The title reflects a question that people often have, both those who are studying and contemplating being baptized and those who have already been baptized and now are studying with others. Biblical concepts give us direction, along with common sense based on the principles of the Bible. Sometimes these two can seem at odds even though they are not. At other times, the two are at odds because the principles involved in each are not understood well enough to produce their correct application. Let’s begin with the biblical principles, then move to the practical principles that may be involved and hopefully end up with an approach that strikes a balance.
Of course it should almost go without saying that we are looking only at examples in the New Testament and in Acts particularly. Baptism as a faith response to Christ is found primarily after his death and resurrection, since baptism is a picture of these things. Romans 6:1-4 gives us a clear explanation of how we by faith accept his death in our behalf through our own death, burial and resurrection in baptism. This means that John’s baptism prior to this time was a restoration baptism for the Jews, who had either wandered from what they knew was right or had wandered in another way ─ through misunderstanding what was right. (See my article on this website entitled, “Was Apollos Re-baptized?” for further explanation of John’s baptism.) With that in mind, let’s focus on the examples of baptism in the Book of Acts, that wonderful history of the establishment and spread of the early church.
In Acts 2, the church was begun with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, who then by inspiration spoke to the huge audience of Jews who had gathered for the Day of Pentecost. The day began with the apostles as a group speaking in many languages to those gathered from many nations and ended with Peter being the main spokesman. He preached about the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, concluding that God the Father had declared Jesus to be both Lord and Messiah (verse 36). After those with stricken consciences asked what to do, realizing how their sin had led to the death of Christ, Peter told them. He gave two commands and two promises based on their acceptance of the commands. Repent and be baptized in order to receive forgiveness and the indwelling Holy Spirit (verse 38). Verse 41 informs us that 3,000 obeyed the commands and were baptized ─ on the same day in which they were initially taught.
Baptism is not mentioned as directly in these three chapters as in Acts 2, and the indirect references to baptism do not indicate the amount of time prior to baptism for anyone. Acts 3:19 reads thusly: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” Turning to God would evidently correspond to baptism in Acts 2:38 and the times of refreshing would parallel the reception of the indwelling Spirit. Several passages just mention that additional people became believers, without detailing the process. Acts 4:4, 5:14, 6:1, 7 are examples of such passages. When we reach Acts 16 and the conversion of the jailor in Philippi, we will see that coming to believe included baptism. This understanding will help us to avoid the false conclusion that variations of how to become a Christian existed in Acts (i.e. – people becoming Christians without repentance and baptism).
Verse 12 informs us that many in Samaria were baptized, and verse 13 mentions the magician Simon believing and being baptized. In neither case are we given a time frame between hearing the gospel and obeying it in baptism. However, beginning in verse 26, we find the conversion account of the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip taught him about Jesus, using the very passage he had been reading from Isaiah 53 as a starting point. The text simply says that Philip told him the good news about Jesus, but in doing so must have taught him about how to respond to Jesus. The eunuch saw water as they were traveling in his chariot, asked to be baptized and Philip went down into the water and accommodated his request. Hence, much like those in Acts 2, he was baptized as soon as he was taught (on the same day).
The first part of the chapter records Paul’s conversion, with verse 18 mentioning his baptism. Evidently he was baptized very soon after he was taught by Ananias. His conversion account is also found in Acts 22 and Acts 26, with Acts 22 being the most specific. “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (verse 16). Thus we have another account of someone being baptized as soon as they were taught, obviously on the same day. Certainly God had already worked in his life providentially prior to his conversion, but his baptism followed his being taught very quickly.
In verses 31, the church is said to have increased in numbers and verse 42 simply says that many people believed in the Lord. Such summary passages leave out the details of just how the people became disciples and they also omit any time factor between being taught and responding in baptism. We obviously have to conclude that these details would parallel what occurred in the other passages that provide the details. Something as important as salvation is not going to be non-specific. All of the passages that do mention baptism definitely form a discernable pattern.
This chapter describes the conversion of Cornelius and his family, the first Gentile converts. The last two verses of the chapter mention their baptisms. In the preceding verses, we are told that the Holy Spirit came on them prior to their baptism, an unusual occurrence not found anywhere else in the NT. This was a miraculous work of the Spirit, not to convince the Gentiles to become disciples but to convince the Jews present (including Peter) to allow them to become disciples. Hence, they were evidently baptized right after the miracle convinced Peter that God was opening the doors of the Kingdom to Gentiles. For further help with this passage, see my article on this website entitled “Baptism With the Holy Spirit.”
In these chapters, the conversions are mentioned in broader, more general terms. In 11:21, we are informed that a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. Acts 11:24 describes the effects of Barnabas arriving to teach in Antioch, stating again that a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Acts 12:24 states church growth in even more general terms, just stating that the word of God continued to spread and flourish. Acts 13:12 says that the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, believed ─ again a general summary without the specifics being included in the account. Acts 13 continues in the same vein with Paul preaching in Pisidian Antioch, as verse 43 shows Paul encouraging the Jews and Jewish proselytes to continue in the grace of God, implying that they had already been saved. Then in verse 48, the Gentiles honored the word of God by believing.
Acts 14:1 says that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. Then in Derbe, verse 21 says that Paul and Barnabas preached and won a large number of disciples. In Acts 15:3, we find Paul traveling from Syrian Antioch to Jerusalem and reporting on the way about the conversion of Gentiles. Interestingly, these conversion accounts use different terminology describing the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles, but the variations are all found in summary type reporting when specifics not included. When we reach chapter 16, the specifics will again be found and found in a way that is extremely informative.
This chapter begins with a general report of church growth in verse 5, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.” Verse 15 says that Lydia and the members of her household were baptized. The text doesn’t say that they were baptized immediately upon hearing the message, but it strongly implies such. The next conversion account is one of the most helpful in the Book of Acts, showing the specifics involved and ending up with a summary that enables us to fully grasp what the other generally stated accounts no doubt included.
The jailer’s question in verse 30, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” has generated much discussion. What was he asking? Simply to be saved physically, as some allege? Paul and Silas had been preaching in the city for a number of days by this time, and the jailer may have even heard them or at least heard about them. Further, he was surely aware of what charges had been lodged against his prisoners, and he may have heard them singing and praying earlier. The point is that he knew enough already to be asking about spiritual salvation, even if it was a hazy concept for him.
The answer given by Paul and Silas was as basic as the man’s question: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:31). The answer was the introduction of Paul’s message to a pagan man who needed to start at square one. That statement is Paul’s topic sentence, but its meaning must be spelled out before there can be a response. Since faith is predicated on hearing and responding to the Word (Romans 10:17), the jailer and his family had to first hear message. Therefore, Acts 16:32 informs us that the next order of business was to preach that message.
After they did hear the message of who Jesus was and what a response to him would involve, they were urgent about baptism. With the dust not yet settled from an earthquake, they were baptized “the same hour of the night.” A remarkable statement! What more could one need to understand that baptism into Christ is at the very center of the conversion process? Delay cannot be tolerated when it comes to baptism, once a person understands what they need to do and are fully ready to do it. Churches that wait until a “baptismal service” once or twice a year to baptize certainly do not connect it with the forgiveness of sins and initial salvation.
The jailer heard the message, believed it, repented (shown by washing the wounds of the preachers, among other things) and was baptized—all after midnight. When were he and his family saved? They were saved when they, in faith, accepted and responded appropriately to the message. Verse 34 provides us with a wonderful summary as it describes the entire faith process in these words: “The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family.”
The “believe” in verse 31 is defined in verses 32–34, and it quite obviously includes baptism rather than excludes it! Additionally, we see once again that those becoming saved in Acts did so through baptism and did so immediately upon knowing what to do to be saved and being ready to do it ─ understanding the implications of what they were doing (giving their lives to Jesus as Christ and Lord). The conversion process for Gentiles in this chapter was precisely the same as in Acts 2 for the Jews. Again, something as important as conversion was destined to form a distinct pattern, a pattern for those in the first century and the twenty-first century. For more details regarding this, I suggest reading the article on this website entitled, “Are We Saved By Faith Alone?” In it, I examine six different ways that the term faith is used in the NT, using this same passage to demonstrate the comprehensive use of the term.
These chapters mainly describe conversions in general terms by way of summaries, although Acts 18:8 uses both the general and the specific: “Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.” If we are to understand the conversion process as it is described in Acts (or in any other NT passage), we must grasp that the specific descriptions clarify what is included in the general descriptions. Acts 17:4 describes those converted in Athens as being “persuaded” and “joining” Paul and Silas. Acts 17:11-12 describes those in Berea as “receiving the message with great eagerness,” resulting in them becoming believers. Acts 17:34 shows some people becoming “followers of Paul” and believing.
Acts 18:26 contains the very interesting account of Priscilla and Aquila taking Apollos aside to explain “the way of God more adequately” to him. My article about Apollos’ conversion previously mentioned takes the position that Acts 18 doesn’t describe his conversion but rather his enlightenment about John’s baptism. If you read that article, you will definitely find it interesting! Then in Acts 19:5, those who had apparently been taught wrongly by Apollos were “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” This for them constituted a “re-baptism.” The remainder of Acts has no direct references to conversions, although Acts 19:20 speaks of the word of the Lord spreading widely and Acts 28:31 speaks of Paul proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. With that exciting comment, the Book of Acts closes!
Practical, Common Sense Principles
Since most of the churches in our movement (the ICOC) use a series of studies to lead someone to conversion, the question naturally arises about why this is done. After all, conversions in Acts seemed to happen quickly. Those hearing the message of Christ were baptized the same day (Acts 2), as soon as they were taught (Acts 8), and even the same hour of the night (Acts 16). Another question that should arise about our typical use of a series is not only “why” but “must we?” Of course the answer to the last question has to be no, if we take the biblical examples seriously. We must be able to distinguish between a useful approach and a necessary approach.
Our main reason for using a series and not baptizing people as quickly as we read about in Acts is that so much religious confusion exists now. When Christianity was new, false teachings regarding the conversion process had not yet arisen, but now they abound. Originally, the process was a one-step process of simply learning about Christ and accepting him through faith, repentance and baptism. Now, the process is most often a two-step process, at least in parts of the world where some form of Christianity is popular. Those who have been taught falsely must first unlearn the erroneous teaching and then replace it with proper teaching. The confusion between the two often lengthens the conversion process.
That being said, we also have to understand that our series of studies cover not only the first part of the Great Commission (“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,” Matthew 28:19), but also a good deal of the second part (“and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” verse 20). Honestly, our standard approach should raise a number of related questions that we should be able to answer clearly.
The Questions Raised
Why Do We Use A Series?
As we have already explained, primarily to clear up confusion for those who have been taught falsely about conversion. Additionally, to help those whom we teach to understand enough to resist other false teaching that friends and family may introduce after hearing about their decision to be baptized biblically. We do not want someone to be baptized only to become a part of a church that does indeed teach wrong things about topics as vital as conversion. If we are studying with a non-religion person, perhaps the second reason would still apply and perhaps it would not, or if it did apply, perhaps to a much lesser extent. In that case, we might well decide to baptize someone much more quickly.
Must We Use A Series?
The short answer is no. If we who are teaching know the Bible reasonably well, especially the basics about Jesus and what it takes to accept him as Lord and Savior, a series is not absolutely necessary. I have found that using a series is helpful in most cases, since many of those with whom we study are fairly illiterate biblically and often confused with the myriad of false teachings in our American society. Along with this, many are reluctant to make Jesus the Lord of their lives quickly, once they understand what this actually means in their lives. Thus, the answer to this question depends on the person with whom we are studying, their understanding and their heart openness. As we deal more and more with the younger generations, we will discover that their questions, concerns and possible obstacles are going to be different than those we dealt with in the past. We need to continue to re-examine our approaches and adapt to sharing the gospel in ways that will be most effective.
When I am studying with someone who is biblically literate and spiritually involved in Christianity in broad terms, I don’t use a series. I explain that discipleship is the issue, for Jesus said in the Great Commission to make disciples. I further explain that discipleship has both a vertical aspect and a horizontal aspect. The vertical is about us and Jesus. We must be fully committed to him as the Master (Lord) of our lives. The horizontal is about the relationships we have with other followers of Jesus, the “one another,” “each other” responsibilities we have within God’s family as defined in the NT. I go to the passages that deal with both of these aspects and ask if the majority of the members of their present church are practicing them. Then I ask if they as an individual are practicing them, and if they say yes, I dig more deeply to see whether they are accurate in their answer or not. Obviously in this process, I am using many biblical passages that are applicable to their personal situation.
Ultimately, I am going to deal with their conversion, but usually not until I find out where they are with their current beliefs and practices regarding discipleship. Repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38) are issues of Lordship, so this response will be covered as a part of examining initial discipleship. For those who are seriously involved in their church, topics like the inspiration of the Scriptures and Jesus’ death for our sins are already familiar topics to them. I will ask enough questions to make sure that their understanding is in line with the Bible, but it doesn’t take an entire study on common Christian topics to establish that. Therefore, while I am not against using a series by any means, I don’t want anyone to believe that such is a necessary part of the process of becoming a Christian. Otherwise, we have taking something that is often helpful and turned it into a law and a tradition.
Must We Use A Certain Series?
Again, the answer is no. I’ve used several different ones and helped developed several others. When faced with helping a seriously ill person come to Christ, I use a very basic approach that covers only the essentials. Among those would be God’s love for every person; the Bible as God’s word; what sin is and does between us and God; the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross; the definition of faith and repentance; and the church as the family of God and how that family should function. Surely these basics understood and accepted would cover enough to prepare someone to be baptized into Christ. Any study, whether carefully written out or not, that covers these basics would be sufficient to lead a person to Christ. We should be able to ask enough questions to discover which areas might need more attention, and we should know enough Bible to provide that attention.
On this website is a rather lengthy article, actually a series of articles, with the title “Paradigm Shirt Evaluation.” The Paradigm Shift series called into the question much of what I am questioning in this present article regarding the conversion process. As I stated in that evaluation, my main concern was not about the content of the series, but the tone of it. Those presenting the series seemed to me often condescending and arrogant, totally unnecessary and unhelpful attitudes. I agreed with the main focus of the series, which rejected the idea that a series of studies must be laboriously followed in order to bring every person studied with to Christ.
What Should Determine How Quickly Someone Is Baptized?
In a word, readiness. Readiness is shown by three things: head knowledge, heart knowledge and urgency. Head knowledge is the easiest to determine. Heart knowledge is shown by a person’s emotional reactions to God’s love, especially as demonstrated in the cross of Christ. Different people show genuine emotions in different ways, which means that our expectations have to match those individual differences. For example, tears may or may not show the right emotional response. The human part of the study process is one of the most fundamental. The one being studied with is trying to figure you out, to see if what you are teaching them is being shown in your life. You should be trying to figure out the one with whom you are studying, to grasp their head and heart knowledge and their level of urgency.
The urgency factor cannot be overlooked. You cannot allow your urgency to see someone be saved to push them beyond their own urgency. That is a serious mistake that has been made far too often. I explain very clearly and fairly frequently that while I am urgent to see them accept Jesus, they have to be motivated by their own urgency. I provide them with enough information to help them develop urgency, but it still must be their own that drives them to the ultimate decision to turn their life over to Christ. I often wonder if focusing more on Jesus and less on man’s response might prompt more urgency of the right kind. After all, that is the gospel message, according to passages like 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.
No matter what study approach I am using, when a person says that they understand that they are lost and are urgent about getting saved, we are most likely going to move forward quickly. When a lost person’s urgency level reaches a certain point, they are most likely going to get baptized soon. I do not want them going to someone else to accomplish that if I am the one studying with them. If they are reaching that level of urgency, I will determine their readiness through asking questions. They must be ready to repent and make Jesus the Lord of their lives, present and future. In the event that I think they are just responding based on a temporary emotional reaction, I will either keep asking more questions that are increasingly probing or ask another person to join us and ask the questions. If either or both approaches show that they are in fact as ready as those three thousand in Acts 2 were, I will baptize them.
What About Making People Wait Longer?
If the one being studied with wants to wait until a different day, regardless of the reason, this shows their lack of true understanding and urgency. If the one studying with them suggests waiting until a certain time or date in spite of the lost person’s urgency, they are the one with a problem. For example, sometimes it has been suggested that one should wait until a church service is held in order to encourage the Christians. When something of that nature occurs, the lost person’s urgency is not the issue; it is the one making such suggestions. When any person understands that they are lost until they are baptized into Christ, trying to make them wait is unbiblical and unloving – if the readiness factors are in place. If they are not in place, you cannot proceed until they are. It is a judgment call, to be sure, but I am going to err on the side of urgency. I do not want to be the one holding another back without very good reasons. It should go without saying that the goal of finishing a study series is not a good reason (but I will say it anyway!).
The doctrine of salvation by “faith alone” (Sola fide in Latin, a historically popular usage) has its roots in the Reformation Movement, with men like Martin Luther emphasizing this concept in reaction to certain teachings in the Catholic Church. The Reformation teachers were correct in asserting that we cannot in any way earn or deserve salvation, and if you understand what was taking place in the Catholic Church of their day, you can understand why they were so focused on faith as contrasted to meritorious works. However, the way the doctrine of “faith alone” was stated originally and interpreted as church history unfolded led to some misunderstandings of how the Bible actually defines faith.
To state the obvious, this doctrine was focused on the human part of salvation rather than on God’s part (the main part ─ grace). Thus, in considering this narrow focus, we could quickly say that we are not saved by faith alone. But this wasn’t the intent of the Reformation writers; they were in fact focusing on man’s response to God’s grace. One of the best passages to show the overall way of salvation is Ephesians 2:8-10.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God ─ 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
This is a marvelous passage, as it encapsulates the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. One reason it is such a significant passage is because it deals with both sides of salvation, the Divine side and the human side. Another reason it is so important is that it deals with both types of works ─ meritorious works (which cannot earn salvation) and works of faith (which are produced by our love and commitment to God). A common way to describe the difference is to say that we are not saved by our works but we work because we are saved. Romans develops this topic in much more detail and helps us really understand this important difference.
In stating that we are saved by grace through faith, Paul is not saying that the Divine and human parts of salvation are equal ─ far from it. The real basis or ground of salvation is the grace of God ultimately expressed in the death of Jesus on the cross. The human part is simply our acceptance of what God has done to make salvation possible. Describing God’s part in our salvation as the ground of forgiveness and our part as conditions of acceptance is a helpful way to look at the subject. Grace is a gift and our acceptance of this gift is the faith of which Paul speaks. Having said that, our faith is essential to our salvation, and understanding exactly what is meant by the term faith is likewise essential. The challenge is that this term is defined biblically in a number of slightly different ways, at least six by my count, and these differences matter, as we will see.
1 Corinthians 13:13 says that the “Big Three” are faith, hope and love – with love being the greatest.
Love isn’t that difficult to define, since several different Greek words are all translated into English as love, and each of the Greek terms can be clearly defined. Hope isn’t difficult to define either, but it does receive far less attention among believers than it deserves. However, faith is the most challenging to define, simply because the Bible uses it in a number of slightly different ways, and understanding the context in which it is found is often the only way to define it accurately. This challenge should come as no surprise to us, since Satan is always trying to deceive us. Since Ephesians 2:8-10 says we are saved by God’s grace through our faith, you can predict that he is going to work very hard to confuse us about such an important issue involving our salvation. So, with that background, let’s delve carefully into God’s definition of faith, as found in the Bible.
Faith: a Word of Many Nuances
First, sometimes the term denotes simply intellectual belief. Romans 10:14 – “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” As intellectual belief, faith is a part of a process in accepting Christ, not the whole process. Second, sometime faith or belief describes the concept of trust. 2 Corinthians 5:7 – “We live by faith, not by sight.” The context is about trusting that there is life after death and a spiritual body awaiting the saved, suited for eternity. Third, sometimes faith is preceded by the definite article and is being used to refer to the New Testament as God’s covenant with us. Jude 1:3 – “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” Thus, “the faith” would be synonymous with “the gospel.”
Fourth, faith is used in reference to a miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 – “To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.” Most of these miraculous gifts are easy to define while others aren’t. The exact nature of miraculous faith is one of those gifts more difficult to explain precisely.
Fifth, faith can express the idea of a personal conviction, based on our conscience. Romans 14:23 – “But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” The whole context is about matters of opinion, and in these matters we must grant others liberty while living personally within our own convictions. Sixth and finally, and this is a very important usage, faith is used in a comprehensive sense that encompasses the entire faith response to God and his Son. Many passages could be cited that show this usage, including John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:8-10. However, we can get confused about how the term is being used and miss out on some essential concepts that relate directly to salvation. One way to help avoid this confusion is to realize that all faith is not saving faith.
Some Faith Does Not Please God
For starters, self-righteous faith doesn’t please God. John 8:30-33 – “Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him. 31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ 33 They answered him, ‘We are Abraham\’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?’” Next, fearful faith or hidden faith certainly doesn’t please him. John 12:42-43 – “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.”
Further, faith in words only, without being put into practice, is dead and cannot please God. James 2:14-17 – “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
What Is the Faith That Pleases God?
My favorite passage to define a saving faith is Hebrews 11:6 – “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.” It shouldn’t be surprising that the three components of faith that apply most directly to man’s response to God are all included in this definition of a faith that pleases God. First, it is a faith that believes. Second, it is a faith that trusts. Third, it is a faith that earnestly seeks. Thus, a saving faith is comprised of faith, trust and obedience. But what do we believe and what do we trust and what do we obey?
It is important to note that true faith is directly tied to the Word of God, as Romans 10:17 tells us: “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” So, in short, faith is based on the gospel message about Jesus. Another key to understanding saving faith is to realize that the Bible comes to us in the form of facts, promises and commands. Hence, we believe the facts, we trust the promises and we obey the commands. A faith that pleases God is simply one that takes him at his word – believing facts, trusting promises and obeying commands.
Matthew 28:19-20 is what we call the Great Commission, and it has two parts to it – becoming a disciple of Jesus (getting saved) and then maturing as a saved disciple by learning to obey everything that he has commanded. Now let’s look at an example of someone in the Book of Acts doing that first part, as the salvation process is shown to include all three parts of the type of faith that pleases God and results in salvation.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
The jailor asked a very basic question about how to get saved, and Paul’s answer was also basic, starting with the need to believe. Of course, the jailor and his family had to know what to believe, which led to Paul preaching the Word to him, because belief must be based on the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Repentance is also a part of the salvation process, and washing the wounds of Paul and Silas demonstrated that the jailor and his family had repented. Finally, they were baptized, the final step in the initial salvation process. (See my article on this site entitled “Biblical Baptism Explained” for further details.) Note that their baptism took place after midnight, and by taking prisoners out of jail, they were putting themselves at risk if Paul and Silas were not being honest with their intentions. It would be difficult to come to any other conclusion than the fact that baptism is a part of the salvation process. But it is a part of the process because it is a part of the faith process. Notice the wording of verse 34: “he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God.” Coming to believe in God summed up the entire salvation process from start to finish, from hearing the message and believing it to being baptized into the death of Christ (Romans 6:3-4).
But now let’s take a look at ourselves if we have already done that – where are you in the maturation process, in becoming more and more like Jesus? The second part of the Great Commission is by far the most challenging, for it encompasses obeying all that he has commanded and it lasts a lifetime. Where is your faith in continuing to make Jesus the Lord (Master) of your life? I expect most of us don’t struggle with believing the facts of the Bible. But how about trusting the promises of the Bible? Perhaps the quickest answer to that question comes from an examination of our anxiety level. It has been said that anxiety is practical atheism. That is surely a disturbing definition for many. I recall the wife of an elder being quite a worrier. I once mentioned to her that studies have shown that about 95% of what we worry about never comes to pass. She replied: “Exactly. I am keeping many things from becoming realities!” A relative of a minister’s wife known for negativity said of her, “Well, given her negative outlook on life, at least she is never disappointed!” How about you ─ are you an anxiety prone person as a disciple? The answer to that question says a lot about your faith, the trust you have in God’s promises.
Then, how are you doing in obeying the commands of the Bible – have you been satisfied with obeying certain ones, but yet not taking seriously what Jesus said about obeying everything he commanded? Certainly we could delve into many topics when considering this question, but some specifics come to mind as I consider the lives of church members I observe regularly. I think about participation in all of the activities of the church that the leaders have asked us to participate in. I think about finances and giving of both time and money. I think about evangelism through the example of Jesus (who came to “seek and save the lost” ─ Luke 19:10). I think about a number of other basics of what it means to follow and imitate Jesus, knowing the human tendency to pick and choose what we find comfortable or enjoyable. That approach ultimately leads to a rejection of God’s Word as a whole, and can so deceive us that we don’t even see it. Faith in accepting Jesus initially must lead to an ever maturing faith that causes us to become more and more like him all the days of our lives.
I love the term faith, partly because of its complexity and therefore its richness. For those wanting to enter a saved relationship with God through Christ, it is essential that we understand this richness and respond appropriately. For those of us who have already entered this relationship, we have to continue to examine our faith and ask especially about how well we are doing with trusting the promises and obeying the commands of the Bible. For all of us, we would do well to take these words of Jesus to heart, as he said in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, \’Lord, Lord,\’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Let’s make sure that we are doing his will ─ with an understanding mind based on the Scriptures and a grateful heart that produces the needed trust and obedience. Then our hearts will be entwined with his heart for us! “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
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?”)
Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.” 6 But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: 9 That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. 11 As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Romans 10:9-10 is often quoted as proof that we are saved without baptism. However, verses 9-10 cannot be used to exclude baptism from the salvation process—for several reasons: One, chapter 10 follows chapter 6, and in that chapter, baptism is clearly taught to be a part of dying to sin and being raised to begin a new life; and 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 states: “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 (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.”
In Romans 10:9-10, Paul is talking about the Jews who had failed to accept Christ, and he is 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 need to accept him as Lord and Messiah. That was the challenge to the Jew. Being baptized was not a hard concept for them to accept. It had been a part of John’s ministry, and large numbers of Jews had received it from 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 to accept Jesus as the Messiah 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).
Luke’s failure to specifically name faith in this account does not mean that he meant to exclude it from the conversion process. He was simply focusing on their greatest challenge. And Luke’s approach follows exactly the same principle used by Paul in Romans 10. Studying passages in their context is one of the most basic issues of biblical interpretation. As has been often said, “Taking a verse out of context creates a pretext.” Salvation is a process, as shown by this passage in Romans and in many others. It is built upon our faith in a crucified Savior, and thus all aspects of the salvation process fit within the scope of a faith response. But no part of the biblical response can be left out and then be assumed to be complete.
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!