I grew up in a tradition that claims baptism is necessary to be saved, or to be right with God, or to enter into the covenant. I still believe this. But among much of the American evangelical world , people who believe this are said to hold to the false teaching of “baptismal regeneration,” that it is the act of baptism itself that saves.
But this is a straw man.
We all love straw men, so it’s understandable. They’re so much easier and lighter to carry around than actual arguments. For my side, it’s easy to use them along with a few proof texts to “debunk” Calvinism, to rip off a few petals of the TULIP and then act smug as if the whole flower has been uprooted and flung on the sidewalk.
No one I know actually believes baptism alone saves. Not many people think that falling into the pool has eternal consequences.
The spectrum of beliefs isn’t a ping pong table, where the ball is on one side or the other. It’s not all or nothing, where either baptism does nothing, or baptism does everything.
You have most Baptists who think baptism doesn’t actually do anything and is just an outward sign of what has already happened. A part of the public confession, but a person is saved before they get wet. For sure, it is an important act of obedience that every Christian should perform, but if it was necessary for salvation, wouldn’t that mean salvation was dependent on a work of man?
But this denies the power and sovereignty of God.
Namaan and Noah and Israel, Oh My!
The example of Namaan is helpful here. Do we dare scoff at water as he did? As Leithart says:
Like Namaan, some Christians doubt what the New Testament says about the power of baptismal water. (1 & 2 Kings, p. 194)
We would do well to listen to the words of Namaan’s servants:
“My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13)(ESV)
Would Namaan have had his flesh restored “like the flesh of a little child” if he had not baptized himself? Would his new birth have come?
To say that water can cleanse leprosy, wash away sins, or renew life is an insult to intelligence. Water is just too simple, not to mention too physical and tangible. But that is exactly the point. Baptism is an insult to the wisdom of the world: through the foolishness of water God has chosen to save those who believe. (1 & 2 Kings, p. 195)
A few more hypotheticals. What if, when God parted the Red Sea, the Israelites just stood there and didn’t cross? Or what if Noah made no move to get on the ark when it started to rain? The baptisms of the flood and the Red Sea were real acts of salvation, and yet each required a form of obedience. And yet, when the Israelites looked on from the opposite shore, they knew it was God that had delivered them, and not the shuffle of their own feet.
So, when presented with baptism, do we look up to God and with Namaan say “Why don’t you just wave your hand and make it so without me getting wet? Seems easier.”
And I must draw attention again to this brilliant satire video that sums up some of the New Testament teachings. I’ll let it speak for itself.
What About the Children?!
I read a lot of the Federal Vision Reformed theologians (Leithart being one of them), and they continually affirm that baptism does indeed do something. I can get behind that, because it obviously does justice to the larger body of Scripture. However, they typically then take it and try to apply it to infant baptism. On that issue, I stand with the Baptists and am firmly credobaptist.
I understand the desire for paedobaptism. The idea is compelling and some of the arguments bring up some interesting questions, such as what is meant by 1 Corinthians 7:14.
However, the foundational idea is that baptism has replaced circumcision in marking the people of God. Hence, baptizing infants into the promise is good and proper.
But I think Paul in Galatians makes it clear that faith in Christ, brought about by hearts put under the knife of gospel preaching, is the new circumcision. Baptism has more to do with the priestly washings and the laver in the temple, and meant for people who can actually perform priestly work in the kingdom (as in, not infants.)
What in the World Did You Just Read?
This post is just a big, personal brain dump. A winding road through rolling hills. It is based on what my current understanding is of the situation. Pouring it out in blog form was triggered by recent conversations I’ve had, both in person and through blogs, and then reading a passage in a commentary that essentially claimed I was a false teacher (not me personally, just a “those who say that” generalization.) Calling each other false teachers is a favorite sport among Christians, but it can turn into a contact sport with real injuries.
As mentioned earlier, I think a lot of men are being sculpted from straw around this topic, like kids forming men out of snow in their front yards. It’s fun, and you have something to show for your work. But it never lasts. This was an initial attempt to scare the scarecrows away.
So what does everyone think? I know people from varied traditions have read this blog. Please chime in.