by Craig Branch

Introduction

Water baptism is a command to be obeyed in the Christian church. But what one believes about baptism is a crucial issue. The belief that baptism in water is a neces­sary step for justification, believing that baptism changes a person’s state from being lost to being saved, or from being unregenerate to being regenerate (born again), are serious errors. These beliefs were erroneously held by some of the early church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Augustine, and manifests itself in some denominations, sects, and cults today.

There are two major schools of Protestant or Reformed tradition concerning baptism. One view is that baptism is a symbol of identifying with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (immersion)-a sign or ordinance representing salvation administered to those who profess faith in Christ. This is sometimes referred to as “believers’ baptism.”

A second Protestant view is that baptism is the sign and seal of the covenant of grace, replacing circumcision for the New Testament community of believers. This sacrament is administered to infants or to new believers who have never been baptized by sprinkling or pouring. Many believe that the sign confers grace, picturing but not effecting regeneration, cleansing of sin and union with Christ.

The scope of this mini-profile will be to discuss the heretical side of the question of baptism, focusing on the belief in baptism as a necessary step to receive justification or salvation. To insist that water baptism is a command which must be obeyed as a normative prerequisite to receive justification or enter into a saved (safe) state, in Christ, actually serves to corrupt or significantly obscure the gospel of grace at its core (Galatians 1:6-7).

Any group which believes that baptism is an instru­mental cause of justification (usually defined as being made righteous), will invariably include other instrumen­tal means by which justifying grace is received. Whether people call these other instruments sacraments, acts of obedience, obeying the gospel, works of faith, etc., they are still actually trusting in their own ability or works (albeit with God’s help) to perform well enough to merit eternal life.

Upon consulting the authoritative texts and writings of these groups it is found that they use basically the same concepts, statements, and Bible verses to explain their position. The most common proof-texts used are John 3:5: Mark  16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16;  Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12; 1 Peter 3:20-21.

What Do They Believe?

Religions such as Roman Catholicism, Seventh-day Adventism, Mormonism, United Pentecostalism (and other Oneness churches), most Churches of Christ and Eastern Orthodoxy teach that final salvation is dependent on one being made righteous through a cooperative effort of one’s own obedience. The instrumental causes of that obedience (infused righteousness) are water baptism and the addition­al issue of obedience that effects salvation. Some examples are:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) proclaim, “We must be  baptized for the remission of sins… to become members of the Church of  Jesus Christ… before we can receive this gift of the Holy Ghost” (Gospel Principles, pp. 124, 127). Most of  the  Churches of  Christ (Campbellites) teach that the blood of Christ isn’t effective until one is baptized. Well known past church of Christ leaders David Lipscomb and E.G. Sewell wrote “Baptizing them into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit puts them into the enjoyment of all the blessings to be received in Christ, the blood of Christ, the remission of sins, the fellowship of God…. baptism is essential to entrance unto Christ. Water is the medium through which in baptism, we pass from a state of sin and  condemnation into a state of acceptance and favor with God” (Questions Answered, pp. 36, 39-40, emphasis added).

Seventh-day Adventism officially teaches that Jesus “required baptism of those who wished to become a part of His church,” as a “necessity,” to become effective,” in order to produce “the subsequent spiritual relationship (Seventh-day Adventists Believe, pp. 182, 183, 187, emphasis added).

Roman Catholicism officially teaches that “The Lord Himself affirms that baptism is nec­essary for salvation… By baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as the punishment for sin… also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God… and a temple of the Holy Spirit (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp. 320, 322).

Note: Some Episcopalians (Anglicanism) and Confessional Lutherans understand the re-gen­erational nature of baptism in more conserva­tive terms “either placing one within God’s covenant” or “as it constitutes God’s covenan­tal promise of Life” (Dictionary of Christianity in America, p. 106). But since these two bodies are so clear on justification by faith alone in Christ’s finished work-His imputed righ­teousness, that we believe that their view on baptism is just an anomaly.

Biblical Response

The issue of baptismal regeneration is just the surface manifestation of a deeper issue. Is one justified by faith alone in Christ alone or in faith plus works? The Protestant and Reformational understanding of Scripture insists that Christ’s perfect record, His righteousness, through the sole instrument of faith effects the work of Christ on one’s behalf. Even faith is a gift (1 Corinthians 1:30-31; Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 12:2).

The heresy of the Judaizers and their distortion of the gospel (Galatians 1:6-9, 2:4), “a different gospel,” is the same issue present today. The Judaizers, then, as today were seeking to establish a requirement for covenant member­ship through law keeping, signs and seals (circumcision or baptism), in addition to faith in Christ, thus destroying grace (Romans 11:6).

For the Protestant justifying righteousness is the alien righteousness of Christ which is imputed to the believer, who is declared or accounted righteous (justification) even though he is still a sinner. One is justified not on account of one’s faith, but one is justified on account of Christ through the grace of God.

One is not acceptable to God because one becomes good. We become good or better (good works – sanctifica­tion) as a result of being pronounced good and regenerated. Being brought into union with Christ (regeneration) through faith is when salvation is personalized. This is mediated by the Holy Spirit, Christ, and God coming into ones life and making one a new creation. The Bible refers to this act as being baptized by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). “By one Spirit we all are baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:3,13).

Water baptism and spirit baptism are not simultaneous and the Scripture demonstrates that water baptism comes after salvation or union with Christ. In Acts 10, Peter was given a vision and the understanding from the Scripture that the Gentiles were also to come into the covenant of grace. He proceeded to the house of Cornelius and preached the content of the gospel to him (Acts 10:34-43). Notice that the “gift of the Holy Spirit fell upon” them and then they were baptized in water as the new sign of the covenant replacing circumcision (Colossians 2:11-12).

The fact that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is the point of saving faith is abundantly clear from Acts 11:15-17. Also, Peter repeats this fact with even more detail in Acts 15:7-11, dispelling the typical attempt to evade this fact by theorizing that God must have done something unique in the case of the Gentiles. Peter makes it quite clear that there is only, and has been only, one way of sal­vation, the same for both Jews and Gentiles – faith alone in Christ alone.

Originally published in Mini Profile from Watchman Fellowship.