This is the first of many articles and studies that will be posted here. Their purpose is to help clear up any false doctrine taught by the ICOC as well as help heal the distortions of God's image that this church was responsible for. It is my impression that some branches of the ICOC have changed many of their negative ways. Thank goodness!!!
However, my heart goes out to those individuals who are still in an oppressive church as well as the many individuals that seem to think they are irreparably scarred. God's greatest desire is to be united with His children. My hope in presenting these studies is to help you to heal from a damaged and distorted view of God so that you will trust Him to open your eyes to the truth, cut away your chains of oppression and embrace you with all His love.
“The clouds roll with
thunder that the House of the Lord shall be built throughout the earth; and frogs sit
in their marsh and croak – ‘we are the only Christians!’
(Augustine of Hippo c 400AD).
1) Salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit. In Acts the Spirit is shown as coming twice before, once near the point of, and once after water baptism. God insists on his sovereignty and freedom, to act howsoever he will, wheresoever he will, and is not tied by our actions.
2) Salvation is by grace, through faith. It must be through faith, or it would not be by grace. To make our actions a requirement for a right relationship with God is to make his grace conditional – and then it will not be grace.
3) The decision to put our faith in Christ is the only decision God requires us to make. It is impossible to do this without repentance. Other decisions we make at conversion – such as making Jesus Lord, making the decision to be a disciple, and confessing our faith - are really part of this one decision.
4) Faith must be sincere. It must lead to action, but we cannot legislate which particular set of actions is the correct response of faith.
5) It is in the object of our faith, Christ, that we find the power to justify us, and not in any response we ourselves make. God’s saving act was completed at the Cross, and so a sincere response to the Cross will be credited as righteousness.
6) When we have put our faith in Christ, we are no longer under law. The Word no longer condemns us, but it does show us God’s will. Commands are therefore blessings and not curses, given to help us and not to judge us.
7) Baptism in the New Testament happens immediately after someone puts their faith in Christ. It is at the point of conversion, for the forgiveness of sin. It is the first command we are given after turning to God, but it cannot be a law (“cursed is the one who does not do…”) for those who have put their faith in Christ. It is a blessing. If we wash in water it will help us to understand what God is giving us, ie forgiveness. Baptism is “ for the forgiveness of sin”, but the “for“ can mean “ on account of”, as when Matthew records that John’s baptism was “ for repentance”. Baptism is made for man, not man for baptism.
8) We have never taught that baptism saves us. We have taught that God saves us at the point of baptism because of our faith in the blood of Christ. We are saved at the point of baptism, but because of our faith. So if someone has faith, but does not get baptized, or gets baptized with an “unbiblical” understanding, they have nonetheless responded to the Cross. Their faith is no less sincere. Thus they have by virtue of their faith fulfilled God’s requirement for salvation. They are saved.
9) An emphasis on law at conversion must surely lead to an emphasis on law in the convert’s subsequent Christian life.An emphasis on grace at conversion will lead to an emphasis on grace thereafter. To state that baptism is a command that we must obey or we will be condemned will set us off with one mindset; to say that here is a sign to help us will set us off with another. The New Covenant is based on grace, not law. Our teaching on baptism has been based on law, not grace.
The Church is a body of people who have faith in Christ. This is the “beautiful system” that cuts across denominations, cuts across Church history, and includes all who trust in the Lord, from many churches at many times. The question for us is, shall we continue to be divided from the body of Christ?
NOTES: I do not mean to unsettle the faith of any – and yet are we not all unsettled in our faith? The views in this paper are ones that I have personally arrived at after a year of much prayer, fasting and study. Having reached this position I knew I had to put something on paper to present to the leaders in the Church in Cambridge, who employ me, to make them and the church here aware of where I now stand. However, I do believe that these questions are crucial for us all. I also want to say that I am guilty of pretty much anything for which I here criticize the ICOC. I have been an evangelist in the Church for several years and have vigorously upheld and propagated its teachings and standards. If I do not share much of my personal sin in this paper, it is only because its nature as a paper is primarily doctrinal. - Charlie Fordham
The Spirit works in every aspect of our salvation. Consider the following:
the Spirit convicts the world of sin (Jn 16:8), gives us understanding of spiritual
things, without which we cannot understand them (1 Cor 2:12ff),
gives us faith (1 Cor 12:9), enables us to make Jesus Lord (1 Cor 12:3), gives
birth to the Spirit in us (Jn 3:6), gives us a new heart (Rom 2:29),
justifies us (1 Cor 6:11), saves us (2 Thess 2:13), gives us life (Jn 6:63),
baptizes us (1 Cor 12:13), takes control of our Christian life (Rom 8:9, and ff),
and gives us eternal life (Gal 6:8).
For our purposes it is worth noting that the Holy Spirit works:
1) Cooperatively: he prompts responses in us and then responds himself to those (eg Rom 8:16).
2) Internally: not only, but partly, perhaps mostly, in the heart, “in our inner being” (Eph 3:16).
3) Relationally: he is a person, and responds personally to who we are (eg emotions, thoughts, intentions) as well as what we do (eg Eph 4:30, Rom 8:5-6, James 4:5).
He leads us towards truth. So if someone has the right heart, he shows them the way forward. We have said that someone can be sincere, but sincerely wrong, and whilst we can appreciate the sentiment behind that claim, it does not fit with the New Testament’s portrayal of the work of the Spirit in salvation. The Bible teaches that when our hearts respond to the prompting of God, then the Spirit directs us into truth. Think of how God worked in your life before you became a Christian. Someone thinks about the meaning of life, and the Spirit works in their life to make them think more; they wonder whether they should change a bad habit, and various events occur to suggest that they should. If that person has “the right heart” they will respond to all this working of the Spirit, and ultimately, further down the line, will become a Christian. Thus to say that our teaching on salvation is exclusively right is to say that no-one that we know about had a heart that responded to God from AD 400 to about AD 1880.
In Acts the Spirit is shown as coming twice before, once near the point of, and once after water baptism. God insists on his sovereignty and freedom, to act howsoever he will, wheresoever he will, and is not tied by our actions.
Is the indwelling Holy Spirit given only at water baptism?
1. There are verses that seem to state that the Spirit is given because of and at the point of faith:
“ ‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive” (John 7:39).
“Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph 1:13).
“Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” (Gal 3:2).
“…so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal 3:14).
“God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9).
“If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much
more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”(Luke 11:13).
2. In Acts 2:1-4, 8:16-18, 10:44, and 19:6, the four specific New Testament occasions on which the Holy Spirit is recorded as “coming” in any way, none occur at water baptism.
3. There are no Scriptures that state that the Holy Spirit is given at water baptism. The only two passages that come close to saying this are Acts 2:38, and John 3:5. Of the first of these, we will content ourselves with saying at this point that it says that if someone repents and gets baptized he will receive the gift of the Spirit. We have assumed that this happens at the point of baptism, but this is not specified. If the passage said “when you are baptized you will receive the gift of the Spirit”, then the case would be closed, and I would be unable to make the point I am trying to make. However the text only says that he will be given, not when. In John 3:5, Jesus says that “noone can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” This seems to identify birth in the Spirit with birth in water, presumably making the two simultaneous. But good exegetical principles demand that we ask which baptism Jesus would be describing here to Nicodemus. The answer is John’s baptism, or Jesus’s own pre-Pentecostal baptism, neither of which conferred the gift of the Spirit. The water baptism that Nicodemus would have understood and the Spirit baptism that Jesus is foretelling are two different events. It is conceivable that Jesus is speaking about Christian baptism by foresight, or even that John is speaking about it with hindsight, but if so it would not have meant anything to Nicodemus at the time of this conversation, in which case it would be odd for Jesus to rebuke him for a lack of understanding (v10). Rather it makes sense to see Jesus as placing his emphasis on the phrase “and the Spirit”; he is implicitly contrasting birth in the Spirit not only with birth in the flesh, but also with birth in water: “yes, you can get baptized by John, or by my disciples, but what really matters is the baptism in the Spirit which is soon to come.” This contrast between John’s water baptism and Jesus’s Spirit baptism has, after all, already been made by John the Baptist in John 1:26, 33, and in the three verses following John 3:5, Jesus makes clear that being born again is being born of the Spirit, and noticeably omits to mention water.
4. The doctrine that we receive the Holy Spirit at water baptism necessitates a complicated belief in a two-tier – “inner” and “outer” - reception of the Holy Spirit. One of the problems with this is that it is an argument from silence. Nowhere is a two-tier reception suggested in the Scriptures. This does not disqualify it – just about every commentator is twisted into some kind of knot by trying to explain the activity of the Holy Spirit in Acts. ICOC’s explanation may be as good as any – it has, after all, the support of Calvin, who also believed that the “outer graces” were given separate to conversion.. Nevertheless it is unsettling to base a salvation doctrine on an argument from silence, and equally so that such a vital a part of salvation as receiving the Holy Spirit should become, in our teaching system, so complex to explain.
5. Does the record of the activity of the Holy Spirit in Acts really fit into our systems and formulae? It seems to me that the point being made is the exact opposite one - that he is working in a way that is consistently inconsistent, defying logic, and thus stating his sovereignty: “the Spirit blows wherever he pleases. You hear his sound, but you cannot tell where he comes from or where he is going” (John 3:8, nb Gk: pneuma = “wind” and “spirit”).
It must be through faith, or it would not be by grace. To make our actions a requirement for a right relationship with God is to make his grace conditional – and then it will not be grace.
Grace is the effect of the unconditional love of God. Though our love is conditional (sometimes, as with our children, we love unconditionally, and so we are able to some extent to sense the nature of God’s love), the testimony of the Bible is that God’s love is unconditional. But isn’t God’s love conditional, then, on our faith? No, because our faith is our decision to have a relationship with the invisible God. He is not saying, “I will love you if you reach a standard called faith”; he is saying, “I can only have a relationship with you if you desire to have a relationship with me”. That desire on our part is initially expressed in our faith in Christ. If we do not have faith God will continue to love us, because he loves unconditionally. But he cannot be known by us unless we have faith in Christ, and so there is no relationship. Hence Paul can say in Romans 4:16 that “the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace”.
But to put any other requirement on our relationship with God is to make God’s acceptance of us conditional on something we do. The following seven passages from John show both how God accepts us on the basis of faith, and also the relational nature of that faith:
1) “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son” (John 3:14-18).
The verb “believe” appears five times in these five verses (and 98 times in John’s gospel ), leaving us in no doubt onto what aspect of our relationship with God John wants to place importance as he here talks about salvation. It is true that in other places, such as John 8:30-2, John defines what is involved in truly believing, but that should not distract us from the centrality of belief. A normal ICOC response to these verses might be to say, well, look at verse v21, which makes it clear that there’s more than just faith involved; you need repentance too. But true faith involves repentance. Let us not be so busy explaining why there’s more to salvation than faith that we actually miss the simplicity and beauty of God’s plan for our salvation in these verses. Moreover faith is here implicitly given a definition, by analogy with the snake lifted up in the desert. In Numbers 21:8-9 anyone who “looked at” the snake on the pole (symbolic of Jesus with our sin on the Cross) was healed. Faith is looking at Christ, something done in the heart. These verses thus seem to say that when we look at the Cross in faith we are healed, or saved.
2) “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).
We note the present tense of “has”, suggesting eternal life has been achieved as a result of faith. It could say, “will have “ eternal life, which would be more appropriate if the mindset was that other acts of obedience were still needed. We can also note that by stating the negative part of the equation, “whoever rejects the Son will not see life”, John clarifies that a choice is on offer between two opposed responses: to believe Christ or to reject him. This refers back to v18 (“whoever does not believe stands condemned already”), which in turn clarifies that rejecting is the same as not believing. The following distinction is thus made for us: believe and be saved, or do not believe and remain lost.
3) “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:24-26).
Again we note the present tense of “has eternal life”. He “has crossed over”. The seeming implication is that at the moment of believing (truly believing) we are saved. Again, we try to pad it out with such comments like, “yes, but he doesn’t mention baptism in these verses, or discipleship, or repentance”. The question is then, what does Jesus mean by saying that believing is a matter of hearing his voice? Can we say that real hearing is obeying? Whilst this passage could not be said to give a definite answer to that question (but see the next passage, John 6:28-29), it is notable that nothing is said here about action or obedience. When John says refers to “whoever hears my word and believes”, he seems to define believing as a heart’s response to hearing the message, which then suggests that at that moment of that response we have already crossed over from death to life. The Son, we note, has life in himself. Thus if we look at the Son we will find that life (see comments on the snake on the pole under John 3:14). Our faith is what gives us that life, because the life is in the object of our faith. The life is not in something we do as a response of our faith, but in Christ himself.
4) “Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’ ” (John 6:28-29).
Here Jesus redefines the entire Law. God is looking for one thing from us called faith. Not obedience. Yes, we will then obey his commands, but the faith is not the obedience. The obedience comes as a result of the faith. But it is the faith, not the obedience, which God requires. This is not splitting hairs. This distinction determines whether we will have a religion based on works or grace.
5) “For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40).
This confirms that since the life is in Christ, what we need to do is look to Christ. This is the nature of faith, keeping our eyes on Christ. This relates to the discussion about hearing his voice in John 5:24-26, because it suggests that the faith that God is looking for is relational. It is a personal, private response, taking place in the heart, before it has been translated into action, although it will indeed become active.
6) “ ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive” (John 7:37-39).
Here we see, as noted in Thesis 1, that the Spirit seems to be given as a result of faith. Again, by saying “let him come to me” the emphasis is placed on a relational contact with Christ, not on an active response of ours. As a result of our personal connection with Christ, something that can only happen in the heart, God then works in our heart to give us assurance of that connection. The action of faith is first and foremost internal. We may note too that the tone all of the above passages seeks to be inclusive, talking about “everyone who believes” (x2) and “whoever believes” (x5), rather than exclusive, which it would become if it defined how some of those who believed were not actually right with God because they did not obey.
7) “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
John concludes as he has opened (see John 1:12 etc) – by proclaiming that the gospel is by faith from first to last. Thomas saw and believed. It was not required that he do anything other than look and trust – in fact it was better that he does not seem to have taken Jesus up on his invitation to “reach out and touch” him. A study of those described in John as having positive responses of faith will quickly reveal that the faith asked for is a response of the heart to Jesus’s words, not a response of action (cf Nathaniel in 1:49-50, the Samaritans in 4:41-42, the royal official in 4:50- 53, the man born blind in 9:36-38, Martha in 11:25-27, the disciples in 16:30-31).
Hence faith is relational. It is about us responding in our heart to Christ, and represents our assent to his desire to have a relationship with us. Martin Luther pinpoints this relational aspect of faith when he compares it to a marriage, in which it “unites the soul to Christ, as the wife to the husband….Christ is full of grace, life and salvation; the soul is full of sin, death and condemnation. Let faith step in and then sin, death and hell will belong to Christ. And grace, life and salvation will belong to the soul. For, if he is a husband, he must needs take to himself that which is his wife’s, and at the same time impart to his wife that which is his.” A husband responds to his wife’s response of heart. It is in contradiction to the meaning and spirit of the verses quoted above to say that we need more than a commitment of love to be right with God. The whole point of Christ’s teaching is that he accepts us and gives us life on the basis of our desire to be with him. That someone could have this faith, and be lost because they have not obeyed or understood the teaching to be baptized does not seem to me to be compatible with the teaching of Christ. As Paul writes to the Romans: “so too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:5-6).
Webmaster's added thoughts and personal notes:
SNAKE on Pole vs. JESUS on Cross ANALOGY
SNAKE on Pole : Old Testament (Numbers 21)
Instructions from God: Those who were BITTEN should Look at the Snake and be HEALED.
Looking at (sincerely considering) the Snake on the Pole would have been a good visual reminder for me of the following:
1. God's willingness to heal me & God's power to heal me.
2. My Pain (snake bites hurt) as a result of My Sin.
JESUS on the Cross: New Testament (John 3:14)
Look at JESUS ON THE CROSS .... "Be Still and know that HE is GOD"...and CONSIDER some things:
1. Consider Jesus AS GOD: Your redeemer.... He is GOD and is willing (out of love) to SACRIFICE HIMSELF SO THAT YOU can BE HEALED!
2. Consider Jesus AS MY SIN (the curse of my sin)....He is willing to actually BECOME MY SIN and BE CURSED so that I don't have to. My SIN is THAT BAD!
If someone truly considers these things they will be changed and will live a life that desires to understand more about their great redeemer and more about their sin. They will seek to understand what SIN is so that they can continue to stop doing it and have soft hearts that can absorb the love of Christ and the power of His Spirit to transform them. They will seek to KNOW Christ....the ONE who DIED for THEM.
I feel that this significant step of true conversion has been skipped in my years at the ICOC.
It is impossible to do this without repentance. Other decisions we make at conversion – such as making Jesus Lord, making the decision to be a disciple, and confessing our faith - are really part of this one decision.
In response to John 3:16, we in ICOC cite the “composite” approach. This is described in Shining Like Stars as follows:
“It is incredible to think that this verse is often cited as proof that one does not need to be baptized in order to be saved! True it does not mention baptism, nor does Mark 16:16 mention repentance. Nor does Acts 2:38 mention faith. Obviously we have to put all the pieces together, not playing games by picking or choosing the passages that best suit our purposes! A response to the John 3:16 line of reasoning has been suggested:
C (Christian): Do you think you have to repent to be saved?
NC (Non-Christian): Sure.
C: I disagree. I do not think you have to repent.
NC: Of course you do. What makes you say that?
C: Well, John 3:16 does not say anything about repentance.
NC: Yes, but there are lots of other passages that make it perfectly clear that you have to repent to be saved
C: My point exactly!”
Er…who did we say was “playing games”? I put this under the category of “We Think Every Denominational Christian Is An Idiot”. But unhappily it is we who fail to see the true nature of the question. Shining Like Stars lists “all the pieces together” as follows:
2) Believe (trust)
4) Confess Jesus as Lord
5) Be immersed
The problems with this approach are as follows:
1) It takes our focus off the real issue, ie faith. It makes faith just one of several things we need to get sorted. Believing, in a conversion sense, is reduced to intellectual assent, which is not the same thing as biblical faith.
2) It makes repentance the main decision, not faith. This makes us and our sin the focus, not Christ. It takes our focus off Christ, from whence the power for salvation comes.
3) It leads to a works mindset. If we make a list of requirements, it sets our minds on completing that list, not on trusting God.
4) It buttresses the doctrine of baptism for salvation. If we say someone must have faith and get baptized, then it raises the question of what happens to the one who has faith but does not get baptized. If we say he has to do five different things, then we can say that he may have had faith, but he hasn’t repented. He hasn’t truly confessed Jesus as Lord. So it seems more reasonable to say he is lost because he is not baptized, since we have now other reasons to support that judgment.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, there is no such “all the pieces together”, or composite, approach in the New Testament. There is one sole requirement - faith. It will help us to understand that:
FAITH = REPENTANCE.
I mean by this that Christian repentance is the same decision as putting one’s faith in Christ. It is beyond our ability to turn away from sin without looking to Christ for help, and we cannot look to Christ if we do not turn away from our sin. Therefore in conversion the two must occur simultaneously. On the link of repentance and faith, John Stott writes that “repentance and faith involve each other, the turn from sin being impossible without the turn to God, and vice-versa.” Repentance is the turning, faith the road. There are in the New Testament, by my count, ten times as many references to faith, as there are to repentance. Then it will also help us to understand that:
FAITH = MAKING JESUS LORD = THE DECISION TO BE A DISCIPLE.
This to say that faith is in Christ. When you sit on a chair you put your faith in that chair; you entrust your body to it - for a moment - believing that it will hold your weight. When you board a plane you put your faith in the airline, that they will provide a competent pilot and a safe plane. When you go to see the doctor you put your faith in him; a person you do not know tells you to buy medicine you cannot pronounce from another person you do not know to cure a disease you have never heard of, and so you drink from a bottle containing a liquid of frightening colour with a taste like poison three times a day for a week without the slightest question! We put faith in many things at certain times and for certain reasons. But the Bible tells us that we must entrust our life, our whole life, to Christ, and that is what it means by faith. So the following may clarify what is meant by “sincere” or “saving” faith:
Faith = Repentance = Confessing Jesus as Lord = Becoming a disciple = Dying to self.
All these terms are used interchangeably throughout the New Testament for the one decision we are required to make prior to baptism. Someone who makes Jesus Christ Lord of their life will at that moment fulfill all of the other things on this list. What we have done is to teach repentance more than faith, and discipleship more than Lordship, thus stressing the part of conversion that is from ourselves at the expense of the part that looks to Christ. Look at the titles of our Guard the Gospel studies. Is our conversion study about faith? Do we even mention faith in it? If we teach primarily about faith, we focus ourselves on the object of faith - Christ; if we teach primarily about repentance we focus ourselves on the object of repentance - sin. If we talk more about the Lordship of Christ, discipleship (in all aspects of commitment, not solely evangelism) will follow; if we talk more about discipleship, we are in danger of leaving converts with the impression that what is required is a set of actions.
To be fair, we have in reality taught that one decision is needed, except that we have called it repentance. But it is faith in Christ that cuts across denominational lines and doctrinal divisions and has the power to unite all who have that faith. Calvin wrote that justification by faith is “the main hinge on which religion turns”. And this is what Martin Luther meant by “faith alone” – not that we can believe and then do what we want, but that there is one decision “alone” that God wants from us: sola fide.
Look at the following promises given to those who put their faith in Christ:
SECURITY: “The one who trusts in him will never be put to shame” (Rom 9:33).
FORGIVENESS: “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 11:43).
THE GIFT OF THE SPIRIT: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (John 7:38).
SALVATION: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).
ETERNAL LIFE: “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
I could make a longer list. And I know how it goes – I know how we respond to these verses, I know ICOC teaching. But I maintain, it is we who miss the point, we who lift verses out of context, we who do not teach the whole picture, we who have had a veil covering the eyes of our hearts.
And that is my best shot. If I could only communicate one thing in this paper it would be what I am saying about faith. Our error consists in our misunderstanding about faith, of which our teaching about baptism is a symptom, not a cause. For me, understanding what Jesus has to say about faith is a revelation, reconstructing what salvation is all about. Somehow, for fifteen years, I’ve missed the fact that the central factor that defines our Christian lives is faith in Christ. Faith to my mind was something that happened before the Big Decision, which was to repent, and thereafter a useful tool in moving the ministry. Suddenly I wake up and see that faith is when we look at the source of life, when we drink the Spirit without limit, when we fulfill the Law, when we enter grace, when we have eternal life, and all because faith is when we look at Christ.
Of course, faith must lead to action, or it is not the right kind of faith. James asks “what good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (James 2:14) He is distinguishing between real faith that saves, and “such faith” that does not (indeed such a man only “claims to have faith”). But the implication of the question is that real faith (ie a faith that shows itself in good works) does indeed save; and when he says that “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (2:24), he is still answering the question that he has posed in v14. Martin Luther wrote:
“O it is a busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man.”
According to Luther a faith without works is no true faith, and true faith expresses itself in works. Although Luther has been rightly criticised for his dismissal of the Book of James, it needs to be understood that what he commended as “faith alone” (only one decision is needed, not a list of works) is not the same as what James condemned as “faith alone” (faith without actions). Apparently, then, James and Luther were not so at odds after all.
So everyone is agreed – Paul, James, Luther, ICOC, evangelicals – true faith will be shown in good works. ICOC’s distinctive contribution to the debate has been to state that it will be shown in works of evangelism, though the word we have used is discipleship. The three basic foundations of ICOC, according to Kip McKean, were that 1) the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, 2) the true Church is made up of disciples only, and 3) every disciple must be evangelistic. The problem with the third of these is not that it is not in itself true, but that we have chosen to make one part of discipleship essential over and above others. It is an arbitrary standard, a law in fact, of our own devising, even though we have used Bible verses to teach it. I could come up with alternatives to the Law of Evangelism, equally biblical (or not), and equally exclusive. Here are two:
1) The Law of Helping the Poor
Matthew 25:34-36, 44-46: Very clear that our eternal salvation depends on whether we have helped the poor.
Mark 1:40-43: Jesus felt for people’s needs. This was his heart. We should aspire to this.
Luke 10:25-37: The question was, what do I do to get eternal life? The answer is a story about helping the poor. To get to heaven we have to help people the way the Good Samaritan did.
Gal 2:10: “All” they asked: did they ask that Paul should evangelise? Did they ask that Paul should pray? Did they ask that Paul should fellowship? No, “all” they asked was that he should help the poor – which was “the very thing” Paul wanted.
James 1:27: What is God looking for in religion? Helping the poor.
Luke 9:23: Helping the poor takes self-denial, and this must occur on a daily basis. Our charity must be daily, or we are not truly following Christ’s commands.
1 John 2:3-6: Must do as Jesus did. Did he help the poor? Yes. Did he command that we help the poor? Yes. The one who says he is a Christian who is not doing this is a liar.
Q: Are you helping the poor on a daily basis?
Q: Are you following Jesus’ commands?
Q: Are you a Christian?
2) The Law of Loving One Another.
John 13:34-35: The distinguishing mark of being a Christian is loving other Christians.
John 15:12, 17: Jesus’ commands were summed up in this: love one another.
Acts 2:42-47: The fellowship is marked by the sharing of possessions.
Acts 4:32, 34: All possessions were pooled and shared.
Luke 14:33: Must give up “everything” (Greek = “all possessions”).
Mark 10:17-22: Jesus expected this man to give up everything.
James 2:14-17: If we do not share with our brothers and sisters we do not have true or saving faith.
1 John 3:16-18: Love for brothers is shown by meeting material needs.
Matthew 25:40, 44-46: Jesus said that we should share with “these brothers of mine”, ie Christians. If we do not we will go to Hell.
Hebrews 3:12-12: Encouragement should, like all discipleship (cf Luke 9:23) be daily.
Q. Are you helping other Christians in material ways on a daily basis?
Q. Have you sold all your possessions?
Q. Are you following Jesus’ commands?
Q. Are you a Christian?
Should we help the poor? Yes. Should we love each other? Yes. Share our possessions? Yes. Evangelise? Yes. But we cannot say that faith in Christ is not sincere if it does not include any one of these at any particular time. The principle of freedom in Christ states that we can love in the way we are called to do so, provided we do love. Luther wrote that “faith without love is not enough – rather it is not faith at all, but a counterfeit of faith.” Faith expresses itself in love, and to find out how to love we should indeed read and obey the Scriptures. But we are nonetheless free to explore what that means specifically for each of our own lives.
Our “Discipleship” study has acted as another buttress to protect our doctrine of baptism. We have said, here is something else that makes us distinctive: we are the only true disciples. And if someone else seems to live like (our definition of) a disciple, we say, aha, but they are not discipling others, or being discipled. And if they are, then they don’t see clearly that everyone who is not doing this is lost. Somewhere in there, if we dig, sleuths that we are, there is a reason why they are not a true disciple. This then takes the pressure off the harsh implication of our teaching on baptism: according to us, if someone sincerely puts their faith in Christ, God will nevertheless condemn them if they have not put themselves in water the way we say the Bible teaches.
Otherwise we must draw the absurd conclusion that the exact same person who was saved under the Old Covenant would not be saved under the New. Think of Zaccheus. Was he saved? When was he saved? At the moment he responded to Christ. Jesus said “today salvation has come to this house”. But if Zaccheus lived today, under the New Covenant, he would probably stand up in an evangelical or Pentecostal Church, announce his repentance, and, according to us, be lost because he got baptized the wrong way. That makes the New Covenant bad news for the likes of Zaccheus.
God’s saving act was completed at the Cross, and so a sincere response to the Cross will be credited as righteousness.
It’s whom we believe, not how we believe, that counts; not faith’s size, but it’s sort. Paul writes to Timothy that he was “not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Tim 1:12). Our faith is in Christ. We worry about whether our faith is big enough, but the question that matters is whether our God is big enough. It’s like the story of the man crawling across the ice, in fear of it cracking, when someone strides past him, head held high. We ask, which of the two men is safer? The one walking confidently? No! They are equally safe, because the same ice holds up them both. The difference between the two men is that one understands the ice better, and so is able to enjoy walking on it. Christ is able to hold up the one with weak faith as surely as he is able to hold up a more assured believer.
Specifically, when it comes to questions of salvation, our faith is in the blood of Christ, or at least in what it is able to achieve on our behalf. The question at stake here is whether the Cross has sufficiency in itself to save, so that our “faith in his blood” (Rom 3:25), by which our hearts “look at” Christ on the Cross (see comments under Thesis 2 for believing as looking), is enough to appropriate that salvation for us. Thus we cite Romans 6:3-4 as the Scripture that ties baptism to the saving power of the Cross:
“Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
Shining Like Stars explains this as follows:
“ ‘Baptized into Christ’ means baptized into (participating in) Jesus’ death. We are buried with him through baptism (participation) and raised (participation).”
But what exactly does it mean to say that we are “participating” in Jesus’ death? Do we mean literally, or figuratively? Not literally, surely, unless our teaching is to be a form of baptismal transubstantiation. We aren’t literally crucified with Jesus. So, then, figuratively – and if so, then Paul is using baptism as an analogy. Baptism illustrates for us the basis of our faith: Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection, and how this ties in with the death and new life we ourselves are experiencing. It teaches us that our salvation is in the Cross, at exactly the moment that we need to understand that fact – at conversion. But it does not in itself make us “participate” in the Cross. We need to distinguish between the sign and the thing signified, because it is the thing signified that saves, and not the sign.
Commands are therefore blessings and not curses, given to help us and not to judge us.
Paul says that we “are not under law, but under grace” (Rom 6:14), and later says that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” – and yet “we uphold the law” (Rom 8:1, 3:31). These various attitudes towards law raise the question of what the purpose is of a saved person in following the Scriptures. Calvin distinguished between the “penalty” of the law, which has disappeared, and the “direction” of the law, which remains. He wrote that a mark of Christian liberty was that “consciences observe the law, not as if constrained by the necessity of the law, but that freed from the law’s yoke, they willingly obey God’s will. For since they dwell in perpetual dread as they remain under the sway of the law, they will never be disposed with eagerness to obey God readily unless they have already been given this sort of freedom.” Thus compulsion and fear are demotivational; freedom is the opposite and drives the heart forward to follow the will of God. If a Christian obeys the Scriptures he will experience all the blessings of doing so, but if he does not, he does not come under judgment, but he does face the consequences of not doing things God’s way (unhappiness, weakness etc.). In the long run, not following God’s (New Testament) law may be so discouraging that he will lose heart completely and turn his back on God – and then he will paradoxically come under law again (Heb 10:26-31). But when our faith is in Christ we are not under law.
Paul writes to the Galatians:
“All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, ‘The man who does these things will live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Gal 3:10-13).
So, according to Paul here, if we say that everyone who doesn’t follow the Bible will be lost, that’s Law; if we say the man who follows the Bible will go to Heaven, that’s Law. Clearly when we respond to Christ in faith we are to understand the Scriptures in a different way. Now think of our “Word” study, often the first study we do with people, surely the foundational study to all that follows. How do we end it? With John 12:48, and the exam illustration, which says that on Judgment Day we are going to be judged on whether we have followed the Bible or not, and so we should read it and obey it. Now, does this teach grace or law? Does this mindset – we must obey the Scriptures or we are lost – not then determine the validity of the “Discipleship” study (which says we’d better follow these Scriptures or we’re lost)? Does it not then set us up for the “Baptism” study: if the Bible says this, we must do it, and do it this way, or we are lost? And is that not Law?
But, you will say, we should get baptized if the Bible tells us to. Indeed we should. But it is one thing, as Paul says in the Scripture quoted to say “if we do this we will live by it”, and “cursed is the one who does not get baptized the way it says in the Book of the Law”; it is another to claim the blessings that come through faith.
So, is baptism a “work”? No, says one, the Bible nowhere calls it a work. Yes, says another, for it is something we do. The real question is, does our teaching on baptism come from the mindset of a works religion? To have a works religion I don’t have to think that I am worthy of God, or don’t sin, or that I have faultlessly obeyed his every command; no, it is enough to simply have the mindset that if I obey the law, do the things God wants me to do, then God will do things for me in return. That describes a form of salvation by works. God, so that mindset goes, is looking for us to obey to show that our faith is complete and genuine. It’s like a test.
The issue at stake here is, are we saved by
1) Faith, that after salvation expresses itself in works, or
2) Faith when it expresses itself in works?
The second of these is the mindset someone is attacking when they say that baptism is a work, because it is saying that “the man who does these things will live by them”, that God acts when we act, and my faith is only complete in what I do. By contrast, the one who ascribes to justification by faith believes not that God will do something when I do something, but that he has already approached me and given me not a command but a promise , and the proper response to a promise is not action but trust. I need to turn my heart towards him in faith, and everything else, including obedience, springs from there. Imagine that you are a blind man, and that you have a guide that you trust. You have faith in your guide. If he says, “over there is a cinema”, you believe him. He has told you a fact, and you have faith that he is telling you the truth. If he says, “I will take you home”, you trust that he will. It gives you confidence to hear him say so, but you need do nothing in response. He has promised something, and you trust that it is true. If he says, “listen to my instructions; put your left foot forward, now your right; put out your right hand, grab the rail”, you do exactly as he says. In fact, the more specific the instruction, the more you listen, heed, and follow. All these are responses to what he has said. All are consequences of the one thing – that you have faith in your guide. We have faith in Christ. The fact that we obey his Word is one consequence of the thing for which God is really asking: our faith. Thus Paul can say that “to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom 4:5).
Is it possible that it is our view on the faith/works debate, and not that of the evangelicals, that is imbalanced? Consider the following quotation:
“To play mechanical instruments in Christian worship is to go beyond what Scripture authorizes and to commit sin. This is no mere matter of opinion or inconsequential difference of interpretation, for what is at stake is not so much the presence or absence of a piano in a church building but the far more fundamental matter of the authority of the Word of God. Yes, instrumental music in worship is sinful and serves as a valid test of Christian fellowship. One cannot "walk in the light" of truth while refusing to respect Scriptural authority on this matter and therefore cannot be in fellowship with God or his faithful people in using instrumental music in worship.”
What is this - laughable? Outrageous? Heretical? Maybe, but it is also the teaching of the Church of Christ, and whilst it is not a view championed by every member of the Mainline Church of Christ , it nonetheless reflects the theological soil out of which we have grown.
It is at the point of conversion, for or "on account of" the forgiveness of sin.
The clear testimony of the Book of Acts, and of Colossians 2:11-12, 1 Peter 3:21, not to mention the ministry of John the Baptist, is that baptism is for adults, by immersion, immediately after repentance. Therefore we can reject both infant baptism and so-called believers’ baptism as unbiblical. As regards the first, the following points might be made:
1) An argument given in favour is that the Church taught infant baptism from 200AD onwards. It is true that some did (eg Cyprian), but then others did not (eg Tertullian). The reality is that you can find sayings from the Early Fathers to back up many varied doctrinal positions.
2) Another argument is that it parallels circumcision as a sign of covenant belonging. But we find no verse that says this (Col 2:11-12 surely refutes rather than supports this parallel). If it was true that infant baptism had replaced circumcision, then the Church could have rebutted the Judaizers by pointing this out. But we do not find them using this argument.
3) The household baptisms in the New Testament, of which there are several (Stephanas (1 Cor 1:16), Cornelius (Acts 10), Lydia (Acts 16), the jailer (Acts 16), Crispus (Acts 18)), do not mention any children. Infant baptism is at best an argument from silence.
4) It is in contradiction to the obvious teaching of Acts 2:38, and numerous other Scriptures, that we should first repent. It thus misses the point of why God asks us to be immersed in water – which is presumably to teach us something about forgiveness.
On the other hand, it can be said that those who practise infant baptism believe in baptism for the forgiveness of sin, and so believe that they obey Acts 2:38. Because of their complicated theology concerning the idea of prevenient grace (ie that by being baptized as an infant you are put in a position where grace is possible through faith – though actually this is something already achieved by the Cross), they believe that they are fulfilling the Bible’s command to repent and get baptized for the forgiveness of their sin, albeit in the wrong order.
As regards believers’ baptism, it is described by one writer as “a public confession that you have already come to saving faith” . We could reject the arguments for it as follows:
1) There is no evidence that baptism is a public testimony to others. In fact there are several instances of baptism being performed in private settings, when it would have been possible to wait and do it in front of a larger audience (eg Acts 8:38, Acts 9:18).
2) There is no evidence of delay. The longest wait between conviction and baptism is (famously, by Paul) three days. Several verses, notably 1 Peter 3:21, Acts 2:38 and Acts 22:16 seem to tie baptism firmly to the conversion process.
However, it may be said for proponents of believers’ baptism that they also believe, rightly or wrongly, they are fulfilling Acts 2:38, since they understand the word “for” in the phrase “for the forgiveness of sin” to mean “because of” and not “so that you may receive”.
It is the first command we are given after turning to God, but it cannot be a law (“cursed is the one who does not do…”) for those who have put their faith in Christ. It is a blessing. If we wash in water it will help us to understand what God is giving us, ie forgiveness.
Since then baptism is at the point of conversion, what is its purpose? What is it for? Why does God ask us to immerse ourselves in water as soon as we have made the decision to become Christians? As stated before, the obvious thing to think about all of God’s commands is that they are for our benefit. For me, my baptism in water showed me two clear things. First, it was an obvious, graphic illustration of the fact that my sins were being washed away. Second, it showed me the completeness of God’s grace, that my sins were washed away once and for all.
Baptism is “for the forgiveness of sin”, but the “for” can mean “on account of”, as when Matthew records that John’s baptism was “for repentance”. Baptism is made for man, not man for baptism.
But surely, we will say, the Bible says that it is “for the forgiveness of sin” (Acts 2:38). Bag all this theology talk; if the Scripture says it, then we should do it, and that is that. This way of thinking – the “Just Do It” approach – appeals to us, and in many ways does characterize the approach we take to the Bible. We have trusted and obeyed, and seen God work in response. But somewhere along the line, we saw God stop working. Why? We have shunned seminaries and mocked theologians. But, alas, again it is us who taste today the bitter fruit of our choices. If we start out with the wrong underlying theology then it will come back to bite us in the end. Actually, there is two thousand years worth of thought, prayer, study, and soul-searching that has gone into the body of Christian theology, so it is hardly surprising that a group that says it can by-pass all that and sail bravely forward because it alone truly desires to follow the Spirit is going to get capsized in a storm. It’s a bit like playing chess. If you have played some chess, you will know that by “just playing” you can reach a reasonable standard, but you hit a point where you are never going to improve unless you study books on chess. When you do it lifts you into a whole new world of understanding that enables you to play far better. Why should it surprise us that theology is the same? Calvin’s Institutes (his life’s work, an attempt to state the basis of Reformation theology) begins by saying that “all our wisdom, in so far as it has been held to be true and perfect, consists of two things; namely a right knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Luther talked of the “theology which goes to the kernel of the nut and touches the bone of the flesh” . The religious systems which have lasted through the tests of time are those that are based on the kernel of the nut – a right knowledge of God and of ourselves. That is why the foundation must be grace, which in gospel terms will lead to the Pauline equation that we are saved by grace, through faith, in order to love.
The point I am making is that the mindset of “if the Bible says do it, let’s just do it”, will only take us so far. We have to have an awareness of what the underlying truths of Scripture are, and sense whether our understanding of a particular verse fits in with the overall pattern of Scripture. For example, the Seventh Day Adventists are thoroughly convinced that true Christianity includes worshipping God on a Saturday, but we can look at this and observe that it comes from a misunderstanding of the plan of the Bible. The Old Covenant is obsolete (Heb 8:13), nailed to the Cross (Col 2:14), and so we don’t need to worship on the seventh day. “But”, says an Adventist, “look at what the Bible says! It’s right there! It’s written down! If the Bible says it, we should do it.” “No”, we reply, “you’ve got to examine the deeper pattern.” And we, I believe, are right.
Now, is it possible that we also have a “verse fixation” on baptism, getting caught up in the seeming meaning of particular verses, but missing the overall plan of salvation in the New Testament? Listen to the wise words of C.S. Lewis: “It is Christ himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit, and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to him.” We should be careful of lifting verses out of context. The Bible says that we are saved by grace, through faith. Does it really fit in with that to say that we are saved by grace, through faith, but cursed be anyone who doesn’t obey the command of baptism?
Let us look, then, at Acts 2:38:
“Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
When I was baptized sixteen years ago I was in no doubt as to the obvious meaning of this, a view I have held up till this year. I have taught this the ICOC way. I recognize that the “clear” or seeming meaning is that baptism is the “means” of forgiveness . I believe that someone who responds to this with an ICOC understanding and is responding with faith in Christ will be saved. But I now believe that there are other ways of seeing this verse, that are more in tune with the rest of the New Testament’s teaching, and therefore there are more ways to be saved than in our Church (thank God!). Some observations:
1) The crux of the matter is the word “for” - in Greek eis. ICOC apologists point out, correctly, that the most common use of this word in the New Testament is “leading to”, hence baptism leading to forgiveness. However, there are several other common usages of eis. Matthew 3:11 has John the Baptist say “I baptize you with water for (eis) repentance”. Is John’s baptism to induce repentance? One could perhaps argue that in a general sense that were true – that because of his baptizing many in Israel would repent. But this is not technically true – it was his preaching, not his baptizing, that led to repentance. Nor is it true in the context of the particular people John was baptizing. He refused to baptize the Pharisees because they had not produced fruit in keeping with repentance, showing that he did not expect baptism to lead to repentance, but rather that repentance must precede baptism. So the phrase baptism “for” repentance must mean baptize because of repentance, which, of course, is the pattern elsewhere in the New Testament. Could this apply to Acts 2:38? Be baptized because of the forgiveness of sin (ie it has already happened)? Absolutely. John’s baptism was famous in Israel. “Everyone” went to him to be baptized. His teaching of “baptism for repentance” would be everywhere known and understood, and would naturally spring to the minds of the hearers on the day of Pentecost when they heard Peter telling them to “repent and be baptized”.
2) In fact Luke in his earlier Gospel (and many think Luke-Acts was intended to be one companion document) has already described John as “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). This would be peculiar phraseology if he wanted to say that forgiveness was at baptism – he could have said “preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins”. The forgiveness seems tied to the repentance. Not that Christian baptism could not be different – but it’s worth noting that Luke seems to have seen John’s baptism as a sign of the forgiveness people received when they repented.
3) Why, then, do translators continue rendering eis as “for”? I think they translate it “for” because that keeps the same options open in the English as the Greek. “For” can mean “on account of”, as in “I took medicine for my sickness” – not to induce it but because of it.
4) The Spirit is promised, but it is unclear, as stated under Thesis 1, when he is to be received.
5) What of v40, where Peter preaches “save yourselves”, followed by verse 41 where they are baptized? Doesn’t this sequence show that they are not saved in v40, though they have repented v36-7? It shows absolutely nothing of the sort! This is a classic example of us reading our agenda into the text. I could say in response that Peter is still telling them to repent in v38, so they obviously haven’t repented by then. But the truth is that we cannot pinpoint who and how many repented at which point of Peter’s preaching! What v40 shows is that Peter, like Paul in Acts 13, ended his preaching with passionate conviction.
6) What other verses in Luke-Acts help with an understanding of this one? Acts 22:16 would seem the obvious one – the only other verse in Luke’s writing where he links New Covenant baptism with forgiveness of sin. Ananias tells Paul to “get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” If this verse meant what we have taught it means, it would read as follows: “get up, call on his name and wash your sins away, being baptized.” But it does not. There are two commands, two main verbs, in this sentence: first, “be baptized”, and second, “wash yours sins away”. The second of these has an adjectival clause, “calling on his name”, to explain how you fulfill it. So this verse does not teach baptism for the forgiveness of sin – in fact it teaches the principle taught by Paul in Romans 10: 13: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
7) So why the urgency in Acts 22:16 – “what are you waiting for?” Why does everyone get baptized straight away, in deserts, in jails in the middle of the night, and 3000 on the day of Pentecost? Firstly, because baptism is a sign meant to be enacted at conversion – indeed it is meaningless thereafter - to show the one who has repented what they are experiencing; and secondly, because they are “cut to the heart”, and feel the same urgency to get on with changing and growing as we felt when we first repented and put our faith in Christ.
Salvation is a gift. Think of baptism like the wrapping on God’s gift. This is how he gives it to us. If a gift is beautifully wrapped, or not wrapped at all, the only thing that changes is the degree of pleasure in the way the gift is received. Indeed someone may appreciate the gift a lot more if it is given in a way that is special, and perhaps even treat it better as a result – but the gift remains the same. Some who are very young, like my youngest girl (18 months), may get confused, and not realize that it is a gift unless it is given with wrapping paper, so that the wrapping actually explains to them what is happening. So it is with baptism: it is the special way God wants to give his gift of salvation to us. But we must distinguish between the way he wants to give it to us, and the thing he is giving. Some thoughts of Calvin’s are especially relevant here:
“In baptism the sign is water, but the thing is the washing of the soul by the blood of Christ and the mortifying of the flesh…Let us learn not to tear away the thing signified from the sign. We must at the same time beware of another evil, such as prevails among papists; for they do not make a distinction as they ought to do between the thing and the sign, and stop at the outward element, and on that fix their hope of salvation. Therefore the sight of the water takes away their thoughts of the blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit. They do not regard Christ as the only author of all the blessings therein offered to us; they transfer the glory of his death to the water; they tie the secret power of the Spirit to the visible sign.”
Is this true of us? Do we tie the secret power of the Spirit to the visible sign, and so blind ourselves to the true nature of what God is doing for us through the blood of Christ? Is all we see water, water, everywhere?
We are saved at the point of baptism, but because of our faith. So if someone has faith, but does not get baptized, or gets baptized with an “unbiblical” understanding, they have nonetheless responded to the Cross. Their faith is no less sincere. Thus they have by virtue of their faith fulfilled God’ s requirement for salvation. They are saved.
All the examples in Scripture show that baptism should happen at the point of conversion. When Calvin, in the passage quoted above, urged teachers “not to tear away the thing signified from the sign”, he was warning against something that occurs as a consequence of both infant baptism and believers’ baptism, in which the sign is removed from its context and rendered meaningless. Baptism is at the point of conversion, but conversion does not happen because of baptism. As I write, swarms of fresh faced eighteen year olds looking young enough to be my grandchildren are wandering around Cambridge with piles of books in their arms looking up at the buildings with a vacant, awed expression. Later they will all go to the pub and will be seen wandering around with a vacant expression for a different reason. It’s Fresher’s Week. University begins with Fresher’s Week. It’s how it starts, and it does so because it’s the best way to introduce first year students to college life. In fact, all universities, as far as I’m aware, begin that way. But what if one didn’t? Or lots didn’t? Or the practice of Fresher’s Week stopped altogether. Would we say that Students were no longer able to go to University? Or that their degree was invalid? No. Fresher’s Week happens at the start of University, but University does not happen because of Fresher’s Week, helpful though it is. We are saved at the point of baptism, only insofar as baptism is the visible sign of conversion. But if the baptism does not occur, or occurs at a different time, or in a different way, then the experience of the one becoming a Christian will be diminished. But their enrolment in the kingdom of Heaven is no less valid.
In the light of all this, let’s examine 1 Peter 3:20-21, initially referring to Noah’s Ark:
“In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also - not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand - with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.”
Some comments on this:
1) Baptism does not save you. If I drag in a passer-by and forcibly immerse him, he will not be saved. So we cannot not take the NIV phrase “baptism that now saves you” literally. We look at the rest of the verse and see the context: God saves us at the point of baptism because of our heart through the resurrection of Christ. So even within one verse we see the principle at work that we reinterpret the literal meaning, as we should, to bring it in line with what we consider to be the larger teaching of Scripture.
2) Baptism does not save you, but this Scripture makes apparent that it is associated with salvation. Thus Baptist minister Stephen Gaukroger, in his book Being Baptised, says that “the general witness of the New Testament is that there is no such thing as an unbaptised believer”. Or Hard Sayings of the Bible glosses 1 Peter 3:21, by saying that “the normal point of salvation for Christians in the early Church was baptism.” Verses such as this, Acts 2:38, Mark 16:16, and others, only make sense if baptism occurs at the point of conversion.
3) There is a comparison here between Noah’s Ark and baptism. It says that Noah and his family were “saved through water”, and yet in what way were they saved through water? If he means physically saved, then they were saved because of the Ark, not the water, and early Church commentators were not slow to see the Ark here as an analogy for Christ. If he means spiritually saved, then the water didn’t save them in that way either; it merely made apparent that they were already saved, already had a right relationship with God. So with baptism: it shows we are saved through Christ, or it shows we are already saved. But in neither case does it save us in itself.
4) According to Peter here we are not saved because of water but because of the power of God (“the resurrection”) and because of our heart (our “pledge of a good conscience towards God” - and whether pledge means “answer” or “appeal” we will not debate here). It is worth noting how many of the baptism Scriptures stress the state of heart that must accompany the action of baptism (eg “faith” in Col 2:11-12 and in Gal 3:26-7, “calling on his name” in Acts 22:16, “believes” in Mark 16:16 etc). Baptism marks the point of our conversion, but we are saved because of our faith.
5) Several commentators try to make this, and other baptism verses “dry”, presumably out of fear of the implications that this verse might be seen to teach baptism for salvation. John MacArthur thus says the baptism here is in the Holy Spirit and not in water , a claim which is frankly ludicrous in view of the comparison with the water of the Flood. In the same way, Chuck Swindoll, in The Grace Awakening, says that Romans 6:3-4 is describing “dry” baptism, and many commentators say (more reasonably) that the water of John 3:5 is a really a figure for Spirit, taken from Ezekiel. But all these efforts seem unlikely, and in truth are unnecessary. To say that we are baptized at conversion but not for conversion, and thus that for the early Christians baptism was a figure or illustration of salvation, as in this verse, adequately explains the Scriptures.
Our teaching is clear enough. We must repent and then be baptized to have our sins forgiven and to receive the Spirit. So Kip McKean writes that “I do not know of any other church, group or movement that teaches and practices what we teach as Jesus taught in Acts 2:41,42: one must make the decision to be a disciple, then be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins to be saved and receive the Holy Spirit.” Not only this, but we must know why we are getting baptized; he writes of rebaptisms that “I taught that their baptism was invalid because a retroactive understanding of repentance and baptism was not consistent with Scripture.” We must have what has been called “cognizance” .
Our teaching is clear, but it is the practical application of our teaching that creates confusion. Who is saved? Was Augustine, for example, who believed in baptism for the forgiveness of sin, got baptized as an adult, but then taught others to baptize infants? What of the earlier Church Fathers? What of Tertullian – who taught against infant baptism, believed sins were remitted at adult baptism, but thought the Holy Spirit was given subsequent to water baptism at the laying on of hands? Was he saved? Do you just have to have cognizance of forgiveness, or do you have to have the right understanding about the Holy Spirit too? The answer to this question determines the eternal salvation of Tertullian and Origen , probably the two great teachers of the pre-Nicene period. By contrast, Justin Martyr did agree with “our” teaching on baptism, but also believed that Socrates and the Greek philosophers were Christians (yes, “Christians” ), and said that we should worship angels (of course, we forgot to mention those parts when we quoted his views on baptism with such relish). What about the Anabaptists, many of whom seem to have been clear that baptism was for salvation, upon a confession of faith, and moreover stated that those who disagreed were lost, and set about evangelizing them, but yet administered baptism not by immersion but by sprinkling? If you get it all right, and have “the right heart”, is that one detail sufficient to exclude you from heaven? And what of the Pentecostal today, who repents, puts his faith in Christ, gets baptized the same night, but couldn’t give you a clear doctrinal answer as to the exact minute that his sins were forgiven? Is he saved? According to Kip’s dictum quoted above, none of these, except perhaps Justin Martyr, are saved. Oh well, you say, it’s up to God. Well, thankfully, that last part at least is true.
Hopefully, these questions will make you ask a similar question to the one that they make me ask: if our doctrine produces such a Pharisaic concern for little details of human action then perhaps our doctrine is not based on “a right knowledge of God” . Does not our teaching make us become the very thing that Jesus mocked? We pore over such matters as the type of immersion, the moment of forgiveness, the moment of the reception of the Spirit, whether a woman can baptize, whether a non-Christian can baptize, whether a baptism is valid if a foot sticks in the air, whether we have to ask the Two Questions, whether they did this study or that study, had we actually repented at our first baptism, had we truly repented at our second baptism, had we finally repented at our third baptism, and etc etc etc. But salvation, as we stated when we started out, is an act of the Holy Spirit. He will come into a heart prepared for him, and not one, and not all, of our many efforts will have the power to influence the outcome.
In truth the “cognizance” that the Bible asks us to have is not about baptism, but about Christ. A study of false doctrine in the New Testament will reveal not the variations to baptism by immersion for salvation that are listed under our study entitled “False Doctrine About Conversion” , but that false doctrine is that which alters the character or nature of Christ. People coming to him are required to understand his divinity and his humanity, and so to make him Lord. This is the reason that the Early Church took such pains to hammer out correct definitions of the Godhead, and we should be grateful to them for doing so, even if they did sometimes veer off into linguistic tangents.
So what should we teach? Christ, Christ, Christ – and faith in him. We should teach the true nature of faith, which involves repentance from sin, as it involves making Christ Lord, and we should teach baptism as Christian initiation to show the forgiveness of sins. And we cannot say, because we do not know, what work the Holy Spirit will have done inside the heart of a person not in our fellowship.
An emphasis on grace at conversion will lead to an emphasis on grace thereafter. To state that baptism is a command that we must obey or we will be condemned will set us off with one mindset; to say that here is a sign to help us will set us off with another. The New Covenant is based on grace, not law. Our teaching on baptism has been based on law, not grace.
By their fruit will we know them. “Wisdom”, Jesus said, “is proved right by her actions” (Matt 11:19). I believe that it is much to our credit that we have been willing to analyse ourselves as a Church this year. But what, then, is the analysis? How deep does the problem go? If we get rid of one-man leadership and an overuse of numerical goals in evangelism, do we then see the Holy Spirit move with power in our fellowship? And if not, or not to the degree that we would hope, then what do we do? Do we stop there, or go back to the way we were? Or shall we dig deeper? I know change takes time and needs patience. And these changes will bear fruit, and I do not mean to suggest otherwise. But, with us, is it possible that the disease in the root of our Church lies deeper still? Luther spoke of teachings that “unconsciously turn the spirit from inward grace towards external things and works”. Our shortcomings have not been a conscious decision. We have used the words grace, faith and Holy Spirit, and started out trying to go in that direction, and ended up somewhere else. Why?
Look at the history of the Church of Christ. The Restoration Movement began, and then split into three denominations (yes, denominations, for despite our fine-sounding claim to be “non-denominational”, that is what we are). Ours, the Church of Christ, is then known for divisions and arguments about such world-shattering issues as instrumental music in church and whether we should take communion in one cup or many. In the1920’s a separate group of “one-cuppers” had appeared, in the 30’s a non-Sunday School group formed, until by the 1960’s over twenty other schisms had formed within this unity movement, leading one observer to describe it as “a group of small, warring sects which are little denominations within a denomination” . And then comes the Boston Movement, the ICOC, sent by the Spirit, the Modern Day Movement of God and the One True Church. Two and a half decades on, where do we find ourselves? Have we now seen New Testament Christianity restored in all its former glory? And yet if what we teach is true, then the only churches that have had the Holy Spirit indwelling are those that have taught baptism by immersion for the forgiveness of sin. That means that the Holy Spirit is shown in history as working not in the self- denial of Francis of Assissi, nor in the courage of Wyclif or Hus, or of Luther standing before the Imperial Diet, or the martyrdoms of Latimer, Ridley or Cranmer, nor in the work of countless missionaries to Muslim countries, in the many millions who have died for their faith in Jesus in the twentieth century , nor in the writings of G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis, nor in the compassion of Mother Theresa, or indeed the simple goodness that has come as a result of the day- by-day faith of Christian people all over the world, but in the Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, the Christian Church, and the ICOC. And that is it. For the last sixteen centuries, that is the only place that the Spirit has seen fit to dwell, and that is what his fruit looks like. Is that what you would think it should look like? Is this the freedom? This the ever-increasing glory? This the love by which all the world shall know Christ?
The Church is a body of people who have faith in Christ. This is the “beautiful system” that cuts across denominations, cuts across Church history, and includes all who trust in the Lord, from many churches at many times. The question for us is, shall we continue to be divided from the body of Christ?
None of this is to say that everything is well and good in the established churches. They have their problems, as we have ours. There may be many who have truly put their faith in Christ, or there may be few. God alone knows. Nor should we water down the commitment involved in being a Christian. There is only one type of true commitment, and it is a total commitment of the heart, called faith. We need not fear being dragged down. If this is the guidance of the Spirit of God, then guide us he will. But we cannot continue to divide ourselves from Christ’s body and expect Christ to bless us. It is as simple as that.
POSTSCRIPT: I should clarify that these views are mine and do not necessarily represent those of the Cambridge Church, that I serve as an evangelist. For those who read this paper and do not know me, I have been in the ICOC since 1987 and at the time of writing am still working in the full-time ministry as I have done for the last ten yea