Archive for January, 2009

“Born Again” – by baptism? or faith and repentance? or BOTH?

I almost hate to start this discussion because I am beginning to have doubts about the churches of Christ understanding of baptism. And yet, it has been prompted by several things I’ve seen over time. But, please bear in mind that the following is my own understanding, which I am sharing for discussion; not for the purpose of declaring that I alone have the “inside story” on any of this. Let God and His Word with the help of His Holy Spirit and prayer be your guide alone.

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I have noticed over the year or so that I became convinced baptism does what Peter says it does, that in many cases baptism seems to be a bit of a stumbling block. For instance, in a letter that was shared with me, a missionary was explaining how they had a disciple who was convinced of his need to be saved, confessed Christ as His Savior, but the missionary was unable – for two days!- to baptize him. Another incident was similar to those I have seen in the churches of Christ, where a young lady put off her baptism, with the silent approval of the church, until the time of her own choosing. I have seen this happen several times and it has made me think.

What it has made me think is this: I believe baptism is commanded and that anyone who wants to follow Jesus truthfully will not refuse it. However, in many cases we are placing a MAN between a new believer and Jesus Christ! If a person cannot be saved until a MAN baptizes them, who then does a person’s salvation become mediated by?

I have advocated for baptism very enthusiastically, but since that is not how I came to the Lord, I’ve been quite hypocritical to declare something like immediate  baptism as essential when I was not changed by my baptism. I was changed when I finally received the faith to believe that Jesus had really and truly died to save me…not my brother or friend or some poor lost soul in a foreign land, but ME! That was when I was changed, became a new creature and wanted to be baptized. The latter didn’t occur for six weeks, but I “set my face” towards the Jerusalem of baptism from the moment I knew it was part of becoming a believer. Was I unsaved and my sins still clinging to me until I was actually baptized? How about baptizing people in the same water? Does the first get baptized in “clean” water and the ones following get dipped into “dirty” water because of the first person’s sins?

I often countered rebuttals against baptism being necessary for salvation with “If it’s not saving, then why even perform it? Would you say a person could claim to be a Christian and refuse to be baptized?” Now, I find myself asking questions like ” If baptism is how we are cleansed of our sins, where does the blood of Jesus come into play?” The churches of Christ emphasize that we come into contact with the blood through baptism, but I really don’t see a definite proof of that in scripture. But…..if it is so, then how does the blood get applied to later sins, after our baptism? Hebrews 10:22 says “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” When and how are our hearts sprinkled with the blood of our saviour? Peter says “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you. ” (1 Peter 1:2 ESV) Paul says “we have now been justified by his blood” and “we have redemption through his blood”. In Revelation 1:5 we have John offering a benediction “To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. ” (ESV)

One thing that always bothered me about John’s gospel was that there are no overt references to baptism after John the Baptist’s role is described and Jesus disciples are said to have taken to doing it in place of John. I used to carry Pocket Testaments, which are simply the gospel of John, but quit doing so because John doesn’t flatly state that baptism is necessary for salvation (or does he? see my last notes). I felt that Matthew or Mark would be more appropriate  So I stopped handing these Gospels out…because I doubted that the Word of God could do the job of informing people of the whole gospel. True, Jesus was baptized by John and ordained baptism as a ordinance for His followers to observe in obedient submission. Yet Jesus’ baptism wasn’t salvic, for He never sinned. So what was His baptism? An act of obedience and a symbol of His humility and righteousness. It certainly wasn’t anything more than that!  Jesus illustrated how repentance was obtained for the tax collector vs. the Pharisee. We have the great commission which says ” Go therefore 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 ESV) And, there are at least five incidents of conversion described in the book of Acts that do not even mention baptism (Acts 4:4, 13:12, 14:1, 17:12, 17:34).

Romans 6 makes a great case that immersion is the proper form of baptism, but have any of us been “in the likeness of His death” in a physical way? Wasn’t His death one that occurred on a cross? How do we do anything in that likeness except within our hearts? Baptism is a likeness of Christ’s burial, true. But not of His death. Else Christ’s own baptism could be said to be a likeness of His death. But it wasn’t! Christ being lifted up was the form of His death and His victory.

I am becoming persuaded that we are like the Pharisees who took the Law so literally that they tied God’s words to their forehead and their chests. Jesus made a point of saying their phylacteries were of no use. That young man could have died during the two days his baptism was postponed! What about the Catechumen of the second and third century churches who died as martyrs of Jesus, yet were unbaptized because they were “probationary disciples” of the churches of that time? The way the church got around that was to say these were baptized in blood instead of water.

All I know is my fervor and zeal for witnessing have been hampered by the idea that anyone I witness to cannot be saved unless I can talk them off that bus on their way home to their kids or a doctor’s appointment and be baptized. How do you baptize an Eskimo in the arctic, or an Arab in the middle of the Sahara? Where do you baptize a person you just met and convinced needed to be saved, when you are getting off a plane in a city neither one of you know at midnight in the middle of a blizzard? Interestingly enough, my church group were discussing the very idea of baptizing in snow because of the snowstorm we were and have experienced lately. We came to a unanimous position that baptism in snow would be acceptable.

These are the problems I am beginning to have with the churches of Christ putting an act before the grace of God. Do we really think that Charles Wesley or George Mueller were not men of God? Neither were baptized by immersion. Ditto for many other men of God through the ages, some of whom did not hold our doctrine, but we don’t hesitate to quote them either. Jesus said “For the one who is not against us is for us. ” (Mark 9:40 ESV) Was Arthur W. Pink against Jesus Christ? Was Charles Spurgeon? How about Mother Teresa? I have serious reservations about Mother Teresa because she was a Catholic and she was surely not baptized by immersion. But, I often hear church of Christ people quote her and seek to emulate her in benevolence. So, does Jesus’ next words apply here? “For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.” (Mark 9:41 ESV) I am not Mother Teresa’s judge and I fear for her soul, but I cannot know her heart and I observe that she had more heart for others than many “Christians” who have become such following the right “prescription” as Marshal Keeble described it. I believe in baptism, but I’m afraid we have become like the lawyers Jesus addressed when he said “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:52 ESV)  If in fact we convince ourselves and others that we are not saved until a MAN baptizes us. I really believe we have been fooled by our own form of “wisdom”.

In Romans 4 Paul makes a strong case that Abraham was justified by faith before he was circumcised. And that circumcision was the sign, or seal, of the Abramic covenant. In Romans 10 Paul again makes a point that “whoever will call on the name of the Lord shall be saved”. And in verse 9-10 he emphasizes “confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” (Romans 10:9-10 NASB)

I have often felt, after coming to believe that baptism is a non-optional ordinance, that the example of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch was the best open and shut case for baptism being required. And yet, the Bible tells us again and again we are saved by faith and not works. On the other hand, I was explaining to my wife last night, that just as the earth and everything that lives on it was created from and by water and nothing is born without water, so God has birthed us by His Spirit and by water. The two are inseparable. However, I have a big problem with the church of Christ position that a person

1. must completely understand and believe that they are being baptised for the remission or washing away of their sins for it to be effective and

2. the rite must be performed by a church of Christ member, and

3. there can be no delay between faith and baptism.

And yet I see people, supposedly ready to be “converted”, waiting until their birthday to be baptized, or when grandma comes to town, all with the approval of the elders and ministers. And yet I see no sorrow for past sins, no confession of past sins, all of which the gospel prescribes. Instead the candidate for baptism must simply answer “Yes” to the question “Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God?” I have yet to see what I would call a heartfelt confession of Jesus Christ as Lord or sorrow for sins that were committed against the very God who is saving them. I am convinced that there are many in the churches of Christ who are relying on this single confession and rite of baptism as their salvation and not by faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. Some do believe in faith, but I think they are the exception. And I think the same applies to many who have prayed the “Sinner’s prayer” or filled out a “Decision Card” or, God forbid, raised their hand “with every eye closed” and think they have received Christ.

Hebrews 10:22 shows that our hearts are cleansed by the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus, and our sins are forgiven, not when we are baptized, but when we believe. Our past sins may very well be washed away in baptism, but it can only be symbolically if our sins are forgiven and we are justified by faith. Yet, baptism is non-negotiable. A believing Christian cannot refuse it and it is, as Peter said, an answer of a good conscience toward God. No Bible believing person can say truthfully that baptism isn’t necessary. But, I dare say there are exceptions and whether we say “it was for a sign to Peter” or something else, we cannot believe that Cornelius and friends, if they had died before they were baptized would have died in their sins. Peter said “Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17 NASB) Peter says right here that the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit when they believed on Jesus as the Christ. The argument is often made that the thief on the cross didn’t need to be baptized because Christ hadn’t yet died and been resurrected. But, Jesus had already consecrated baptism with His own and his disciples were “baptizing more than John” afterwards. Either the thief had to have been baptized or the argument carries no weight.

Who baptized the disciples? They did not die before Christ was resurrected. Yet we have no record that they were baptized by Christ or each other. Indeed, if they were, it would have been by John the Baptist and in Acts 19 Paul demonstrated that this baptism was not sufficient! What was necessary was that they had received the Holy Spirit. And back to Cornelius we go; Peter said they were saved before they were baptized. But, that doesn’t mean he didn’t think they needed baptizing for he commanded it to be done.

So, I think the emphasis on baptism is warranted, but not if it becomes the sole object of conversion or is considered the actual means of forgiveness. I think a better analogy is the reference in Revelation to those that have washed their robes and Paul’s reference to baptism being how we are clothed in Christ. And, of course, none of us are actually dragging around our dead crucified body. It’s symbolic. It’s metaphoric in the sense that it helps us grasp what Christ has commanded us to do. Baptism is like circumcision; a seal, or sign of the inward forgiveness we obtain through faith in and by the blood of Christ. And it is not optional, just as Moses was in danger of being killed by God because he had not circumcised his son (Exodus 4:24-26).

Lastly, Jesus statement “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. ” in John 3:5 does not leave any room for “amniotic fluid”. Jesus was speaking to a learned man who did not need a metaphor on top of a metaphor to understand what Jesus was saying when he answered Nicodemus’ question. Water plays into every true Christian conversion. Woe to the man who says baptism isn’t necessary! But, it doesn’t have any saving power in itself. Salvation is from God and by God. Our including water in baptism is simply obeying Jesus’ commandment. Once it becomes the “letter” of becoming a Christian we have perverted it into the very means of salvation. No wonder infant baptism became almost universally accepted as salvic!

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, “(1 Peter 1:3 ESV) and ” since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; ” (1 Peter 1:23 ESV) And Jesus declared that the disciples were saved before His death in Luke 10:20 and that  “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.

Is baptism optional? Is baptism what saves us? I think the answers are “No” and “No”