Wineskins Archive

November 22, 2013

What Is An Acceptable Baptism? (Feb 2012)

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By Jay Guin

Because of how the question has affected fellowship among believers, I’ve been honored with an invitation to address the question: What is an acceptable baptism? I agreed, but I’m not feeling good about it. You see, I think it’s entirely the wrong question. The question assumes that baptism is essential to salvation. And I think it’s a mistake to start with that assumption.

It may be a true assumption or a false one, but we don’t begin by assuming. We properly begin by taking a step back from the baptism question and asking who is and who isn’t saved. And if that question requires us to investigate what baptisms are sufficient to save, we pursue that line of inquiry. But we don’t start by assuming the necessity of a sufficient baptism.

The Old Testament evidence

It’s a rare study of baptism that considers the Old Testament. Indeed, we often mistakenly consider the Old Testament a dead letter — useful for digging out Messianic prophecies for a sermon on Christian evidences or for teaching middle schoolers moral lessons, but useless for such serious studies as the nature of God’s salvation.

That is, of course, an absurd conceit and our assumption that the Old Testament is irrelevant has greatly hindered our studies of the New Testament — written by Jews who quote the Old Testament on nearly every page.

We start in the Torah. There’s far more material here than will fit into an issue of New Wineskins, and so I’ll offer the briefest introduction to God’s covenant with Abraham. If you miss that Old Testament theme, you’ll inevitably miss much of what the New Testament is saying about salvation.


God called Abram out of Ur and made a covenant with him in a series of encounters. God chose Abraham and so craved a personal relationship with him that he appeared in physical form to converse with him. You know the story. Two central elements of the covenant are —

Genesis 15:6 ESV “6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

Genesis 22:18 ESV ” … and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed … .”

The second promise is, of course, the reason that I and most modern Christians are Christians. God, through Jesus, invited the Gentiles into the Kingdom.

But we were admitted by faith, based on God’s covenant with Abraham. You see, we Gentiles are saved by God’s promises to Abraham. It’s the very same covenant!

Paul discusses this very thing in Romans 4:7-10 ESV “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;  blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.”

Paul points out that Abraham was circumcised after God counted his faith as righteousness. Therefore, his salvation was based on his faith and not by his circumcision, that is, by his obedience to God’s law. Rather, Abraham was saved by faith and then Abraham responded with obedience. Romans 4:23-25 ESV “But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

Paul concludes that those who have faith in Jesus share in God’s promise to Abraham to count faith as righteousness.

In Galatians 2, Paul makes the same argument — Galatians 3:8-9 ESV “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” <sup>9</sup> So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Galatians 3:11 ESV “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Paul calls God’s promise to Abraham “the gospel” because our salvation is based on that very promise. We are saved by our faith in Jesus because God honors his covenant with Abraham.

We cannot adopt or teach a theology of salvation that contradicts God’s covenant with Abraham.

The New Testament evidence

So what does the New Testament say?

Mark 9:23 NIV “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.”

John 1:12-13 NIV “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

John 3:36 NIV “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”

John 5:24 NIV “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”

John 6:29 NIV “Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

John 6:35 NIV “Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

John 6:40 NIV “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

John 6:47 NIV “I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life.”

John 7:38-39 NIV “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

John 11:25-26 NIV “Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

John 12:46 NIV “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”

John 20:31 NIV “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Acts 10:43 NIV “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Acts 13:38-39 NIV “Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.”

Acts 16:31 NIV “They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved-you and your household.”

Romans 1:16-17 NIV “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Romans 3:22-24 NIV “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 3:25-28 NIV “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”

Romans 4:4-5 NIV “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

Romans 5:1-2 NIV “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”

Romans 10:4 NIV “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

Romans 10:9-13 NIV “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile-the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

1 Corinthians 1:21 NIV “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”

Galatians 2:15-16 NIV “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”

Galatians 3:2 NIV “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?”

Galatians 3:22 NIV “But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.”

Galatians 5:6 NIV “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

Ephesians 1:13-14 NIV “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession-to the praise of his glory.”

Ephesians 2:8-10 NIV “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

2 Thessalonians 2:13 NIV “But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.”

1 Timothy 1:16 NIV “But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”

Hebrews 10:39 NIV “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.”

1 John 3:23-24 NIV “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.”

1 John 4:2-3 NIV “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”

1 John 5:1 NIV “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.”

1 John 5:3-5 NIV “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”

1 John 5:13 NIV “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

Yes, there are also several baptism verses in the New Testament. And they really say what they say. And we should not ignore them or exegete them out of the text. They are there for a reason. But so are the verses I just quoted. And we sometimes treat them as embarrassments.”

We get uncomfortable when the “saved by faith” verses show up in Sunday school class. We can’t easily declare, “Says what it means; means what it says” — because we really don’t think that.

We don’t accept the truth of these verses even though they are exactly consistent with God’s promises to Abraham and Paul’s explanation of how we’re saved by God’s promises to Abraham. Even though they represent the culmination of over 2,000 years of salvation history and prophecy, finally fulfilled in the New Testament, they just don’t fit what we normally teach, do they?

“Faith only”

Inevitably, someone objects at this point that we aren’t saved by “faith only.” They declare “faith only” a heresy. They even point out that “faith only” as a phrase only appears once in the Bible — and that’s in James, where James says “faith only” isn’t good enough James 2:24 KJV

It’s a straw man argument. Yes, grammatically, that’s true. But the verses I just quoted are still in the Bible, and they say what they say. And I need to add to that list — John 3:14-18 NIV “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.'”

Notice the clearly binary logic of Jesus: either you believe and so are saved or else you don’t and so are damned.

Well, Jesus, what if I believe and am wrongly instructed on baptism? What if we don’t use enough water? Or what if I’m wrongly instructed as to moment when salvation occurs? If words have meaning, Jesus’ answer has to be “Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”

We sometimes want to pretend that Jesus skipped a category: whoever believes in him and isn’t properly baptized. We want to declare those with a good faith but a bad baptism damned. But if a flawed baptism damns, then Jesus doesn’t keep all his promises — because he promised to save “whoever” believes, not only a very distinct minority of converts with the good fortune to have been taught optimal baptismal theology by their evangelist.

But, complains the one arguing against “faith only,” doesn’t our faith have to be proven by our obedience? Isn’t that really James’ point? And if obedience is essential, and if we mess up something as important as baptism, doesn’t that mean we’re not obedient and therefore not saved?

No! And this is really, really important. “Obedient” does not mean perfect. “Faith without works” is not the opposite of “sinless”! We all sin. Even Christians sin. Even very mature Christians sin. Therefore, the fact that we’ve missed the mark as to our baptism hardly proves us disobedient. It proves us imperfect.

Think seriously about it. A new convert is a babe in Christ. The convert learns about Jesus, falls in love with Jesus, comes to true faith, is deeply penitent, and wants to serve Jesus as Lord. And so the convert seeks baptism. The convert is taught by a seminary graduate with multiple post-graduate degrees in Greek that pouring is a sufficient baptism. The convert reads her dictionary, and the dictionary agrees! And so, with a pure and obedient heart, she submits to pouring.

Is she obedient? Of course, she’s obedient. If this doesn’t meet God’s standard of obedience, then we’re all damned, because not a one of us can meet a higher standard.

Indeed, the theology of many members of the Churches of Christ has been perverted into a works salvation by insistence that doctrinal perfection is required, because it’s only by insisting on doctrinal perfection that we can declare an imperfect baptism disobedient. After all, no one has ever submitted to a pouring, a sprinkling, or other imperfect baptism intending to disobey God! Such people exist only in our tract racks.

God’s promises

You see, God keeps his promises — all his promises. (Numbers 23:19; Joshua 23:14;; 2 Corinthians 1:20; Titus 1:2; 2 Peter 3:9). And sometimes God does more than he promises!

Jesus describes God in the Parable of the Day Laborers as a master who pays some of his servants more than they have earned while others receive only the wages they deserve. When some servants complain, God replies, Matthew 20:15 “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

When we are unhappy that God might be more generous to others than to us, we act just like the envious day laborers — and we sin in so doing. We should rather celebrate serving a gracious Lord. God loves the world so much that he gave up Jesus to die for our sins so that we might be saved through faith in him. How can we dare criticize God for making exceptions?

Every one of us deserves damnation. That’s what sin means. And we’ve been saved on the thinnest of technicalities — the fact that Jesus promised to serve our sentence for us. Thank God for exceptions! And may he forever make exceptions generously!

And, no, I’m not making exceptions for God. I’m not speculating. God explicitly and repeatedly promised to credit faith as righteousness. And he’ll keep that promise every single time.

The baptism verses

But baptism is closely tied to salvation in several passages. Doesn’t saving all with faith write those verses out of the Bible? Do they mean anything at all?

Some hold that baptism is merely symbolic of a salvation that occurs when faith is first realized. That’s Zwingli’s position, and he’s been followed by most Calvinists and by denominations with Calvinistic roots, such as Southern Baptists.

I think most of the Church of Christ debating points against that position are right. I think we’ve interpreted Acts 2:38 largely correctly (except for those of us who ignore the gift of the Spirit).

But the Churches of Christ have been debating the Baptists on this point for over 100 years — so long that we assume that the only possible positions are our traditional view and the Zwinglian/Baptist view. We don’t even consider whether there might be a third way. But there is.

I make this proposal for your consideration: Salvation occurs when the Holy Spirit is received, and this is normally at water baptism. Yes, the baptism verses are true. (Romans 8:9-11). However, God is not bound to only give the Spirit at water baptism. In fact, he makes exceptions when it suits him. It suits God to keep his promise to save all with faith. This proposal will sound horribly contradictory until you realize —God’s forgiveness happens in heaven, not on earth, and heaven exists outside of earth time. God’s time is not our time, and so to ask “when does God forgive” is not always a meaningful question. We should be far more concerned with whom God forgives, and the answer is “those who believe in Jesus.” Baptism is for new converts, mere babes in Christ. To hold that a flawed baptism damns is to require a novice — sometimes even a child — to understand Greek grammar better than many professional translators. God never meant for it be that hard to be saved!

In New Testament times, faith, water baptism, and the receipt of the Spirit almost always happened in close proximity. In the normal case, there was no question of faith without water baptism. But there were exceptions. Acts plainly shows that there is no great law in heaven, binding on God himself, that he may only pour the Spirit onto those being water baptized. Clearly the apostles and Cornelius did not receive the Spirit and salvation and baptism simultaneously (if the apostles received baptism at all).

We don’t require a perfect faith or a perfect penitence as a condition of salvation. No one being baptized has yet moved a mountain, and no one has yet stopped sinning altogether following his baptism. And if an imperfect, immature faith and imperfect, immature repentance suffices — by grace — why wouldn’t an imperfect, immature baptism suffice as well? To conclude otherwise is to make baptism more important than faith in Jesus, but the promise by which we’re saved is God’s covenant with Abraham — based on faith. Abraham was never baptized.

In every age, God has forgiven sins outside the prescribed covenant means of grace. When Jonah preaching to Nineveh, God forgave them without circumcision. When David sinned with Bathsheba, God forgave him without sacrifice. Melchizedek was a priest of God even though he was not part of God’s covenant with Abraham. Naaman was approved by God without circumcision or animal sacrifice. Our God is a God of exceptions.

Although God is a God of exceptions, he always accepts those who come to him with faith and penitence. It’s easy to find examples of those accepted outside the covenant rituals. There’s not a single example of someone coming to God with a genuine faith and penitence who was rejected by God.


In short, the problem of baptism — of flawed baptisms administered for the wrong reason, at the wrong time, or with the wrong quantity of water — is solved, not by dissecting the baptism verses, but by contemplating the grand narrative of the Scriptures, indeed, the purposes of God as revealed from Genesis to Revelation.

From the time of Abraham, God’s promises were built on faith — not a faith that is a mere intellectual acceptance of a fact but a faith that leads to faithfulness, that is, to penitent living.

When we insist on making any one act of obedience the essential, non-negotiable test of salvation, we turn salvation by faith into salvation by works — and we destroy the gospel.

Thus, to be true to the gospel, we must admit that an honest misunderstanding of baptism does not damn. But, of course, that no more means we stop preaching the truth about baptism than God’s willingness to forgive David means we stop preaching against adultery and murder!

We love God and we love the things of God. Baptism is a gift from God, a blessing, and we are commanded to preach and practice baptism. And so we must. We are privileged to understand baptism better than many and to preach God’s truth soundly. But never should we let baptism — which is one of the seven “ones” in Ephesians 4 — become a basis for division of brother against brother. What a sad perversion of a blessing from God that would be!

The grave danger is that we become so obsessed with baptismal perfectionism that we let the truth of baptism supplant God’s many promises to save all with faith in Jesus. And when that happens, we turn the Bible upside down and inside out. Ephesians 2:8-10 NIV “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

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