Monday, June 8, 2009

What Does the Bible Teach About Baptism? (A New Look at Old Questions - Part 4)

One of my favorite movies released in the last few years is a quirky comedy called O Brother Where Art Thou. It is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, the classic from Greek literature, set in the Depression era American South. The soundtrack is phenomenal, and the characters in the movie are hilarious. The three main characters are fugitives from a chain gang, Pete, Delmar and Everett. While they are on the run they come across a baptismal service taking place in a river, and Delmar, the kindest of the three, splashes off into the water to get to the preach to be baptized.

Some of my favorite lines are what Delmar says when he slogs back to the other two guys. “Well that's it boys, I been redeemed! The preacher warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It's the straight-and-narrow from here on out and heaven everlasting's my reward!”

His skeptical friend Everett asks him what he’s talking about, and he says: “Preacher said my sins are warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo!”

Everett asks, “I thought you said you were innocent of those charges.”

Delmar answers, “Well I was lyin' - and I'm proud to say that that sin's been warshed away too! Neither God nor man's got nothin' on me now! Come on in, boys, the water's fine!”

Well I suppose this morning’s sermons is really about how accurate Delmar’s theology was. Does baptism “warsh” away our sins? This one of the watershed issues that divides Catholics and Protestants. And it is an issue that frankly separates what I believe from both Catholicism and Protestantism. So this morning I want to accomplish three things:
-First, I want to set forth the basic positions of Catholic and Protestant theology regarding baptism.
-Second, I want to look at what the NT teaches about the topic.
-And third, I want to compare and contrast the biblical picture with those widely held views of baptism.

I. Baptism in Catholic and Protestant Theology

Let’s begin with Catholicism, which is easy since the official positions of the church are set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

1213 Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: "Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word."

So in Catholic teaching, in baptism we find forgiveness of sins and fellowship with Christ and His church.

And because Catholic theology subscribes to the belief that babies are born guilty of sins, the church teaches that babies must be sprinkled in order to receive forgiveness.

1250 Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.

So the purpose of baptism is the removal of sin, even for those who do not have any faith of their own.

This kind of sacramental thinking led to the Protestant Reformation, which emphasized the need for personal faith in Christ. In fact, Protestants argued that the biblical teaching on justification by faith meant that we are saved by faith alone, without any acts of obedience, such as baptism. And while it is impossible to paint everyone who claims to be a Protestant with this broad brush, I do think it is fair to say that the overwhelming percentage of non-Catholics believe that baptism plays no role in the conversion process, since we are saved by faith alone without any works.

I found this typical statement on the web-

While we should preach that all people are commanded to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38), adding any other requirement to salvation by grace becomes "works" in disguise.

Even though numerous Scriptures speak of the importance of water baptism, adding anything to the work of the cross demeans the sacrifice of the Savior. It implies that His finished work wasn't enough. But the Bible makes clear that we are saved by grace, and grace alone,

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
—Ephesians 2:8-9

Baptism is simply a step of obedience to the Lord following our repentance and confession of sin. Our obedience--water baptism, prayer, good works, fellowship, witnessing, etc.--issues from our faith in Christ. Salvation is not what we do, but Who we have.

In fact, if you have virtually any study Bible, if you look at the commentary on any text that mentions baptism (like Acts 2:38), I would almost bet it says something like “baptism is sign of the forgiveness we have through our faith in Christ.”

So on this, Catholic and Protestant teaching are diametrical opposites:
-Catholicism says, we are saved by baptism, without personal faith in Christ.
-Protestantism says we are saved by personal faith in Christ, without baptism.

Of course, Catholics would say that a sprinkled baby should grow up to develop their own faith, going through catechism class and confirmation to confirm what took place in their baptism, and Protestants would say that once a person has been saved they should be baptism as a good work of discipleship. But as to the purpose of baptism, they are in complete disagreement.

With these positions clearly marked out, let’s look at the NT to see what the text says about baptism.

II. NT Teaching About Baptism

First, the NT teaches that baptism is centered in Christ and what He accomplished in His death, burial and resurrection.

In Romans chapter six, the apostle Paul is refuting a possible objection to his strong message of grace – man is sinful, but God is even more gracious. The objection is that if that’s the case then we should just really live it up in sin, banking on God to be even more gracious. And his counter to this line of thinking is that Christ paid a horrible price to free us from sin, a price we personally identified with in baptism, and because of that deep identification with Jesus’ death we should never revert to the sinful life we once lived.

Rom. 6:3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Look at what Paul says in this passage.
-Baptism is Christ-centered. We have been “baptized in Christ.”
-And it is centered on what Jesus did in His death, burial and resurrection. Since we are “in Him,” we share with Him in His death – we were “baptized into his death” –we share in His burial – “we are buried therefore with him by baptism into death” – and we share in His resurrection: “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

And as Paul says in Galatians 3:27, this newness of life is so shaped by the character of Christ that when we are baptized “into Him” – just like changing clothes - we take off our life and put His on.

27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

So baptism is centered in Christ and His work on the cross.

Second, the NT teaches that baptism is our response of faith to Christ and what He did in dying and rising.

I just quoted from Gal. 3:27. Look at it again with the previous verse as well-

26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

In Christ we are sons of God through faith – for – here’s the reason why – we have been baptized into Christ and put Him on.

In this text faith and baptism are not mutually exclusive – they are inclusive and complimentary. As one Protestant commentator says:

“Some will no doubt have problems with the observation that faith and baptism are parallel expressions for Paul…baptism was in the early church the initial and necessary response of faith.” -Scot McKnight, NIV Application Commentary on Galatians, p. 198

Here’s another passage that links faith and baptism- but with completely different imagery. In 1 Peter 3 the apostle Peter makes a comparison between the salvation of Noah and is family and our salvation:

20 God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

Whatever Peter says about baptism here, let’s first make the point it is Christ-centered – “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” And in particular, Peter says baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Peter doesn’t use the word “faith” here; he says that baptism is an appeal to God, a prayer for a good conscience, and what better way to describe faith than a prayer or plea for help?

It is this inner dimension to baptism rather than the external – not the removal of dirt from the flesh but the appeal to God – that Peter says is the reason baptism saves us, just as Noah was saved.

To quote another commentary:

“Just as the flood spoke of judgment, which those in the ark were both saved from, and saved by, in order to enjoy a new world, so the water of Christian baptism speaks of the death which fell upon Christ, a death due to sinners, which believers into Christ are both saved from, and saved by, and through which they enter into the enjoyment of new life before God.”-A.M. Stibbs and A.F. Walls, Tyndale NT Commentary on 1 and 2 Peter, p. 144

Baptism is our response of faith – our appeal to God – centered on Christ and His death and resurrection.

Now for a third point in the NT-

Baptism is God’s work of salvation in response to our faith in Christ and His death and resurrection.

In Colossians 2 Paul uses another illustration for what happens in baptism – it is spiritual surgery-

Col. 2:11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Just as under the Law of Moses Jewish men were to be circumcised, Paul says that our sins are excised from us in a surgery not by human hands, but by Christ Himself, and that this happens when we are identified with Him in baptism.

As Anglican scholar NT Wright says:
“The transfer from the old solidarity to the new is accomplished in baptism. Such a statement alarms many Christians today; seeing the dangers regarding baptism as a quasi-magical rite through which people are automatically transformed, many draw back from the realism of Paul’s language, not only in this passage but in (for instance) Romans 6:2-11 and Galatians 3:27…But Paul’s thought is not to be forced into the ‘either-or’ of anachronistic Protestant -or, for that matter, Catholic - polemics.”
-N.T. Wright, Tyndale Commentary on Colossians and Philemon, pp 106-107

In other words, the extreme positions of salvation being either by faith or by baptism found in Catholicism and Protestantism is not something people believed in Paul’s day, and it is a mistake to read Col. 2:12 in that light. The answer according to this passage is not either/or but both.

And that leads me to my third objective this morning – to compare and contrast what the NT says with Catholic and Protestant teaching.

III. Baptism in the Bible and Baptism in Theology

First of all, what do these systems have right? Protestants are correct when they say that we must have personal trust in Jesus to be saved. Not only do many passages generally teach this (John 3:16), but as we have seen, many passages which discuss baptism specifically make the same point. We are sons of God by faith – we appeal to God for a good conscience – we are raised through faith in the working of God.

And Catholics are correct to acknowledge the clear link in Scripture between baptism and salvation. In passage after passage we have seen the NT connect the two together.

The mistake in both systems is putting asunder what God has joined together, denying the need for personal faith on the one hand, and assuming that faith and baptism are exclusive on the other.

I sympathize with the Protestant effort to protect justification by faith from the sacramentalism of Catholic practice. But the assumption that baptism can play no role in the conversion process because it is a human work, and relegating it to the category of a good work that we do as Christians, completely misses the point of what we have seen in these verses.

Think about the idea of baptism as spiritual surgery found in Colossians 2. When I lived in IL, one of the little girls at church had a flare up of appendicitis. Her mom called me, and I went up to the hospital to visit with the family. All of the sudden the nurse who wins the all time award for “Worst Bedside Manner Ever” came in and just blurted out, “We’re gonna have to take it out.” Well, little 10 year old Jasmin was petrified and started to cry. And I wanted to cry! But we explained to her that she needed to have surgery because there was something in her making her very sick, and it could even make her more sick if the doctor didn’t get it out. And thankfully the surgery went just fine.

Jasmin had a problem that only the doctor could remove, and she had to put her trust in him to do the surgery she needed. That was an act of faith. And what Paul is saying in Colossians 2 is that we all have something that is fatal – sin. And we need for it to be cut away. Only God can do that surgery, and baptism is when that happens. It is not a good work we do. It is a saving work that Christ does for us!

I think the best way for us to end this study is to compare our own practice with the biblical pattern, just as we critiqued Protestantism and Catholicism.

Since part of what prompted this series of lessons is the questioning of certain beliefs I have seen among former students of mine, and others, I think it is important to stress the view I have given you today of baptism is not just a recent innovation of “church of Christ preachers.” That is the reason I quoted so much today from various commentaries- something I don’t normally do. None of the authors I quoted are in any way connected with “the church of Christ,” but all of them acknowledged the clear implications of these passages about baptism, and some of them did so while deliberately offering the same critiques I did of Catholicism and Protestantism.

And if you are someone interested in history, you may be curious to know that the view I have presented today was held by the early writers in church history. And you don’t have to just take my word for it. As English Baptist authors Donald Bridge and David Phypers have written, “In their understanding of baptism the early Fathers stressed its connection with forgiveness more than anything else.” (The Water That Divides, p. 60)

So for those who are tempted to jettison the emphasis on baptism in conversion as a relic of 1950s church-of-christ-ism, please realize that you are not only abandoning the most straightforward interpretation of passage after passage, but also centuries of church history in which this same view was held.

Something else that I think needs to be said has to do with what we sometimes call the “age of accountability.” How old does a child have to be in order to be baptized? There is obviously no set answer to that question, but I do think we need to be really careful about letting kids be baptized too soon. It is very common for a child who is not even in double digits to want to be baptized, because if a child pays attention at all they will hear it mentioned a lot. And years ago someone told me they thought that if anyone, including a child, came forward to be baptized, that they should be immersed no questions asked. I profoundly disagree with that statement.

I told you one story about Jasmin – let me tell you another. When she was quite young, one Sunday night she came forward during the invitation song. It was totally unexpected for me. So I sat down on the front pew with her and asked her why she came forward- and she said she wanted to be baptized. I said, “why?” And she said, “for the forgiveness of sins.” So then I said, “Are you a sinner?” And she shook her head no! Then I asked, “Have you ever committed a sin.” And again she shook her head no!

Now what if I had done what someone said and just took her and immersed her. How much faith was she putting in Christ’s saving work on the cross? None! How can you put your trust in a Savior to save you from your sins when you don’t think you have any? At that point she did not have faith in Christ – she had faith in baptism. And baptizing someone who has no faith in Christ is the very thing we condemn Catholicism for!

I don’t have any magic or easy answers for when a kid should be baptized. But we must make sure that what they believe about baptism is centered on Christ and His death and resurrection, or else all we are doing when we baptize them is getting them wet.

And that is true for anyone regardless of age. I will tell you that one of my greatest fears is that this church – or any church I have work with – is filled with people who think they are going to go to heaven simply because they punched their ticket by being baptized, but who never truly placed their trust in Jesus, never truly decided to forsake everything to follow Him. If we truly believe baptism is God’s work, His gracious rescue, then we should be profoundly stirred to live for Him. But if you think that your baptism was your work, that you climbed up the final rung of the gospel ladder, then how could you possibly serve God with a heart of gratitude and trust. If we believe baptism is God’s work, we need to live like it!

When Delmar got baptized in O Brother Where Art Thou, he was like a little kid he was so happy. He knew he was a sinner, and he couldn’t wait to tell his friends, “Come on in boys, the water’s fine.”

Do you remember when you were baptized? Maybe it was at the end of a service like this. Perhaps it was in the middle of the night. Do you remember why? Here’s what I hope. I hope that you recall being terrified – terrified because you knew you were a sinner and that God was holy and that you would face His wrath in your sins. And I hope you remember a conviction that only Jesus could take away your sins, and that you knew His word said that to be forgiven you needed to respond in faith, and repentance and baptism. And I hope you remember the joy, the feeling of a millions pounds of guilt lifting off of you when you came up. And may we never lose our sense of dread of our Holy God, nor our sense of joy at His grace.


  1. Nice summary and good quotations. I'm glad you're blogging regularly again.

  2. Came across your blog while studing Daniel. You gave me a clearer prospective on Baptism and a simple way to state how Catholics and Protestants view it. I was born Catholic and did grow in my own personal faith, but not until the age of 16. I am currently attending a non-denominational church in which I am growing so much more by being in the Word. I love my rich traditional Catholic heritage and feel the Protestant teaching I am receiving helps me to appreciate where I come from and where I am going.

  3. Well written brother! I will never forget how I felt when I obeyed the gospel! I felt just like Delmar. I did not fully understand everything but I did understand the necessity to respond, in faith, to the passage about the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. I asked the brother I was studying the scriptures with, "What hinders me? Fill up your bathtub!" He smiled at me, reeling in the fish that he caught for our God and said, "I'll take you to the baptistry at the church building." Looking back, having performed baptisms myself I understand that he was probably concerned with me being baptized properly, that is by immersion. I pray that those who read this blog would obey the gospel by being united with Christ as described in the Bible. In John 14:6, "Jesus said to him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father, but by me." That word "by" in the Greek is "Dia" means in,through, or by means of. Only those who are in, Him, will live through Him and travel to Heaven by means of Him. Unfortunately, I believe this is one of the many reasons many will try to get to Heaven but will stumble on the way because many people believe in God but do not believe what He says.