By Michael D. McCann
When consumed, it hydrates. When boiled, it disinfects. When we bathe in it, our body is cleansed. This simple combination of hydrogen and oxygen, water truly is a precious, versatile commodity.
Similarly, the waters of baptism provide the participant with unimaginable benefits. Baptism floods the spirit with divine blessings. And yet baptism is distinct from our daily uses of water that require no special qualification.
Atheist and Christian, male and female, king and servant—we all receive the same benefit when water is consumed. But in baptism, the water produces powerful effects promised only to those who meet specific conditions.
FAITH, REPENTANCE, BAPTISM . . . TRANSFORMATION
When a repentant believer confesses Jesus as Lord and is immersed into Christ, the new Christian is flooded with life-altering, eternal blessings. Various New Testament passages emphasize that when baptism is combined with faith and repentance, the participant’s soul undergoes a staggering transformation. (Consider John 3:1-8; Mark 16:15, 16; Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:36-39; 22:16; Romans 6:1-7; Galatians 3:26, 27; Colossians 2:11-13; Titus 3:1-7; 1 Peter 3:21.) Scripture indicates baptism is the pivotal event in which salvation gifts are received, including forgiveness of sins, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the new birth. These blessings are so connected to baptism and so welded with repentant faith that legitimately we can affirm that the transaction occurs “in the water” of baptism.
In all related passages—and this is greatly significant—the act of baptism itself must be accompanied with a heart-response of faith and repentance. Clearly the water has no inherent power. The salvation gifts imparted in the water are activated, so to speak, by a response of repentant faith. (For a more in-depth exploration, consider these excellent works: Baptism: A Biblical Study, by Jack Cottrell, and Baptism in the New Testament, by G.R. Beasley Murray. In addition, chapter 13, “Baptism and Grace,” in Cottrell’s Set Free addresses objections to the biblical position.)
And yet, for centuries the issue of baptism has been mired in controversy. The water designed to unite us with Christ and with other believers has for centuries been a thorny issue dividing many who profess Christ.
The controversy has generally involved three issues:
- The form of baptism: How is one to be baptized?
- The candidate for baptism: Who is qualified to be baptized?
- The results of baptism: What actually occurs in the life of the baptized believer in the water?
Historically, Restoration Movement churches have maintained that the Scriptures are quite clear. As such, baptism in Christ was offered to repentant believers who were immersed in water and emerged forgiven, saved, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
ANCIENT TEACHINGS ON BAPTISM
In my ministry, when I sit down with unbelievers and guide them through passages related to saving grace and baptism, with few exceptions I have observed they have little difficulty connecting faith, repentance, baptism, and salvation.
In contrast, when interacting with evangelical folks, I usually encounter resistance. Many evangelicals suspect this interpretation of baptism to be a new teaching, and consequently approach it skeptically.
Very few realize this teaching is not a recent innovation—it is ancient. It originated in the first century in New Testament writings and continued for succeeding centuries.
For the first two centuries of the church, the default position was that baptism by immersion of repentant believers resulted in forgiveness of sins. An abundance of quotations from early church leaders confirm this. (Helpful resources include A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, edited by David W. Bercot, and The Emergence of the Church by Arthur G. Patzia.) The early Church fathers confirmed this in the Nicene Creed (A.D. 381): “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
The Restoration Movement position on baptism makes us an oddity in the eyes of many evangelicals. It also presents challenges as we relate with those of evangelical faith. Is it possible in the coming years we might witness increased openness to the scriptural position?
CHALLENGES FOR RESTORATION CHURCHES
A welcome trend has emerged: Many evangelical New Testament scholars acknowledge that baptism is indeed connected with receiving salvation.A perusal of recent commentaries and writings of many current scholars indicate a movement toward this ancient position. D. A. Carson, Everett F. Harrison, Edwin Blum, Robert Stein, Thomas R. Schreiner, and Arthur G. Patzia represent a small sampling of New Testament scholars who present a connection between faith and baptism in the salvation event.
Yet this trend has been slow to gain traction in the majority of evangelical churches. It seems to have slipped under the radar. Perhaps, given time, we will see increased openness.
Ironically, we live in an era when many evangelical believers are drawn to Restoration churches. They like our commitment to core biblical teachings. Yet many hesitate because of our position on baptism. Some attend our services and even become members, even though they aren’t comfortable with our position on baptism.
This presents challenges for Restoration churches. How are we to relate to those who hold to key gospel elements, but don’t share our understanding of baptism? How do we approach those who demonstrate strong faith in Christ, yet have not been immersed?
These issues are not new. But as more evangelical believers intersect with Christian churches, these concerns have become more prominent. Most Christian churches have had to wrestle with issues such as these:
- How much of an issue should we make concerning New Testament baptism?
- Will our emphasis on baptism deter people from joining us?
- Should we sacrifice potential growth for the sake of maintaining a biblical position?
- Do we simply agree to disagree on this issue?
- Is it possible to overemphasize baptism?
- How important is it to take an uncompromising stand on the biblical practice of baptism?
The Bible is clear on what happens in the waters. The question some Restoration leaders must negotiate is: How much does it matter?
How important is it to emphasize and clarify the baptism passages? To do so is time-consuming. And doing so risks alienating prospective members. Is biblical teaching on baptism important enough to possibly offend some and cause them to walk away? Are we willing to pay that price?
Despite baptism’s controversial nature, we must reject the temptation to choose pragmatism over truth. Loving people and avoiding truth do not mix. At the same time, we must give baptism its proper emphasis, neither underemphasizing it nor elevating it beyond its intended role.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR UNITY
If in the academic world many have arrived at the New Testament position, is it possible that their influence will act as leaven, and, in time, stimulate increasing numbers of evangelical preachers to rethink their position?
Do we have reason to hope that at some point we will find common ground with a significant number of evangelicals on the issue of baptism?
I suggest we raise our hopes for a new day when we witness a return to the biblical teaching and practice of baptism that extends beyond Restoration churches. God could use us for such an awakening.
Perhaps we can personally engage in meaningful dialogue with evangelical leaders whom we know. I know some already do so. Such dialogue need not be caustic. Friends getting together to explore the Word together, relying on the Holy Spirit, can bear much fruit.
Here are seven ideas that might help in such dialogue:
- Find common ground for agreement. This should include the authority of Scripture over tradition and the centrality of the gospel.
- Be a good listener. Seek to understand not just their positions but also their rationale. At the same time, don’t be bashful or apologetic in presenting a solid case for biblical baptism.
- In addition to citing Scriptures, refer to the multiple references of early church leaders that confirm this position. This demonstrates this teaching isn’t a recent fad but has roots from the beginning of the church.
- Be humble, gracious, and patient. Don’t expect doctrinal beliefs to change instantly. Anticipate ongoing discussions rather than a one-and-done debate. Ask God to allow the seed of his Word to germinate and ultimately bear fruit.
- Anticipate learning from Bible-embracing evangelical leaders. We should come together as co-learners.
- Acknowledge that God and his Word are our only authority. Ultimately, we must put our confidence in the power of Scripture, not in clever arguments.
- Pray for a mighty work of God.
Each generation of believers encounters challenges and opportunities. In our era, perhaps we will witness a new movement among those calling on the name of Jesus. Let’s pray for such an awakening.
Michael D. McCann serves as senior minister of First Christian Church in Leesburg, Florida.