Monday, January 12, 2009

Baptism with Salvation, not for it

One of the questions that has plagued the church through time is whether baptism is essential for salvation. Part of the problem is that the institutional church, from at least the days of Constantine, used baptism as a sacrament that empowered the church and its leadership over the people. This has caused confusion for almost all of our history.

But that is not the whole explanation. One of the reasons why the institutionalized church has been able to get away with this is because the New Testament itself connects baptism and salvation so closely together. We cannot escape the fact that baptism and salvation are connected, the question is: how?

I do not think that the water is magical. I do not think that baptism conveys any special grace beyond the grace that one reaps from following Christ in obedience. I also do not believe that any work we do, even baptism, merits salvation.

Being baptized is not the way to be saved, but it is an outward action to make the decision more than just a thought; and salvation is indeed more than just a thought. It should be considered the first step of a new life, a life of obedience. It is declaring the decision for all to see. It is a step that announces a life of allegiance to the King.

In the NT the disciples who made a decision to follow Christ took their first step into the water. Baptism is, in a sense, much like the way walking an aisle for an altar call was a few years back. Once again, we have an example of us substituting a non-Biblical practice for the one first established by Jesus. The “sinner’s prayer” is another example of this. Both the altar call and the prayer are not adequate substitutes.

Baptism symbolizes so much: not just cleansing, but a tomb (death and resurrection), and a womb (being born again). It is being completely immersed in the name of the Triune Godhead with nothing held back. It is the end of an old life and the birth of a new one.


Joshua Tucker said...

Neil, thanks for another thoughtful post about baptism. I do hope you don't mind me responding a little to what you wrote in a spirit of love, because I happen to disagree with some of what you wrote, though I agree with much of it.

I do agree that the Catholic church changed baptism into a sacrament to exercise authority over its followers. But I also think that modern theology has reacted against this concept so much that baptism has lost almost all of its original meaning, purpose, and significance.

I don't know of anyone who thinks the water in baptism is magical, either. Col. 2:11-12 makes it clear that baptism is "faith in the working of God," not in the water. Nor do I know anyone who thinks that water baptism somehow earns one into God's grace. Only the Cross of our perfect Savior does this. But the question is, when is the Cross applied to us?

In Acts 2:38, the first sermon after Jesus' ascension, Peter answers a questioning crowd. He tells them to "repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ FOR the forgiveness of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (emphasis added). We would all agree that one has to repent of their sins to be saved, but Peter joins baptism and repentance together. Why ignore this part of his statement? He commands repentance and baptism both for the forgiveness of sins. For myself, that's clear enough.

I understand the thought that baptism is "an outward action to make the decision more than just a thought." But the problem is that this idea is not found in the New Testament. Consider these verses:

"For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." - Gal. 3:26-27

(in reference to the Flood) "There is also an antitype which now saves us, namely baptism (not the removal of dirt from the skin, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." - 1 Peter 3:21

In order not to flood this post, let me reference some others: Col. 2:11-12, Mark 16:15-16, Romans 6:3-4 etc. Though I don't like quoting verses like this removed from their context, the New Testament is very clear concerning baptism. It is an act of faith where a person is forgiven and immersed into Christ.

After Paul was struck blind, he believed in Jesus. He heard Him speak and watched Jesus strike him blind. However, he still was not forgiven. Ananias told Paul in Acts 22:16 after he has blind for three days, "And now what are you waiting for? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord." Paul had not yet had his sins forgiven, but here Ananias tells him to do it by being baptized. He believed, but he had only done half of what Jesus said in Mark 16:16.

I think we agree on the metaphor of baptism. It is clearly "a tomb (death and resurrection), and a womb (being born again)." However, the Bible never talks about baptism as though it were merely a meaningful symbol that Jesus set down. It is always in reference to conversion and salvation.

This is a quite unpopular idea, I know. I have heard for many years that baptism is "an outward expression of an inward grace." But this is not in the Bible. I have also heard to "ask Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior," which is also not found in the Bible.

Just as church buildings, modern-day pastors/preachers, program-based/business-modeled ministries, tithing, and a score of other practices are unbiblical, so is lessening the significance our Lord put on baptism.

If Jesus told me to "believe and take a bath in peanut butter and you will be forgiven," I would do it. I wouldn't think that the peanut butter was magical, but merely that I was doing my master's command to get what He said I'd get for it. It's about trust.

Sorry for the long post. I wish I could have written about the meaning in baptism, but I really only had room to write of its necessity. Again, I do appreciate your work in the Kingdom and would be interested if you have time to respond.

Neil Cole said...

Joshua, I agree with most of what you are saying. Yes, it is true that baptism is put forth as an symbol of the cleansing necessary for forgiveness. It is, in my understanding a symbolic act to reflect the forgiveness that is ours when we turn to Christ in repentance. Like the writer of Hebrews states, it is not the water removing the dirt from our skin, but the actual forgiveness of sins that occurs when we step out in faith and follow Christ.

The Baptism is the outward action that solidifies and communicates this truth, but it is not how we are saved. I believe the actual repentance to bear more value than the symbolism itself for salvation.

There are other verses in Acts where baptism is not included as a command for salvation (i.e. Acts 16:31). Granted the new believers were baptized, I get that and I am stating clearly that we should be more about doing just that. The issue for me is that we must repent and believe. Baptism is our follow through with that essential concept in a public manner.

I think that we emphasize inward belief so much that we de-emphasize any outward action. But we must translate our belief into actions or it is not a truly valuable belief. James would say as much. Paul does as well when he tells us to believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths.

I actually think that we are closer to each other than our choice of words would allow us to admit.

But the question arises, if someone fails to be baptized in water are they not bearers of His name and salvation? I do not think baptism is meant to be a test of salvation or prerequisite of it, only a proclamation of it and a demonstration of obedience.

Of course, if we all just did what Jesus told us to do we wouldn't have a problem, would we?

Joshua Tucker said...

Neil, thanks for your comment.

I'm not sure where in Hebrews it talks about removing dirt etc. I'm guessing maybe you just meant First Peter 3?

I understand that modern evangelicalism has consistently taught that baptism is an "outward expression of an inward grace," or as you put it, our "follow through" with belief and repentance. I do hope this doesn't sound aggressive, but where is this in Scripture? Peter connects repentance and baptism together. He doesn't just connect belief and repentance, then say baptism is an expression of it afterwards. If that were true, Peter would certainly have said so, for in using statements like "baptism now saves you" people would have definitely understood him to mean what he wrote (he does go on to say that it's not a physical bath, but an expression torward God). But if he meant it as an expression only, why wouldn't he say so? I mean, what do you do with statements like, "baptism now saves you"?

I agree that we are probably very close in our belief on the matter. Which is why I feel comfortable sharing these thoughts, trusting you won't take them as religious arrogance but a brother sharing his thoughts and understanding of Scripture.

The entire debate breaks down a bit when certain "what-ifs" come into play. What if someone believes in Jesus and dies on the way to be baptized? What if they never got around to it? Lots of these questions can be asked. And I don't claim to know the answer to them. There is one Judge, and I know He doesn't like me sitting in His Judgment Seat. I just want to teach what He said about how to make disciples, in which case baptism is definitely included (Matt. 28:19-20).

Some of this may just be semantics, who knows. It's just that, from Scripture, I don't see salvation being described as being something that happens at belief only.

I'm not exactly sure what you mean when you said that baptism is not "a test of salvation or a prerequisite of it." But baptism is never explained as a "proclamation" in the New Testament, though the Lord's Supper is. The two are completely separate, though the Catholic church has linked them together into the minds of most Christ-followers.

Regardless, I am glad to see that you think baptism happens at (or right after) conversion. It is not to be separated. I'm not sure God will hold us accountable for knowing what baptism is all about, but perhaps more for our faith that we did what He told us to. It seems clear to me from Romans 6 and other places that baptism is the place where one becomes a Christian, but I do see the reasoning in other points of view.

I do have a more firm position on the sinner's prayer, though. Romans 10:9-10 is written to already Christians who were denouncing Christ for Judaism (in context, Romans 9-11 is written to the Jews). Charles Finney himself admits that, "the altar call has now replaced the role that baptism filled in the New Testament."

Thanks again for the reply, and I'll keep reading the blog.

Neil Cole said...


Thanks for your thoughtful responses.

You know, I think that part of the problem stems from the very issue I brought out in an earlier post...that the church never translated baptizo but coined a new theological word that carried very sacramental potency. As a result, anywhere the word "immerse" appears in the New Testament we think of the sacerdotal function. I believe that many times when "baptizo is used it literally means immersion and is not necessarily water baptism.

Anyway, we do not need to belabor the subject.


Anonymous said...

Thief on the cross,THIEF ON THE CROSS, you cheat. What gives you a special dispensation for getting to paradise without baptism, the sinners prayer, or even going to church for that matter?
In the various comments on these baptism posts it seems to me that there are so many semantic minefields.
Is baptism necessary for salvation.
What is salvation? The church tends to the view that it means heaven when you die. The old testament regards it as deliverence from Phiistine famine and plague and never heaven when we die!
The religious Jews of the gospel times already had the Mikvah which was a ceremonial cleansing cistern for full immersion. Baptism needs to be set alongside this.
So many things, both actually in the word of God and from mere tradition, are used as hammers to bash the saints over the head as necessary things to get to heaven. A little thought would show how ludicrous they are. For the thief on the cross everything was impossible other than the cry for help which God heard and honoured.
I look forward to meeting him!

Joshua Tucker said...

Francis - With respect, how could the thief on the cross be baptized into the death of Christ when He had not yet died? If you'll look carefully at Scripture you'll see that baptism into the name of Jesus was not practiced until Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection. That's because Romans 6:3-4 makes it clear that baptism is being immersed into the death of Christ.

Also, Jesus could "save" anyone He wanted to. He had all authority on Heaven and Earth, so He could do whatever He wanted to to save people.

And finally, we know in Mark 1:4 that John baptized for the forgiveness of sins. How do you know the thief was not baptized into the baptism of John?

We have no example in the New Testament of someone becoming a Christian away from baptism, plain and simple.

Tim Catchim said...

It is interesting to me that baptism wa actually recycle de from the Jewish mikvah in the Temple. Could it be that baptism was trans-located from the Jewish context of Judaism and redeployed into the Christian mission? Baptism originated in the Jewish tradition, not the Torah. Dont know if this matter or not, but it makes me approach the topic with caution about being too dogmatic about it. Faith working through love is the key issue here, as Paul would say in Galatians. I tend to see baptism as the beginning of covenant, which sort of frames the discussion around the Abraham narrative and Pauls application of it in Romans 4.

Gary said...

Maybe the Infant Baptism debate has been approached from the wrong direction. Instead of starting with our disagreements, let's start with what Baptists/evangelicals and orthodox Christians AGREE upon: All persons who believe and have faith in Christ as their Savior should follow his command and be baptized as soon as possible. Agreed?

So the next question is: Can an infant believe and have faith?

Evangelical and Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ: If I can prove to you from Scripture that infants not only can but DO believe and have faith, would you accept infant baptism as Scriptural?

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