On Church Admission, Part III.
Ok, for those of you who really thrive on reading blogs with controversy, here’s a big one for you. At least when it comes to boring theological stuff. Baptism has become one of the most hotly debated issues in the history of Christianity. Though the apostle Paul included Baptism among the “elementary teachings” in Hebrews 6:2, the subject continues to be divisive some twenty centuries later. The theological interpretations of baptism today are as numerous as the denominations among the Protestant wing of Christendom. The Roman Catholic church elevates the act to such an extent that there is no need for faith prior to baptism and thus baptizes infants. Other groups do not adhere to physical baptism at all and merely spiritualize baptismal texts in the Bible. So what’s the answer? Is there a connection to “Church Admission”?
I think for us to arrive at an honest understanding of the subject we really have to find some kind of balance between the two polarized views. The New Testament is clear in its teaching of faith being a pre-requisite for salvation. Therefore, a simple baptismal rite without belief and faith is futile. Yet on the other hand, there are simply too many texts regarding this subject and its connection to the salvation experience to be ignored or spiritualized. Some texts to be considered are: Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:16, John 3:5, Acts 2:38, 22:16, Romans 6:3-4, 1 Corinthians 6:11, 12:13, Galatians3:27, Colossians 2:12 and Titus 3:5. Maybe the best way to jump into this is just to leave you with some bullet points to chew on.
–Is it in the right realm? Much of the problem with Protestant theology lies in associating baptism in the realm of works. We know we are saved by His grace through our faith. So baptism can’t be any part of it and is relegated to the category of works. People often say that baptism is the ‘first act of obedience’ after they are saved. So it’s the idea of, 1. Get baptized, 2. Obey the 10 commandment and on and on. However, the New Testament model shows baptism as something which is passive for the new believer. It is an act done to them. It is an act whereby we can witness God’s work.
-Is it being trumped with non-biblical ideas? In other words, baptism is often referred to as an “outward sign of an inner act.” Now I don’t have too much problem with that and actually kind of like it. But there just might be a problem when this totally separates and places baptism in the category of optional. If it’s just a sign of something that’s real, then it’s just fluff. The argument would go something like, ‘we’re saved and you can take or leave baptism because it just symbolizes the experience like a wedding ring symbolizes the marriage. A follow up issue is that of the sinners prayer controversy which is something a person prays and then receives God’s grace. Again, I don’t have too much problem with that in and of itself. I actually lead people through something like that when I lead them to Christ. But the problem is that it is a practice that is found nowhere in the Bible. The constant pattern in Acts and the Bible is one of a person expressing belief in Christ, repenting of their sins, and then immediately being baptized.
-Testimony of the Early Christians. While this is an area widely ignored by the modern Evangelical church, there was no hesitation between a hearer’s accepting Christ and being baptized in Acts and the early church. In fact, Kane states that it “was not until the post-apostolic period, when the church was beginning to substitute ecclesiastical power for spiritual power, that candidates for baptism were required to undergo a period of probation and instruction.” In Peter’s first sermon, he placed baptism directly after repentance in the Jewish cry for help (2:38). Other important texts on this issue include: 8:26ff; 10:43; 16:15, 33; and 18:8. Commenting on baptism in the early church Ferguson noted that “Baptism was the decisive act of conversion for one who accepted the Christian gospel. It marked the break with the past and the initiation into the church of Christ.” Irenaeus, who was thought to be a student of Polycarp who in turn was a student of the Apostle John and lived from 120 to 202 AD, commented about the subject in chapter 13 of the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching by stating that baptism was for “the forgiveness of sins. . . and that this baptism is the seal of eternal life, and the regeneration to God by which we become the children, not of mortal man, but of the eternal and everlasting God.” But remembering the necessity of faith, Justin Martyr, who was one of the first apologists of the church, stated in his first Apology that “Only he who is convinced and has given his assent is to be baptized.”
-What about when a person can’t be baptized or dies before they are immersed? Ok, so here’s the answers that all of you who are sitting out there with clinched teeth are looking for, YES. Yes a person who dies in a plane crash but acknowledges Christ before he dies can go to heaven. Yes, those who lived during Catholic dominated dark ages and knew only infant baptism can be saved. Yes, the person who slips on the wet floor going up to the baptistery and dies can be saved. The Lord knows the repentant heart and sees all this. But my question for this question is, why are you asking it? To say something like, ‘do I have to be baptized to be saved’ is kind like asking, “Do I have to have a wedding to be married?”
So in short (like anything would be short for me) if I were pinned to the wall for an answer, I would say something like, “baptism is the standard, biblical, objective time by which we can know and claim God’s promise to save us.” I guess it might be something similar to how Peter described baptism as a “pledge of a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21). Though the physical act of baptism does not save us, it is never divorced from the salvation experience in scripture. Actually, the idea of saying a prayer for salvation and then having an option to get baptized at a more convenient date is a rather new doctrine in Church history. Well I’m sure that all of this makes it about as clear as muddy water. But what we do find from the Biblical texts and earliest Christian writings is that much of the modern baptismal doctrine is foreign to the most ancient beliefs and practices. So there does seem to be a connection between baptism and Church Admission. Ok, feel free to run with that now.