by Cecil Hook
After fifty years of observation in the Church of Christ as both a listener and a preacher, I am forced to admit that we have emphasized baptism above all other points of teaching. Hardly a lesson comes from our pulpits that does not mention baptism and it has been the theme of countless other lessons.
Baptism is a necessary part of our obedience. Can we overemphasize that which is necessary? Yes. Vitamin C is necessary to our physical health but, if we make it our chief claim to health, then things are out of proportion, and health can be lost. So it is with baptism or any other over-stressed doctrine or practice. Overemphasis of baptism puts us out of balance, develops into a credal test, and becomes a sectarian device. Because our teachings on baptism have seemed so solidly scriptural, it has been no easy matter for me to arrive at this conclusion.
By the Catholic theologians who have developed the sacramental system, a sacrament is defined as a visible rite or ceremony instituted by Christ to give grace. The scriptures give no such designation, definition, or description. Yet most of us have accepted that concept of baptism — that it is a ceremony by which grace is conferred upon us. Thus, though denying it, we have accepted the concept of baptismal regeneration.
Baptism symbolizes the change that an individual has undergone. He has changed from unbelief to trust in Jesus. He has determined to cease his sinful life and to seek to live a holy life. Instead of being guilty any longer, he is now pronounced innocent by his proxy, Jesus. He is like Noah, who, being a righteous man, had his righteousness confirmed when the waters separated him from the rest of the world. He is like the Israelites, who, after a long process of separation, had their freedom confirmed by the Red Sea. The seed of the word conceives in his heart; spiritual life is initiated; and then he is brought forth symbolically by the confirming act of baptism. Life and salvation are not conferred by a sacrament, but the process of becoming a saved person is symbolized and confirmed by the action of baptism.
Baptism is symbolic of the whole change of the sinner into a new creature in Christ. It becomes as a metonymy, a literary device where the part is used to represent the whole. Belief is for the remission of sins. Confession is for the remission of sins. Repentance is for the remission of sins. Baptism is for the remission of sins. All of these combine in the whole process toward obtaining forgiveness. When a person is baptized, it must mean that all these other conditions have been accomplished. When baptism is said to save us, a part of the conversion process is used to represent the whole with baptism being the finalizing act.
The Purpose of Baptism
We have stressed that a person must be baptized purposely for the remission of sins for his baptism to be valid. Do we ever question a person like this: “Did you believe purposely for the remission of sins? When you repented, did you have in mind that the purpose was for the remission of sins? Did you understand that you were confessing for the remission of sins? If you are not sure that you did those things purposely for the remission of sins, then you must re-believe, re-confess, and re-repent for the right purposes”? Why do we just pick on baptism? Is it because it is more sacramental to the receiving of grace that the other actions? You know, a sacrament must be performed exactly right for its mystical qualities to work!
I have never heard of one of us preachers trying to stir up doubts and guilt by asking, “Were you baptized purposely in order to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?” We have continued to have lack of understanding and many misunderstandings about the gift of the Holy Spirit. Yet I have heard of no one demanding, “You must be re-baptized with the understanding that it is in order to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” God promised both remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit on the same conditions. Why demand re-baptism because of misinformation of one and not the other? Could it be a sectarian hang-up of ours?
In her eighties, Grannie is ordered by her doctor to take several kinds of medication. She gets confused about the purpose of the various pills. She may think the pill given to relieve her dizziness is the one to ease her arthritis. Will her confusion and misunderstanding make the pill ineffective in relieving her dizziness? She follows the orders of the doctor who understands. She has only to obey him. So when a penitent believer obeys his or her Lord, though that person may be confused as to when the Lord fulfills His promise, it will not cause the Lord to withhold the promised results. The faith is in Christ, not baptism. We may, and do, misunderstand many things relating to our obedience in all areas but we are obeying Him who understands. We have only to obey sincerely.
Evidently the Roman disciples did not understand the full meaning of their own baptism experience, so Paul explained it to them. The only explanations about baptism in the scriptures were made to disciples rather than to candidates for baptism (Romans 6; Colossians 2). There is no record of the delivering of a lesson explaining the meaning of baptism to persons in the conversion process. They were taught faith in the gospel about Christ and then told what to do in obeying Him. In Acts 2:38, “unto the remission of sins” was not a part of the command but a part of the results promised.
I am not evading the fact that some were re-baptized (Acts 18:24-28; 19:1-7). Those disciples at Ephesus had not been baptized in obedience to the command of Jesus in the Great Commission. The question Paul asked them was not, “Were you baptized for the forgiveness of sins?” But rather, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” In the recorded conversation, Paul did not explain the purpose of baptism. In their lacking of the Holy Spirit, Paul saw evidence that they had received John’s baptism instead of that required by Jesus.
When a person is baptized, he is baptized into Christ, into the body, into the church, into the kingdom, into the family of God, etc., whether he understands all of that or not. Later, when he comes to understand all the purposes of baptism, he is not to be baptized again.
If the baptizer states the purpose in the ritual as being for the remission of sins, then doesn’t that eliminate by silence the many other purposes — to be born again, to be in Christ, to put on Christ, to enter the body, etc.? To say the least, it puts undue emphasis on the one point. The baptizer is only instructed to baptize into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
When you move into our community and “place your membership” — a good scriptural term! — I do not ask about your baptism before receiving you in the local fellowship. I do not know if, how, or why you were baptized. I receive you on your own profession. You accept me on mine. That is as it should be. Each man is to judge himself. If I consider you to be wrong, I can teach you but not judge you. We welcome fellowship with outsiders in all our activities in the assemblies but refuse to accept them on the church roll. The non-scriptural membership roll is a hang-up of ours.
We generally will not receive a person on his sectarian baptism, so we make him conform to our own. However, the person who is baptized into Christ is baptized into Christ’s church by the same process. If we conclude that baptism puts him in the Christian Church, the Baptist Church, the Church of Christ, or any other group distinguished from others by a name, we have become sectarian in concept and practice. It is not the baptism that is sectarian. Baptism is the Lord’s. It is we who become sectarian in trying to appropriate baptism as a device to create a group distinguished from other baptized believers.
All who have been baptized into the Savior must drop sectarian distinctions and recognize that we are brothers and sisters in the same Christ and His church. Thus breaking free from our sectarian cages, we are free to recognize millions of brothers and sisters whom we previously disdained, judged, and rejected. Let’s let God do the judging. Let’s do the loving.
“But they are brothers in error!” That’s right. That’s the only kind of brothers I have.