A briefer form of this article was originally written in August of 2009 just prior to the International Leadership Conference in Denver, Colorado. The purpose was to present a brief explanation of this term and the reasons for discussing it in the Delegates Meeting of the Cooperation Churches. The Teacher Service Group is one of nine groups selected by the delegates to offer recommendations on a variety of subjects that are of interest within our movement of churches. Three of these groups – the Evangelist Group, the Elder Group and the Teacher Group – are viewed as a type of team to help provide direction in a number of areas. Biblically, these three roles are certainly key roles of leadership in the church, and to have them working together as a team is fundamental to unity within both congregations and our movement as a whole. Therefore, although the Teacher Group was specifically requested to study this subject and make a presentation, representatives from all three groups actually addressed the subject orally in the Delegates Meeting. These brief presentations by me, Mike Taliaferro and Steve Staten can be heard on the Disciples Today web site, and my original article can be read there as well.
In my oral presentation of the article, I gave more details than were in the article, and at the suggestion of others, decided to expand the printed version of the article to include some of what was said orally and to generally broaden the material into a more comprehensive and definitive version. This expansion is reflected in the new title. The original version is presented first, followed by the deeper look. My prayer is that those who read this article will be helped sufficiently to make my additional efforts worthwhile. Enjoy the read!
Question #1 – What Is It?
Baptismal cognizance simply means what is understood or needs to be understood at the point of baptism to experience a valid baptism. In one sense, it is a more narrow way to define who is a Christian and who is not; who is saved and who is not – based on having experienced a biblically valid new birth.
Question #2 – Why Are We Discussing It?
There are at last three related answers to this question. One, in our leadership apology letters of 2003, we apologized for being too judgmental toward people in other churches, but we did not define what we meant by being too judgmental. That failure proved to be a serious one, allowing many of our members to assume that almost any sincere believer in Christ was likely acceptable to God, regardless of conversion experience or church affiliation. We went from one extreme to another. The old extreme was to teach or leave the impression that no person outside our ICOC boundaries of fellowship could have been converted correctly. The new extreme is to assume almost the opposite. Both are extremes and both are wrong.
What I think we meant by saying that we had been too judgmental was that we had stepped outside our responsibility to teach exactly what the Bible says about conversion and had stepped into the Judgment Day role that belongs to God alone. In other words, we were teaching in a way that didn’t leave room for God to be God in determining who would ultimately be saved and lost. While we must avoid that posture in the future, we cannot go to the other extreme and pronounce final judgment in favor of sincere religious people whose conversion doesn’t square with what the Bible teaches about entering a saved relationship with Christ. Extremism, however popular, is dangerous territory for all of us.
Two, several brothers (not many, and most are not currently in our fellowship) have written papers on the subject, and tended toward the extreme of a broader acceptance of conversion experiences. The impact of such writing has exerted influence on some people, but probably not that many. These papers have led to more discussions among leaders, but the average member is likely unaware of most of these discussions or the source of them.
Three, because of the undefined leadership apologies and the unsettled state of churches, particularly in the few years immediately after 2003, singles started dating or wanting to date outside our fellowship. We as leaders should accept our responsibility of having helped cause this reaction, but we must now also accept our responsibility of clarifying what the issues in this realm are – both biblically and practically.
Question #3 – What Are the Bottom Line Practical Issues?
First of all, there can be no apology for preaching what the Bible says about the place of baptism in a faith response to Christ – by which we enter the death of Christ, are initially cleansed by his death and are raised from the waters of baptism to the new life of a Christian. We cannot soften or alter the message of passages like Acts 2:38; 3:19; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:26-27; Titus 3:4-7 and 1 Peter 3:21. Baptism is inseparably connected to the forgiveness of sins as we come out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, and no man has the right to disconnect it. Period.
The real issue that is worth discussing comes with the possible distinction between having an erroneous understanding of the purpose of baptism and having an incomplete understanding of its purpose. Having a wrong understanding would include the very common evangelical teaching that one is saved at the point of believing in Jesus and “accepting him as Savior.” Whether we call this type of conversion a response to the so-called “Four Spiritual Laws” or the “Sinner’s Prayer,” it is not biblical. In essence, evangelicals teach that a person is saved first and baptized later – and that is a false doctrine according to the Bible.
Regarding a baptism experienced with an incomplete understanding of the purposes of baptism, this question may be asked: “Does a lack of understanding that baptism is the precise point that sins are forgiven invalidate the baptism?” If someone is baptized to obey Jesus, knowing that baptism is a part of the plan of accepting him, just what specifics beyond that does he have to understand? Our focus as a movement came from the Mainline Church of Christ focus, which arose in the debating days with the Baptists. Baptists insist that a person is saved before baptism, which explains their view that baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace. In reaction to that, the Church of Christ folks historically have said that one could not get baptized correctly with a false doctrine in mind regarding what he was doing.
Those who would raise questions about our past rigidity on that subject make a distinction between having an incomplete understanding of the purposes of baptism and an incorrect understanding of same. According to this reasoning, a person who was baptized simply to obey Jesus but was perhaps unclear about when his sins were actually forgiven might be acceptable to God, but the one who was taught and who accepted the wrong doctrine about the purposes (saved before baptism, maybe months before − given denominational practices) would not be acceptable to God. A further question that could logically be raised is why is it so important to understand that baptism is “for the forgiveness of sins,” and not as important to understand that it is when we receive the indwelling Holy Spirit? Both are joined together in passages like John 3:3-5; Acts 2:38 and Titus 3:4-7. Actually, the NT teaches that over 20 results follow our baptism into Christ.
It is important to note that this discussion is becoming less theoretical than in the past. More churches and leaders in various churches are coming very close to the same teaching that we have historically espoused regarding the purpose of baptism. In the past, it was extremely rare to find a person whose conversion experience sounded as if it could possibly be valid. In the future, we are more likely to find those whose baptisms may in fact be biblical (whether their church is biblically sound or not). In that case, we will have to be wiser in how we study with them, and decide each situation on an individual basis (which we should always do anyway). As we help decide these matters, especially with those having a Restoration background (Mainline Church of Christ and Christian Church), the bigger issue will be whether the person had really repented by making Jesus the Lord of his life and embracing Christ’s mission. Saying that someone has been baptized “for the forgiveness of sins” is not nearly all of the issue in the first place. Did they biblically repent and are they open to biblical discipleship – vertically (with Christ) and horizontally (with fellow Christians)? The lordship issue and the discipling issue are more significant than the baptism issue for those with a Restoration background.
The surrender of our hearts and lives to the will of Jesus is the bottom line of a saving faith. Certainly our mistakes as a movement in the past included our strong tendency to judge for God who was going to heaven and who was not. As one old Church of Christ preacher put it, “We are not the judges; we are the policemen − we can say if someone broke the law or not, but we cannot say what the judge is going to do with the case.” The illustration goes only so far, of course, but the fact that the judge (Judge) will make the final decision is correct. As for me, I intend to always teach what I believe to be correct, but will also always leave the final decision about one’s final salvation up to God. In that way, I believe I can still teach decisively without being judgmental. Obviously, however, that will always be a fine line to walk, but my teaching about conversion is exactly what it has been for decades and I have no inclinations to change it.
THE DEEPER LOOK
As mentioned above, our root system as a movement traces back to what the normally call the Restoration Movement, but specifically one part of that movement – The Churches of Christ. For some, that terminology may sound a little confusing, since the majority of our congregations use the same term now, and the rest of us use “Christian Church,” which also can be traced back to the other major segment of the Restoration Movement. A study of our historical root system is one that I highly recommend to every person in our movement of churches, to avoid confusion if for no other reason. In the new Second Edition of my book, Prepared To Answer, I deal briefly with this history and footnote other sources that address the subject as well. That would give you a good starting place for such a study, one that I think is needed.
Many of those within the Restoration Movement (and I would include our churches in that broader movement) are asking questions about whether we in essence are still satisfied with our views on baptism. The main reason we are asking this question is because our traditional stance on the subject brings the salvation issue into consideration regarding a number of writers and church leaders in other religious groups for whom we have respect and appreciation in many areas. We read their writings, note their obvious dedication to what they believe, and wonder whether we have been too narrow in our own thinking about initial conversion. Frankly, if we weren’t caused to do some wondering and questioning, that itself would be concerning. It is human nature to focus so much on one area that we miss seeing ourselves clearly in other areas. We feel reasonably sure that we know what those in evangelical or other denominational churches are missing regarding conversion; are we as aware of what we ourselves may be missing – on subjects perhaps just as important? As I say, if we are not asking some of these questions of others and of ourselves, we simply are spending too little time thinking. But just how we handle our questioning is the issue here, and it is a significant issue.
Let me begin by saying that my considered opinion is that in our earlier days as a movement, we accepted too easily the standard Restoration teachings about baptism, and at points became as legalistic as many groups and individuals were in our “root system” historically. That legalism was demonstrated most especially among us in the rash of “re-baptisms” we had back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I am in no way discounting the need that some of us felt to be baptized again, given our lack of understanding (especially of true biblical repentance) when we were originally baptized. My wife and I are in that number, just to give a clear example. But many who had been baptized “as disciples” (meaning that they were taught and understood biblical repentance) also came to question their baptism and were re-baptized. During the phase of “Reconstructions,” this phenomenon was especially evident. To say that said practices went too far during these settings is a mild way to state it, in my opinion.
I personally know one former leader who got so caught up in the questioning of his own baptism that he was baptized seven times. Why? Because so much emphasis was placed on “doing it right” that a combination of his insecurity and sincerity led him to a very legalistic way of thinking. I think this particular phase of our history produced some very harmful results back then, and may well be connected to an over-reaction now by at least a significant number of average disciples and some leaders. Since we as a group (although never everyone within the group) swung too far in one direction, it is almost certain that a significant number of us will swing too far in the other direction. And that is where my present concerns for us lie.
No biblical subject should be off limits to a reexamination, and surely a subject as important as conversion should not be. My main concern is that we not enter such reexaminations with a predisposition to either rubber stamp our previous conclusions or to reject them in favor of new conclusions. Either predisposition is in fact an emotionally driven reaction. In the older, root system Restoration churches, I see the latter tendency frequently, and among us, I see the former tendency also frequently. If the very idea of restudying such issues disturbs you, you have a problem. If the study is entered with a strong predisposition in either direction, you also have a problem. God’s truth is God’s truth. It was here before we were born and it will still be around when we are not. From my perspective, two approaches to a broader type of biblical interpretation are of concern – one becoming prevalent in Restoration churches from our root system and one seeming to be finding traction among our discipling movement churches. Let me address them in that order.
A New Hermeneutic In Studying Acts
Denominational churches which have rejected baptism as an essential component of the salvation process have used this particular approach of which I speak to interpreting Acts for decades. Now recognized scholars within Restoration churches are buying into the approach, howbeit often using some new terminology. Briefly stated, the hermeneutic asserts that the conversion accounts in Acts vary so much from one another that no “standard” conversion process can be ascertained. Therefore, the one thing of which we can be sure is that faith is the essential item in conversion, while baptism cannot be confirmed as essential. As I say, this viewpoint is gaining ground among scholars whose historical restoration background had pointed them in quite the opposite direction.
Frankly, this new approach to interpreting Acts is amazing to me, for at least two reasons. One, even without the conversion accounts in Acts, many other passages in the Epistles clearly connect baptism with conversion. Two, the alleged differences in the conversion accounts in Acts are quite easily explained. It is true that sometimes only faith is mentioned and sometimes other things (including baptism) are mentioned, and it is also true that faith is mentioned most often. What are we to make of these differences? Some people are prone to line up the majority passages against the minority passages, claiming that faith is essential while the commands in the other categories are optional. This approach pits Scripture against itself and is therefore erroneous.
One biblical and logical explanation would be that biblical faith is used as a common figure of speech (synecdoche) where the part is used to represent the whole. Usually faith is mentioned, since it is the beginning point out of which all other conditions grow and also the most central quality needed for continuing in the Christian life. However, other terms are used in other passages in this same way. For example, Luke’s version of the Great Commission (24:44-49) mentions that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached.” Since faith is not mentioned, it is obvious that repentance is mentioned as a part of the whole process of salvation, which would certainly include faith (and baptism). Obviously, when the term “faith” is used in this manner, it is meant to include all other aspects of the salvation process, including both repentance and baptism.
We use synecdoche commonly in everyday life situations. If someone asked what I had to eat when I ate at a restaurant, and I replied that I had the steak, they would not assume that all I ate was a steak. They would automatically assume that there were other parts of the meal, such as potatoes, salad, a drink and a dessert. But I only said steak, because that was the main course around which all the rest were accompanying items. Similarly, faith is the “main course” in our becoming Christians, but that does not invalidate the other items which grow out of faith (notably repentance and baptism).
The existence in Acts of variations in conversion accounts is sometimes explained by the variations in where different people were in the conversion process. In three such cases, the teaching sounds like it differs, but it simply corresponded with the people’s present position and need. A man traveling from Texas to New York may ask what the distance is while still in Texas. The answer he receives will be different from the answer to the same question asked when he is halfway to New York. In both cases, the answer is based on his present position. Similarly, the Philippian jailer was told to believe (Acts 16:31) because he was just beginning his trip to salvation. The audience on Pentecost had already believed, so they were told to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Saul was already a repentant believer when he was told to “get up and be baptized” (Acts 22:16). In each case, the command was based on the position and need of those being addressed.
To use such variations as “proof” that no standard conversion process exists in Acts is to approach the subject with a predisposition to come to a conclusion that broadens the conversion path. Even though some who follow this line of reasoning (or lack thereof) would be called scholars, their hermeneutic is anything but scholarly. Having been too legalistic at one point historically does not justify becoming biblically evasive at another point. The Bible has not changed.
An Over-Focus on Grace
This concern is one I have for those in our movement, one that I believe is growing in its application to initial conversion. To be very candid, I express this concern with personal pain. I have labored for years to help people understand God’s grace in ways that were hopefully life-changing. Romans is my favorite book in the Bible, and the writing and teaching I have done on this one book alone is significant indication of my own desire to propagate a better understanding of the very foundation of our salvation. Paul’s description of this foundation is stated beautifully in Ephesians 2:8-10: “For it is by grace 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. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Given our legalistic background historically, we have a continuing need to be taught more about grace in our relationship to God (and to one another). Granting also our human propensity to feel too much guilt and to be fairly unsuccessful in letting it go (even with God’s approval biblically), the subject of God’s grace cannot simply be a subject among subjects. It deserves the place of highest honor, for it focuses on God and gives him the glory. That cannot be a wrong emphasis.
On the other hand, the emphasis cannot be placed in isolation, causing us to have an unbalanced view of God. Paul also addressed this danger quite directly in Romans 11:22 with these words: “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.” In the current leadership training I have been doing, leaders are recognizing the issue of becoming unbalanced in our view of God and his grace, and are requesting help from my teaching. A course I have entitled “Sound Doctrine and Church Discipline” has been requested with vigor in several places. I just taught it in our newly begun Ukrainian Institute of Ministry in Kiev. It was also one of the earliest courses requested in the Asia-Pacific Leadership Academy. I was also asked to conduct a teaching day in the Oahu church on the subject, although we changed the title to “Developing a Balanced View of God.” This four lesson video series in DVD format is now available through Illumination Publishers International (IPI).
In teaching this material, I strive to present a balanced view of God’s kindness and sternness from both Old and New Testaments. As much as I love the subject of grace (and need it personally so badly for time and eternity), I cannot just dismiss what I read about God’s call to fear him (in the sense of having great awe and respect for him) and the consequences in the lives of so many people when they did not heed that call. Accounts in the OT about people like Cain, everyone except Noah and his family during the time of the flood, Nadab and Abihu, Korah, Dathan and Abiram, King Saul, Uzzah, and many, many more like them fill me with fear and trembling before the King of the universe. And these accounts are designed by him to do just that (1 Corinthians 10:1-11; Hebrews 4:1-3, 11; Hebrews 12:15-17). It will hardly do to claim, as did the Gnostic heretic Marcion, that there is a more graceful God (Jesus) in the New Testament, in contrast to the Creator God of the OT (which included Jesus too, by the way, as the eternal Logos – John 1:1-3). The NT, compared to the OT, cannot be taken less seriously, if we are to believe passages like Hebrews 10:26-31 and Hebrews 12:25-29.
So what am I saying? Simply that we cannot swing the pendulum between legalism and an unbalanced view of God and what he expects of his creation – as the Bible describes those expectations. It is a delicate balance of which we speak. The emotional impact on my heart of thinking that sincere, dedicated, spiritually minded people are not right with God is huge and heavy. But I cannot allow that impact to drive me into teaching that those people can discount, even through ignorance and with the best of intentions, what God’s Word says about conversion. I cannot quit teaching what I sincerely believe the Bible teaches about the subject. Nor will I assume the role of Judge in the final analysis of who spends eternity with God. His biblical standards are perfection, which means that none of us lives up to those standards. I cannot guarantee exactly how God is going to apply those standards to each of us. That is his job and his alone. Just why he tolerated some things like slavery among his people (in the OT and NT) and had zero tolerance for other things like idolatry is somewhat of a mystery to me. But those mysteries of God and his nature keep me from trying to occupy his seat.
I pray for much grace in my own life, for that is the only way that I am going to get into heaven. I also pray for much grace for all who appear to be sincere seekers of him. I hope that more will receive that eternal grace than most of us might now be aware, but that is all in his hands. Once I heard a statement by an older, very conservative minister in one of the branches of the older Restoration movement that resonated with me. He said (surprisingly, given his conservatism): “I have hope for sincere believers in other religious groups, but I do not feel that I have the right to give them hope.” In other words, in his heart of hearts, he wished strongly that God’s grace would be applied liberally to those who had not embraced and experienced biblical conversion as he believed the Bible taught it, but he could not fail to teach them what it taught – unequivocally. He could not assume the role of God as Judge of all men.
That position is where I find myself, and have found myself for most of my 40 year career as a preacher of the Word. I know it will take much grace to save any of us. Just how God ends up applying it in every possible case is up to him. All that is up to me (thankfully) is to preach the Word, try as best I can to first of all live it myself, then try to get everyone else to obey it (in or out of the church), and let God take it from there. I can live with that. I have lived with that for years, and will continue to live with it until I meet him. I cannot live with anything other than that, which brings me to the statement with which I concluded that original article: “I believe I can still teach decisively without being judgmental. Obviously, however, that will always be a fine line to walk, but my teaching about conversion is exactly what it has been for decades and I have no inclinations to change it.” Amen!