Monday, May 30, 2016

The necessity of baptism

This article was originally written on July 2014. I am republishing it here with minimal edits.

Many students of the Bible esteem baptism less than the writers of the New Testament did. They often say, “Baptism has never saved, nor will it ever save, anyone.” The Bible never takes that position anywhere.

The Bible treats baptism as a condition of salvation. At the end of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, the people were “cut to the heart.” They asked the apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” (Acts 2:37, NRSV for all references). Notice they are prepared to take action and they want to know what action they should take. Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

Many evangelicals are troubled with this verse because it lists two actions (repentance and baptism) that smell a lot like “works.” Ephesians 2:8-9 says you don’t have do anything, right? Wrong. The Bible does not teach that salvation is unconditional. It is free (Romans 6:23), through faith (Galatians 2:16) and conditional (Acts 2:38). Baptism is the point at which a person’s sins are washed away (Acts 22:16). Repentance and baptism are works! They do not merit forgiveness of sins; but both are conditions.

One of the main features of the Reformation was a rejection of the doctrine that a person could pay for or do penance for forgiveness of sins. What followed was a general rejection of baptism as a condition for salvation (baptismal regeneration). The primary motive behind the modern evangelical rejection of baptismal regeneration is history and heritage. Since “faith alone” is so ingrained into reformist groups, I expect hostile disagreement on this point. Nevertheless, I will now challenge, as succinctly as I can, the usual arguments against baptismal regeneration.

Analysis of Acts 2:38. This verse could not be more clear, until someone comes along and plunges it into an exegetical fog. Before I explain “the fog,” just read the verse with a little context and think about what that crowd thought Peter meant by his answer.

The usual attack on the plain meaning of Acts 2:38 has to do with the Greek preposition eis. It is typically translated “for” as in “Repent and be baptized... for forgiveness...” (like KJV reads). The meaning of the symbolic sentence “A eis B” (A for B) is “A results in B.” However, in rare cases when context forces it, “A eis B” means “A because of B.” The only reason someone would want to force this meaning on Acts 2:38 is to safeguard the evangelical doctrine of salvation by grace alone. They want us to accept an awkward and contextually unrequired meaning of Peter’s simple answer. Acts 2:38 means repentance and baptism result in forgiveness of sins. If eis ever means "because of" anywhere in the Bible, Acts 2:38 is the only place. Compare Acts 2:38 with Matthew 26:28. "... for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for (eis) the forgiveness of sins." Jesus' blood was poured out for (not "because of") the forgiveness of sins.

Analysis of 1 Peter 3:21. Surprisingly, many people quote this verse as proof that baptism is not necessary for salvation. The verse comes right out and says that baptism saves! The writer compares baptism to Noah’s Ark and the flood. “And baptism, which is prefigured, 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.” I think the argument holds that salvation comes by appealing to God for a good conscience. A good conscience is a conscience without guilt. A forgiven person has been absolved (in God’s view) of guilt. The word “appeal” is powerful. It means baptism is an act of surrender—not merit. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience.”

Analysis of 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Galatians 3:27. These verses are often quoted in support of an alternative purpose for baptism. That is, to join a denomination. It is a mistake to argue that “getting into Christ” is the only use for baptism. While baptism saves, God then adds the believer to the body of Christ. Acts 2:47b says, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Baptism adds a believer to Christ because it is part of the process. “The process” is why “faith” results in a person’s salvation. It moves a person to obedience (including baptism) through which, God saves.
Whether or not it makes any sense that a baptism in water could possibly have any role in forgiveness of sins, it is clearly required by the apostles. Will I argue with Scripture or will I obey?

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