The New Birth and Christian Unity: David Lipscomb (May 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Douglas A. Foster
May, 1992

“There is no one thing taught with greater clearness in the New Testament than that the new birth precedes and qualifies for baptism. Faith unites and makes us one with Christ, and such believer is a Christian, and saved, not with a conditional but with an everlasting salvation.”
~ David Lipscomb, “Baptist Queries and Answers,” Gospel Advocate, 1873, 702

The Restoration Movement faced serious fragmentation in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Progressives and conservatives alike focused on issues that provoked violent controversy. The most volatile conflict centered on the use of instrumental music in worship.

At a more profound level, however, baptism and its relation to the new birth and church membership became a matter of serious intent to many. Some progressive disciples questioned whether immersion was essential to salvation and suggested that unimmersed believers be accepted as members. At the other extreme, a growing number denied even the validity of immersion if not performed with what they deemed the proper knowledge by both candidate and administrator.

David Lipscomb feared the sectarian, divisive effects of both positions. On one hand, the editors of the Christian Standard and Christian Evangelist, while rejecting open membership, took Alexander Campbell’s position that the pious unimmersed were not lost. Lipscomb thought such a position was inconsistent. After all, why reject from membership those one claims God has accepted and saved?

On the other hand, several people associated with the Firm Foundation, a Texas paper begun in 1884, taught that immersion simply to obey God was not enough. They believed the candidate must understand explicitly, prior to baptism, that one received forgiveness in that act. By implication, only persons immersed in churches of the Restoration Movement could be properly baptized, since only those ministers taught adult immersion for remission of sins. Anyone previously immersed but associated with another religious group had to be “rebaptized” in order to become a member in a true church of Christ.

Lipscomb waged a vigorous fight on both fronts. The matter was crucial largely because of its implications for Christian unity. Biblical baptism puts believers into Christ. Christian unity can be achieved only in Christ. Downplaying the essential nature of biblical baptism would mean that people in Christ were attempting to achieve Christian unity with people outside of Christ – an impossibility. Yet refusing to recognize as Christians those who had been scripturally baptized would perpetuate division and frustrate God’s intentions.

Lipscomb saw himself occupying a position between the two extremes. He began his teaching with the clear statement that the faith which precedes baptism marks the point of salvation. “The person who believes is just as much the begotten of the Father, the child of God, before it is baptized as it is afterwards.” Yet he believed that baptism was the necessary next step. One became a child of the Father before completion of the birth process, but if proper birth did not occur the child could perish.

Lipscomb maintained that if a person believed in Christ, repented of sins, and was immersed to obey God, that persons was added to God’s kinngdom. It made no difference where or by whom the baptism was performed as long as those scriptural components were present. Such simple obedience secured all the blessings and privileges promised the Christian regardless of the believer’s knowledge of them. Lipscomb thus readily admitted that Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and other believers who had repented and been immersed had been added to Christ’s church. At the same time he believed that sectarian loyalties, wherever found, displeased God.

To those who thought unimmersed believers were saved, Lipscomb replied that God’s law required all who should be saved to believe, repent, and be baptized. Christians simply must teach what God had commanded. Christians must associate with and treat unimmersed believers kindly, yet they should use every opportunity to urge them to complete their obedience.

Lipscomb argued just as strongly, however, that acts of obedience to God’s law should not be rejected simply because one has not learned all the blessings and promises connected with the obedience. The rebaptism group countered that those receiving “sect baptism” often believed that their sins were already forgiven and that baptism was to join a particular denomination.

Lipscomb admitted that perhaps this was often true. But neither was “sect baptism” restricted to those outside the Restoration Movement.

“Baptist baptism is a baptism submitted to in order to get into the Baptist Church, or it is done in obedience to Baptist teaching. If a person is baptized to obey God, it is not Baptist baptism no matter where or by whom performed. A rebaptist baptism is that which is done to please those who believe in rebaptism. Many of the rebaptisms are done to please the preacher or church who requirest it. It is not unusual for a person to say: ‘I will be rebaptized if you think I ought.’ When one is then baptized, it is rebaptist baptism. Both these baptism ignore the authority of Christ or the Scriptures, and are not acceptable to God.” (“What Is Baptist Baptism?” Gospel Advocate, 1907, 265.)

Lipscomb pointed out to the proponents of rebaptism that it made no sense for a person who had travelled a long way on the right road and then taken a wrong turn to return all the way to the beginning of the journey. So it was with those who had been immersed, yet found themselves in sectarian establishments. Such a wrong turn did not undo their faith, repentance or baptism. “We only return to the point at which we erred and there begin aright,” he insisted. To demand rebaptism by a minister in the Restoration Movement of one who had been immersed into Christ alread was almost a sacrilege. As for those born again, immersed, and added to Christ’s church who then became part of “human folds,” Lipscomb left the matter to God – the only one who would know what allowances to make.

Both of the extremes on baptism were wrong, Lipscomb claimed. Both exalted one of God’s commands above others. Failure to follow God’s biblical mandates concerning baptism would destroy the only basis for true Christian unity and create even more sectarian structures. There were, Lipscomb firmly believed, some “who belong to nothing but the church, which includes all Christians.” Lipscomb saw himself as one of those people.


For further reading on this subject, see the following by David Lipscomb:
“Queries On Baptism.” Gospel Advocate, 1873, 1146.
“Apologizing for the Lord.” Gospel Advocate, 1893, 548.
“Queries.” Gospel Advocate, 1898, 87.
“The Holy Spirit.” Gospel Advocate, 1898, 397.
“Sectarians in the Worship.” Gospel Advocate, 1907, 265.

Wineskins Magazine

Doug FosterDr. Doug Foster is a Professor of Church History in the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas. In addition to teaching, he is also the Director of the Center for Restoration Studies at the University. Dr. Foster’s scholarly work has concentrated on the place of the Stone-Campbell Movement in American Christianity and the nature of the idea of Christian unity. His book Will the Cycle Be Unbroken? Churches of Christ Face the 21st Century analyzes the current and future shape of Churches of Christ. Other works include Crux of the Matter: Crisis, Tradition, and the Future of Churches of Christ (ACU Press, 2000) and Seeking a Lasting City: The Church’s Journey in the Story of God (ACU Press, 2005). He serves as one of three General Editors of the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Eerdmans, February 2005).

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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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