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease; in a word, that he almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal." Sounds very Muslim, but its Calvin. "Why is so implacable a severity exacted but that we may know that God is defrauded of his honour, unless the piety that is due to him be preferred to all human duties, and that when his glory is to be asserted, humanity must be almost obliterated from our memories?" As if Servetus writing a book Calvin didn't like could really rob God of his honor. And even if it had, God commands "thou shalt not kill"! But Calvin continues "Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that I would like to kill again the man I have destroyed. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face.”

    Calvin also wrote wrote to England's King Henry VIII recommending that the anabaptists be burned as an example to other Englishmen, in these words "It is far better that two or three be burned than thousands perish in
    Hell." Oop! Calvin just denied his own doctrine of Fatalistic salvation. If the elect are fatalistically "once saved always saved" how could the anabaptists possibly cause them to fall? And if it is impossible for the non-elect to believe because Calvin's god has taken away their free will and decreed them to hell, then it would not be the anabaptists that would damn them, but Calvin's god! So, the killing of the anabaptists in no way would save anyone from hell according to Calvinism! Why then did Calvin command it? Because they were the true Christians and killing them would not keep people from going to hell but from going to heaven, because with them out of the way, Calvin could consign all men in the Satanic faith called Calvinism. So he though anyway–but he forgot about the REAL God.

  3. rey says:

    By the way, it was Oct. 27 1553 that Calvin murdered Servetus. Mark it on your calendar for next year and remember to tell all your Calvinist friends all about it on that day.

  4. Jay Guin says:


    You are quite right. Negating "p implies q" does not produce "not p implies not q" (the converse). It produced "not q implies not p" — that is, in your example, if you've not been saved, then you've not been baptized.

    The answer to your argument is found in John 3:5 —

    (John 3:5) Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit."

    As this actually says, "not p implies not q" (if you're not baptized, you're not saved) the verse is quite controversial.

    I address the meaning at /2008/03/13/amazing-grace-b… and at greater length in my book Born of Water (/books-by-jay-guin/born-of-water/).

    As you'll see, I exegete this verse quite traditionally. However, in Born of Water — and in this series — I suggest very different ways of looking at the question.

  5. cobbmic says:

    "The answer to your argument is found in John 3:5 "

    Yeah, that's why I said that other verses can prove our point about baptism (I too have a very traditional view). Also, an argument can be made from the biblical function of baptism and the absence of anything else performing that function.

    But, nonetheless, it is quite popular to argue that "Be baptized for the remissions of your sins" proves that not being baptized means your sins haven't been remitted.

    Something I've often pointed out to people is that the recognition of my earlier point means we *have* to wrestle with John 3:5–which is a difficult and controversial text, as you pointed out.

    Regarding John 3:5, I agree with your interpretation. (BTW, have you ever read Leon Morris' discussion of this text in the NICNT's commentary on John? It helpful.)

  6. Jay Guin says:

    Actually, I have. He disputes that "water" can refer to birth, as the ancients never used "water" in that way and because John uses "blood" as a metaphor for birth, not water. I think he's right. So do nearly all commentators before Calvin.

  7. Jay Guin says:


    Your attack on Calvin is ad hominem. While not attacking anyone living, it is nonetheless an effort to dispute Calvinism by attacking the person, rather than the substance of the argument.

    As the Wikipedia says,

    An ad hominem argument, also known as argumentum ad hominem (Latin: "argument to the man", "argument against the man") consists of replying to an argument or factual claim by attacking or appealing to a characteristic or belief of the person making the argument or claim, rather than by addressing the substance of the argument or producing evidence against the claim. The process of proving or disproving the claim is thereby subverted, and the argumentum ad hominem works to change the subject.

    It is most commonly used to refer specifically to the ad hominem as abusive, sexist, racist, or argumentum ad personam, which consists of criticizing or attacking the person who proposed the argument (personal attack) in an attempt to discredit the argument.

  8. Matthew says:

    So, Rey, let me get this straight… Calvin was a murderer, and he believed in predestination; therefore, we should not believe in predestination. Is that correct? Well, if so, then logic would dictate that we should not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, either. After all, Calvin believed in it.

  9. Pingback: Some readings on baptism |

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