For this Fish Tank post, I thought I’d share a letter I recently wrote to Dan Edelen at Cerulean Sanctum about baptism and God’s plan of salvation. Mr. Edelen (I feel bad calling him “Dan”) recently wrote a post explaining how to become a Christian – a post with which I respectfully disagreed. Because I know that the viewpoint which Dan expressed is shared by many Christians, I thought it be worth posting my letter to him here.
I do not mean to single Mr. Edelen out at all. Cerulean Sanctum is one of my favorite blogs, and American Christians desperately need his voice and call to repentance; in fact, I have shared several of his posts on my Facebook. Nevertheless, I think this issue is important enough to warrant a public response. (Also, I think we Christians really need to get into the habit of learning how to disagree respectfully and discuss our differences, rather than pretending the differences don’t exist or matter or – even worse – squabbling rudely and unlovingly in a factious matter. But that’s a matter for another post…)
Anyway, here it is:
Dear Mr. Edelen,
It is my sincere hope that you will accept my apologies for not responding to you sooner. Unfortunately, I have been traveling the past few weeks and have not had the time necessary for an adequate response to your post.
In your post, you eloquently explain the Christian story and the redemption made possible for us through Jesus Christ. To conclude, you offer a five-point enumeration of “How to Become a Christian.”
Though I have tremendous respect for your faith and understanding of the Bible, I cannot help but disagree with your summary of Christian conversion, specifically with its omission of baptism. I would like to explain why I believe baptism is an integral step in God’s plan of salvation.
I begin with the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and forerunner. John preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3; cf. Matthew 3:11). Droves of people came from Jerusalem, Judæa, and the entire Jordan region to confess their sins and be baptized. His message was simple: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2).
However, as John himself freely admitted, the message was also incomplete: he baptized with water, but the one who was to come would baptize with the Holy Spirit (cf. Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33). Jesus echoed John’s words when he told Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).
Of course, Jesus himself rarely spoke of baptism again during his lifetime (though he did mention it in his last words to his disciples; cf. Matthew 28:18-20). But baptism reappeared in Acts 2, when Peter delivered the first Christian sermon at Pentecost. Peter seamlessly integrated the formulae of John’s baptism (repentance for the forgiveness of sins) and Jesus’ baptism (a baptism of the Spirit) in his address to the people of Jerusalem: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39).
Here, I believed Peter provided the first outline of how to become a Christian: Believe, repent, and be baptized. (Though confession is not explicitly mentioned in Acts 2, we can assume that the 3,000 who were baptized also confessed.) And this is the outline which I believe to be correct.
The rest of the New Testament seems to support this understanding of baptism. Romans 6:3-5 reads,
“Or don’t you know 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. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.”
According to this passage, through baptism we participate in Christ’s death on the cross “in order that…we too may live a new life” (v. 4). Colossians 2:12 uses similar imagery. 1 Peter 3 says that the water that saved Noah and his family symbolizes baptism, which now saves us (cf. vv. 18-21). As verse 21 indicates, baptism does not cleanse us physically, but spiritually.
The conversions described in Acts are also telling, as baptism appears repeatedly in Acts – and of course, if our question is how to save the lost, there is no better reference. Baptism accompanies the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch (cf. Acts 8:26-40), Philippian jailer (cf. Acts 16:25-34), and several others. But Paul’s conversion, in my mind, is especially definitive.
Paul’s story is related three times in the Book of Acts: in chapters 9, 22, and 26. Jesus appears to Paul on the road to Damascus; after this encounter, Paul became blind and fasted for three days (cf. Acts 9:9). After the three days, Ananias visited him and said something remarkable: “The God of our fathers has chosen you to know His will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from His mouth. You will be His witness to all men of what you you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (22:14-16; emphasis added).
Baptism washes our sins away. As Titus 3:5 says, “[God] saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” The Church is cleansed by “the washing of water through the Word” (cf. Ephesians 5:26). We are not baptized as members of the body of Christ; rather, we are baptized into Christ (cf. Romans 6:3, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:27). Baptism in the Bible is not simply a public ritual marking an individual’s entrance into the Church – if that were its purpose, the Philippian jailer would not have been baptized in the middle of the night (cf. Acts 16:33). It is a spiritually significant act effecting the forgiveness of our sins and the indwelling of the Spirit within us. Yes, salvation is a process, not an event (cf. Romans 13:11; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:12; 1 Peter 1:5, 2:2) – but baptism is a turning point in that process.
Now, there are several objections which can be raised to the soteriology which I have presented. I would like to address two main ones here.
You may be wondering about the dozens of scriptures which connect salvation solely with belief. You mentioned several in your post, and there is no need for me to list them here. Why do so many Bible passages simply omit baptim from the plan of salvation?
In response, I would note that scripture hardly ever provides a plenary and complete account of salvation in one passage. Yes, we are saved by belief – but we are also saved by repentance (cf. Acts 3:19). John 3:18 makes no mention of the Holy Spirit, but surely It plays a vital role in our salvation, “guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:22). Confession also appears to be integral (cf. Romans 10:9). The question, then, is not whether we are saved by faith, but whether we are saved by faith alone. And I do not believe that the Bible’s omission of baptism in verses such as John 3:18 is sufficient reason to argue that baptism is not necessary for salvation.
But is salvation by baptism not salvation by works, clearly contradicting passages such as Romans 11:5-6 and Ephesians 2:8-9? I do not believe that it is. First of all, we do not earn salvation through baptism; we receive salvation through baptism. More importantly, however, Paul’s discussion of works and faith generally concerns the broader theme of the differences between the Law and the new covenant of grace (cf. Romans 4, 9). When Paul says salvation is not by works, he is saying that salvation is not achieved through adherence to rules and regulations; he is not precluding the possibility that God would bestow His grace upon us through baptism.
At this point, I should note that virtually the entire Christian tradition up until and including Luther agrees with this interpretation of baptism. (I have attached a brief article about the history of baptism, if you are interested.) Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian apologist who was not far removed from the apostles, wrote,
“As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water” (First Apology, LXI).
There are several other quotations that I could mention, many of which are noted in the article attached to this letter. Obviously, the voice of Tradition is not as authoritative as the voice of Scripture (for us Protestants, at least); however, it is certainly suggestive that the Christian community one or two generations removed from the apostles themselves taught that baptism was for the forgiveness of sins.
Do I mean to say that no one who is not baptized will be saved? No! Do I mean to say that only those Christians who agree with my doctrine of baptism will be saved? No! I believe in a God of mercy and grace, Whose judgment will be transcendent. However, I also believe quite strongly that the plan of salvation outlined in the New Testament includes baptism as an essential component.
I will conclude with a passage which I have already cited and which you also cited in your post, a passage containing the very words of Jesus Christ: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). How are we born again? Water and the Spirit.
I thank you for your time spent considering my thoughts, and hope that this exchange will draw each of us closer to God’s truth.
Yours in Christ,