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

Baptism as Sacrament Part 2

Baptism Chancel WindowA 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.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Baptism as Sacrament Part 1

300px-Baptism_UkraineThe word “sacrament” comes from the Latin, sacramentum. This word had a long history before the New Testament was written and before any sort of “sacramental theology” was developed. One of its uses, dating back to the Punic wars, was the military oath of allegiance. By the time of Augustus, this was sometimes used as an oath of allegiance to the emperor, the supreme commander or ultimate imperator of the Roman troops. This oath was sometimes taken in the presence of the emperor himself, and was an annual obligation.

During this period, the word began to be used for a solemn oath of the highest order, even in non-military situations. It took on the connotations of being “sacred,” something that was tied to inviolable personal honor. It also began to have the sense of being “secret,” a private oath that was nevertheless binding and obligatory. By the time of Jerome’s Latin translation of Scripture (called the “Vulgate” and from the 5th century), the translator was able to use sacramentum to translate the Greek word musterion [mystery] (see Ephesians 1:9), although Jerome did not do this consistently.

During the medieval period, church theology recognized certain practices as “sacraments.” There were two “dominical” sacraments [given by the Lord]: baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and other sacraments that were “ecclesial” [given by the church]. These dominical sacraments began to be seen as having saving significance or power. Baptism was understood to be a “cure” for the illness of original sin, therefore to be administered to infants so that they would not be damned. The Lord’s Supper was understood as necessary spiritual nourishment, sustaining and saving the soul on a weekly basis. One early Christian author called it the “medicine of immortality.” To be barred from taking the Lord’s Supper (or Communion) was to be ex-communicated, and thereby deprived of salvation. By controlling both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the medieval priesthood wielded great control over European society, for it was understood that the church itself could determine who would be saved and who would be damned after death.

In the case of the Lord’s Supper, this was further confused by an extremely literalistic interpretation of Jesus’ words, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” A primary function of the church’s priest was to reenact the sacrifice of Jesus on the altar (communion table) and through this ceremony, transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus (transubstantiation). In the superstitious milieu of medieval Christendom, this was seen as a kind of magic by the common people. It may even be that the magical term “hocus pocus” is a parody on the Latin terms “Hoc est corpus meum,” [This is my body], supposedly the words that transformed bread into the body of Christ. All of this shows how far the Lord’s Supper had gotten from its origins in the Upper Room: now a celebration controlled by a priesthood, using words that were neither in the language of Jesus or the people, and understood as essential for maintaining one’s salvation.

The church reformers of the sixteenth century rightly objected to these things. These guys (Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther, and the later reformer, John Calvin) were driven by many things, but my analysis is that there were two things that were paramount for them. First, they did attempt to return to Scripture as a guide for church practice and doctrine. In my opinion, this was often flawed by a proof-texting approach to theology and by a failure to distinguish adequately between the Old and New Testaments. Second, there is no question but that they were also driven by an abhorrence for and bias against the medieval practices of the Roman Catholic church. Zwingli and Luther were both dissenting Roman Catholic priests and Calvin had been on a priesthood track for his education at an early age (although his father switched him to law). They were insiders in this and knew the abuses intimately. So while they all wanted to retain some form of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the church, they wanted to unchain them from the church’s priesthood as a way of determining salvation.

Were these reformer correct to condemn the misuse of the sacraments as tools of church control? Yes, absolutely. Were they correct to disconnect these sacraments from salvation in every way (although Luther did not quite do this)? Not so sure. More to come in the next blog.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Theological Mistakes #4: “Mark 16:16”

You may pick up from me that there is a tension between “systematic” theologians and “biblical” interpreters. This is a necessary thing, because we believe the Bible to have a unified message and don’t want texts in conflict.

That said, the desire of systematicians to have everything in its place has caused heartburn to biblical interpreters like me. One of the causes of this is the theological method sometimes referred to as “necessary inference.” This takes a text or multiple texts and draws conclusions from them that seem logical and consistent. However, this necessary inference often goes beyond what any one text says. A good example of this is the whole doctrine of the Trinity, but I will discuss this some time in the future.

Let me give this example, Mark 16:16:

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (NIV 2011).

There are two problems with this text. First, it is uncertain that it was an original part of the Gospel of Mark, since many of the earliest copies of this book do not have Mark 16:9-20, or have a different ending. Discussing that is also for another time, though.

The more important thing for this post is determining what the text says and what it doesn’t say. Here’s my take. There are two categories represented here. First we have those who are believers and who are baptized. They are given the promise of salvation (“will be saved”). Category two: those who do not believe. They are given the promise of condemnation (“will be condemned”).

And that’s it. What about those who believe and are not baptized? Don’t know anything about them from this text. Actually, there was no one like this in the early church, so the question did not come up. Equally true: what about those who are baptized and do not believe? Don’t know any thing about them from this text, although there were surely such folks in the early church. But to use this text to say that without baptism you are condemned is a conclusion not supported by the wording of the text. At best, it is a necessary inference. But necessary inferences are logical conclusions of human theologians. Even though it has gotten me in trouble many times, I am unwilling to do this. I guess I would be a failure if I ever tried to write a Systematic Theology textbook (which I have contemplated). 🙂

Mark Krause