A church’s practice of baptism is a reflection of that church’s theological position in other areas. We usually think that a church that views baptism as a “sacrament” will tie the act of baptism directly to the eternal fate of an individual. If proper and valid baptism can only be done by an ordained priest, then salvation itself is under the purview of the church in that its priests can determine who is baptized and therefore saved. In my earlier blog I pointed out that this led to abuse that was rightly condemned by the sixteenth century reformers of the church.
But if baptism is not the key to salvation, two questions must be answered? First what is the key? What is the doorway to salvation? Luther still speaks for most Protestant churches to say that salvation is by “faith alone” or “grace through faith alone.” This position is biblical, based on Ephesians 2:8-9:
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.
But, as I have often said in this blog, we cannot let our doctrine be controlled by proof texting. If this were the only verse in the Bible, it would be very simple. Baptism is not mentioned here, so it can have no part in the salvation process. But that is not the case, baptism is connected to salvation in other verses. This is not the place to do a complete presentation of the New Testament teaching on baptism, and I refuse to get into a “my proof-text is better than yours” argument, but the New Testament is full of references to baptism. They are neither incidental or unimportant. A case in point is that first Pentecost, the birth of the church in Jerusalem. When those guilty of Jesus’ death asked Peter what they must do, he included baptism in his answer and then a whole lot of them were baptized. Furthermore, a careful reading of the Cornelius story in Acts 10 shows that the question there was not whether these Gentiles needed to be baptized, but whether they should be baptized, since they were not Jews. This was answered by God by the miraculous distribution of the Holy Spirit among Cornelius and his household. This was understood by Peter as God’s answer, “Yes, they should be baptized.”
So this leads to the second question, what is the relationship between baptism and salvation? There have been many wrong answers to this question. Baptism is not a work whereby we earn salvation, I am sure that is true. Baptism is not a transaction where we strike a deal with God and he saves us when we are dunked. Baptism is not magic water that invokes mysterious spiritual forces. I don’t think baptism is simply an act of obedience, because that implies “work” to me. Let me humbly say that I don’t have a simple answer to this question, but I am unwilling to disconnect baptism from salvation in an absolute way as has been done by many evangelicals.
Perhaps the sacramental view of baptism, if understood more anciently, may help us here. The potential Roman soldier was not considered to be fully inducted into the army until he took the oath of allegiance, the sacramentum. When we are baptized, we are signaling to all who will listen and pay attention: Christ is my Lord! I will serve him! He is my Savior! I am trusting him for the forgiveness of my sins! I will follow him wherever he leads. And when we partake in the Lord’s Supper, we are renewing that oath. We are saying, Christ, you are still my Lord and I am unashamedly part of your army!
I don’t think this fully exhausts the meaning and significance of baptism, but maybe it is a starting point.
Nebraska Christian College