By Robert Oldham Fife
As the sun arose on a spring morning in 1945, I stood at the gates of Dachau, one of Hitler’s horrendous concentration camps. It had been liberated only a few hours. I will not here attempt to describe the horror, but will say only that what you may have read in disbelief is true. Other soldiers and I could talk only in shocked whispers as we gazed upon the scene.
I did not know at the time that imprisoned within those very gates was a now famous Lutheran pastor, Dr. Martin Niemöller. After years of harsh confinement, he and a little company of fellow prisoners of different nationalities and Christian traditions had been granted the privilege of worshipping together in Cell 34. Niemöller had preached the Word of God and celebrated the Lord’s Supper with his fellow believers.
In his words, they became the “Una Sancta”—the one holy church in that place. Niemöller was a leader of the German “Confessing Church” that stood in opposition to Hitler’s efforts to pervert the gospel with Nazi doctrine. (Perhaps it also is of interest to readers of this article that Niemöller later felt it necessary to defend before his fellow Lutherans his having communed with non-Lutherans.)
After the war I heard Niemöller preach, and read his inspiring little book, Dachau Sermons. My heart was moved to think that what Jesus had promised had become historically true: the gates of Hades had not prevailed against the church (Matthew 16:18).
Or was it really the church—the true church—that was in Dachau? To my knowledge, no members of “independent” Christian churches or churches of Christ were imprisoned there!
What does this memory have to do with our subject? It poses a serious question to us who believe that baptism is the immersion of a penitent believer into the name of Jesus, for the remission of sins. The question is this: Was Niemöller a Christian?
Some of us agonize over this question as we search the Word of God. Is it unbiblical to affirm that Christian baptism is “for the remission of sins”? No, for this is the very language of the Bible (Acts 2:38).
What then? Are we to understand that a believer, who for the sake of Jesus endured a dreadful ordeal in an outpost of Hell, had no right to the Christian name because he was mistaken in thinking that his christening as an infant was true Christian baptism? The Nazis certainly thought Niemöller was a Christian!
We are further compelled to ask, If one misunderstands an ordinance of the Lord, is his faith of no avail even if he “dies daily” for Jesus? (1 Corinthians 15:31). I am humbled by the thought that if persons such as Niemöller or Bonhoeffer are to be called only “believers,” perhaps I, who am also fallible and have suffered but little, should ask whether it is presumptuous for me to wear the name Christian.
In my desire to be loyal to the Word of God have I become blind to the marvelous grace of God?
What is this strange grace that is manifested in the lives of many unimmersed believers? In the name of Jesus they care for the orphans of Calcutta, minister in leper colonies, suffer torture in fascist and communist prisons. In the name of Jesus they leave homeland and family for martyrdom on the mission field, give sacrificially for the cause of the kingdom, and gather with other believers amid threats of a hostile world. In that same name they compose hymns that bless us, write Bible commentaries that instruct us, and preach sermons that inspire us. I ask, What is this strange grace? From whence does it come?
A Sentimental Appeal?
Let the scene change to 1525. The Council of Zurich, Switzerland, has just decreed infant baptism as a civil law. Any person violating the law will be instantly banished. An old Hutterian chronicle continues:
It happened one day when they were meeting that a fear befell them and they felt an urge in their hearts. They bent their knees and prayed to the highest God in Heaven, asking him who knows the hearts of men to help them to do his divine will and to be merciful to them. For it was not flesh and blood or human wisdom that urged them; they knew well what they would have to suffer for this. After prayer Georg from the house of Jacob stood up and asked Conrad Grebel to baptize him for the sake of God with true Christian baptism upon his faith and recognition of the truth. With this request he knelt down and Conrad baptized him, since at that time there was no appointed servant of the Word. Afterwards the others turned to Georg in the same way, asking him to baptize them, which he did. And so, in great fear of God, they all surrendered themselves to the name of the Lord, confirmed one another for the service of the Gospel, and began to teach the faith and to keep it. This was the beginning of separation from the world and its evil.1
This moving event, undertaken at the eventual cost of their martyrdom, was most probably believers’ affusion (i.e., pouring)—not immersion. We must therefore ask, Did those Anabaptist reformers have no right to the Christian name until their later discovery of immersion?
Indeed, how can we talk about who has the “right” to be called a Christian? Is it not all of grace?
Again I ask, What was this strange grace in which the marks of Jesus were revealed in the lives of those who sincerely confessed themselves faithfully obedient? “All the marks?” we are asked, “They lacked one. And seriously, it was the ‘initiatory’ one—immersion.” This is true. Yet, how did they possess the other marks without the first one? Were those marks counterfeit? How dare I ask such a question of martyrs! Is it not rather for me to ask, If they only believed their obedience to be faithful and authentic, can you or I possess more certainty and peace in our obedience?
Or is it possible that in his infinite grace God has deigned to impart his Spirit to all of us who have confessed and obeyed him in the full measure of our imperfect understanding? Alexander Campbell once wrote that “it is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves.” With that great reformer, “mistakes of the understanding and errors of the affections are not to be confounded.”2
I realize that these remarks may be interpreted as a sort of theological ad hominem argument—a sentimental appeal to popular opinion—which has little or nothing to do with God’s Word. As Paul said, “Let God be true, but every man a liar” (Romans 3:4). Amen!
The Purpose and the Essence
Then let us hear the Word of God. What does it say concerning the remission of sins and fellowship with God? The Scripture teaches that the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin (Hebrews 9:11-14). Only through his sacrifice can we be made holy (Hebrews 10:10).
Further, it teaches that baptism is the divinely appointed means whereby in faith we appropriate the blood of Jesus, for we are “baptized into his death” (Romans 6:1-11)3. From these and other Scriptures it is evident that the purpose of Christian baptism is the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. But note what we do: We extrapolate from Acts 2:38 the conclusion that since baptism is unto (eis) the remission of sins, it is “essential” to salvation. This shifts the discussion from the biblical language that baptism is “unto the remission of sins,” to the philosophical language of “essentiality.” So we commonly hear it asked, “Do you believe that baptism is essential to salvation?”
In consequence, when some of our denominational friends hear us speak this way, they assume that because we believe the purpose of baptism is the remission of sins, we necessarily believe that the essence of the remission of sins is baptism. Thus we are often accused of teaching “water regeneration.” If we feel this is a gross misrepresentation, we must share some of the blame. For we have allowed the discussion to shift from the language of the Bible to the terminology of philosophy and theology.
“What is the difference?” someone might ask. The difference is that the “essence” of something is that without which it could not be.4 In discussing the meaning of Christian baptism we may follow the line of reasoning that uses terms such as “essential,” but we ought to be aware of what we are doing.
It is true, the Bible does speak in terms that indicate essentiality. So it says, “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life” (1 John 5:12). Jesus is the essence of our salvation. The role of baptism is to bring us to the essence. Only in this mediate, instrumental sense can we biblically regard baptism as “essential” to our salvation.
But we must go farther. We must remember that while we are in a covenant relationship with God, God and we are not on the same level. Therefore, if we would discuss whether baptism is essential to our salvation, we must ask, Essential to whom? To man? To God? To both man and God?
In the sense that the purpose of baptism is to bring us to the Savior, baptism is essential to man. It is a divinely given condition of the everlasting covenant mediated through the blood of Jesus and enunciated on Pentecost. We are not the initiators, but the recipients of that covenant. Therefore, we are subject to it, and bound by it. For this reason we may say that baptism is essential to man.
But does this mean that a believer’s baptism is essential to God? Can we correctly assume that because baptism is an essential covenant command to which we are subject, it is an essential covenant limitation to which God is subject?
What does Scripture say is essential to God? One quality of the being of God is God’s faithfulness. “Great is thy faithfulness,” declares the prophet (Lamentations 3:23). “God is faithful,” says the apostle (1 Corinthians 1:9). The ancient Christian hymn sang, “If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). God will keep his covenant promise, for he is faithful. And it is his covenant commands and promises we are charged to proclaim.
Another attribute of the divine essence is gracious sovereignty. Hear the Word of God: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15). God is not limited to the covenant conditions (as are we), for God is the gracious Lord of the covenant. Indeed, Jesus had to remind the Nazarenes that God’s mercy had extended beyond the commands and promises of his covenant with Israel. Profoundly offended, the Nazarenes attempted to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:25-30).
Our Commission and Our Confession
But this does not permit us who are subjects of the covenant to neglect the commands and promises we are commissioned to proclaim. Nor does it permit us to say to unimmersed believers that they need not be immersed. Thankfully, it is for us to confess that God “will have mercy” on whom he has mercy. God has even had mercy on us.
It also means that we ought not be considered disloyal to the Word of God if in reverence of the grace of God we freely share the table of the Lord with all who “call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2, New International Version).
We must seek every opportunity to “speak truth in love,” to share with others the joy of receiving Jesus’ name in the baptismal waters. This is the way Aquila and Priscilla treated Apollos (Acts 18:24-28). Ought we do less toward those we think in error? With praise of the Redeemer on our lips, let us freely acknowledge that it is “by the grace of God” we are what we are (1 Corinthians 15:10). And let us praise God for graciously granting his Spirit to us, even though some whom we would call brothers do not fellowship with us because they consider us to be in error.
Let us then rejoice in the communion of saints throughout the ages and around the world. I thank God that we are “not the only Christians.” How deprived—how poverty stricken—would be our estate! We would lose John Wycliffe, John Huss, Girolamo Savanarola, and Martin Luther. We would lose that wonderful “mere Christian,” Richard Baxter. We would lose John Wesley and his brother Charles, whose hymns we rejoice to sing. We would also lose David Livingstone, Henry Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, and Peter Marshall. We would even lose the venerable Samuel Davies, whose sermon on “The Sacred Import of the Christian Name” influenced Rice Haggard to encourage this very movement to espouse the name Christian.
No, we are not “the only Christians,” for we are preceded and surrounded by a vast host who have not heard our plea, but who love our Lord Jesus, and whose lives bear his marks. Earnestly we seek to be faithful subjects of the new covenant. Gladly we confess that God is the gracious Lord of the covenant. So let us never forbid our Lord to grant his power to those who are not of us, who have nonetheless worked wonders in his name (Mark 9:38-41).
Rather, let us earnestly strive to be “Christians only.” Let us lift up Jesus as Lord and exalt him in our congregations, faithfully proclaiming his gospel amid a lost world. And in that faithful proclamation, let us determine that we shall never place a sectarian stumbling block in the way of any sincere follower of Jesus.
Knowing the marks of Jesus portrayed to us in the Word, let us learn to recognize and love him wherever we discern his presence in the lives of others, near and far.
As we celebrate God’s grace, and honor God’s Word, we may claim once again the heritage of our fathers who sought not to be “the only Christians,” but to be “Christians only.”
1See Das grosse Geschict-Buch der Hutterischen Bruder, 35; [subsequent to this, an English translation has been published: The Chronicles of the Hutterian Brethren (Rifton: 1987); the quotation is taken from that edition].
2“Any Christians Among Protestant Parties,” Millennial Harbinger, 1837, 412.
3All Scripture quotations are from the King James Version, unless otherwise indicated.
4Essential comes from the Greek word, esse, which means “to be.”
This article is adapted from an address presented during an open meeting of concerned leaders of Christian churches and churches of Christ convened in St. Louis, March 13, 1985. It was first published in CHRISTIAN STANDARD on August 18, 1985, and reprinted in the May 11, 2003, issue.