Perhaps few topics of Christian doctrine are more frequently and hotly debated than is baptism. As with many other obsolete features of the ekklesia, it is widely misunderstood and misapplied by many today. Just to frame this conversation, let me toss out a few one-liners that I believe to be fair representations of different people’s opinions about baptism in our present generation. In no particular order, they are:
- Baptism is an “outward sign of an inward grace“—that is, a symbolic ritual that one undergoes in order to acknowledge or to memorialize some real spiritual event that has already happened inside.
- Baptism is completely necessary for salvation and one cannot go to heaven without having been baptized.
- Baptism is an “act of obedience“—a thing we are told to do, but that is not itself necessary for any other purpose than whatever intangible effects the obedience required to do it might bring about.
- Baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins to take place.
- Baptism is the point at which the indwelling of the Holy Spirit begins. No baptism, no indwelling.
- Baptism “now saves you”.
- Baptism is a “work” and as such, cannot possibly save anybody since “we are saved by grace and not by works”.
- Baptism is for adults only.
- Baptism is for infants and children, too.
There are certainly other views, but these are sufficient to outline the general difficulty in reaching any widespread consensus in our present generation on the meaning and purpose of baptism. Generally speaking, most camps have difficulty explaining at least some of their own position on baptism, which I hold to raise suspicions that at least some of their points are simply misinformed and incorrect.
Here are some tricky spots that arise, given the various beliefs. (Again, in no particular order.)
- If baptism was an “act of obedience”, what, exactly, is the consequence of failing to be baptized? Further, why can’t you find anyplace in the Bible that uses the term “act of obedience” in reference to baptism?
- If baptism was “for adults only”, how shall we interpret the passages that say things like “______ and his entire household were baptized”? And why can’t you find any place in the Bible that comes out and says that baptism was “for adults only”?
- If baptism “now saves you”, why is it that most of the salvation passages in the New Testament were in the future tense? Why does it appear that they did not consider themselves to be yet saved, even though they were baptized?
- If baptism is not a saving event, how ought we to interpret the passage that says “baptism now saves you” and the one where Peter urged them to “save yourselves from this corrupt generation” by repenting and being baptized?
There are certainly other issues, but these suffice to demonstrate that understanding baptism correctly may simply be more difficult than most casually assume.
I intend to write extensively on this topic in the future, but until that time, I wanted at least to get a new idea recorded into our modern discussion, which idea I intend to support as time allows later. I’m sorry to be so brief with it now, but here’s an abstract, printed wholly without support or references as a quick “placeholder” for a later work.
A Better Understanding of Baptism
Because the spiritual environment today is at least somewhat different from the environment in the First Century, it is difficult for many believers to understand all the various implications of that fact. Most believers will readily agree that the situation about which we read in the Bible is different from the situation we directly observe in the here-and-now in at least one or more of the following ways:
- Demon possessions.
- Miraculous events.
- Angels interacting with the believers
There are certainly other possibilities to be discussed, but please don’t miss my point here: most seem to readily understand that at least something is different now from then.
Given that, I’d like to zero in for a moment on the demon possessions. While there are certainly some who will tell you that this still occurs today, my casual observation is that most believers will at least admit that we do not now see the widespread demonic activity that is reported in the books of the New Testament, and that we do not see miraculous demonic activity, as with the demoniac who readily broke the chains with which he was bound. It is precisely because whatever such activity (if any) occurring today is so much less than what is said to have occurred before that I think that most believers miss the following point:
The Indwelling of the Holy Spirit was God-Possession
As the one passage put it, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world”. (1 John 4:4) This passage, along with what we may observe in many others, shows us that the indwelling was not only something of a fellowship with God through his Spirit, but was a fortification against the evil forces that were then so powerfully at work. (Jesus called Satan “the ruler of this world”, and the other writers agreed, using similar terminology.)
The believers, therefore, were in a battle of sorts, and were being fortified for that battle through the indwelling. They had not completed a victory yet, and had not been delivered from danger, but were actively striving against the evil spirits at work in order to “overcome” on their own accounts. Just having that indwelling Spirit was no guarantee of success, for the individual believer still had to “keep in step with the Spirit” and to “not put out the Spirit’s fire”, and so forth. It seems, however, that without that indwelling, they would have been “sitting ducks” for demonic possession.
Even though it’s obvious, it’s still worth noting that the believers were not snatched up to heaven upon the moment of putting their faith in God, of repenting of their sins, nor of baptism. No, they still had a life to live out, and they were urged to do so in a faithful manner, in keeping with the gift indwelling each of them. The did not have eternal life yet, for that was only being promised “to him who overcomes”, and had not been promised to those who merely believed and/or were baptized.
So what would be required if God were going to possess a believer? Would his Spirit simply “pop in” to someone, or would it be necessary to do a little housekeeping or other preparation first? Even Jesus’ testimony seems to have implied that evil spirits seemed to enjoy finding “the house swept clean”, so perhaps it should not surprise us if we discovered that the Holy Spirit also wanted a “clean house” before he would indwell a believer. Let’s take a look at what was happening:
- Peter commanded the believers in Acts 2 to “repent and be baptized”, and promised as a result that they would “receive the Holy Spirit” and that their sins would be forgiven.
- The repentance makes sense, because why should they come to Jesus if they still preferred to live in the sins that were being promoted by Satan, his evil angels, and the evil spirits that were terrorizing the world?
- The forgiveness makes sense because it is difficult to imagine God having any manner of intimate relationship/fellowship with someone with whom he was still at odds over sin.
- The indwelling of the Spirit makes sense because they would need direct, immediate, and powerful spiritual help to succeed in the spiritual battle that was afoot.
Baptism seems to have been the moment that all this came together. It was at that time that the sins were forgiven and the Spirit was installed into the believer to give him the help he would need if he really wanted to “overcome” the world and make it successfully to the afterlife in heaven. But here are some important points not to miss:
- Baptism did not teleport anyone straight to heaven. Being baptized was simply not the same as having eternal life.
- Baptism was no guarantee that the one being baptized would make it to heaven, for there are a multitude of warnings in the scriptures that the believer must also “endure to the end”, “keep in step”, and “live a life worthy of the calling”, etc. Think of it as being given a coat to save you from the cold; having the coat is of no value if you yourself won’t keep wearing it. It’s the same with a lifeboat; being plucked from the waters into the boat is of little value if you won’t STAY in that boat until you reach complete safety.
- Having the indwelling Spirit did not guarantee that a believer would continue choosing to live by it. He could turn away at any time, as is evidenced by the copious warnings in the New Testament to “keep in step” with the Spirit and to shun worldliness at all costs. The Spirit could leave the hardened believer upon finding that the believer had come to prefer his “house” to be unclean. (Yes, this is contrary to the mega-popular “once saved, always saved” doctrine, which doctrine cannot be maintained when taking into account all of the relevant passages in the Bible.)
- The forgiveness of sins at baptism had absolutely no bearing on the future choices of the believer. Though his baptism had been a “pledge of a good conscience before God”, he could certainly choose at any point to no longer maintain a clear conscience, and to live habitually in sin. Baptism, therefore, was not a “carte blanche” (blank check) by which the believer was guaranteed to be forgiven of an unlimited number of future sins. Baptism, therefore, was simply not a free ride to the afterlife. Neither was the indwelling of the Spirit. In both cases, it was only he who would “overcome” who was promised eternal life.
I should note that this understanding has implications even for those who do not believe that baptism was ever anything more than an “act of obedience”. The general effect of their position seems to be that they simply replace the baptism in the Bible with “the Sinner’s Prayer”, and attach to that prayer of faith all the other events associated in the Bible with baptism. They are susceptible, therefore, to the same errors under the popularly-supported doctrine of the “Sinner’s Prayer”. Namely, they are subject to believing that eternal life was granted immediately upon such a prayer, rather than only to those who would “overcome”. And they were subject to the error that all sins (past and future) were forgiven at the moment of the prayer. Further, many of them make the error of believing that the Spirit would pop into an unclean house without any invitation, without a “pledge of a good conscience” and without any forgiveness having been prerequisite. Indeed, many “Calvinists” hold that no person could even pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” unless the Holy Spirit had first entered him and influenced him to want to do it! Such a position is not provable from the texts, however.
Many implications and further questions are naturally raised at this point, but I must leave it here for now, planning to address the issue more fully at a later date. For now, though, let me sum it up with this:
Baptism was the point of initiation into the camp of “called out ones” (EKKLESIA). They were being called out of this world and into the next one (heaven), and were promised a safe exit only if they were to remain faithful long enough to “overcome” the evil one. Having yielded themselves to God by:
- acknowledging and repenting of their own sins,
- acknowledging God as the holy Creator (as opposed to Satan, the impostor), and
- acknowledging Jesus’ rightful place as God’s anointed,
they were cleansed in baptism of their previous sins and fortified (by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit) for the battle they had pledged to fight in good conscience. They, too, realized that they would have to face the very judgment of God, just like everyone else in that “perverse generation”, and that if they were found lacking, they would not be accepted into eternal life in heaven.
Thus were they answering Peter’s call to “save [themselves] from this corrupt generation“. That is, they were determined not to “go down with the rest of the ship” of that wicked generation, so to speak, but to “overcome” by depending on Jesus in faithful obedience and righteousness.
Getting It Right
Those who would believe or live as if baptism were just a thing to be checked off a necessary task list were sorely mistaken. That is, if they believed that their spiritual journey were more or less completed once their baptisms were over (as do many practitioners of baptism today), they simply did not understand neither “what time it was” nor the nature of the judgment they were to undergo.
Perhaps you have noticed that I write about these things in the past tense. This is because there’s plenty of room for a good discussion on whether anything regarding baptism and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit was supposed to have changed from then to now. Indeed, the apostles who sounded the call are no longer sounding it. And gone are the miracles and prophecies as well as a few other things. Gone are the signs, miracles, and wonders, and the angels overseeing congregations. So it is not unreasonable to question how long baptism was supposed to last. Indeed, I hold that it became obsolete in 70 AD when the last of the apostles exited the earth and the “promise” of Acts 2:39 was completed. Once the “calling” had stopped, the baptisms would stop. Once the battle to remove Satan and his confederate angel-type beings was over, the fortification of believers would no longer be necessary, and baptism would stop. Once those believers had been taken up to heaven by Jesus, the baptisms would stop. (I believe this happened in 70 AD.)
Let me say, however, that I witness a great many people today who are adamant that “salvation” is a one-time event at the beginning of the Christian life (whether via baptism or some manner of “Sinner’s Prayer”), and who subsequently live as if they already have eternal life more or less “in the bag”. Whether they would ever admit to such or not, they carry on more as those who have “arrived” than as those who are bound for some not-yet-achieved destination. They have no clue about the passages in which Jesus and the apostles made it plain that those original believers would be required to “overcome” in order to receive eternal life. In fact, they have turned this very notion into a “heresy” that they call a “works salvation”, even though the very idea of it comes from scripture. And they do likewise with “once saved always saved”, the first error of which is a misidentification of the point at which “salvation” was taught to occur.
Is it merely a coincidence, therefore, with all this fuzzy math going on, that “the church” today looks remarkably like secular institutions and that the churched behave remarkably like the unchurched? And if I haven’t baked your noodle enough already, here’s another question to ponder:
If it was so important in the First Century to fortify those believers with in-person apostolic and prophetic guidance, with angelic support, with the indwelling, and with epistles from none other than Jesus himself warning them that they must indeed overcome, how can it be explained that our present generation of believers does not receive the same high level of fortification as did the first? Is the battle not as intense as at first? Is the indwelling no longer necessary? If so, is baptism now obsolete?
Yes, it is.
Just a quick note before I close this temporary post: We see in the gospels that children were often possessed by evil spirits. Baptism as a fortification in that evil generation would make all the sense in the world, therefore, for children, just as it would for adults. As I have written already, no one was teleported to heaven at baptism, but all who were baptized were protected from this particular type of demonic molestation. Imagine yourself a parent of a youngster in that generation if the children of believers were not afforded the same protections as their parents.
Many among those who hold today that baptism is necessary for salvation argue that children below the “age of accountability” (whatever that is supposed to be) could not possibly meet the baptismal requirements of repentance and of belief/faith. This likely stems from an erroneous presumption that the few Bible passages we have about baptism embody all that was taught about it. Simultaneously, it stems from a failure to understand that regardless of whatever occurred at conversion, each one was to face a judgment based upon the life he lived between conversion and death. Any child having been baptized in the First Century would still have to live faithfully in order to be accepted by Jesus upon his return in 70 AD.
See my new article on this subject here.