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Sunday, July 06, 2014

Does Baptism Save?

So, really, DOES baptism save you?

Along with many others, my friend Dwight Longenecker, the ex-evangelical Catholic priest referenced in my previous post, teaches that it is a critical component of salvation:
“In addition to believing and confessing with our lips, we need to be baptized. At the beginning of Romans 6, St. Paul actually explains how we share in the death and new life of Christ: It is through baptism.
      The beginning of Romans 6 he says, ‘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.’ ”
On this basis, Catholics teach that faith is not enough for salvation; the ritual of water baptism is a must.

But are they right?

Catholicism and Ritual

At the root of this need to see a physical act as bringing salvation is the same Romanist ritualism and occupation with the material world that shows up in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the rather horrible bit of dogma that insists that the material objects by which believers remember the Lord actually become the literal flesh and blood of Christ).

Longenecker makes no bones about this. Among other statements in the same vein, he says:
“... we need physical actions, religious ceremonies, and rituals to help us accept the gift of salvation that is being offered ... it is through these physical responses that salvation is accepted, and therefore that the physical responses are effective and necessary.”
So a requirement of water baptism for salvation fits comfortably into this presupposition.

But insisting on this little bit of legalism forces Catholic theologians to jump through one or two logical hoops to accommodate, for example, the dying thief on the cross. One of these leaps is the invention of the concept of a “baptism of desire” to explain how one may be saved without water baptism when, in the Romanist view, it is non-negotiable. This “baptism of desire”, Longenecker says, may also “extend to those who have pre-Christian faith or to non-Christians who have faith according to the level of their knowledge, but have never heard the Christian gospel” or possibly even to people who “truly and sincerely (because of false teaching received in goodwill) do not believe that baptism is necessary”, and who may (and only “may”, Longenecker stresses) be saved.

Or maybe not. In Catholic theology this point is somewhat unclear.

Another of these requisite logical leaps is the invention of an extra-Scriptural “baptism of blood” that gives martyrs a free pass just in case they died for the sake of Christ without first having been water baptized.

But whatever one may think of this common Romanist inclination to pull pseudo-spiritual concepts and ideas out of thin air when confronted with the absence of Scriptural support for a preferred interpretation, Longenecker certainly brings up something that begs to be addressed: Is it really possible for a person who has not been water baptized to be truly saved?

The Value of Baptism

If you have not read it, it may help to take a look at the previous post on the respective roles of Christian symbols and the spiritual realities they depict. I don’t want to recycle those arguments here. But the upshot of the Scriptures introduced on the issue is this: That a mere symbol, symbolic act or ritual can neither substitute for nor supplement a spiritual reality.

It just isn’t up to the job.

So then if the symbol is not the reality, can we afford to dismiss the ritual of water baptism entirely?

I’m afraid not. It’s right there, in what we refer to as the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them”. Water baptism is part and parcel of belief in Christ. It is the visible manifestation of a changed heart. Paul says there are two components to salvation, belief and confession: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Water baptism is, in essence, confession. It declares publicly that Jesus is Lord by demonstrating to the world our intention to obey him, to follow him and to seek his things first and foremost. It seems to me that in the early church, baptism often served as the “confession” component of salvation. It is no wonder then that baptism and salvation are so closely linked in the New Testament. We are not given instruction as to what to do with unbaptized Christians because the idea of an unbaptized believer is not even contemplated.

That doesn’t mean the believer remains unsaved until he goes through a ritual.

But it certainly suggests that someone who professes belief but refuses to be water baptized casts serious doubt on his or her conversion. How can you seriously call him Lord if you have no intention of obeying one of his most basic commands? On what possible legitimate basis could you refuse it?

Back to Mr. Longenecker

Let’s go back to our friend Mr. Longenecker and his assertion that if you’re not baptized, you’re not saved. Specifically, let’s see what Paul has to say about it in Romans 6:
“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. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
Supposing you are a Christian who has undergone baptism by immersion, let me ask you this: When you went down into the water did you actually die? When you were under the water, were you literally buried with Christ? When you were given an assist coming back up by whoever was baptizing you — and depending on the size and weight of the participants, this may have required greater effort — and your head broke the surface of the water, did you come back to life again?

These are silly questions. Of course not, because the symbol is not the thing symbolized.

So hang with me here: When Paul says that we were “buried with him”, that is just as true of the thief on the cross who was never water baptized as it is for you and me because these things are accomplished through identification with and belief in the Saviour, not through observance of a ritual. The fact that we died with him, were buried with him and are raised with him are spiritual realities true of every single believer.

Water baptism is only a symbol that attests to a much more important spiritual truth that already exists. It’s a reminder, it’s evidence, it’s testimony, it’s an appeal for a good conscience to God through Christ.

But it isn’t the water, human will, the symbolism or the ‘rite’ that makes us dead, buried and raised together with our Saviour; it’s the invisible, mysterious work of the Spirit of God in the name of the Son for the glory of the Father.

A symbol has no power to change lives. Paul is going to go on to say that “anyone who has died has been set free from sin”. But it is impossible for a mere physical act, a mere symbol, to accomplish spiritual freedom. The entire Old Testament is proof of that; as the book of Romans shows, it is a repeated demonstration of the failure of the “physical components of religion”.

Peter reinforces this when he says “corresponding to that [the ark of Noah passing safely through the flood], baptism now saves you”. 

“Aha!” says Mr. Longenecker. “You see, there it is: baptism saves!”

Except that Peter then goes on to clarify his statement this way: “... NOT the removal of dirt from the flesh”, that is to say, not a mere ritual. The ritual itself is inadequate. Baptism saves only in the sense that it is an affirmation of a genuine, faith-based “appeal to God for a good conscience ... through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. Any adequacy, any hope of a good conscience, is predicated entirely on the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. As such, baptism functions as one of the two components of salvation, the confession, just as Paul teaches in Romans.

Yes, the symbolic act of obedience that is water baptism is very important. It is commanded. It is a demonstration of obedience and love for a new master. It is mystifying why so many modern churchgoers who have professed faith in Christ are so slow to get around to obeying it.

But the symbol is not the reality. Water baptism does not confer salvation.

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