Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

I don't believe what I wrote below for a minute, being the atheist that I am. But the two articles below got me fired from teaching philosophy at Great Lakes Christian College, Lansing MI. Those of you who read my book might be interested. See what you think.

Is Baptism Necessary For Salvation?
[From: Integrity July/August 1995 issue].

When someone asks me what they should do to be saved, I usually say they can do nothing. Salvation is free in Christ Jesus, I continue. God in Christ has provided the sacrifice that alone offers us salvation. What God has done we could not do. Our responsibility is to lovingly respond to God’s personal gift in Christ. We do this by a faith that compels us to repent, confess, and be immersed in baptism.
Nothing of what follows is meant to undercut this basic message. I am not of the opinion that we should change the message we have been commissioned to preach. If the message includes baptism, then we should teach and preach it, even if we don’t quite understand why.
But we who wish to preach this message of salvation are presented with a particularly unique problem. The problem is that such a message is not widely shared among those who claim to be Christians. This fact must be recognized and dealt with honestly. Are we the only Christians, or are we Christians only?
The Development of Legalism –
When the Restoration Movement began in the 1830’s, many different churches united into one body of believers. The people of these various churches claimed no other name but Christ’s, no other book but the Bible, no other creed but Christ. Our movement brought Christians together under the Lordship of Christ even though many of them didn’t agree about everything important. And herein lies some irony. In our zeal to restore a biblical view of baptism in the salvific process, somewhere along the line we developed a legalistic view of baptism, demanding its necessity before someone can be saved. Hence, rather than uniting all believers in Christ as we did in the past, we now exclude them from our fellowship because of their views on baptism. A movement that began to unite people under Christ now separates them.
The legalistic view of baptism in its extreme form maintains that unless someone is baptized that person will be in hell throughout all eternity; an unbaptized person is a lost person regardless of his or her faith in Christ, and should not expect to have eternal salvation. A Christian who holds this extreme view of baptism probably could not worship with an unbaptized person, and would certainly not want to be a part of a worship experience where an unbaptized person is the worship leader or preacher. “What fellowship has a believer with an unbeliever?” they might ask. (II Corinthians 6:15).


Have We Forgotten Unity? –
In the interest of helping us regain our role in uniting people who seek to follow Christ, let me ask some questions and offer some criticisms of the legalistic view of baptism. In doing this I know there will be Christians who will respond quite negatively. A sacred cow is, after all, something which does not come down easily. But it’s one that must tumble if we want to be honest with God’s word and his interests in the world.
Some of my questions will be based upon reason as well as Scripture. There is little that should alarm a Christian at such an admission. God created us with the desire for intellectual coherence of all that we believe by faith. It is through our reasoning abilities that we try to make sense of the data of Scripture and our lives into a coherent whole. To deny reason is to deny our faith because ours is a reasonable faith. Of course, reason should not be the judge of Scripture, nor should it be used to deny a clear teaching of Scripture. Faith and reason compliment one another, and they shouldn’t come into conflict because we serve a reasonable God.
Having said all of this, I offer the following ten clusters of questions:

Ten Clusters of Questions –
1) Why is it the N.T. never states that anyone who has not been baptized will go to hell? Can we honestly conceive of a loving God who would condemn a person to hell who deeply loved him—except that the person failed to be baptized? It isn’t hard to see why many people view us as misguided, legalistic, and cold-hearted. If such a God existed, they would say, he would not be good.
Besides, there is a huge difference between an affirmative statement and a negative one. If I gave someone detailed directions on how to get to my house, I would be telling them the best way to get here. What I would not be telling them is how they can’t get here. Telling people how to get here is an entirely different question than telling them how they can’t get here. There may be several ways to my house. By the same token, by telling us to be baptized God is revealing to us the best way to accept salvation. What he’s not doing is revealing that there is no other way to be saved except by being baptized.
2) Baptism pools (called mikvehs) were abundant throughout Israel in John the Baptist’s and in Jesus’ day. These pools pre-date the preaching of John the Baptist, who baptized Jews in preparation for Jesus’ coming. They were used in a ceremonial rite of cleansing in preparation for worship. To these people baptism symbolized purity. Any visitor to Israel today can still see the ruins of these pools at Masada, Qumran, Capernaum, Korazin, and Jerusalem. Is it too hard to suppose such washings were brought into Christianity as a cultural symbol, yet divine requirement, of full commitment? There doesn't seem to be anything transcultural about the act of baptism itself. People from other cultures would not automatically recognize the act of baptism as indicating purity or suggesting full commitment. Perhaps baptism was a divine requirement to a people who understood its meaning. If so, then what would God think of believers in today’s culture who failed to be baptized because baptism was not viewed in the same way?
3) Isn’t it true that throughout the gospels we see a Jesus who is much more interested in the heart attitudes than any outward act? While some acts were important (Matthew 23:23), it was the heart that mattered the most to him (Matthew 5-7; 12:33-34). Outward acts of righteousness merely show the inner disposition of the heart.
4) Paul opposed anything that could be considered a sacred cow in deference to the worship of God himself. The apostle Paul is on record as opposing the rite of circumcision because some Jewish Christians used it to exclude uncircumcised believers from their fellowship. Paul argues against this view in the book of Galatians. Likewise, when the Corinthian believers took undue pride in the person who baptized them, Paul minimized baptism. He wrote: “I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name.” He also stated that “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach (I Corinthians 1:14-17). Could Paul really say this if baptism was the exact point of salvation? Even though many Corinthians boasted of who they were baptized by, Paul nowhere commanded them to be rebaptized. He calls them “brothers” (I Corinthians 1:10), indicating Paul thought their baptisms were legitimate ones. If Paul thought they were saved at the point of baptism, shouldn’t he rejoice in their baptism, regardless of the mixed motives at work? Paul’s response here stands in contrast to his view of those who preached from mixed motives. There he rejoices that the job is getting done regardless of their motives (Philippians 1:15-18).
5) Paul taught baptism as a response to God’s grace (Galatians 3:27; Romans 6). But we must ask what Paul might say if he met the legalists among us who border on stressing baptism to the exclusion of grace through faith? His message stressed grace through faith, and surely he would reject anything that would supplant it or disgrace it. When I have asked students in many of our Sunday Schools what they must do to be saved, most often the answer I hear from them is this: “Be baptized.” This is a gross misunderstanding of Paul’s message. It leads me to wonder how much Paul would downplay baptism in order to stress Christ. What would Paul say if he saw baptism profaned like the Jews profaned circumcision? Would Paul once again stress “a circumcision of the heart” (Romans 2:29) over the rite itself?
6) Is God narrow-minded enough to condemn people for minor offenses of ignorance if they earnestly seek him? To answer in the affirmative is to misunderstand the holiness of God whereby holiness is equated with legalistic righteousness, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Whom do you think is more valuable to God, someone who loves him, prays daily, studies his word, tells others about Christ, or someone who is baptized and just attends church once a month? I find it extremely difficult to think that God, in all of his intelligence, cannot see life in terms of a series of trade-offs, like most of us do all of the time. When our kids offer sincere commitment to help us around the house, should we condemn them when they forget to do something we consider important? Or should we look past what they neglected to do and note their desire to please us? I don’t see anywhere in the Bible where sincerity in devotion to God is outright condemned in nonessential matters. In the case of Christian baptism, aren’t our faith and our love the essential things about the act?
7) Should the experience of all unbaptized people who claim to be Christians be discounted in total? We use universal experience to argue for the existence of God. Most scholars will also admit that we simply cannot interpret the Bible in a vacuum—that personal experience helps to interpret the Bible—and that anyone who says they discount all experience when coming to the Bible is merely na├»ve. Many unbaptized people who claim Christ as Lord and Savior have received manifestations of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). They testify to answered prayer, they are zealously evangelistic, and have an inner strength they claim could only come from the Holy Spirit of God. I myself experienced this three months before I was baptized.
8) There are many commands in the Bible that we fail to obey on a daily basis, called sins of omission. Why is it that omitting to be baptized is so grievous a sin when compared to the person who fails to evangelize, or who doesn’t care for orphans and widows (James 1:27), or fails to visit those in prison or feed the poor (Matthew 25:34-40)? The legalistic view of baptism makes an unbaptized person one who has committed the unpardonable sin. Is this a just God? Is this a merciful God? Is this a proper view of God’s holiness?
9) God is God. He is not in a box of our making. The Pharisees misunderstood God, although they did their exegesis. Can we be humble enough to admit that the legalistic view may be wrong? There are many people in other Christian churches who read their Bibles and cannot see it any other way than what their particular denomination teaches. Some of these people are poor, unintelligent, illiterate, downtrodden, and abused. How will God judge these people because they could not see the error of their church leaders, whom they respected and trusted? While in ministry Jesus showed a special love for these very people (Luke 4:18-19). Would God reject them because they could not see the truth on this issue?
10) Then there is a very practical problem. I baptized both my son and daughter when they were each ten years old. Most all of us will say that my children, at the earliest stages of their lives, were not yet accountable and so were safe in God’s hands. But what if my wife and I misjudged their faith and baptized them before they were fully accountable? If this is the case then, like infant baptism, is their baptism null and void? And what if they are never rebaptized, thinking they had already fulfilled their duty to God? Are they now lost? But what if we put our children’s baptism off because we wanted to make sure they knew what they were doing? Would we be placing them in danger of eternal condemnation because they may indeed be accountable to God but not yet baptized? What if they died while we waited an extra year or so? To deny them salvation would place an undue burden upon parents who would be required to decide the exact day each child was ready to be baptized. If baptism is the exact moment of salvation, then we dare not baptize our children one day early or one day late.

Conclusion –
The result of all of this is that there are cases in which baptism is not necessary for salvation in a legalistic fashion. Surely God is not Pharisee-like in his holiness, but instead desires a loving interpersonal relationship with his creatures. Yes, he has commanded baptism as a part of the soteriological process, but only as a loving Father and not a legalistic potentate. He is a personal God who responds to us in personal ways.


Is Baptism Necessary--One More Time
[From Integrity, Jan/Feb 1996].


I’ve received several negative responses to my previous article titled: “Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation.” Some thought I was offering a promise of salvation to those who refuse to be baptized. But this simply missed what I was saying. I stated quite clearly that the message of salvation includes baptism, and this is what we tell those who desire to be saved. I dealt strictly with the issue of the unbaptized believer and how God would respond to such a person on judgment day. As far as I can tell there are any number of positions to take on baptism.
Here are four positions on baptism:
Position one: They preach baptism for salvation and also believe those who aren’t baptized are lost.
Position two: They preach baptism for salvation, but they don’t claim to know the fate of the unbaptized.
Position Three: They preach baptism in order to “identify with Christ,” but those who aren’t baptized can still be saved.
Position Four: Baptism is not included in their preaching, because it is just a cultural symbol of salvation. Baptism just isn’t that important.
While there are other positions on baptism, my position is closest to number three above. In my previous article I was arguing against position number one above, and while I at least understand view number two, I will argue against that view shortly. I do not hold to position number four.
My articulation of the third position comes from Virgil Warren’s writings. He speaks of “a cluster” of responses to God’s offer of salvation in Christ, which in turn restores our relationship to God and allows us to receive the gifts that come with that restored relationship. Taken together these responses identify us with Christ on an interpersonal level. He writes: “Repentance, faith, and baptism are not three things, but aspects of one whole response: repentant faith expressed in baptism. The total response identifies a person with Jesus Christ. Identity with Christ is the basic condition for the natural set of gifts that form one whole consequence: restored relationship.” “There is one issue--interpersonal relationship, one condition--personal identity with Christ, and one consequence--reconciliation between persons. [Virgil Warren, “The Interpersonal Nature of Christian Baptism,” Christian Standard, Jan. 7 & 14, 1990].
Because we have adopted a legal--versus interpersonal--system for understanding baptism, Warren charges that “Christian baptism gets transformed into something akin to a business transaction with the feel of (a) automatic and (b) uniform results.” Hence, “a repentant believer committed to Jesus Christ might die without baptism through some misunderstanding or insuperable circumstance. His situation gets interpreted as being like the case where someone has not filled out properly all the right documents for a passport, or like a case where someone becomes a traffic fatality on the way to signing for a sizable life insurance policy.” By contrast, in an interpersonal system, Warren writes, “formal matters like baptism can even be overlooked entirely for legitimate practical reasons. Paul observed this principle when he says of circumcision in its spiritual dimension: ‘If then the uncircumcised keeps the ordinances of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?’” (Romans 2:26). [Virgil Warren, “A Position Statement on the Meaning of Christian Baptism.” As far as I can tell this paper is unpublished, but similar statements can be found in his “Concepts and Practices Foreign to Christian Baptism” Christian Standard, July 22 & 29, 1990].
Warren continues by claiming that, “we are not dealing with a God who is trying to see how many people he can send to hell; so we do not expect condemnation on a technicality or condemnation because the ‘paperwork’ did not get done in time.” “What is really necessary is identification in Christ, and God has commanded baptism as the formal way of doing that.” But “the identity with Christ, not the act that identifies us with Christ, is what provides the basis for salvation.” [Virgil Warren “A Position Statement...” See also his “Understanding Christian Ordinances,” a paper delivered at the Open Forum in Indianapolis March 15, 1989, and his book: What the Bible Says About Baptism (College Press, 1982), pp. 194-409].
In another context (including but not limited to baptism), Warren speaks about honest misunderstanding in formal matters, and he argues that such misunderstanding “should not be categorized with intentional disobedience in interpersonal matters. In respect to honest misunderstanding we take it that God looks on the heart and knows people’s intentions.” And while sincerity does not save us, “hopefully it does make us forgivable. Misaction based on honest misunderstanding is still misaction, but something can be erroneous without being reckoned against us. Errors are not reckoned till knowledge comes (Romans 7:9, 10; cp. 3:25; 4:15; 5:13; Acts 17:30-31) at which time the repentance-forgiveness process comes into play.” [Virgil Warren “Central to Less Central: An Interpersonal Format for Prioritizing Issues in Christian Unity” Christian Standard. September 4, 1988].
I turn now to the major objection some have with my claim that “baptism is not necessary for salvation in a legalistic fashion.” This objection is phrased something like this: 1) “God commanded baptism in order to receive salvation, so you do not have the authority to change his command.” 2) “Moreover, what God says cannot be changed because God is unchanging and His word is eternally true.”
I will deal with the first statement and then later with the second. By admitting that people can be saved without being baptized it is true that I am commenting on something God didn’t comment on, speaking where he didn’t speak, making a claim that he didn’t make. I admit this. Yet I think we do this all of the time. Anytime we deal with an issue that God didn’t deal with we are doing this. For instance, there are a great many ethical issues that the Bible doesn’t strictly speak to. Where in the Bible is a direct discussion of the morality of nuclear war, socialism, contraception, euthanasia, gambling, genetic engineering, surrogate mothering, suicide, civil lawsuits in a democracy, and so on? There are a host of ethical issues, apologetical issues, and theological issues where the Bible simply doesn’t speak about directly--issues too numerous to list. Yet when confronted with these issues we must make decisions about them based upon inferences and deductions from Scriptural premises. [Thomas Campbell in the Declaration & Address (Proposition 6) admitted that “inferences and deductions from scriptural premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word...”].
The objection, of course, is that God has spoken regarding baptism and that the message is clear. So by speaking otherwise I am changing what he so clearly stated. To the contrary, I claim that God didn’t speak to the issue of the unbaptized believer. He didn’t do so precisely because there weren’t any such people in the early church. Every believer was a baptized believer. This is Paul’s assumption in Romans 6, because at that point in his discussion Paul was finished speaking about God’s gift of salvation and our response of faith. In Romans 6, Paul uses baptism to illustrate the effects of salvation, something every believer in his day had done.
The argument that I’m making is similar to the one claiming that the Bible didn’t speak directly to the kind of dehumanizing slavery that existed just prior to the Civil War. It’s clear that the Bible doesn’t outright condemn slavery, so the argument goes, because the slavery in Biblical times was different; it was more “humane.” The slavery in Biblical times could be the result of the spoils of war, but it could also be voluntarily chosen, or a form of punishment for non-payment of a debt--something socially acceptable. At the very least it did not deny the full personhood of slaves. By contrast, our country in the nineteenth century denied black people the status of personhood. Slavery in our era could be much more brutal. But if American slavery was very different from slavery in Biblical days, then the Bible didn’t speak directly to the issue of American slavery. Therefore, the anti-slavery movement turned instead toward principles found in the Bible that condemned it, like the brotherhood of man (cf. Acts 17:26).
The modern argument on behalf of homosexuality depends on the same kind of argument. This argument is based upon the claim that the Bible does not speak directly toward a loving monogamous relationship for life between two persons of the same sex. Sound hermeneutics admits such a possible argument. Those who would argue against homosexuality cannot merely quote Scripture verses unless they deal seriously with the claim that the Bible is only condemning gratuitous homosexual lascivious acts.
There is nothing wrong in doing this. Jesus himself regularly claimed that certain Scripture verses did not directly apply to the ethical and/or theological issues before him. The “sermon on the mount” of Jesus is an example of this. Overall, it is a sustained argument that seeks to show that the Pharisees of his day misapplied the text of the Old Testament in life and teaching. That is why Jesus is seen stressing his strong belief in Biblical authority before the statements that followed. He said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17-20). Jesus knew that he had to stress Biblical authority because the Pharisees would think that by denying their understandings he would be denying God’s word.
Then too, Jesus’ controversy over the Sabbath day is mainly an argument over the applicability of certain Biblical texts to certain situations. Jesus maintained that these texts didn’t apply legalistically to the particular issues at hand.
Likewise in the case of Christian baptism, the whole issue depends entirely upon whether or not the New Testament speaks directly to the issue of the unbaptized believer. I simply maintain that it does not do so. The fact that I believe this is not changing God’s commandment at all, for there isn’t anything to change. I do believe however, that there are Biblical principles that speak indirectly to this issue which force me to conclude that “baptism is not necessary for salvation in a legalistic fashion.”
Let me now turn to the second part of the major objection to my position: that “what God says cannot be changed because God is unchanging and his word eternally true.” Your readers should know that the immutability of God is presently undergoing a revision by non-Calvinists, among whom I count myself. The Calvinistic doctrine teaches that God cannot change at all. I believe this doctrine comes from the Greek philosopher Plato, who argued that God must be an eternally perfect being so that any change in God must by definition be a change for the worst. Now it is true that God is described as unchanging (Ex. 3:14-15; 34:6-7; Numb. 23:19; Psalms 33:11; Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8). But what does it mean to say this? Christians agree that God’s nature and character do not change. But do these verses require more of God than that? Does God know of no change whatsoever? God is described as changing in several passages (Gen. 6:6-7; Ex. 32:10-14; Dt. 9:13-25; I Sam. 15:11; Psalms 106:44-45; Jer. 18:7-10; Joel 2:13; Amos 7:3; Jonah 3:10).
Along with many other non-Calvinists I deny that God is the sort of being Plato said he was. He is not a Platonic idea, law, or static Being out there who cannot adapt to new situations and human choices. I would consider such a Being an imperfect God—one who cannot be flexible. I would affirm that God is a loving person (I John 4:8), and it is the essence of love to be flexible and to change in response to the ones to whom love sets its affection. A static God who cannot change in response to us cannot be a loving God. Instead he remains an aloof judge or rule setting potentate. A loving father on the other hand, is something quite different. So I maintain that we either serve a dynamic God or we don’t serve a God of love at all. [For an introduction to this non-Calvinistic kind of thinking see Clark H. Pinnock & Robert C. Brow, Unbounded Love Downers Grove: IVP, 1994. While it still has its problems see also The Openness of God by Clark Pinnock, Rice, Sanders, Hasker, and Basinger, Downers Grove: IVP, 1994. To be fair, one doesn’t need to accept this point in order to think God is flexible and accommodating to us. I fail to see though, how an inflexible and completely unchanging Being can be a father to his children].
The Calvinistic doctrine of God’s immutability is blown apart in the incarnation of Christ. God-in-Christ revealed himself as one who enjoys relationships, makes decisions, acts upon plans, and has deep feelings. The parables of the lost coin, lost sheep and lost son indicate a God who knows both loss and discovery, joy and sorrow. We also see him deal creatively with each person he meets.
This more correct understanding about God doesn’t lead us to the conclusion that God doesn’t mean what he says. On the contrary, what God says is eternal, and his word is ever true (Mt. 24:35). But what it does suggest is that he is a true Person, and this involves being flexible with his people. That is, while his overall will for us doesn’t change, because his nature and character are immutable, his methods do change. He adapts to our feeble efforts to please him, he is flexible with us because of our capriciousness, and he is compassionate with our shortcomings. This is his grace.
In the Old Testament we see God being flexible with people on the issue of divorce. Jesus said that it was because of the hardness of their hearts that an exception granting a divorce was allowed by God. (Matt. 19:8). [While Jesus informs us that it was Moses who permitted this exception, it would be incorrect to read Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and conclude anything else but that Moses was speaking by God’s authority]. Yes, God was not pleased to allow such an exception, but, and here’s the extremely important point for our purposes, he allowed/tolerated it because of his love for his people. They didn’t follow his intended rules, but God made allowances for this because he loved them and didn’t want to make life unduly unbearable for them.
God also allowed/tolerated the eye for an eye, tooth for tooth principle of revengeful judicial punishment (Ex. 21:23-25; Mt. 5:38-39). Apparently, such a limiting principle actually saved lives since many people of that day undertook revenge on every member of a particular family for a particular offense. The eye for eye principle ends up legitimizing a brutal and uncivilized kind of punishment because it was more “humane” than the barbaric kind of punishment meted out by ancient people. In the Gospels Jesus stressed a love for one’s enemies that would eventually undercut such a barbaric kind of revengeful punishment among civilized societies. God accommodates to us with his commands; this too is his grace. He deals as a Person to persons.
In the New Testament Jesus demanded all or nothing when it came to following him; but he certainly tolerates less. Jesus demanded an all or nothing approach to possessions: “sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33), and “you cannot serve both God and money” (Mt. 6:24). Yet, most people in his day and our own do not obey this. Jesus further stated that the cost of being a disciple involves being willing to “hate his father and mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life.” Otherwise, Jesus continued, “he cannot be my disciple.”
(Luke 14:26-27). Whom would you suggest has obeyed this command fully in his or her heart? Even if you can find people who have done this to a great degree, it doesn’t mean that Christ rejects those who don’t have this complete commitment. The reason, again, is because of his gracious love and mercy.
He loves us and accepts us where we are in our commitments and understandings. This is exactly what it means to love. There is no contradiction in God demanding everything but accepting less. This is the point at which God’s holiness meets his grace, where God’s commandments meet man’s misobedience, and where God’s desires meet man’s actions.
So let’s grant the entirely Biblical view that God commanded baptism for salvation. How would he lovingly respond to the situation we presently face today with a wide divergence of opinion in the denominational world over baptism? What exactly would God do about the person who was misinformed about baptism by a denominational preacher, and who didn’t have the intellectual muscle to see through that teaching? Would God hold a person accountable for not being able to think through the arguments of such a preacher, when this is the only thing he’s ever been taught?
Someone might simply respond by charging that baptism is clearly stated in the N.T., and I agree. But then we must ask: If it is so clearly stated in the N.T., then why have a majority of Christians gotten it wrong, both in the past and the present? I don’t have an answer for this. I do know that we think foot washing is cultural, and so is greeting one another with a kiss. We reinterpret what a woman should be wearing in church on her head, and whether or not we should sell all our possessions and give to the poor. Many denominational church leaders think this way about baptism, and we think they are wrong. But will God actually punish someone eternally simply because they are wrong on this? The answer I believe that is the most Biblical, reasonable and loving is that he would accept/tolerate their ignorance on this issue provided they longed to follow him with their heart and sought to obey all that they knew God to command. He demands baptism but he would lovingly accept the other committed believers in Christ.
Some would disagree by saying, “we simply don’t know whether or not they’ll be saved--they have no guarantee of salvation.” I understand this. But didn’t Jesus compare our love with God’s when he said that if we know how to give a loaf of bread to our children when they ask for it, then how much more will God give us that which we ask for? (Matt. 7:9-11) In other words, our love for our children is something like God’s love for us, except that God’s love is much more than that. So if any of us were to judge a committed but unimmersed believer, it would be a no-brainer--we would show mercy. So I ask, if we humans would extend mercy, then how much more would a loving God be willing to do so?
God is Holy (Isaiah 6:3). This is true. But the Biblical God does not have a Pharisaic or legalistic kind of holiness (cf. Mt. 5:20). This is something Jesus battled against most forcefully in the Sabbath Day controversy. Jesus taught that it was okay to break the Sabbath law in order to save someone out of a pit, and likewise to heal simply because people were more important than mechanical obedience to laws (cf. Mt. 12:1-14). It is here Jesus quoted from Hosea 6:6, in which God says: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” I think it’s fair to say with Jesus that God is much more interested in our character (our “mercy”) than in being punctiliously obedient in the outward observance of baptism (our “sacrifice”).
A legalist is someone who stresses the letter of the law: “be baptized or else be damned.” I simply reject the notion that a holy God must by definition be a legalist. I follow the principle laid down by Jesus who stated that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) I would preach baptism, but in following this principle, baptism would not be allowed to be legalistic stumbling block in the way of human need--in this case a restored relationship with God. To paraphrase Jesus here, “baptism was made for man, not man for baptism.”
So again I ask, knowing what we know about God, would he really withhold salvation from people for whom he died merely because they were misinformed about baptism? With all of the sins we have as Christians I think God has much bigger problems to deal with than whether or not we’ve been baptized (cf. 1 & 2 Corinthians; Revelation 2-3). And if his grace isn’t active before conversion leading us to him, then how would we come to him in the first place (John 6:44)? And why would he withhold his mercy and love from us because we failed to do an act that neither feeds the poor, or helps a neighbor in distress--things which he surely is more concerned that we do (Jas. 1:27; Matt. 25:31-46)?
Those who disagree on this remind me of the people who argued with Paul and Barnabas at the first council in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Here they were debating whether to accept Gentiles into the church who were not circumcised. They made their arguments and counter-arguments. Paul’s argument however, included personal experience and testimony that he had witnessed God giving Gentile believers the Holy Spirit, and that God “purified their hearts by faith.”(vs. 9) In the midst of their debate it says that “the whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.”(vs. 12) The irony is that those who disagreed with Paul were claiming that God wouldn’t accept uncircumcised Gentiles, when God was already doing so!
Likewise our discussion about whether God will save sincere but unimmersed believers needs to stop and examine the testimony of what God is doing around the world in the lives of people. I have met many such people and heard their testimonies. I have been affected in my view of baptism by attending Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Marquette University, and meeting what appeared to be believing students and teachers who were unimmersed. I have attended philosophical lectures and debates where Christianity was defended by believing philosophers who probably were unimmersed, and I have read their writings. I have been affected by listening to some musical artists like Amy Grant, Steve Green, and others who lead me to God even though I have no idea as to whether they have been baptized. I have read the writings of Charles Colson, James Dobson, and others who don’t see it as essential. Seeing the number of lives that have been changed by Billy Graham rallies and meeting some of them, has affected my understanding. So also has my being involved in pro-life causes and rallies, and the Promise Keepers, none of which views baptism as an important doctrine with which they are concerned about. I cannot deny what I have experienced in seeing lives who were obviously touched by God, yet not baptized. Mine was one of them prior to baptism. Then too, I’ve done a lot of reading of some great defenders of the faith in Christian history who were apparently unimmersed. There are also long-standing denominations whose official teaching and practice allows infant baptism.
Those who deny experience in assessing the status of the unbaptized believer are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Paul’s experience of conversion was itself a powerful argument for the truth of Christianity (Acts 9, 22, & 26). While experience is not the test for truth, our understanding of the truth must be able to explain personal experience. I cannot stress this truth too much. Experience has always been a check on exegesis, whether it comes to Wesleyan perfectionism, perseverance of the saints, second coming predictions, Pentecostal miracle workers, understanding marriage, parenting, ministry, and so on. The whole science/religion discussion is an attempt to harmonize the Bible with what scientists have experienced through empirical observations of the universe. According to James Sire in The Universe Next Door [(IVP, 1988), p. 214-217] one of the tests to judge worldviews is whether they comprehend the data of reality--data of all types. Likewise, for our purposes here, the data that must be comprehended within the Restoration movement is the experience of thousands upon thousands of unimmersed believing people who have had the same experience of God as we. That they do have the same experience can’t be denied, as far as any outsider can tell anything of someone elses experience--except that I am not an outsider to such an experience before baptism.
Before I finish, let me quote from someone who took a very strong public stand on the clear teaching about baptism, and yet personally believed that sincere unimmersed people were Christians. He wrote:
“Who is a Christian?...I cannot make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion into the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and in my heart regard all that have been sprinkled in infancy without their knowledge and consent, as aliens from Christ and the well-grounded hope of heaven. Should I find a paedo-baptist more intelligent in the Christian Scriptures, more spiritually-minded and more devoted to the Lord than...one immersed on a profession of faith, I could not hesitate a moment in giving the preference of my heart to him that loveth most. Did I act otherwise, I would be a pure sectarian, a Pharisee among Christians....I do not substitute one commandment, for universal or even general obedience. And should I see a sectarian Baptist or a paedobaptist more spiritually minded, more generally conformed to the requisitions of the Messiah, than the one who precisely acquiesces with me in the theory or practice of immersion as I teach, doubtless the former rather than the latter, would have my cordial approbation and love as a Christian. So I judge and so I feel. It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known....”
The author of the above quoted letter was Alexander Campbell recognized as one of the founders of the Church of Christ. [From his famous “Lunenburg Letter” quoted by James DeForest Murch in Christians Only (Standard Publishing, 1962), p. 118.] According to James DeForest Murch, this was a position he reiterated in columns of the Millennial Harbinger and quoted extensively from The Christian Baptist and other published works to show that he had always held to this position.
At this juncture I’m reminded that in Thomas Campbell’s Declaration & Address (Proposition # 3) he writes: “nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith, nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God.” If I’m correct that the New Testament doesn’t expressly teach about unbaptized believers, then by Campbell’s own standards what I conclude in this area is not something that should receive censure--it falls into the area of liberty.
Barton Stone, the other leader in the Stone-Campbell movement, would go beyond a mere personal statement on the issue. He favored fellowship on an equal basis between the immersed and the unimmersed in Christian churches, thus “making Christian character the sole test of fellowship.” [James DeForest Murch, Christians Only, (p. 119)].

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John W. Loftus is an adjunct instructor of philosophy for Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, MI; and Tri-State University in Angola, IN. Because of his previous article, “Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation” (Integrity July/August 1995) his teaching contract with Great Lakes Christian College, Lansing, MI, was not renewed.

2 comments:

v_quixotic said...

Hi John,

I sought this post as I came across a reference to it in your book Why I Became an Atheist. It's an interesting read and I can understand how being sacked for merely presenting an apparently well-reasoned argument (from my un-churched perspective), could leave you feeling the church was uninspired.

Anyhow, as someone who is fascinated by religious sub-cultures, I was wondering if, for the sake of completeness, you could post some of the responses you got to these articles?

John W. Loftus said...

Hi quix, it was too long ago to remember, but it was mixed with condemnation and high praise.