Over the past few years doctrines surrounding the important biblical subject of the remission of sins has been consistently weakened. Today's healthy emphasis on the importance of faith in the salvation process is helpful and refreshing.
In previous submissions to this blog, I have noted that pendulum swings tend to occur in the churches with regularity. As noted in the previous blog, the pendulum swings between evangelism and edification. The pendulum swings between the Restoration Movement's twin purposes -- unity and truth. Now I fear the pendulum is swinging between faith and baptism.
Not too long ago, many brethren were recapitulating the errors of Dr. John Thomas. You can read about him in the 1836 volume of the Millennial Harbinger. I'm sure there's much said about him in other volumes, but that's as far as I've gotten in my project to read all of this important publication. Thomas was guilty of several errors, but one of them had to do with baptism. He taught that Baptists and others had to be reimmersed because their profession of faith was incomplete. In addition, Thomas seemed to vest some almost magical quality to the water. In a series of articles, Alexander Campbell clearly expressed his disagreement with Thomas's approach. Campbell agreed that Baptists did not correctly understand the purpose of baptism, but they did understand the candidate and mode. Carl Ketcherside used to say, "They may not know the purpose of baptism but God does!"
My point is that when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, baptism becomes the "end-all-be-all" of salvation. The best place to see this portrayed is in the "Lunenberg Letter" which appeared in the 1837 volume of the Millennial Harbinger. The "good"lady of Lunenberg wanted to know why Campbell would dare to suggest that a Presbyterian might be saved. Her letter evidenced that for her immersion in water was everything.
Today the doctrine of baptism for the remission of sins is weakened until it reflects the popular evangelical (Baptist) view. That is, that baptism is something you do after God saves you. In fact, the way I read many church web sites, one is unsure if baptism is important. You must be immersed to be a member of the church (a local congregation), but the purpose of baptism is unclear. In most cases, I would like to think that those in leadership understand the importance of baptism for the remission of sins. If it is still believed, it is well camouflaged. I think there is often a conscious decision to camouflage what the Bible clearly teaches because of an unfounded fear that potential attenders and members -- many who come from evangelical backgrounds -- will think the church teaches baptismal regeneration.
The fact is that Walter Scott and Alexander Campbell, as well as most early restorationists, had no qualms about boldly speaking out on baptism for the remission of sins. Relying heavily on Acts 2:38 and Mark 16:16, they unequivocally taught that the purpose for baptism was the remission of sins. There was no doubt, there was no camouflaging of the language, no equivocation. They taught that faith (the belief of testimony) led to conviction and repentance and then, based on one's confession of faith, baptism occurred which resulted in the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, that's exactly what the Bible teaches.
A few popular preachers and writers in today's church have said, "Well, we don't really know when God chooses to save a person." On occasion, the salvation process is compared to a wedding. The questions are asked: "Is a person married when they get engaged?" "Is a person married when they take their vows?" "Is a person married when they physically consummate the union?" The answer to all these questions is, "It isn't important! Once the wedding is over, we all celebrate with the couple." So the questions are: "Is faith important?" "Is repentance important?" "Is confession important?" "Is baptism important?" "When are they saved?" And the answer is given, "It isn't important! We just rejoice with the born again individual."
That's just not what God says! God's Word says you are "saved by grace" (Eph. 2:8). No one can be saved by their own effort and no volume of good works will earn God's acceptance. Salvation is solely by grace. God's Word says you are saved "through faith" (Eph. 2:8). The Greek word translated "through" can also mean "because of." You are "saved because of your faith." Nothing is said about any idea that you are saved at the moment of your faith. God's Word says you are saved "at baptism" (Acts 2:38). It is at the moment of water baptism that the believer who confesses his trust in Jesus (Rom. 10:9) receives the remission of sins and the gift of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Other passages support this view: Acts 22:16, Galatians 3:27 and a lot more (look'em up).
Our evangelical friends protest: You are baptized in the Holy Spirit and he washes you clean not the water. So! What's the point. Are there two different baptisms? One baptism, according to the evangelical, occurs at the moment of faith when Holy Spirit baptism occurs. (Give me a book, chapter, and verse for that! Any reference to time is "read into" the Scripture.) The other baptism, according to the evangelical, is water baptism that occurs later as a testimony to what has already happened. (Give me a book, chapter, and verse that too. That's a deduction or an inference, not a clear biblical teaching.) According to Ephesians 4:5, there is only one baptism. There is no precedent for identifying that one baptism as the baptism of the Holy Spirit and there is no precedent for suggesting that such baptism occurs at any other time than simultaneous with water baptism! Only when the washing of the Spirit is simultaneous with water baptism can there be any understanding of one baptism. At the time of one's immersion in water that occurs in the material realm, the Holy Spirit is providing the washing of regeneration that occurs in the spiritual realm. It is one act! In that regard, and only that regard, can water baptism be seen as an "outward act that expresses the inner reality."
Is there any biblical teaching that suggests this? Yes. Jesus told Nicodemus that he could be born again when he is "born of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5). Evangelicals protest that this is a reference to physical birth and spiritual birth. Oh! How so? Why, since Nicodemus was standing there, would Jesus say that to be born again he had to undergo physical birth? I agree with Bishop Westcott who said, "It can ... scarcely be questioned that as Nicodemus heard the words, water carried with it a reference to John's baptism, which was a divinely appointed rite, gathering up into itself and investing with a new importance all the lustral baptism of the Jews: the spirit, on the other hand, marked that inward power which John placed in contrast with his own baptism. Thus, the words taken in their immediate meaning as intelligible to Nicodemus, set forth, as required before entrance into the kingdom of God, te acceptance of the preliminary rite divinely sanctioned, which was the seal of repentance and so of forgiveness, and following on this the communciation of a new life, resulting from the direct action of the Holy Spirit through Christ. ... They look forward to the fulness of the Christian dispensation, when after the Resurrection the baptism of water was no longer separated from, but united with, the baptism of the spirit in the 'laver of regeneration' (Titus 3:5, comp. Eph. 5:26), even as the outward and the inward are united generally in a religion wich is sacramental and not only typical. Christian baptism, the outward act of faith welcoming the promise of God, is incorporation into the Body of Christ, and so the birth of the Spirit is potentially united with the birth of water" (Gospel According to John, p. 50).
Someone may also respond, Alexander Campbell didn't seem to think water baptism was all that important. After all, he recognized those sprinkled as Christians. This question arises out of Campbell's responses to the lady from Lunenberg. In a previous article to the series called "The Lunenberg Letter," Campbell had identified Presbyterians and others who sprinkle as Chrsitians. Our brethren in the Disciples of Christ latched on to this and instituted the concept of "Open Membership" sometime back in the early part of the last century.
The fact is, Campbell was merely recognizing an important biblical truth: God judges on the basis of one's ability to know. When speaking at Capernaum, Jesus said, "If the things that were done here were done at Tyre and Sideon, they would have repented. Therefore, it will be easier for them in the judgment (my paraphrase)." This provides us with a biblical precedent. Those with greater knowledge and opportunity to know have greater responsibility. Jesus does not say those in Tyre and Sidon would be "saved," he merely says God will be more tolerant toward them because of their ignorance and lesser opporunities.
Campbell then enunciated an opinion. It was his opinion that someone erroneously taught about such things as water baptism could be saved, provided they put their absolute confidence in Christ. This was one of the strongest of opinions shared by early restorationists. Before coming to an understanding of the importance of baptism, Thomas Campbell had written in the "Declaration and Address" that the only things necessary to becoming a Christian is to confess Christ and obey him in all things according to their understanding. In other words, God may choose to save a person with genuine faith provided they have demonstrated that faith to the extent of their understanding.
I share that opinion. But the honest truth is, I don't know what Go may choose to do. The only way one can have assurance that God will save them is to do all that he commands. That means that when one comes to understand that baptism is immersion in water for the remission of sins, they should respond in humble submission and obedience. It is my opinion that God may choose to save those who were mistaught or who misunderstood through no fault of their own. (One must recognize the influence of teachers and preachers whom one hears and trusts.) If one is taught throughout their whole "Christian" experience that baptism is sprinkling, it is difficult for them to read anything else in Scripture but "sprinkling" when they see the word "baptism" for it is rarely translated as "immerse."
Let me go one step farther, however! You cand I have the responsibility to correctly teach -- to the best of our own limited knowledge and ability -- the truth of God. Therefore, God has not given you or I any right to camouflage or reduce the importance of baptism for the remission of sins. We have no right to soften or change biblical teaching to make biblical truth more palatable or acceptable. Our task is "to preach the Word," to preach it honestly, to preach it accurately, and to let God and our hearers produce the results.
What God may do is up to him. What he has said he would do is to graciously receive those who trust Jesus fully, who turn away from their sins, and are baptized into Christ for the remission of sins. Such individuals are promised -- promised, mind you -- the "gift of the Holy Spirit."