For the first two parts in this series, see here and here.
“God’s gracious giving to faith belongs to the context of baptism, even as God’s gracious giving in baptism is to faith.” (G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, p. 273)
One typically unforeseen hazard of debates is the temptation to define what we believe about a thing primarily by arguing what it is not—or, at the very least, by insisting that whatever else it is, the other person is mistaken about it! Description solely through negation consistently generates lopsided, malformed results. This generally leads to positive characteristics being assumed rather than stated, to rhetoric and exaggeration, and to the habitually unhelpful practice of majoring in the minors. In his essay “The World’s Last Night” C. S. Lewis insightfully pointed out why he had reservations about such tendencies: “For my own part I hate and distrust reactions not only in religion but in everything. Luther surely spoke very good sense when he compared humanity to a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left.”I hope that Joseph and I are able to avoid this in our series, as we do share much common ground on the importance and value and necessity of water baptism in the life of God’s people—even while our disagreements remain significant and should not be brushed over.
Today I offer a broad sweep of the New Testament evidence on faith and baptism. In no way can I hope to be exhaustive here, and next time out I will return to fill in some of the gaping holes I now ignore by examining specific passages. For now, I want to hone in on this question: what is the relationship of baptism to faith and to salvation in the minds of the biblical writers? This is the issue on which Joseph’s position of baptismal regeneration and my own symbolic/sacramental understanding of baptism have a mighty parting of the ways.
My central contention is that the significance of water baptism in the NT arises entirely from its function as an outward expression of internal faith directed towards Jesus as he is held out in the gospel. The physical act of being immersed in water does not in itself effect anything spiritually in or upon Christians, but rather is the external, public vehicle of confessing one’s desperate dependence upon God’s grace and commitment to following Jesus before the world. It is likewise the moment (not the cause) in which God normally bestows salvation, forgiveness and the Spirit. In baptism—which, crucially, takes place simultaneously with the act of believing the gospel in the NT—we symbolically enact our dying with Christ (going under the water) and our resurrection with him (coming up from the water) as new creations born of the Spirit. Phew, that’s a mouthful.
I am constrained to issue a disclaimer with respect to the biblical argument that follows. Just as the meaning of baptism is often a source of confusion and misunderstanding in theological discussions, the same holds true for faith. Yet unfortunately it would seem that the definition of faith is assumed to be self-evident by many, as if all parties concerned were operating with a shared identical notion of what it means to believe in Jesus Christ. I do not have the space today to define and defend what I think the NT writers mean by faith, but in my next post I will. For now, I will simply state that what Calvin says about the dangers of baptismal regeneration—“Few realize how much injury the dogma that baptism is necessary for salvation, badly expounded, has entailed” (Institutes, 4.15.20)—could with equal justice be applied to the Protestant doctrine of sola fide. The idea that sinners are saved and made right with God by “faith alone” is (I am persuaded) faithful to the apostolic witness. Yet if faith is misunderstood or dramatically reduced from its multifaceted fullness in Scripture—that is, if “faith alone” is badly expounded—then this doctrine swiftly becomes a pernicious error and leads many to spiritual destruction. One such error is the progressive downplaying or even the outright absence of the practice of baptism in the Church, and tragically this is not a rare fallacy among many Protestants. Yet we must keep in mind that abuse does not cancel out right use.
If you take a few moments and google “baptismal regeneration,” you will instantly regret it. You will also happen upon hundreds of sites that offer rhetorically inflamed critiques or defenses of this position. Virtually all of them are skubala (Phil. 3:8), if you’ll excuse my French. These shoddy arguments can convince only those already so convinced, which is of course a productive endeavor to devote oneself to. The most frequent line of attack from both the proponents of sola fide and those contending for the salvific efficacy of baptism is to accumulate a mountain of proof texts favorable to their position—all the passages that link either salvation to faith or that link it to baptism. Of course, these internet apologetic gems regularly fail to mention or seriously engage with any of the passages that would seem to contend against their cause, as if the interpretation of their chosen favorites were obvious and indisputable as well as the only relevant data for consultation. The consistent assumption would seem to be that if one set of verses associates salvation with faith (or baptism), then there is no sense in which it could likewise be connected to the other. That is a risky—and foolish—theological assumption.
My primary goal in this post is to draw attention to a stunning pattern that is found across the entire canvas of the New Testament: namely, that both repentance/faith and baptism are consistently linked closely to 1.) the forgiveness of sins 2.) salvation 3.) dying and rising with Christ 4.) being cleansed/washed 5.) the new birth and 6.) the reception of the Holy Spirit. Though my examination will not extend beyond these borders for now, it ought to be pointed out that each of these spiritual blessings is also frequently attributed to or grounded upon the death and resurrection of Jesus (or simply grace) in the NT, and often without any mention of human response at all (cf. Romans 5:9-10)! Furthermore, other passages connect salvation/redemption to works (Matthew 16:27, James 2:14-26, 2 Corinthians 5:9), to the words we speak (Matthew 12:36-37), and even to childbearing (1 Timothy 2:15)! Clearly the vision of the NT authors was far more nuanced and complex than many more simplistic theologians who inhabit the contemporary scene. The million-dollar question, of course, is how to connect all of these insane dots. On any reading, Bonhoeffer’s dreaded “cheap grace” is immediately ruled out. We must also eliminate the idea that any single passage gives us the whole story. But now on to the pertinent evidence:
FORGIVENESS (Faith: Matthew 9:2, Mark 1:4, 2:5, Acts 2:38, 8:22, 10:43, 26:18, Colossians 2:12-13, James 5:15, 1 John 1:9 / Baptism: Mark 1:4, Acts 2:38, Colossians 2:12-13)
SALVATION (Faith: Ephesians 1:13, 2:8-9, Romans 1:16-17, 10:9-13, Acts 2:21, 14:9, 15:6-11, 16:30-31, Galatians, Luke 7:50, 8:12, 17:19, I Corinthians 1:21, 15:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 2 Timothy 3:15, Hebrews 6:9-12, 10:39, James 5:15, 1 Peter 1:5, 9 / Baptism: 1 Peter 3:21)…note also Mark 16:16, which is probably not authentic, but interesting for removing baptism from the negative qualification for condemnation.
DYING & RISING WITH JESUS (Faith: Colossians 2:12, Ephesians 2:4-8, Galatians 2:20 / Baptism: Colossians 2:12, Romans 6:1-4 / Unstated: Romans 7:4-6, Colossians 2:20, 3:1-4, Galatians 6:14)
CLEANSED/WASHED (Faith: Acts 15:9, 2 Peter 1:9 / Baptism: Acts 22:16, Hebrews 10:22, Ephesians 5:26(?) / Unstated: 1 Corinthians 6:11, Titus 3:5)
BORN AGAIN (Faith: John 1:12-13, I John 5:1, 4-5, I Peter 1:3-5, 23-25 / Baptism: John 3:5)
RECEIVING THE HOLY SPIRIT (Faith: John 7:39, Acts 2:38, 10:44-48, 11:17, Galatians 3:2-5, 3:14, Ephesians 1:13, 3:16-17 / Baptism: Matthew 3:11, 16, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33, Acts 2:38, 19:1-7, I Corinthians 12:13)
I conclude with several observations.
First, I have already noted that slapdash assumptions have often crippled theological discussions on this theme, and we ought to be careful of making another assumption unreflectively—namely, that faith and baptism are related to salvation in the same way. For instance, very few would argue that faith is related to redemption in the same way that, say, childbearing or our verbal speech are. Therefore, to simply cite a passage that connects salvation or forgiveness (or whatever) to faith or baptism (or anything else) as if that solved the matter is a hasty ploy that should be rejected. The question we must ask is “How are faith and baptism connected to these things?” That they are both connected to them in some way is indisputable.
Second, all agree that faith comes prior to baptism in the NT. If this is so, why would we assume that any of the saving benefits of Christ’s death are primarily associated with baptism rather than faith, either logically or temporally? Add to this passages such as Acts 9:17-18, 10:44-48 and 11:17 where the reception of the Holy Spirit comes after faith but prior to baptism; likewise, consider Acts 8:14-17 and 19:1-6, where we see that the Spirit was poured out long after water baptism had earlier taken place (and without any actual connection to it), not simultaneous with the act. Such “irregular” experiences have monumental implications for how we interpret “conversions” today in which the normal order of repentance/faith/baptism breaks down.
Third, I would highlight the profound emphasis on the centrality and importance of faith in the New Testament in contrast to the modest attention that is given to baptism with respect to its connection to salvation. I acknowledge that this is ultimately an unreliable point of contention, yet it seems striking to me that for every one time baptism is connected with salvation (and rarely if ever without mention of faith in the surrounding context), it would seem that there are ten such passages that connect it to only to faith (very often with absolutely no mention of baptism present). Simply put, it is telling that there are no passages such as Romans 4 or Hebrews 11 devoted to the importance of baptism to be found in the NT. Should we not therefore follow suit and keep the main thing the main thing?
Fourth: On the one hand, there are a number of spiritual blessings that are only associated with faith in the NT and never with baptism. For example, we are never said to be justified by baptism, or reconciled to God by baptism, or adopted by baptism, or redeemed by baptism (and so on). On the other hand, nothing is ever attributed to baptism that is not also attributed to faith by the apostles. I am struck that even the early church fathers acknowledged that there were special occasions in which someone who had come to faith, but who was not baptized, could still be saved—whether the apostles, the thief on the cross, or martyrs. Yet I cannot imagine them making the same exception for a person who did not exercise faith in Jesus in response to the gospel during their lives. Perhaps their biblical intuitions spoke better than their explicit statements about baptism would lead us to believe. Faith, at the end of the day, is the absolutely essential condition for salvation. Baptism is not.
Fifth, I would tentatively suggest three reasons—I will elaborate upon these further next time—for why we find this pattern splattered across the pages of the NT.
A.) Because repentance/faith/baptism all take place at the same time in the experience of the early Christians as recorded in the NT. There was no temporal disconnect for them as there so often is with us, though unfortunately we often still try to plaster this pattern onto our modern experiences even when we find ourselves in a much messier situation. That repentance from our low baptismal consciousness and unfaithful practices is called for is undeniable. That we should apply statements about baptism in the NT which were in their original historical context only made because baptism was simultaneous with repentance and faith to situations today in which faith is not so neatly bound to baptism is singularly confused. Consider how natural it is to point back to memorable events in our past that consisted of multiple moments and dimensions by only explicitly recalling one particular moment connected to the overall reality. For instance, this is how we tend to recall and communicate to others how we got married:
“Becoming married involves a number of components that are intimately interrelated and belong together. These usually include: the saying of vows; the giving and receiving of rings; the pronouncement of marriage by the minister; the signing of the marriage license by the minister and witnesses; and the sexual consummation. If asked, ‘Which component actually resulted in becoming married?’ how should one answer this question? Was it when you said your vows? Was it when you gave and received a ring? Was it when the minister pronounced you husband and wife? Was it when the marriage license was filled in and signed by the minister and witnesses? Was it when the sexual consummation of the marriage took place? The answer is that all of these were involved in becoming married. One cannot isolate them from one another. In the normal experience of marriage all of these are involved, and all of them take place together, that is, on the same day. It was not a single component that changed two single individuals into a married couple. It was all of the above. In a similar way, one does not become a Christian in Acts as the minute of faith, or the instant of repentance, or the time of profession, or the moment of baptism, or the point in time when God gave his Spirit. These were not separated in time as in the present day but occurred together.” (Robert Stein, Believer’s Baptism, pp. 57-58)
Such certainly seems to have been the case with early Christian conversion.
B.) Because faith gives rise to all these other “conditions” for salvation in the NT. Not faith as mere decision or subjective feeling, but faith as it truly is: radical, desperate, loyal reliance directed towards the beauty and mercy of Jesus Christ. Such faith obeys God in whatever he commands—and such obedience includes getting baptized, doing good works, and not habitually speaking careless, harmful words (among many other things). In Romans, Paul begins (1:5) and ends (16:26) his epic letter by stating that his overarching goal in life is to bring about “the obedience of faith” among all the nations. Why? Aren’t there so many other things he should be aiming at as well? Why only “the obedience of faith”? Simply because Paul knows that if he gets faith, then he gets everything. All the obedience God requires of us flows out of faith in Christ. The Reformers were incredibly in tune with the NT witness when they said that we are saved by faith alone, yet by a faith that is never alone.
C.) Because faith and baptism are related to each other as the internal and external human responses to the grace of God that is offered to us in the gospel. They are flip sides of the same coin. I would argue that by faith we spiritually participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that in baptism we symbolically participate in the story of Jesus. Both are crucial. Both are central to the definition of what it means to be a Christian in the NT. If either is absent, we should under normal circumstances not consider such a person to be a follower of Jesus. Nonetheless being physically washed with water does not transmit an ounce of internal renovation to our hearts, nor does it efficiently or causally act as the channel of God’s saving grace to us in Christ. Only faith does this. For the early Christians, the primary significance of baptism was that it served as the initial, public moment in which faith in Christ was expressed. Therefore, “baptism saves” (I Peter 3:21)—yet not with respect to the removal of dirt from our bodies (i.e. the actual rite of going down into the water), but only insofar as the moment of our baptism coincides with an appeal to God for a good conscience (i.e. faith). Baptism saves, inasmuch as it is the external expression of faith in Jesus Christ. No more, no less.
(At several points in what follows, I characterize Nick’s arguments and beliefs in certain ways. I have sought to do so accurately, but I apologize for any mischaracterizations that may have occurred.)
We are not saved by faith. We are not saved by repentance. We are not saved by baptism.We are saved by the grace of God and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Salvation is from God, not from us. In other words, faith, repentance, and baptism (whatever they are) are not the means of our salvation; they are the conditions under which God effects His saving work in us. (I have offered some brief thought about this distinction here).
What, then, is the role of faith or baptism in salvation? Obviously, that is a complicated question. My opinion, however, is that the biblical standard is this: The forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit are given to the repentant and confessing believer at the time of his baptism. (Notice that I said “standard.” What happens to someone who believes and repents but is only baptized years later? I am not sure. What happens to someone who believes and repents but is not baptized at all? I am not sure. Our God is a gracious God. The point, however, is that these situations represent deviations from the standard. Sometimes, that is okay; in fact, Nick points to what I would consider exceptional cases in the Book of Acts.)
How does my view differ from Nick’s? Nick (from what I have gathered in private correspondence with him) believes that we are saved at (or by?) faith, and that baptism is merely a later “outward expression of internal faith in Jesus in response to the gospel message.” In what follows, I would like to discuss why I believe his view to be incorrect – though admittedly much closer to mine than that of most Christians.
As Nick himself notes, both baptism and faith are associated with the forgiveness of sins, being reborn, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and other manifestations of salvation. Yet Nick wants us to believe that we are saved by faith alone, and that baptism is only a symbolic participation in Christ’s death and resurrection – even though both are clearly associated with the forgiveness of sins, and even though baptism is never described as merely symbolic in the New Testament (or in the first 1500 years of orthodox Christianity). In fact, Nick does not (and cannot) point to a single passage that says we are saved “by faith alone” or one that says baptism is only an outward expression of an inward faith. Why, then, does he believe those things?
Before I address his arguments, I have one simple point to make: I believe that baptism normally marks the time at which we receive the forgiveness of sins – but certainly not always. Nick, however, is committed to the claim that we are always saved when we come to faith – because we are saved “by faith alone.” Thus, though my view can (and does) tolerate exceptions, his cannot tolerate a single one.
With that in mind, let me turn to his main arguments:
1. “[R]epentance/faith/baptism all take place at the same time in the experience of the early Christians.”
Response: Nick’s argument largely hangs on the claim that faith, repentance, and baptism all occur simultaneously. After all, if baptism does not occur with (or soon after) faith, what the Bible says about baptism – that it is for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38) or that it constitutes our participation in Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4) – are simply incompatible with Nick’s view.
Now, as a matter of fact, it is not technically true that faith, repentance, and baptism our simultaneously; they occur, at best, near-simultaneously. And, in at least one case in the New Testament, they occur days apart from each other.
Consider the conversion of the Apostle Paul. Paul recounts his conversion story in Acts 9, 22, and 26. When we look at all three together, it becomes clear that Paul came to faith on the road to Damascus and was baptized three days later. Here is what happens to Paul on the road to Damascus:
· A light from Heaven blinds Saul (9:3, 22:6, 26:13).
· Saul falls to the ground and a voice says to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9:4, 22:7, 26:14)
· Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” (9:5a, 22:8a, 26:15a).
· Jesus identifies himself (9:5b, 22:8b, 26:15b).
· Paul asks, “What shall I do, Lord?” (22:10a)
· Jesus says, “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (26:15b-18).
At this point, Paul, who had literally been traveling to Damascus to hunt down Christians, has acknowledged Jesus as his Lord; by all accounts, he has faith. (Not only is this his “Come to Jesus” moment, it is Jesus’ “Come to Paul” moment.) And yet only three days later (after a period of fasting) does he receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17, 22:16). Ananias’ words to Paul are telling: “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16b; emphasis added). Paul’s coming to faith and his baptism are not simultaneous – and Paul’s forgiveness of sins does not accompany his coming to faith on the road to Damascus, but his baptism three days later!
Under what circumstances would Paul ask Jesus, “Lord, what shall I do?” Only if Paul had faith could he have asked that question – the very same question the Jews asked Peter at Pentecost in Acts 2 before he told them (unsurprisingly) to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. It is clear, then, that Paul’s salvation comes days after he comes to faith – and, if that is true, then Nick’s position is no longer tenable.
Another point about the argument from simultaneity: The difference between simultaneity and near-simultaneity is not to be taken lightly. Baptism might come soon after faith, but soon after is still after. If the believer undergoing baptism is already saved when he is baptized, then the imagery surrounding baptism is anachronistic. Are we to believe, for example, that people are “truly” born again at faith and then “symbolically” re-born again later on at baptism? The fact of the matter is that Nick’s position entails that we are saved before we are baptized, while mine does not – but hardly anything that the Bible says about baptism makes sense if we are already saved when we are baptized. Is it not must simpler to simply let the Scriptures mean what they plainly mean?
Paul’s conversion alone is sufficient to convince me that Nick is wrong and that salvation is decidedly not by faith alone. Nevertheless, I will address the rest of his arguments:
2. Faith is more emphasized than baptism in the New Testament.
Response: I hardly can deny the greater emphasis placed on faith in the New Testament. However, there is a perfectly natural explanation for this: Faith, unlike baptism, is something we must practice our entire Christian lives. Once I have been baptized, there is nothing more for me to do with regards to my baptism, but everything more for me to do with regards to my faith. Since the New Testament is written to baptized Christians whose struggle was not maintaining their baptism (baptism is not something we can “maintain”) but maintaining their faith, it is hardly surprising that faith is more discussed more in the New Testament.
3. “[A]ll agree that faith comes prior to baptism in the NT. If this is so, why would we assume that any of the saving benefits of Christ’s death are primarily associated with baptism rather than faith, either logically or temporally?”
Response: I see no reason why the mere temporal priority of faith indicates that it is more spiritually efficacious.
4. “Add to this passages such as Acts 9:17-18, 10:44-48 and 11:17 where the reception of the Holy Spirit comes after faith but prior to baptism; likewise, consider Acts 8:14-17 and 19:1-6, where we see that the Spirit was poured out long after water baptism had earlier taken place, not simultaneous with the act.”
Response: As I mentioned earlier, I readily accept that baptism does not always mark the point in time at which someone is saved. These are not problematic because the many Scriptures that speak about baptism, not in specific instances, but as a general practice – such as John 3, Acts 2 (in which Peter indicates that the promise of baptism for the forgiveness of sins is “for all who are far off”), and Romans 6 – are not ambiguous.In case this brief sweep of the issue does not satisfy, let me examine the specific passages more closely:
a) Paul’s Conversion (Acts 9:17-18): I hardly consider this to be an exception! Rather than supposing that Paul came to faith, then received the Holy Spirit, and then was baptized (and washed his sins away), we can suppose simply that Paul came to faith on the road to Damascus and then was baptized for the forgiveness of his sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3, John 3, Acts 1, and Acts 2 – among others – all connect baptism to the Holy Spirit.)
b) The Conversion of the First Gentile Disciples (Acts 10:44-48, 11:17): I am content to treat this as an exception from the rule for an exceptional circumstance, the time of the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles. Just as Pentecost was a singular event, this Gentile Pentecost was singular; the miraculous pouring out of the Spirit and the speaking in languages are obviously not normal markers of conversion events. (There is a lot more to be said about this event – specifically, about the Holy Spirit and how it was poured out in Acts – which I do not feel qualified to say.)
c) The Conversion of the First Samarian Disciples (Acts 8:14-17): This passage delves into the question of laying on hands, another subject about which I do not feel qualified to speak. However, this passage undercuts Nick’s position much more than mine! Here we have people who had come to faith and yet had not received the Holy Spirit – the guarantee of our salvation (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). Whatever the truth about salvation is, then, it certainly cannot be that we are saved by faith alone.
d) The Case of John’s Disciples in Corinth (Acts 19:1-6): It is no problem for me to accept that John’s baptism was not as spiritually efficacious as baptism into the name of Jesus.
5. “On the one hand, there are a number of spiritual blessings that are only associated with faith in the NT and never with baptism. For example, we are never said to be justified by baptism, or reconciled to God by baptism, or adopted by baptism, or redeemed by baptism (and so on). On the other hand, nothing is ever attributed to baptism that is not also attributed to faith by the apostles.”
Response: I agree that there are spiritual blessings associated only with faith and not with baptism. I agree that there is a sense in which faith is “more important” than baptism; baptism without faith is empty and pointless, but faith without baptism definitely counts for something. Furthermore, even if Nick is correct that “nothing is ever attributed to baptism that is not also attributed to faith,” this does not count against what I believe, because I have never contended that baptism without faith has ever meant anything at all.
Nonetheless, I am not convinced that Nick is correct in his assertion that “nothing is ever attributed to baptism that is not also attributed to faith,” simply because some of the imagery associated with baptism is not ever associated with faith. Ananias says, “[B]e baptized and wash your sins away” (Acts 22:16b); no one in the New Testament says, “Believe and wash your sins away.” Washing, in fact, is much more strongly associated with baptism than with faith. Similarly, the two passages which most vividly describe our death and resurrection with Christ (Colossians 2 and Romans 6) emphasize baptism more than faith; moreover, when Colossians 2 does mention faith, it suggests that faith works after baptism; we die by baptism and are (afterwards) raised by faith.
6. “For the early Christians, the primary significance of baptism was that it served as the initial, public moment in which faith in Christ was expressed.”
Response: I am simply not sure what evidence there is to support this conclusion. As far as I can tell, it is true only for modern Evangelicals, not the early Christians.
7. “Therefore, “baptism saves” (I Peter 3:21)—yet not with respect to the removal of dirt from our bodies (i.e. the actual rite of going down into the water), but only insofar as the moment of our baptism coincides with an appeal to God for a good conscience (i.e. faith).”
Response: Here and in several parts of Nick’s argument, there seems to be an implicit assumption that baptism cannot be spiritually efficacious because it is physical. Whatever we say about baptism, we cannot say that it is spiritually inert simply because it is physical – for we are very much saved by Jesus’ physical death on the cross and physical resurrection. As far as 1 Peter 3, I have a few observations:
a) As I have demonstrated, baptism cannot be reduced to something which coincides with faith.
b) Just as the Flood saved the eight people in Noah’s Ark – just as the waters of the flood separated the eight from the sinfulness of the rest of mankind – so baptism separates us from our sin.
c) Peter’s main point seems to be that baptism saves – that is exactly what he says – and that the cleansing we experience in baptism is not physical. (Peter may be distinguishing Christian baptism from Jewish purification rituals.)
I believe I have now addressed the bulk of Nick’s arguments. I pray that I have not fallen into the trap of overreaction which he highlighted in his opening paragraph. Though the bulk of what I have written has constituted a response to Nick, much of my response has also entailed positive formulations of what I believe. (I have written about baptism before here at The Fish Tank in a form that was not so clearly a response to a certain argument.) To avoid being overly repetitive, then, I conclude only with a brief summary of my argument and position:
If we understand the Bible’s claims about baptism straightforwardly, we see that the moment of baptism – not the moment of coming to faith – generally marks the forgiveness of our sins and our reception of the Holy Spirit. The Bible says that baptism saves (1 Peter 3:21); it says that baptism is “for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38); it says that baptism washes our sins away (Acts 22:16); it says that we must be born of water and the Spirit to be born again (John 3:5); it says that we are saved “through the washing of rebirth” (Titus 3:5); it says that we were “buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that … we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). The plain reading of these passages is that baptism does, in fact, do something spiritually. (How do I know that this is the plain reading? Because the Church Fathers, whose views on other matters often diverged sharply, unanimously agreed with me.)
Now, the plain reading of Scripture is not always the end of the matter – but I see no compelling reason to reject a plain reading of scriptures about baptism. What the Bible says about baptism simply makes no sense if baptism is merely a symbol that comes after we are saved through faith.
My final thought is like my first: Baptism is just a physical ritual – and faith is just a human response. What ultimately matters is the cross and God’s grace. As the old hymn says, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”