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Baptism: God's Command, Man's Interpretation

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All bona fide Christians are our brothers or sisters. We should acknowledge them as such, and work together with them whenever it is 1) practicable and 2) possible without compromising vital Biblical truth. Such were the opinions we set forth in four articles sometime back. Probably many readers would be inclined to agree with such a view, if we mean cooperating with fellow-believers who are immersed followers of King Jesus.

But we mentioned groups like the Gideons and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, and those organizations do not limit their mem­bership to immersed believers. So how can we defend participating in those and similar ministries? Does not such participation in itself compromise vital Biblical truth? Perhaps some read­ers exclaimed to themselves, “Ahal I knew it would lead to this – I could see it coming in those earlier articles. He’s downgrading the importance of baptism! Next thing you know he’ll say it doesn’t mat­ter.”

Whoa-hold on! You’re jumping to wrong conclusions. In fact, my desire in this article is just the opposite. Any open-minded reader of the New Testament can easily see that our Lord orders everyone who turns to Him to be buried with Him in baptism without delay. No doubt 99% of Word and Work’s readers are very familiar with the many Scriptures that plainly teach this. But for the sake of the 1 %, here are some of the basic Scriptures on the topic of baptism: Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 2:38-41; 10:44-48; 16:29-33; 22:16; Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:26-27; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet.3:21.

Objections

Some folks don’t like the teaching of those passages. They either neglect such verses or try to explain them away. A man once told me, “There isn’t a single drop of water in Romans chapter six;” He believed it refers to baptism in the Holy Spirit rather than water bap­tism. .

Other people say to us, “Oh, that’s just the way you interpret those verses. You Church of Christ people see baptism everywhere and you misinterpret the Bible to make it fit your ideas.” For this reason, we would like to share with you quotations from several com­petent Bible scholars who are not from “the Restoration Movement” or any “Church of Christ denomination,” as people sometimes put it. These quotes may be useful to share with people who claim we mis­interpret such passages as those listed above.

Quotations

F. F. Bruce, world-renowned New Testament scholar and author, on Romans 6: ‘” Listen;’ Paul says; do you not remember what happened when you were baptized? From this and other references to baptism in Paul’s writings, it is certain that he did not regard bap­tism as an ‘optional extra’ in the Christian life, and that he would not have contemplated the phenomenon of an ‘unbaptized believer’. We may agree or disagree with Paul, but we must do him the justice of letting him hold and teach his own beliefs, and not distort his beliefs into conformity with what we should prefer him to have said.

“In apostolic times it is plain that baptism followed immediately upon confession of faith in Christ. The repeated accounts of baptism in Acts give ample proof of this. Faith in Christ and baptism were indeed, not so much two distinct experiences as parts of one whole. ” (Romans, Tyndale New Testament Commentary).

Richard Dowsett: “No serious reader of the Bible can honestly pretend that baptism does not matter. It is mentioned more than eighty times in the New Testament. . . . Jesus commanded the disci­ples to baptize all those who became Christians (Matt. 28:19), and so it is hardly surprising to find the apostles speaking about baptism in their evangelistic messages and counseling (Acts 2:30; 8:36-38). In the New Testament, baptism was always administered to all who made an intelligent profession of faith in the Lord Jesus, at the time of their conversion, and not months or years later. The early Christian atti­tude to baptism is well illustrated in Rom. 6:4, where it is likened to a funeral or burial. Just as a funeral always followed close upon death, so baptism followed close upon conversion. A delayed bap­tism was as unusual as a delayed funeral. Baptism is not graduation to stage #2 in the Christian life. It is enrolment – always associated with the beginning of life in the fellowship. A burial settles it for everyone that a person is really dead and gone. So baptism, in the apostles’ thinking, made it clear that a person had really just died to sin and was now alive to God.” (“Baptism,” a paper published by In­ter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of the Philippines).

Michael Green, well-known Anglican evangelist, scholar and author in Britain: “The apostles challenged men to do something about the message they had heard. . . . Men must do three things. They must first and foremost repent, change their attitude to their old way of life, be willing to let go their sins. . . . Together with repen­tance goes faith towards the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . The third condi­tion incumbent upon all who wanted to begin the Christian life was, of course, baptism. It was the seal both on God’s offer of forgive­ness and the Spirit, and on man’s response to that offer in repentance and faith. It signified entry into the Christian society. . . . (The New Testament makes) it abundantly clear that baptism and conversion be­long together; it is the sacrament of the once-for-allness of incorpo­ration into Christ. In the early days of the Church, baptism was administered straight away on profession of faith and repentance. The Philippian jailer was baptized without delay; so was Paul him­self; so were the Corinthians; so was the Ethiopian eunuch.” (Evan­gelism in the Early Church; Eerdmans).

Again, in another book, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (an excellent volume, also published by Eerdmans), Green writes as follows. “The New Testament knows nothing of believers in Jesus who do not get baptized. Neither does it know anything of Christians who get them­selves rebaptized. For baptism is the sacramental expression of .Christian initiation. . . . (Baptism) is associated with repentance, en­try into the Kingdom, forgiveness of sins, reception of the Spirit and union with Christ in his death and risen life. It appears to be the ex­pression in an outward ceremony of the new birth, justification, be­coming a son of God; it is the mark of the new life.

“Many Evangelical Christians see justification by faith as the very antithesis of the sacrament of Baptism. Paul sees them as the outside and the inside of the same thing. Baptism, like justification, is done for us. No man can justify himself. No man can baptize himself. In contrast to the proselyte baptism of the Jews when the candidate washed himself, Christian baptism is always in the passive. It is something done for you by another, as if to remind you that your sal­vation is entirely a matter of grace, and not something to which you make any active contributions. Secondly, baptism, like justification, is once for all. It is unrepeatable . . . . Thirdly, baptism, like justifi­cation, speaks of incorporation into Christ. At the end of Galatians chapter 3, in successive sentences Paul can say ‘Christ came that we might be justified by faith,’ ‘In Jesus Christ you are all sons of God through faith,’ and as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ’ (verses 24, 26, 27). Being justified by faith, be­coming sons of God, and being baptized into Christ are three ways of describing the same thing – the beginning of the Christian life. . . .

“Luke appears quite uninterested in providing a theology of Christian initiation. Those who have gone to him for tidy theological schemes have been disappointed. Sometimes reception of the Spirit follows baptism (e.g. Acts 2:38ff); sometimes it precedes baptism (e.g. Acts 10:44-48); and sometimes a man is baptized who has no part nor lot in the Christian thing, and whose heart is still fast bound in wickedness (Acts 8:21). As Augustine realized, baptism some­times precedes regeneration, sometimes follows it and sometimes never leads to it for lack of faith.” (pages 128-133).

James Stifler, Baptist Bible teacher of a former generation, writ­ing on Rom. 6:1-4, says: The- Christians in Rome died to sin, the hour of that death being the time when they entered the waters of baptism. . . . Baptism involved, among other things, oneness with Him in His death to sin. In the ordinance they declared their accep­tance of Him as Savior and so came “into” Him.

“But must it not be said that Paul has now abandoned his theme, salvation by faith, in substituting the; word ‘baptism’? Why did he not say, ‘All we who believed into Christ, believed into His death’?

The difficulty arises from .the modem wrong conception of the New Testament meaning of the word ‘baptism’. The New Testament writ­ers never separated it from the faith which it embodies and expresses. It is the fixed sign for faith. Hence Paul can say that Christ was ‘put on’ in baptism, and Peter does not hesitate to declare that ‘baptism doth also now save us.’ To refuse to be baptized is to reject God, and the opposite is to accept Him (Luke 7:29-30). Every one of these passages – and there are more like them – would teach salvation by a rite, salvation by water, but that the word for baptism is used as a symbol of faith. Faith so far is not one thing and baptism another; they are the same thing. The faith that accepted Christ in Paul’s day was the faith that showed its acceptance in baptism. The water with­out the preceding faith was nothing. The faith without. the water could not be allowed. Believers were baptized into Christ or they were not considered to be in Him.

What I Practice, What I Recognize

So Scripture clearly tells us to teach and practice baptism, though always in the context of God’s grace and Christ’s cross. In an article reprinted in Word and Work (August 1975), A. Christianson gave a fourfold summary of Scriptural teaching: 1) Baptism is commanded in the Great Commission. 2) The word means immersion. 3) Vari­ous passages show there is a relationship between baptism and salva­tion. 4) There were no unimmersed Christians in the early church.

But Christianson then goes on to make further observations which are relevant to our present study. He points out what he calls a “sec­ond line of Bible teaching,” as follows: 1) The attitudes of faith and repentance have always, from Adam till now, been essential for sal­vation, but the outward actions required to express those attitudes have varied from age to age (animal sacrifices of the patriarchs; Le­vitical offerings and the Day of Atonement under the law; baptism now). The attitudes are more basic than the actions, apparently. 2) “A man’s heart-attitude toward God may be right even if the outward expression of it is unknowingly deficient. . . . (Rom. 2:26-29). 3) God gave Cornelius and his household the gift of the Holy Spirit be­fore they were baptized (Acts 10:45-47; 11:17) . . . . That was an exception to His usual practice, . . . but God’s word records that He has made exceptions to His rules on a number of occasions.” The writer then lists about eight other examples recorded in Scripture of God in His sovereignty allowing exceptions to his requirements. The article concludes,

“In the light of these things, especially the two lines of Biblical teaching, I distinguish between what I practice and what I recognize. I practice immersing without delay those who repent and trust in Christ, upon their confession of faith in Him as divine Lord and Sav­ior, for such is the Bible’s command and precedent. At the same time I recognize there are a number of unimmersed disciples of Jesus who are Christians, for they trust in Him, seek to obey Him and to the extent of their knowledge do obey Him in everything. ”

Personally I feel this last distinction is very important. If it is valid, then let us neither modify our practice because of what we rec­ognize, nor forsake the above-mentioned recognition because of our practice. To modify our practice would be compromise of God’s truth. To forsake the recognition would result in isolating ourselves from fine brethren and important ministries which the Lord is using for His glory. Those of us who participate in trans-church organiza­tions are tempted to the former. Those who minister in our churches only are tempted to do the latter.

Immersing converts upon their confession of faith in Jesus Christ is very important. Acknowledging as brethren all of our Father’s children is very important. Can we not do both?

-Alex Wilson is the  Minister of the Portland Avenue Church of Christ and Editor of Word & Work




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If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:8