Saturday, 15 January 2011

More on baptism

I indicated quite a while ago in a previous post that I would do a follow up post on the subject of baptism, and this has been brought to mind by some correspondence with someone who believes that baptism is essential for salvation.

Before dealing with the Scriptures that are used to support this gentleman's view I want to point out a couple of things that I had mentioned before.
  1. The few Scriptures that appear to teach that baptism has a part in placing us in a right relationship with God can't overthrow the dozens which clearly teach it doesn't.
  2. We have clear-cut, case-closed examples of people who were saved, possessors of the Spirit of God and incorporated into the body of Christ before being baptized (Acts 10 v 43-48).  Any understanding of baptism needs to be consistent with this conclusive example of people receiving the Spirit before baptism.
I also want to ask a couple of questions about this teaching.
  1. Do you have to be baptized in the right way and at the right time in order to be saved?  What of those who believe in sprinkling or pouring as opposed to immersion?  Or what of those who believe in infant baptism rather than believers' baptism?  Does the fact that they got it wrong mean they can't be saved, even though they have their faith in Christ alone for salvation?  This would mean that a Baptist with his faith in Christ couldn't look on a Presbyterian with his faith in Christ and consider him a brother.
  2. Do you have to believe that your baptism is essential for salvation or is it enough just to have it done even if you place no saving value on it? 
    If the former then it means that the vast majority of the heroes of the faith down through the church age were in fact not saved!  The great Christians weren't actually Christians!  It means that, not only am I not a Christian, but also that I don't know any Christians, because I don't know personally anyone who believes that baptism is essential for salvation. 
    If the latter, then it seems a bit strange that the moment of regeneration occurs without the person's knowledge.  It would mean that, in my own experience, although I thought I was born again that day when I turned to Christ for forgiveness, I wasn't really - it was actually a few years later when I was baptized that I was born again, even though the change in my life and desires did not occur at my baptism.  It seems odd to me that God would withhold salvation until I was baptized and then grant salvation when I observed the ordinance even though I didn't believe it had any saving value.
Anyway, let's get to the verses.

Mark 16 v 16 - "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" - now I'm not going to dismiss this verse by citing earliest manuscripts, we'll just deal with it as it is.  We would expect the contrast with this to be "He that does not believe and be baptized shall be damned" but the contrast actually is, "he that believeth not shall be damned".  This shows that faith is the determining factor in salvation, and baptism is included because it was the Lord's will and was simply expected that baptism would inevitably and invariably follow faith.

Acts 2 v 38 - "Repent, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins".  There is an initial observation on this text that can be taken from a surface reading and a moment's thought.  If a poster in the Wild West says that someone is wanted for murder does it mean that the Law is looking for someone in order to commit a murder?  No!  It means the Law is looking for someone because he has committed a murder.  Now that could very well be what Peter is saying: Repent, and consequently be baptized because you have the forgiveness of sins - baptism being the declaration that repentance has taken place and forgiveness has been received.  So the word "for" can be used to express the aim of an action or the basis of an action.
Consider the words of Matthew 12 v 41.  The Lord says the people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah.  The word "at" here (eis - 1519 in Strong's numbers) is the same word "for" in Acts 2 v 38, and the Lord wasn't saying in Matthew 12 v 41 that they repented for the preaching of Jonah, but rather that they repented because of the preaching of Jonah (there are other examples of the New Testament using the word this way), so we can legitimately bring that meaning of "because of" into Acts 2 v 38 and that means it sits in perfect harmony with all of Scripture.  I agree then with A.T. Robertson when he comments on Acts 2 v 38:
"My view is decidedly against the idea that Peter, Paul, or any one in the New Testament taught baptism as essential to the remission of sins or the means of securing such remission.  So I understand Peter to be urging baptism on each of them who had already turned (repented) and for it to be done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ on the basis of the forgiveness of sins which they had already received."
Another thing to note on this verse is that "Repent" is plural, as is the clause about receiving the Holy Spirit, while "be baptized" is singular.  This links "Repent" with receiving the Spirit and shows that salvation is conditional on repentance, not on baptism.

Acts 22 v 16 - "Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord."  A couple of things on this verse - the first thing to say is that Ananias has already called Saul "brother Saul" (v13) indicating he was in the family of God prior to his baptism.
We see that Saul's salvation took place on the Damascus Road because he refers to his own experience in Romans 10 v 9 - it was on the Damascus Road that he believed in his heart that God had raised Christ from the dead and he confessed Him as Lord (Acts 9 v 6). 
When Paul tells of his conversion in Acts 26 he doesn't mention his baptism.  Is it not more than slightly strange to not mention the moment you became a Christian when you are seeking to persuade someone to become a Christian?
Anyway, how should these words be understood?  Well, remember that in Revelation 1 v 5 it is the Lord who washes away our sins and He does it by means of His blood, yet here Paul is encouraged to wash away his own sins, and it is by baptism, so the difference, it seems to me, is that baptism was a means of Paul outwardly, visually repudiating his former life, and represented him being done with all that had gone before.  He was, in baptism, disassociating himself with his former sins.

Romans 6 v 3 - "Know ye not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death?"  This verse presents the positive side of the truth we just considered in Acts 22 v 16.  In Acts 22 the thought is what baptism disassociates us from, but in Romans 6 the thought is what it associates us with.  The preposition "into" can just as well mean "unto" and so carries the thought of baptism identifying us outwardly with Christ and with His death.  Galatians 3 v 27 expresses the similar thought of identification.

1Peter 3 v 21 - "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us..."  This verse really works for the baptismal regeneration folk provided you don't read anything in the surrounding context!  It is important to remember that not every instance of the word "save" has to do with the salvation of a sinner from the penalty of sin (e.g. Philippians 1 v 19; 1Timothy 4 v 16), and that certainly seems to be true here.  In the preceding verse Peter tells us Noah and his family were saved by water, but surely they were saved by the ark!  Yes, they were saved from the judgment by the ark, but they were saved from the ungodliness of the world by the water - the water finished Noah and his family with that old world.  Baptism corresponds to this picture in saving us from the ungodliness of the world, not in that it removes filth from your body (there's no power in the water), but in that it is the answer of a good conscience towards God, i.e. when faced with ungodliness our conscience remembers our baptism and all it declared, and thus we are saved from ungodly living.

Now I have briefly examined the verses that those who support the idea of baptismal regeneration use.  I hope I have shown the following:
  • If one takes these verses as supporting baptismal regeneration then it produces irreconcilable conflicts with the rest of Scripture.
  • Scripture gives us examples of non-baptized members of the body of Christ.
  • The verses can be understood sensibly in a way that harmonises with the clear teaching of Scripture that faith alone in Christ brings a sinner into a right standing with God.
Is baptism not important then?  Of course it's important:
  • It's an instruction from the Lord Jesus for His disciples (Matthew 28 v 19), and not for anyone other than His disciples, and He did say, "If ye love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14 v 15). 
  • It's an illustration of what took place the moment a sinner turns to Christ in repentance - the believer is dead to sin's mastery, and lives for God.
  • It's an identification showing that we belong to the One who died, was buried and rose again.
If someone doesn't believe faith in Christ is enough to make them right with God, then what have they got their faith in Christ to do?  He saves all who recognise their need and trust Him to meet that need.  A believer should be baptized, not to be saved, but because he is saved, and this is what his Saviour wants him to do.