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  • Writer's pictureJohn Davis

Questions About Our View on Baptism

In recent weeks I’ve had three separate interactions with brothers in Christ who were legitimately confused as to how I could believe what I do about baptism. So, I thought an explanation to these common questions might be helpful to some who are genuinely seeking to understand why those in the Restoration Movement hold this view.

We believe that baptism is the moment of salvation. This is the traditional view of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. Here are some questions we hear all the time, and my best answers to them.

Isn’t this a form of salvation by works?

No. Salvation by works means earning or meriting your salvation. Being baptized is simply submitting to one of the God-appointed conditions to receive the free gift of salvation. Just as you must have faith, or you must repent, God has ordained that baptism is also one of those conditions. We would also add that one must confess Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9-10).

If you are so inclined to do more research, the great German reformer Martin Luther has written extensively on why he also did not believe that baptism is a work.

What about the thief on the cross?

This is not a valid argument against this particular view of baptism because at the time of the crucifixion, Christian baptism had not been instituted yet.

What if someone dies without getting baptized?

First of all, it would depend on why that person had not been baptized. If they had read and understood God’s word and yet were resisting becuase of stubbornness or something like that, I could not be confident in the salvation of such a person.

But generally, this argument is given as an extreme proof case. Typically it’s something like the following: what if a person is in the car on the way to be baptized and they have a fatal accident? What if someone slips on the stairs in the baptistery and hits their head and dies without being immersed?

The problem with this line of argument is, possible exceptions are a horrible and foolish way to decide what you believe on anything. For example, most Christians would agree that abortion is murder and therefore wrong. But what if the life of the mother is at stake? What if it was a case of rape? No matter your answer to those questions, it would be ridiculous to then turn and claim abortion should be legal because someone found an exception in some extreme case. The phrase “the exception proves the rule” exists for good reason.

Do I think God would save someone who died on their way to be baptized? Yes I do. I believe he would accept the desire for the act. But you must understand, I have no Scripture to back that up. That is between them and the Lord. I can only teach what I can confidently see in the Bible, and I can confidently see baptism as the moment of salvation in the passages mentioned below.

What about FAITH ALONE?

Ironically, there is only one occurrence of this phrase in the Bible: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24 ESV) Now, it has been clearly established that James is talking about a different side of justification than Paul. I understand this. I only bring this up to show that nowhere in Scripture does it actually say that we are saved by faith and nothing else. One question we must keep returning to is… what does the Bible actually say? It’s not about what you’ve always been taught, or what you have heard. What does Scripture actually say?

Here’s Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” It does not say “faith alone.” It says “through faith… not a result of works.” We have already established why the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ believe that baptism is not a work in this sense.

If you read a passage like John 3:16, and take that as your only passage on the requirements for salvation, you would conclude that faith, and faith alone, was necessary for salvation. However, if you turned to Romans 10:9-10, you would be forced to add confession. Turn next to Luke 13:3,5 and you would be forced to add repentance. Do you see what I’m getting at? Faith is clearly not the only requirement or condition for salvation, even if you leave out baptism. However, if we turn to the passages below, I believe we must then include baptism.

It is a mistake to make a doctrine from one verse or passage alone. Much better is to take everything the New Testament says about a particular subject and synthesize them all to come to the best overall understanding.

Isn’t baptism the new covenant counterpart to circumcision?

No. Circumcision was for male infants (and in rare cases male adults), while baptism is for all believers regardless of gender. Even though many refer to baptism as a “SIGN AND SEAL” of our salvation or of our saving faith, nowhere does the Bible use this language to refer to baptism. You cannot find it anywhere in Scripture. The closest the New Testament comes to linking baptism with circumcision is Colossians 2:11-12, but proper interpretation shows that Paul is not connecting baptism with physical circumcision but with spiritual circumcision of the heart, an idea referred to numerous times in both the Old and New Testaments.

Baptism is not the sign of the new covenant like circumcision was in the old. Baptism is not the New Testament counterpart to circumcision. This only makes sense if you believe in a particular doctrine called “Covenant Theology,” which is mostly espoused by Presbyterians. I will leave you to research more on that if you desire. For our purposes here, suffice it to say that I believe covenant theology is an unbiblical teaching. Baptism is an utterly new and unique practice instituted for the new covenant age.

What about Romans 10:9-10? Aren’t you adding to God’s word?

Again, it is a mistake to create a doctrine from one passage. If we are only going to refer to this one passage then repentance cannot be a requirement for salvation. Similarly, if we only refer to John 3:16, confession cannot be a requirement. Yet it clearly is according to Romans 10:9-10. We must take everything the New Testament says on salvation and synthesize our doctrine accordingly.

Doesn’t 1 Peter 3:21 suggest that the ritual of baptism is not what saves us?

First, it must be said that it is very rare indeed to find someone who gives proper weight to the plain words of 1 Peter 3:21… “Baptism, which corresponds to this (the flood) now saves you.”

Having said that, Peter gives a qualification: “…not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21 ESV).

Doesn’t this show that the ritual of baptism does not save us? YES! I fully agree. The ritual of baptism is not what saves us. What saves us is the regeneration God does in our hearts at the moment of our baptism. This is precisely where Restoration Movement churches are mischaracterized and mislabelled over and over again. We do not believe in baptismal regeneration, as if anyone who gets dunked is automatically saved. If a person gets baptized for the wrong reasons, or they do not truly have faith and repentance, they will not be saved, no matter what kind of baptism they receive.

What Peter is saying is, when you witness a baptism, it is not the water that saves, it is what God is doing on the inside of this person! Immersion in water is simply a visual representation of what is simultaneously going on inside the person who is being baptized. The water is not special. This is why you can be baptized in a baptistery at church, in a pool, in a creek, or even in a bathtub. It’s the appeal of the heart and the supernatural work of God that saves a person. Yet, for some reason, people find it impossible to believe that God could have decided to do this work at the moment when someone is immersed in baptism.

We have no problem believing that Naaman was cured of leprosy at the moment when he washed in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5). And we have no problem understanding that it was not the water of the Jordan, or the ritual of washing that cured him. It was the power of God! Yet God, in his sovereign choice, decided that Naaman washing in that river would be the instrumental means by which he cured the man’s leprosy.

What passages suggest that Baptism is the moment of salvation?

Mark 16:16

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.

** We fully admit this passage is not the strongest evidence considering the end of Mark is disputed as perhaps not being original. The doctrine of baptism does not rise or fall with the authenticity of Mark 16:16. **

Acts 2:38

And Peter said to them, “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.”

Acts 22:16

“And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”

Romans 6:3-4

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Colossians 2:12

having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Titus 3:5

he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,

1 Peter 3:21

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

What further reading would you recommend on this subject?

The best book I can recommend on this is One Baptism Into Christ by Jack Cottrell, published by the Christian Restoration Association as part 5 of The Collected Writings of Jack Cottrell


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