Monday, October 23, 2006

Monday's Question

Q. Does baptism save?

A. No. Baptism is neither a prerequisite for salvation nor does it actually save in the sense of causing salvation. The Biblical understanding of the gospel is that salvation is apprehended through faith in the finished work of Christ, and no outward ordinance or work of our hands could accomplish that (Titus 3:4-7). The wonderous work of salvation is accomplished by the blood of Christ and not anything physical on the part of the believer (1 Peter 1:18-19). Baptism signifies or symbolizes the identification of the believer with Christ, his/her being buried and rising again with Christ (Col. 2:11-12), and is used as an entry rite into the visible church. Believers are not saved because we are baptised, but rather believers are baptised because they have been saved.

Some common verses put forward that allegedly "prove" that baptism saves or is a prerequisite to salvation include Acts 22:16, I Peter 3:21, John 3:5, and Acts 2:38.

Acts 22:16 says "And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name." It should first be noted that "Rise" and "calling" are "aorist participles" while the references to baptism and cleansing or washing are "aorist imperatives". It is in accord with the text to say that individuals are being instructed to rise and be baptised in view of the fact that their sins have been washed through calling upon the name of the Lord.

I Peter 3:21 says "Baptism, which corresponds to this, 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". The "..which corresponds.." refers to the previous discussion of Noah and the ark. As Matt Slick from CARM points out, "antitupon" is used here, and its meaning includes "a type" or "a copy". However, the difficulty here is determining what exactly the correspondence is refering to. Does baptism correspond to the ark? Or the water? Or the salvation that Noah experiences? Or the patience of God in the days of Noah (which is the greater context starting with v20)? Or perhaps way which the correspondance occurs is the link between both baptism and the ordeal with the ark involving "brought safely through water". It is difficult to know exactly what this is refering to, but either way it says nothing to tie baptism to salvation, in fact it denies that by stating that baptism doesn't save us in the sense of washing our filth, but rather "saves" in the sense of being an appeal to God for a good conscience, and even that is ultimately brought to us through Christ's resurrection and symbolized through baptism.

John 3:5 says "Jesus answered, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." The first thing to notice is that this passage nor the previous four verses do not refer explicitly to baptism. So, if this passage is talking about baptism, it would have to be because "born of water" refers to baptism. There are several common interpretations of what "born of water" means. One of them is baptism. Another is the work of the Holy Spirit, which is elsewhere refered to by the analogy of washing. But, in my opinion, the strongest match for "born of water" is the natural birth. Why? Because of the context. In John 3:5 "born of water" and "born of spirit" are listed. In the very next verse, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" is stated. Notice how "born of water / born of spirit" is set along "born of flesh / born of spirit". It would be a very large coincidence if Jesus were to use such a parallel and all the while be really speaking of baptism, which isn't mentioned explicitly anywhere else in the narrative.

Acts 2:38 records Peter as saying "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit". This is perhaps the most genuinely difficult text out of this particular set. On the surface it does seem to teach baptismal regeneration. A full discussion of this text is beyond the scope of this post. However, it should be noted that the Greek word "eis" is rendered in this passage as "for". Both "for" and "eis" can be used in various ways. Sometimes they can mean "in order that" (in other words indicating a cause/effect), and other times they can be used in a way which moreso means "in light of" or "in acknowledgement of". For example, if I say "I'm going to school FOR my Masters Degree", I'm using "for" in the " order to obtain.." sense. However, if I say "I'm buying you a book FOR your birthday", it would be silly to understand "for" in the "in order that" sense!! Does my gift to you cause your birthday? Of course not! My gift is "in light of" or "in acknowledgement of" your birthday. In the same manner, I believe there is a number of strong reasons (context, theological consistensy, and other textual issues) to suppose that Acts 2:38 is using "eis" in the "in acknowledgement of" sense instead of the "in order that" sense. That mean Acts 3:28 is teaching that "Baptism is in acknowledgement of forgiveness of sins", not that "Baptism is performed in order that forgiveness of sins may occur". There are many more academic and comprehensive surveys of this issue with Acts 2:38 which you may want to review. They are from: CARM, Christian Research Journal, Got Questions?, Alpha & Omega Ministries, and Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary Journal.

Throughout redemptive history, people confused symbols with the inward reality they were meant to portray. The Israelites misunderstood circumcision in this way, forgetting that circumcision was not an end to itself, but rather was a means to represent and portray what God would do to the heart of His people. In Romans 4, Paul demonstrated that since Abraham was justified before God before circumcision, it followed that it was faith and not circumcision that made him right before God. It should be noted that the false teachers which Paul upbraided in Galatians also were teaching the same errant view of the relation of the "sign" or "seal" and the actual reality it was meant to represent.

In the Gentile church in this era, circumcision no longer seems to be an active controversy. However, baptism is an outward sign of a greater inward reality, and many confuse the sign with the inward reality much in the same way that the judiazers in the Galatian church and the Israelites of old did. They rightly regard the outward sign as being important, but they confuse it and mingle it too closely with the inward reality failing to understand that the seal is not a condition to the inward reality nor does it cause it. Biblically, as Abraham's justification was not dependant on his circumcision, so too the baptism of a believer is not a prerequisite or cause of justification, but rather an outward representation pointing to it.

The understanding of baptism not being a condition or cause for salvation comes from both a Biblical understanding of baptism, and also a Biblical understanding of how it is that sinners are made right before God. It is a horrible error to confuse baptism with salvation to the extent that baptism is seen as either a part of or prerequisite to salvation. However, it is also a horrible error to view baptism in a deragatory way, seeing it as an insigificant step. Baptism is both very significant and important! And it is an express command of Christ. Hence, for a disciple to purposely avoid it would be an rebellion and disobedience. But yet baptism or lack thereof does not initiate nor negate the work of Christ. The Biblical teaching that salvation is an act of God accomplished by the work of Christ alone apart from baptism does not minimize the need for baptism, but rather establishes it! Being in truth united with Christ by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, there then is a basis and desire to publically manifest that inward reality with a "sign" or "ordinance" signifying it.

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