A Christian Church Primer on Baptism

In the “Curious?” seminar Sunday I mentioned how in the Christian church we consider baptism to be a part of faith, and not a work.  I would like to be a little clearer on what I mean by that statement.  Looking back I don’t believe I was very clear.  I normally go through this chart shown below in class, and I forgot.  Plus, I’ve added some thoughts on key scriptures why we see baptism as an act of faith, and not a work. In our essential beliefs statement we list it as such.  Even though this is the position of the church, I want to emphasize we do not see other Christians who differ from this view with legalistic zeal.  Rather, we search for unity.  With all apologies to grammatarians, here is  summary of thought.

The key verse to my thought is Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast.” 

First Paul is speaking about getting saved.  This is the topic.  Then Paul makes a distinctive difference between works and faith concerning the act of getting saved.  Faith saves you, works doesn’t.  Pretty clear, so what makes up a work and what makes up faith? 

Most understand being saved involves believing on Jesus, confessing his name, repenting our sins, accept by faith the free gift of salvation, and then you are baptized as an act of obedience.  I agree with that, but I believe, and the Christian Church’s assertion, that baptism is more than a mere act of obedience.  I will show you what I mean and then bring in the scriptures that support this belief. 

First most people would divide the steps of salvation into these two categories: 

               Faith                                                                  Works

               Believing

               Confessing

               Repentance

               Accept by faith the free gift

                                                                                          Baptism 

In the Christian Church we place baptism under the column of faith along with the others.  Now, here are some of the scriptures we believe supports this assertion.  This is not an exhaustive list.  I’m just going to list four.  

Matthew 28:18-20, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” 

In our exegesis of the passage we notice how baptism is distinguished from “everything.”  The term “everything” is a comprehensive word and baptism is separated from it.  This is important because it separates baptism from just being another “good work.”  The way the scripture is worded asserts that baptism has a unique importance in discipleship.  It has an importance beyond mere good works. 

The second part of the exegesis is the phrase “into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  One is baptized into the Trinity.  What does this tell us about baptism? In Rabbinic usage, the phrase “into the name” was done for a certain end or intention relating to it.  It also means to pass into an ownership relation with the person.  God the Father paid the price by giving up his Son for us.  The act of baptism signifies that we become God’s special possession in the act of baptism.  How can baptism be a work if it signifies we have been possessed by God?  It cannot.  It is an act of faith.

Acts 2:38, “Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  

This refers to the double cure that takes place in salvation.  The first part of the cure is Jesus forgiving us of our sins.  The second part of the cure is the imparting of the Spirit to live a righteous life and continue in a relationship with Jesus Christ.  The old hymn “Rock of Ages” refers to this double cure. 

When Peter is asked what to do about this problem of sin he set out two actions- repentance and baptism.  At the end of the actions he adds “for the forgiveness of your sins.”  So he is talking about getting saved.   Peter was merely acting out what Jesus instructed him to do in the Great Commission (MT 28:19-20.)    Here we see baptism stand side by side with repentance, the forgiveness of sins, and the Holy Spirit. Why is there a need to separate it from these other acts as a work?    In the Christian Church we do not separate baptism from these other acts of faith.  We do not see any textual reason to do so. Throughout Acts and the New Testament you see baptism standing right next to the response to salvation (Acts 22:16, Romans 6:3-4, Galatians 3:26-27, Colossians 2:11-13, 1 Peter 3:21).  Again, it has a special role in the life of the disciple. 

Romans 6:3-4, “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” 

Again, what are we baptized into?  Christ Jesus.  It represents our union with Christ.  Just as Christ died to the sins of the whole world in our union with him we die to our own sin.  (Rom 6:6).  Then just as Jesus rose from the dead, then in our union with him we are brought into a new life.  The old is gone, the new has come!  The question is how can being baptized into Christ be a work?  It cannot because we are not saved by works, but by faith. 

We have one final verse concerning this topic then some concluding thoughts.  1 Peter 3:20-21, “…Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” 

For me this is a significant verse because of the Christian Church’s exegesis of the earlier texts.  Many people have said this interpretation of baptism says the literal water of baptism washes away sin.  This passage in 1 Peter negates that thought.  It is the pledge of good conscience (what I call faith) toward God in baptism, just as it is in repentance and in accepting the gift.  It is the blood and resurrection of God that saves us, not the water of baptism.  In fact, one could argue that we replace the sinners prayer, which has no example in scripture (and not invented until the 1800’s), with baptism (or should that be vice versa?  A dangling thread for ya!).  

With that said my argument is how can it be that baptism and the pledge of good conscience, which are set together, be regarded as a work?  It is the Christian Church view that it can’t.  We view baptism as an act of faith just as repentance, confession, and accepting the free gift of salvation is regarded.   We also view it as act of obedience (since it is commanded), an outward expression of what is happening in your heart (as a pledge of good conscience).  

Now, many times in a discussion like this the question is asked, “Then are you saying baptism is required for salvation?” The simple answer is yes.  It is clear that baptism is part of our faith.  It stands as part of repentance, confession, et. al..  But the correct answer is in the absolute sense is, no. Why?  God is the judge, not me.  God’s grace is bigger than our doctrine and if God chooses to save someone without baptism he certainly can.  He can make the exception, like Jesus did with the thief on the cross.  With that said I believe that if you have followed all the other steps then why not this one?

I understand this view is different from other churches and our intent is not to divide.  I believe there is a place of unity on this issue.  One point I make about this is there have been many have different views on this issue, but the practice is the same.  We are baptized into one body and into one faith (Ephesians 4:5).  On this step I believe we can find unity.

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4 thoughts on “A Christian Church Primer on Baptism

  1. I have several clarification questions. Although I believe we are probably only seperated by symantics, I still must try.
    1. Define works and faith. To me “works” in general is understood to mean doing something to earn salvation. Which is what I believe Paul was saying is out of the question, so that no one could boast. Then faith by biblical definition is believing in what is unseen. (sorry no reference please add if you know if off the top of your head).

    just because I am dense: wouldn’t confession(by mouth in rom) be a work done by faith, just like repentance is turning away from by faith to something else. So baptism is a work done by faith, like serving, healing, preaching and teaching but with a lot more meaning and significance? Not sure we can seperate any of them because even even faith is death without works.(james) By seperating the two it means by default you have one without the other, therefore are not of faith. Because you can’t have faith without works but can very obviously have works without faith and without faith, your lost. So with that said, for those who believe baptism is just an act of obedience that could be true if done by faith. But in no way what so ever could baptism be required for salvation without faith. And faith must be a prerequisit to baptism. T

    The New Testament early church thought of baptism as just a natural progression in the young life of a new believer. In scripture it seems to be assumed that every new convert would get baptised and serve and pray and grow to be more like Christ. I agree with everything in paragraph “with that said” but then you threw me for a loop in the next paragraph.

    “how is baptism required for salvation?” Simple answer Yes because its part of repentance and confession was your take. Really, where is that? if you look at the greek tense of the verbs repent and baptise you may notice a different tense implying progression not inclusion. could be translated repent and then be baptised.(i may be wrong). I am really confused by the next statement saying the real answer is no because ultimately God is the judge. Although I do believe you are correct. I am not sure why you would explain all this to only say that you are wrong because God made an exception.

    here is something to consider. Why did John the baptist baptize? not for salvation but to show repentance. Many many people where baptized by john and his disciples and some where then baptized again to show they were christ followers. So both were to show what happened on the inside. John’s baptism wasn’t for repentence but a symbol of it. So why would everyone believe baptism following Christ would be any different? mmmm…

    This is great discussion. I am looking forward to learning more. Glad we see so many things the same. God bless and help me sharpen my sword.

    1. Thanks for your graciousness Ted and your thoughts. I’ll get back on those when I get my thoughts together. I didn’t get much sleep last night and I know I’m not thinking cap is off this evening! LOL!

  2. Sorry for taking so long to reply to your post. First of all, I agree that we have many items we agree on and I also agree we are taking about semantics, but I agree we should “sharpen our sword.” I believe though there will be some honest differences, and that’s cool. Like I said I’m not legalistic over these issues, grace abounds more. By the way, glad the power came back on for you. We have a family associated with our church that had a tree hit them yesterday. Please pray for them.

    I have five thoughts to your reply: (1) The definition of works and faith; (2) The idea of progression; (3) John’s baptism; and (4) God’s Judgment.

    1. Here is how I see the definition of works and faith. Works is trusting in our own effort (or work) for salvation. Faith is trusting in God’s work for our salvation. Also, I see Paul referring to the law when it came to works issue. Consider the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as one example of that. Therefore, Paul isn’t referring to belief, repentance, baptism etc.

    With that side argument aside we view each part of faith as placing our trust in Jesus. Belief believes in the work of Christ on the cross. Confession is admitting that I can no longer trust in my own works, but in God’s work on the cross. Repentance is turning from trusting in my own work to trusting in God’s work. Then in baptism, we trust in Christ to pay the penalty of sin (Romans 6:3-4). Talk about semantics though, you said it is a “work done by faith” and we say it is the result of faith trusting in God. (Two sides of the same coin?).

    2. I agree with you on the idea of progression, except the fact that we make on emphasis on baptizing ASAP, as demonstrated in the Bible. Every person baptized post the Great Commission was baptized as soon as they believed. Paul was baptized after three days, but the emphasis was on ASAP (“Why do you delay?” Acts 22:16). So this is what we strive to practice at Celebration. So the early church did not practice having a long time between repentance and baptism.

    But there is progression logically. I agree with you. Each step is needed before the other. If you don’t believe in Christ’s work how can you confess that you need it? If you don’t confess that you need it then how can you repent and say you need it? Then why be baptized saying you trust in the work of the cross when you haven’t repented and still say you are going to trust in your work? I agree with the idea of progression.

    3. John’s Baptism. I’ve heard two arguments concerning this; one I think is stronger than the other. The first argument is John’s baptism was before Jesus died on the cross, therefore the new age of Christ’s blood had not been applied yet. John’s baptism was under the old law. Although, Christ’s blood would be applied once it was shed. I’m not well versed on this argument but I thought I would present it.

    The other argument is John’s baptism was not in Jesus’ name, as commanded to do in Matthew 28:19-20. Being baptized in the name of Jesus must have been important, for the 12 disciples in Ephesus, who had John’s baptism of repentance, were re-baptized into Jesus’ name. (Acts 19:4, Matthew 28:19-20)

    4. Then lastly, I stated that God is the judge and if he so chooses he can save someone without being baptized. While you placed the emphasis on the progression in Acts 2:38. We also place emphasis that both are imperatives connected by the word “and.’ We also place emphasis on “eis” or what is translated “for” in the NIV. (Talk about semantics) While many people say this means “because of” this diminishes the very common use of the word in other passages. For example, in Matthew 26:28 this exact phrase appears, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Here, the word is as “for the purpose of, in order to.” We would argue that Acts 2:38 should be interpreted the same way. Both are imperatives though, and they are both actions called upon the sinner to do. They are both laid out in response to Peter’s sermon where he said, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2:21)

    Then, I will admit, I struggled with the idea saying, God can save someone outside of baptism because he is the final judge. For awhile I thought it just negated all the arguments the Christian Church made, until I had this perspective. As the giver of grace God is not bound by these actions, but we are. An illustration would be say I was going to give you a million dollars on Monday at 5 at BB&T bank. All you have to do is pick it up. You don’t earn it or have to pay it back. I’m just giving it to you, but you have to be on time at the bank to get it. You say cool, but on the way you are in a car accident and you don’t make it. So I have a decision to make, do I give it to you or not? The point is it’s my decision to do so or not. I believe I would give it to you =).

    I believe God is a gracious God, and in a situation where someone has done all these things and not have been baptized God would make the right decision, which is the one of love- because He is love.

    I probably gave you a lot more questions and I’m not trying to persuade you from your position either. This is just simply the Christian Church views on these matters. I would like to say at the end of this that I have come to value your friendship and look forward to it continuing in the future. I really like your Thursday prayers for me. It does make a difference! Talk about sharpening my sword- I felt like I was writing a term paper. It was good.

  3. Thank you for putting your thought and tradition into it. Although I disagree, you’re right about one thing, I truly look forward to seeing what God is doing – bringing us together. I believe God has great things in store for his church. And I can’t wait to see his name glorified in spite of how different his body is. The mosaic must be beautiful from the throne.

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