The Five Fingers of Salvation: Baptism

Large Question: When do we become a Christian?  If a Christian is one who is fully committed to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, when do we go from being non-committed to being committed?

For some, this is a problem of growing up in the Christian faith: We have no conversion experience to give a testimony about. We don’t remember ever not being Christian. We might be the most desperate asking, when do we become a Christian? How do we know for sure we are Christian?

Modern Solutions

  • Sinner’s prayer, asking Jesus into your heart. Problem: this is not what Peter says when asked, “What must we do?” Acts 2:37-38.
  • Gift of tongues: when received, you are a Christian. Problem: this is not a supported by the New Testament in any conclusive way. The New Testament gives evidence of Christians who did not speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:30).
  • Some type of dramatic spiritual experience. Problem: the only real example in the New Testament is Paul.
  • Join a church. The problem seems to be the medieval belief that the bishop was the church and there no salvation outside the church, therefore the bishop/clergy controlled both who was a member of a church and who was saved.

Biblical Pattern

The New Testament pattern is Very Simple. It is BAPTISM

Baptism is the Church’s rite of commitment to Christ.
(Jack Dean Kingsbury)

There are lots of misunderstandings about baptism in the Christian world today. In the 2,000 years of church history, baptism has been distorted in many ways:

  • Misunderstanding #1: That proper baptism is something other than full immersion in water. In changing this, the primary significance of baptism is lost and the baptismal experience is diluted. The early church understood the importance of going under the water fully, the symbolic bathing of every part of the body. It also likened this to a burial, of being buried with Christ. The symbolism is rich and deep and is watered down when we sprinkle or pour water on the head.
  • Misunderstanding #2: That babies should be baptized as a remedy for their sin. This misses the most important finger in Walter Scott’s hand of salvation, the thumb: FAITH. Baptism is a response of faith. The New Testament knows nothing of proxy baptism based on the faith of the parents. The New Testament knows nothing of baptism as a magic bath that washes away the curse of original sin.
  • Misunderstanding #13 That baptism is a way of joining the church and has nothing to do with my relationship to the Lord. In this, baptism is like taking the pledge to become a Rotarian or undergoing hazing to be part of a football team. I never baptize anyone saying, “I baptize you so that you can now be a member of our church (as long as you tithe).” I say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of your sins.”

And despite these distortions, let us not throw out the baby with the bath water. Baptism is a watery act with deep symbolism. Baptism is closely related to the forgiveness of sins. And baptism does open the doors for becoming part of the body of Christ, a member of his church.

If baptism is such a great thing, why do people resist being baptized? Why are people unwilling to be baptized by immersion as adults, the pattern of the New Testament? Here are reasons I have encountered in ministry:

  1. No one has ever asked them. Are we embarrassed about our teaching on baptism?
  2. Pride (baptism is a humiliating act). The older you get, the more humiliating it seems!
  3. Concern about family members who have not been immersed. What about my Lutheran grandmother, my Catholic mother?
  4. They have come to a position the makes baptism theologically unnecessary. If I don’t understand completely why baptism is necessary, it must be unnecessary. My need to understand trumps the teaching of the Bible and the practices of the early church. If your theology tells you not to be baptized and the Bible tells you to be baptized, to whom should you listen?
  5. They realize what baptism symbolizes: a complete submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. They reject this commitment. Which is, perhaps, the only valid reason: You don’t want to be a Christian.

There are many texts in the New Testament about baptism, but let me focus on one from Paul from the neglected book of Titus:

Titus 3:4-7 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6 This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Very important phrases:

  • Goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared: Christ came in the flesh, God in flesh, as a human.  Christ’s work on the cross was a work of unspeakable kindness and love.
  • He saved us: Christ came to “seek and to save.”  His atoning death on the cross yields salvation for us.
  • Not because of any works of righteousness we had done: We cannot possibly earn our salvation.  What we have earned is death
  • According to his mercy: Our salvation is always dependent upon the mercy and grace of God our Savior
  • He saved us through the water of rebirth: Our baptism shows us and all who witness it that we are forgiven people, saved, that we are part of the people of God
  • He saved us through the renewal of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior: God’s Spirit gives us the spiritual strength to change our evil lives in ways we could never do through our own efforts.
  • Having been justified by his grace: We are counted whole and clean and righteous by the grace of God.
  • We become heirs: and this is what we inherit:  eternal life.

When do you become a Christian? When do you know you are a Christian? Paul neither lifts up baptism as the most important thing nor does he toss it aside as of little importance. In his description of the salvation journey for any believer, it is right in the middle.

Walter Scott reduced the necessary elements of salvation to five points, and used the hand to illustrate them, the five fingers. For Scott, Baptism was the middle. The first two fingers, Faith & Repentance, were largely our actions. We make a decision for faith. We develop a heart of repentance. The last two, Forgiveness & the Gift of the Holy Spirit, were God’s actions, things we receive through his grace. The middle finger was baptism, which included both our action and God’s action. Scott was convinced (and so am I) the Bible taught that baptism was the place where God meets us. When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, the voice of God came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son, and I am very pleased.” He is present with us in baptism, and it is here that he pronounces, “You are my Child, and I am pleased, I am delighted that you have come to me.”

God has designed a way for you to show your commitment, and it is more than mental commitment. It is even more than heart commitment, emotional commitment. It is to make your faith known to others and to be buried with Christ in the waters of baptism. It is to be raised from that watery grave and walk in newness of life.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

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