For the most recent post in this ongoing series, see here.
In this post, I wanted to highlight a couple specific strands of what the NT teaches about salvation and see what implications they have for our understanding of baptism.
Repentance and Sola Fide
Many scriptures about salvation mention only faith or belief (the two are the same in the original Greek), not baptism or anything else. Yet certainly not every discussion of salvation mentions faith (or, for that matter, baptism). Consider Acts 3:19: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” Now, repentance is obviously not a symbolic ritual (as Nick contends baptism to be), and Peter’s description repentance in Acts 3 could easily apply to faith. (Just imagine: “Believe, then, and turn to God…”) Yet Nick’s position is that we are saved through faith alone—even though faith, repentance, and baptism are all described as salvific. Perhaps such a position would be appropriate if the Bible clearly indicated that salvation is through faith alone; however, though the Bible talks a great deal about faith, it never purports to exclude everything else in so doing. In fact, this is the closest the Bible comes to talking about faith alone: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by actions, is dead” (James 2:23). Many modern Evangelicals will argue that “true faith” is always accompanied by actions and repentance – but the Bible never distinguishes “true faith” from any other kind of faith. James’ rhetorical move makes little sense within a sola fide framework, and it is hardly a coincidence that Martin Luther called James the “epistle of straw.” In contrast, someone who denies sola fide can understand James quite simply, and agree with him that faith alone is not enough.
And, of course, to return to the historical point: If the Gospel message is truly that salvation is through faith alone, then we must believe that the apostles did an absolutely terrible job of communicating that to the early Church. After all, the historical evidence suggests that the Christians one or two generations after Paul universally taught that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins – meaning either that the apostles either failed completely (and bizarrely) to pass on the message of salvation through faith alone or that salvation is not through faith alone.
John’s baptism was one “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). We do not have the option of saying that John’s baptism was merely symbolic – an outward sign of an inward grace received through faith alone – because John’s baptism preceded Christ’s ministry. For Nick’s position to be tenable, then, there would need to be some sort of radical shift between John’s baptism and baptism in Christ, with the latter being divested of the spiritual efficacy of the former.
The problem is that baptism in Christ does not diverge from John’s baptism, but rather fulfills it. John’s baptism, as I have noted, was one of repentance and the forgiveness of sins; baptism in Christ, however, was to be a baptism of the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:13). Indeed, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “[N]o one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). (A brief aside: The plain meaning of Jesus’ words is certainly not that true spiritual rebirth is something that happens through faith prior to baptism, with baptism functioning only as a subsequent symbol. For Jesus, we are born of water.)
In summary, John’s baptism is one of repentance and forgiveness, while baptism in Christ has the additional feature of being a baptism of the Spirit. With that in mind, read Acts 2:38: “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” (emphasis added). The features of John’s baptism and baptism in Christ are interwoven seamlessly. Clearly, then, baptism in Christ is a continuation of John’s baptism.
This, however, presents a worry for Nick’s position. If baptism suddenly became merely symbolic, Peter certainly neglected to mention that fact. We could, perhaps, say that John’s baptism wasn’t really for the forgiveness of sins. The problem is that all the Gospels seem to think that it was for the forgiveness of sins. (Remember that saying that John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins does not mean that people could be saved without grace or the cross. The question is not about what God has to do to save us, but what we have to do to accept His offer.
These are just a few considerations which lead me to conclude that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. In my mind, the matter is simple: John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins; the first- and second-century Christians believed (presumably on the basis of what the apostles taught them) that baptism was for the forgiveness of sins; and the Bible says that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. What compelling reason is there to believe otherwise? I still do not know.
Joseph thinks my view of baptism and good works is too low. I think his view of faith should be higher—much higher. Despite our (significant) disagreement about the relationship between the physical act of water baptism and salvation in these posts, our view of the “normal” Christian life is actually quite similar at the end of the day. On the one hand, neither of us thinks that anything we ourselves do—including believing in Jesus, being baptized, or the subsequent obedience of faith over the course of our lives—earns or merits God’s favor or grace in our lives. The rock bottom foundation of our redemption as Christians is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us.
On the other hand, we both firmly reject any notion that “cheap grace” is consistent with the witness of the New Testament writings. Human response to God’s grace in Christ is of paramount importance. As Bonhoeffer reminded us (by both his pen and his martrydom), salvation may be free, but is also costly—for it cost the life of God’s own Son, and for us to receive it demands that we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, carrying our cross and walking in His Spirit. No mere verbal profession of faith (as my view could be caricatured as teaching) or simple dousing with water (as Joseph’s could, perhaps like this) is sufficient for any of us to be saved on the last day when we will give an account of ourselves to God. We are saved by grace, through faith (in my view)—yet it is a faith that obeys. As I mentioned in an earlier post, if you get faith, you get everything in the Christian life thrown in with it. And this obedience that flows from genuine faith is not merely incidental, nor is it optional. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and the evidence of all genuine saving faith is a lifelong trajectory of humble, broken, often stumbling but nonetheless real, tangible discipleship along the path Jesus walked. And so we find that our “good works” move front and center in every NT description of the final judgment. Not because we are saved on the basis of our performance, but rather because our performance inevitably manifests the inner, unseen disposition of either faith or unbelief (Matthew 12:33-37). All who belong to Jesus will be verifiable by the fruit of the Spirit that ultimately characterizes their lives, in spite of the (real) sin that still remains and with which they struggle to the death. This is—for both Joseph and myself—the “normal” Christian life. There is no other way to enter the kingdom of God in Christ.
Now on to Joseph’s points. I’ll first look at his remarks about the baptism of John, before turning to his noticeable anxieties over sola fide. I actually agree entirely with his interpretation of how John’s baptism relates to Jesus’—they are not two fundamentally distinct baptisms, nor does Jesus’ simply replace or override John’s. Rather, the baptism of Jesus in fire (judgment or power, depending on how you take it) and the Holy Spirit fulfills the meaning and significance of what John the Baptist was doing in the Jordan river as he prepared the way of the Lord.
Yet Joseph thinks this undercuts my view. The only way that would be true is if I first accepted that the language about forgiveness of sins is related to the physical act of John’s baptism in a way that I have previously denied the same language is connected to Jesus’ baptism in the NT. Of course, I simply don’t think this is the case, and so here we are back to square one: the nature of the connection between faith/repentance, baptism, and salvation/forgiveness. And here once more I would argue that the relationship between faith/repentance (which clearly John called for) and baptism is not that added together they achieve salvation, but rather that the former is the internal, private disposition or attitude of the heart towards God, while the latter is the external, public expression of that faith. They are flip sides of the same coin. Baptism is faith gone “public.” It is not an additional step that either makes up for the incompleteness of faith or saves by itself. Both faith and baptism happen at the same time—John does not say these people repented in the past while in Jerusalem, but only now are being baptized at the Jordan. They believe/repent and are baptized at the same moment in the Gospels. Baptism may be the occasion of receiving the forgiveness of sins, but repentance/faith is the sole condition God looks upon to bestow His grace on His people (by the way, at some point anyone concerned to “search the Scriptures” to see if these things are so should type in “faith” and “believe” at www.esv.org and spend a few hours reading through the astounding results in the New Testament!).
This raises an important question for me concerning Joseph’s position. The classic position of Protestants has always been that there is a fundamental continuity between how God’s people were saved in the OT and how we are now saved after the coming of the Messiah—namely, by grace through faith, with our good works substantiating the authenticity of our faith. Yet on Joseph’s view, this seems like it cannot be the case. Perhaps my understanding of his position is mistaken, yet it seems to me that he does not view the role of circumcision in the OT as having a similar function as baptism in the NT (as indeed I would; both are the entry rites into the people of God under the old and new covenants, respectively). So I would be interested to know what Joseph would do with crucial passages like Romans 4 and Hebrews 11, where early Christian authors labor to show that just as OT saints were justified (Paul) or commended as righteous (Hebrews) through faith apart from works in the former era, so also are we who believe in Jesus at the end of the ages. Obviously, both writers insist that this faith led immediately and powerfully to radical acts of obedience in their lives. And I would presume that Joseph would not see “faith plus circumcision” as the equation for salvation in the OT, even though he does apparently understand “faith plus baptism” to be the NT formula.
Yet isn’t the point of both these passages (and many others like them) that we stand in profound continuity with the people of God and the salvation they experienced from the God of grace? But on Joseph’s view, it would seem that now upon the coming of the Messiah, a crucial condition has been added for salvation/forgiveness: you must not only believe, but also be baptized (and in a way that is not paralleled by “works” in the OT that flow from faith). Doesn’t this run completely counter to the argument? How is it that David was forgiven apart from works of the law, simply by faith in the God who forgives when we turn to Him in repentance—even though he was circumcised and kept the Sabbath and kosher laws? How is it that Abraham’s salvation was actually the justification of the ungodly, simply because he trusted God’s promise to him? Of course this faith led to obedience in some significant measure in the OT saints—both Paul and Hebrews acknowledge that. But the later obedience is not what saved them or brought them into a right relationship with a holy God. Faith was. And we are saved in the same way. Aren’t we? It seems to me that on Joseph’s interpretation salvation is, in some fundamental way, altered (or at least enlarged) once Jesus arrives.
Now on to the controversial “faith alone” doctrine of Luther that so worries Joseph. I will begin by admitting forthrightly that the conviction that sinners are saved by faith alone is dreadfully liable to misunderstanding and abuse, and that the history of its reception in recent times in the West has proved the point over and over again. While I believe that sola fide communicates a beautiful and life-giving truth about the gospel, I share Joseph’s concern at how it is often (wrongly) appropriated in the church today. Yet abuse does not cancel out right use, and so I remain convinced that the benefits of sola fide rightly grasped outweigh the dangers. Either way, I am untempted by the allures of pragmatism. The sole question of concern here is whether the doctrine is faithful to the Scriptures.
I see two primary mischaracterizations of “faith alone” in Joseph’s critique. First, I think Joseph is mistaken in his argument that the Bible does not distinguish true saving faith from false faith. His appeal to James 2 actually proves the opposite! Though this passage is disputed on many levels, the single point of agreement virtually all interpreters (whether Protestant or Catholic or secular) share is that James means something radically different by “faith” than Paul does in Romans or Galatians. Whereas Paul speaks of a living faith that works through love and necessarily produces obedience, James writes of a dead faith that is reducible to mere intellectual assent of the creedal propositions of Christianity. Indeed, this is a “faith” that even the demons share with us! I trust that I do not need to labor here to demonstrate that this is not the faith Paul speaks of when he says that we are justified (Romans 4) or saved (Ephesians 2) by faith apart from our works, as indeed it would have to be if Joseph were correct. Of course, this shows that even in the earliest years of the Christian movement “faith alone” could be woefully abused. I love James’ response to this heresy—our faith must show itself in works, or it is not true faith. “That” kind of faith cannot “save” (2:14). Yet the faith that passes muster shows itself by its works, and that faith can (it is implied) save (2:18). The works it produces will stand at the final judgment (i.e. “justify”–for James this “justification” is future just as it is in Matthew 12:33-37 and evidential of the sincerity of our internal attitude of faith in this life, whereas for Paul “justification” is in the past at the beginning of the Christian life and is received by faith alone, another crucial difference between the two). At any rate, I am not sure how on Joseph’s apparent reading of James that this passage does not simply contradict Paul.
Many other passages in the NT show that true saving faith always endures to the end, produces works of love and compassion, and passes the litmus test of obedience. Other passages warn against false faith, such as Matthew 7:21-23 (note that Jesus says to this false profession of faith, “Lord, Lord”—which is known on account of its lack of fruit!—that ‘I never knew you’. This was never faith, only a mere profession akin to James 2). See also Luke 8:12-13 and John 2:23-25, 12:42-43 (cf. this to 5:44). One does not have to hold to the perseverance of the saints, by the way, to acknowledge that spurious confessions of faith are a common biblical and human phenomenon. I get the impression, however, that Joseph’s critique of my “faith alone” position is that somehow I hold that any and all subjective persuasions of the intellectual credibility of Christianity are automatically saving, even apart from baptism and obedience and discipleship, and that therefore baptism is bound to be overlooked or ignored in practice. This is simply not the case. If someone does not obey (including baptism) as the main trajectory of their new life in Christ, they do not have faith. Period. But the problem is the lack of faith, not the insufficiency of faith in and of itself.
Second, I think Joseph misunderstands the significance of the word “alone” in sola fide. For Luther and the Reformers, the reality that we are saved or justified by faith “alone” did not mean that a nice quick mental assent to the propositional content of the gospel was all that is required of Christians, or that it did away with the necessity of baptism or good works or carrying our cross, or (God forbid) that it guaranteed heaven no matter what kind of sinful rebellion followed. Instead, to insist that we are saved by faith “alone” indicated only that faith (which I would see as synonymous with repentance, with baptism as the public expression) is the sole condition and human response which brings about the transition from wrath to grace in our relationship to God, from being children of hell to children of God. Faith alone connects us savingly to Jesus’ death and resurrection through the Holy Spirit. This is the human attitude and response that pleases Him (Heb. 11:6). Everything else we will ever do and become arises from already enjoying His good pleasure. As Calvin said, we are not saved by our works, but neither are we saved without works. Without a life of obedience (including being baptized), no one will be welcomed into the kingdom on the last day. Yet this does not mean that our good works mark the moment of receiving God’s grace, or that we are only as loved as well as we perform.
Luther, as Joseph pointed out, wasn’t perfect—he didn’t get James’ much-needed contribution to the canon, and this challenging letter is one we especially need to hear today. Our chief danger is no longer legalism (as it was in Luther’s day), but spiritual complacency. Yet instead of insisting on baptism or good works as saving in themselves, I think we would do better to see them as flowing out of faith, as faith’s true and necessary expression. We should raise the bar on what the Scriptures mean when they say “faith”, instead of implicitly agreeing with the lowered bar of “faith alone” in its abused varieties while resorting to add baptism as the solution to faith’s inadequacy. We should ponder Luther’s genius in his saner moments:
“Faith is not that human notion and dream that some hold for faith. Because they see that no betterment of life and no good works follow it, and yet they can hear and say much about faith, they fall into error, and say, ‘Faith is not enough; one must also do works in order to be righteous and saved.’ This is the reason that, when they hear the Gospel, they fall-to and make for themselves, by their own powers, an idea in their hearts, which says, ‘I believe.’ This they hold for true faith. But it is a human imagination and idea that never reaches the depths of the heart, and so nothing comes of it and no betterment follows it. Faith, however, is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God; it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. Oh, it is a living, busy, might thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faith-less man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works. Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures; and this is the work of the Holy Spirit in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace; and thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. (Martin Luther, “Preface” to Romans)
It is that kind of “faith alone” that saves. And that kind of faith brings everything with it, because it receives grace from God.