Faith and Baptism – Important But Different (June 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Edward Fudge

The author of The Fire That Consumes and the recent Hell – The Final Word shares his responses to subscribers querying him about his view of baptism, as stated in his e-mailed newsletters called gracEmails.

Someone writes, “I seem to hear you saying that baptism is not essential, or, if it is, that it is not essential in the same way that faith is essential.”

* * *

The Bible does not contain the word “essential,” since it is written in the language of story rather than of theology or debate. The word “essential” is ambiguous, anyway, and capable of several meanings. Literally, it means that something is “of the essence” of something else. Surely all Christians can agree that baptism relates to the essence of the gospel, for it points to and expresses trust in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ which alone can wash away our sin.

However, someone might use “essential” as a synonym for “necessary,” in which case we must ask, “Necessary for whom?” Surely baptism is “necessary” (not a take-it-or-leave-it affair) for the believer, for Jesus commanded it. But to say that it is “necessary” for God would be to make the command greater than the God who gave it, to deny something which Scripture clearly affirms (that is, that God has saved many people throughout the world’s history who were never baptized), and to say something the Bible never suggests or implies.

Faith and baptism do not belong in a list of like-and-equal things. They are not of the same “order” and ought not be lined up in a row as if they were. Faith is the foundation and baptism is part of the superstructure. Faith is the soul and baptism is part of the body. Faith is the root and baptism is some of the fruit. To equate faith and baptism is like saying that in order to live one must breathe and use clean silverware, or that life depends on having a constant heartbeat and regularly brushing the teeth. One had as well insist that wedded love requires a mutual commitment and a ceremony in a chapel. There is a difference between the inward reality and the outward formality, between the life principle and the structures which give it shape and expression. To clearly state that difference does not take anything away from the beauty, the function or the desirability of the forms and symbols and expressions in any of these analogies.

Making Too Little of Faith
Someone writes, “I seem to hear you saying that baptism is not essential, or, if it is, that it is not essential in the same way that faith is essential.”

* * *

Saving “faith” is not something we do in a series of events. It is what motivates and enables everything that we do in response to God’s kindness. Saving faith means trusting Jesus’ atonement as sufficient to bridge the gap our sins have caused between us and God, and entrusting ourselves to God to be his people out of gratitude for what he did for us in Jesus Christ long before we were even born.

Baptism is one way — indeed, the initial way, commanded by Jesus himself — for expressing that heart of trust/faith/commitment. It manifests repentance, embodies a submissive spirit and steps across the line separating believers from unbelievers in the eyes of a watching world. It signifies our union with Jesus — and with all those people whom he saves. It reminds us who we are and whose we are. It constantly calls us to the new and holy life to which God has called us in Jesus.

Much of the evangelical church has made too little of this Christ-given ordinance, in a mad rush away from an unbiblical sacramentalism which made too little of faith. Where modern Christians utilize “the sinner’s prayer,” the apostolic church commanded believers to be baptized. The New Testament does not envision an unbaptized believer, but no New Testament author ever suggests that a true believer is saved because she or he was baptized, or that baptism saves anyone apart from faith.

God does not send us to baptize, but to preach the Good News. Those who believe the Good News are to be baptized. When the evangelical church learns to grip both those statements and hold them tight, it will take a giant step forward — not only in biblical understanding but in practical Christian unity as well.

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism
A dear brother in the Northeast writes, “I found your comment ‘Faith and baptism do not belong in a list of like-and-equal things’ to be interesting in light of Ephesians 4:4-6 which speaks of ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism.’ Baptism is found here on a list in the most impressive company. I would suggest you owe your readers a correction on this one. Had a modern evangelical been writing this passage, baptism certainly would not have made the list. Obviously, Paul had a different view.”

* * *

You are certainly right that Ephesians 4:5 names “faith” and “baptism” together in a “list,” if you please. Paul also names “one Lord” in this “list,” which underscores my original point that these are not “like-and-equal things.” Paul is emphasizing the commonality of Christian experience, for we all share in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” This is a poetic verse in the original Greek, and the English word “one” appears in its masculine (heis), feminine (mia) and neuter (hen) forms to modify first “Lord” (kyrios – masculine), then “faith” (pistis – feminine) and finally “baptism” (baptisma – neuter).

All three of these “ones” relate to remission of sins. The one LORD shed his blood “for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). That is the objective reality, whether anyone believes it or not. But whoever believes in Jesus (the one FAITH), according to all the prophets, “has remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). That is the subjective appropriation of the blessing objectively accomplished by the “one Lord.” And, according to Jesus’ own commandment and design, whoever has the one FAITH in the one LORD is to express and declare it in the one BAPTISM. When one does that as an expression of faith, baptism also is said to be “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38).

Finally, each of these realities depends on the one named just before it. The one baptism has significance only because it expresses and declares trust or faith. Without faith, baptism is meaningless. And faith has value and benefit only because it reposes in the one Lord Jesus Christ. Faith, standing alone, or placed in anything or anyone other than God’s work in Jesus Christ, accomplishes nothing for salvation.

So these beautiful realities are intertwined, yet distinct. The Lord calls for our response of faith, and faith cries out for expression and embodiment in baptism. Baptism has meaning because it expresses trust, and trust or faith is meaningful because it looks to Jesus the one Lord. Every baptized believer shares all these things in common. “Be diligent,” then, Paul admonishes, “to preserve in bonds of peace the unity which the Spirit gives” (Ephesians 4:3). Whenever Christians disavow other believers, or deny their brotherhood together in the Lord, they deny the unity which the Spirit has given and they grieve the Holy Spirit who makes us one.

What I’m Really Saying
Someone asks, “You seem to give a mixed message about faith and baptism in relation to salvation. Will you tell us what you are really saying?”

* * *

I am saying that Acts 2:38 speaks of baptism “for the remission of sins” and that Acts 10:43 promises that whoever believes in Jesus “has remission of sins.” I am saying that God saves all believers, and that Jesus commands all believers to be baptized.

I am also saying that most of the arguments between Christians concerning baptism and salvation arise because of our unscriptural formulations about “God’s part” and “our part,” and because of unbiblical expressions such as baptism being “essential” and “necessary” for salvation — or being “non-essential” and “unnecessary” in general.

I am saying that we contradict the Word of God if we treat baptism as a take-it-or-leave-it affair, or fail to baptize believers, or to instruct them to be baptized as their faith-response to the gospel. Such carelessness ignores a command of Jesus Christ himself, betrays a sloppy attitude toward obedience, and reflects a lack of appreciation for the important role the New Testament assigns to water baptism in light of the gospel.

I am also saying that we contradict the Word of God if we deny that God will save all who truly put their trust in him, based on the finished work of Jesus Christ for sinners. Such a denial is is unbiblical, wrong and contrary to the gospel, and we should learn better, repent of it, and resolve with God’s help not to do it any more.

I am saying that if we go out preaching baptism, we might find ourselves persuading people to get in the water who haven’t the foggiest idea about trusting Jesus Christ alone for their right standing with God. However, if we focus on preaching Jesus, the Holy Spirit will motivate believers to be baptized.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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