BIBLICAL BAPTISM EXPLAINED
The Commonly Accepted Viewpoint
The standard approach of Protestant churches (including those who immerse adults) is that a person is saved at the point of faith (their definition of faith) and then baptized at some later point. Baptism is often described as “an outward sign of an inward grace” or as a “demonstration to others of what has already occurred between a person and God.” In other words, baptism is much like observing the Lord’s Supper ─ it is an act of one who is already a Christian.
This definition of faith is incomplete and therefore needs a closer examination biblically. The passages used to supposedly prove salvation by faith without baptism are the ones which mention only the words “faith” or “belief.” This approach necessitates the ignoring of other passages which do mention baptism. A common line of argument is that since many more passages mention faiththan mention baptism, faith must be the essential ingredient while baptism is important but not essential. The ultimate result of such reasoning is that baptism passages have to be explained away, and even faith passages have to be taken out of context.
Romans 10:9-10 is often quoted as proof that we are saved without baptism. However, these verses cannot be used to exclude baptism from the salvation process ─ for several reasons. One, chapter 10 follows chapter 6, and in verses 1-4 of that earlier chapter, baptism is clearly taught to be a part of dying to sin and being raised to begin a new life. Two, “trust” in verse 11 and “call on him” in verse 12 go farther than simply believing and confessing. The progression in verses 14-15 is preaching, hearing, believing, and calling. Calling on the name of the Lord includes baptism, as may be readily seen in Acts 2:21, 38, and also in Acts 22:16. In Acts 2:21, Peter quotes from Joel 2:32 which reads: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Then, when the people ask, in essence, just how to do that, Peter tells them to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:37-38). Acts 22:16 is even clearer, as Paul is told to “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
Three, an even more important aspect of Romans 10:9-10 is the focus of the context. Paul is talking about the Jews who had failed to accept Christ, and addressing the reasons for that rejection. He was making the point beginning in verse 5 that the righteousness which comes by faith is not a complex issue nor an unreachable goal. God has already done the difficult work by sending his Son to the cross. Now in response to what he has done, we just need to accept him as Lord and Messiah. That was the challenge to the Jew. Being baptized was not a hard concept for them. It had been a part of John’s ministry, and large numbers of Jews had accepted it at his hands. Matthew 3:5-6 says that “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Proselytes to Judaism were customarily baptized as an initiation rite into Judaism. Therefore, Paul had no reason to mention baptism again in this chapter. That was not their stumbling block.
The problem that the Jew did have was in accepting Jesus as the Messiah to which their Law had pointed, and to then make this crucified Jew from despised Nazareth their Lord and King. Now that was a challenge! This background focus explains why the passage was worded as it was. Similarly, the problem with Gentile acceptance of the gospel was repentance. Therefore, Luke focused on that need all through the Book of Luke. In fact, his account of the Great Commission only mentions repentance. “He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). The lack of Luke specifically naming faith in this account does not mean that he was excluding it from the conversion process. He was simply focusing on their principal challenge. Thus, Luke’s approach follows exactly the same principle used by Paul in Romans 10. Paul was addressing the main stumbling block for the Jews and Luke was addressing the main stumbling block for the Gentiles.
But what about those who do immerse adults as this “outward sign of an inward grace”? How should we view their baptisms? More importantly, how does God view them? The understanding and convictions with which we respond to God’s teaching on any subject either validate or invalidate the response. Christianity is a religion of motive and purpose. Outward acts, without the proper understanding in the heart of the person involved, have never been acceptable to God. Under the Mosaic Law, even the sacrifices were to be offered with a clear grasp of the purposes behind them. The statutes in the Pentateuch spell out these purposes in no uncertain terms. Likewise, the New Testament defines the purposes of baptismvery plainly. Baptism is for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16), the point at which one is born again (John 3:3-5), the means of entering a relationship with Christ where salvation is (Galatians 3:27; 2 Timothy 2:10), and the act which places us into the one body which God promised to save (1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:4; 5:23).
A real question is this: “Can one be taught incorrectly and baptized correctly? Let’s use an interesting example to help us think through this question. Certainly a person could sing, pray, give, and partake of the Lord’s Supper in a wrong manner. This being true (and surely no one would disagree on these matters), one can also be baptized in a wrong manner, even if the person is sincere. For the sake of illustration, let us consider a hypothetical case involving the Lord’s Supper. Someone could be taught to partake every Sunday, but be taught wrongly concerning the purpose. He could be told that in partaking, he is to remember Christ as the agent in creation (and he was ─ John 1:1-3), rather than as our sacrifice. The person involved would be observing the Supper regularly for a sincere religious motive, but for the wrong purpose. Would God accept this worship? Would not the traditions of men make this worship vain (Matthew 15:9)?
Likewise, sincere and even “religious” purposes in the act of baptism can be unacceptable to God. The evangelical denominations who teach that baptism is “an outward sign of an inward grace” teach those being baptized that they are baptized after they are saved, and not in order to be saved. This is totally unscriptural. Consider Colossians 2:12: “Having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God…” We are raised to walk a new life (as Romans 6:4 also mentions) through our personal faith in the power of God in the act of baptism itself. How can our “faith in the power of God” be transferred to another act (belief alone), and another time (before baptism), and still be acceptable?
Some are opposed to “re-baptism” but Paul was not (Acts 19:1-5). These whom Paul baptized had previously been immersed according to John the Baptist’s teaching, but needed to be immersed according to Christ’s teaching of the Great Commission baptism. Bear in mind that Jesus Himself administered the baptism of John at one time (through his disciples ─ John 4:1-2). However, after the cross only one baptism was acceptable (Ephesians 4:5), and that was the baptism of the new covenant. Although other baptisms are mentioned in the NT, by the time Ephesians was written, only one remained as a necessary part of our response to God.
A few years later, Peter wrote that “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” (1 Peter 3:21). Thus, this one baptism was water baptism, and it was connected to salvation. Any variation of this baptism was not acceptable to Paul, and it should not be to those of us today who are seriously trying to follow the Bible. No one can be taught incorrectly and then baptized correctly. The logical and biblical route to take should be obvious, and certainly God would not be displeased with any person who was doing all that he could to conform to accurate teaching. I have never found an honest and sincere person who was satisfied for long with a questionable baptism once taught accurately.
Bible Baptism: Inseparably Connected To Faith
Properly understood, baptism is a response of faith to the cross. Romans 6:3-4 says 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.” Far from being a “work”, as some claim we teach, baptism is a recognition that we are hopelessly lost in sin without the death of Jesus, and a commitment of our hearts to him and the cross. Biblically, baptism is inseparably connected to faith in the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross.
As has already been explained, many are taught that a person is saved by faith only, without further acts of obedience. This view is held by a majority of people in the religious world, especially by those in evangelical churches. It is true that the Bible often just mentions faith in connection with salvation. The key issue is how the Bible actually defines this faith that saves us. Of course other passages command repentance, confession, and baptism, but these are in the minority. Since this is the case, people are prone to line up the majority passages against the minority passages, claiming that faith is essential while the commands in the other category are optional. This pits Scripture against itself and is therefore erroneous. Several approaches can be taken in answering this misconception of faith only.
One such approach is to explain that faith mentioned alone is a common figure of speech where the part is used when the whole is intended (synecdoche). Usually faith is mentioned since it is the beginning point out of which all other conditions grow. Even though faith is the salvation term most often used in connection with this figure of speech, other salvation terms are also used in this way. The Great Commission of Luke (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. 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.
Another approach to clarifying the steps of salvation is to compare the passages containing these steps of obedience to a recipe. All items must be included which pertain to the end product. A cake recipe may place sugar and shortening on the top of the list, but these alone would not make a cake. The Bible recipe for salvation may place faith by itself in some passages, but the recipe is not complete without the rest of the list. In this manner, the Bible forms a pattern, and therefore all parts must be considered before the recipe is complete and salvation secured.
A third approach can be well demonstrated with examples of conversions in Acts. In three such cases, the teaching sounds like it differs, but it simply corresponded with the people’s present position. For example, 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 present position of those being addressed.
The last approach that we will mention is more detailed, but possibly the most effective when trying to help a person who is really grounded in the faith only doctrine. In this approach, we show that the Bible uses the term “faith” in both a restricted sense and in a general comprehensive sense. Many passages use belief as a type of mental assent, which would be the narrow or restricted sense. For example, Acts 18:8 states that “many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized.” Something besides faith is mentioned, so faith here is used in the narrow sense. Other similar passages are Acts 11:21; Mark 16:16; John 12:42; and James 2:19.
The general or comprehensive use of faith is seen in passages like John 3:16; John 20:30-31; Romans 1:16; and Acts 4:4. The familiar statement in John 3:16 that “whoever believes in him should not perish” actually includes baptism rather than excluding it. This point may be demonstrated by considering such passages as John 3:36, which states: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life…” The NASB provides a more literal translation as it contrasts faith and obedience in these words: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life…”
Notice that belief and obedience are used interchangeably in the two phrases. Here belief is used in the broader general sense and is synonymous with obedience. See Acts 14:1-2; 19:1-3; Acts 16:30-34; and, Hebrews 3:18-19 for further illustrations of the same principle. In both of the Acts accounts, it is obvious that the phrases “when you believed” and “he had come to believe” included the act of baptism. Understood correctly, these passages will show that faith is often used in a manner that includes all obedience, of which baptism is a part.
Several additional illustrations and analogies also should prove helpful in establishing the proper relationship of faith to baptism. The fall of Jericho illustration is one such approach. In Joshua 6:2, God said that he had given (past tense) the city into the hands of the Israelites. Surely no one can doubt that the promised victory was a gift from God and not earned by works! However, God then places specific conditions on the reception of the gift (such as walking around the city a number of times). But when the conditions were met, the promises were received, and they were received by faith. Hebrews 11:30 reads: “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days.” Bottom line, faith receives the promises of God, when the conditions (if any are specified) are met! Faith does save us, but when does it save? That is the issue. In the NT setting, our faith saves when we obey the conditions which God has given us.
Another illustration concerns a marriage analogy. In the OT, a beautiful lesson may be learned by showing that God married the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai, and through her, had a son named Jesus. Many Scriptures fit into this analogy. As with all marriages (except arranged ones!), the beginning point of the relationship is an attraction to one another. In the NT analogy, Jesus was attracted to us enough to leave heaven in order to win us over. When we became aware of his love, his miracles and his teaching, then the attraction became mutual! However, it must be kept in mind that a mutual attraction does not mean that we are married yet. For example, I was strongly attracted to my wife, Theresa, well over 50 years ago when we were both in high school. Amazingly, she was also strongly attracted to me! (There is a God!) But when we were merely high school sweethearts, no one would have called her Mrs. Ferguson. A few years later, they started doing that, but only after we were married.
But, back to the analogy of our relationship to Jesus. How does this attraction develop into a marriage relationship? Actually, much like it develops between a man and a woman! After the attraction stage, we then move to the going steady stage. Others are ruled out in favor of this special one. The Bible calls this stage repentance! Then this stage leads to an engagement ─ in biblical terms, we are now really counting the cost! Finally, we go through the legal procedures which are required in order to be officially married. In the spiritual realm, this ceremony (the entrance into the covenant) is described simply and beautifully with these words: “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Galatians 3:27).” At this point, we are now married to the Lord according to the official requirement of God himself (the Bible)! See Ephesians 5:22-33 for this analogy, especially verse 32, and also 2 Corinthians 11:2.
Another explanation had to do with getting intoChrist. The blessings of being “in” Christ (in a relationship with him) are mentioned in such passages as 2 Timothy 2:10; Romans 8:1; and, Ephesians 1:3. Only three passages in the NT tell us specifically how to get “into” Christ: Romans 6:3; 1 Corinthians 12:13; and, Galatians 3:27. All are baptism passages. Thus, baptism is the culminating act of faith through which we enter that precious relationship with Jesus.
Further, note that in John 8:31-32, holding to the teachingindicates more than faith. Here the people were listening to Jesus and “even as he spoke, many put their faith in him” (verse 30). Yet, in verses 31-32, Jesus makes it clear that much more was demanded. Similarly, in John 12:42, many “believed in him” but would not confess it. Therefore, their faith was not biblical saving faith at all! (See Mark 8:38.)
Another issue often arises with those who are confused about the relationship of faith and baptism. That issue is usually raised with this question: “But what about the thief on the cross ─ he wasn’t baptized?” Whether or not he was baptized no one knows. Since huge numbers of people had been baptized by John (Matthew 3:5-6), he might well have been. However, this is not the main consideration. This issue is a covenant issue. Jesus himself lived and died under the Judaic covenant as described in the Old Testament. The Great Commission baptism was not required nor preached until the day of Pentecost as described in Acts 2. No one could have experienced this baptism before then because it was a baptism into the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. It was not possible before Jesus accomplished these things, nor could it have been required until the new covenant went into effect. Read Hebrews 9:15-17 with this principle in mind.
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance–now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living.
Therefore, what the thief did or did not do has little to do with us. We live in the times of the new covenant and are thus under its requirements. And one of those requirements is the one baptism of the Great Commission.
One final approach may prove helpful in trying to move a resistant person who is blocked is his understanding of baptism by his denominational background. Take out a sheet of paper and write down these two opposite statements:
Baptism that now saves you also.
Baptism that now does not save you also.
Then hand them a pen and ask them to mark out the statement that is not true. If they mark out the first one, they mark out 1 Peter 3:21! If they mark out the second one, they admit that their doctrine is wrong. Forcing the issue in this way is not the place to start, but if nothing else works, it is worth a try. Everyone needs to see and accept what the Bible says about this important salvation issue.
In conclusion, faith is man’s response to God. Hebrews 11:6 provides us with a great definition of a saving faith. “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” This passage identifies three aspects of such a faith: belief, trust, and obedience. The faithful person believes the facts in the Bible; he trusts thepromises in the Bible; and, he obeys the commands in the Bible. Therefore, faith which pleases God is the appropriate response to his Word. We cannot obey a fact, nor can we simply believe a command. We must match our response to the form of teaching found, thereby taking God at his Word. Since we are commanded to be baptized, our obedience to that command is not faith plus baptism. It is simply faith in the cross when being baptized into Jesus. (Please see the more complete article on this web site regarding the biblical definition of faith in its various uses entitled, “Are We Saved by Faith Alone?”)