The Importance of Baptism

by Cecil Hook

My car radio is set on one of the seven “religious” radio stations here. Some good things are heard. It speaks well of our community that there would be so much interest in religion. Of course, different viewpoints are expressed by the speakers. One thing most of them seem to agree on. Even though they all practice baptism, they all downplay its importance so that it is seldom mentioned except when someone asks about it. They generally imply that only the legalists or cults would connect it in any way to salvation. Any insistence on baptism would be adding a meritorious work to the finished work of Christ on the cross. They contend that “by grace through faith” excludes any human action.

So, since it is all by faith regardless of works, as long as a person believes, he is eternally secure. Some claim that if he then lives a perverse and impenitent life, he will not lose his soul unless he loses his faith. Sophisticated logical gymnastics of Olympic quality maneuver around all the baptism references. Those who say baptism is essential are prooftexting, they contend, while they pull out all the prooftexts to indicate that faith is the only thing required of us. Their explanations may not be worded just like these that I list below, but they reach these conclusions.

What Jesus really meant in the Great Commission was “he that just believes shall be saved.” Some later scribe must have injected “and is baptized” into the text (Mk 16:16).

Jesus did not mean water when he told Nicodemus he must be born of water and the Spirit. He was talking of physical birth! He told a grown man that he would have to be born physically! (John 3:3-5).

What Peter actually meant on Pentecost was “repent and be baptized because your sins have already been remitted” (Acts 2:38).

When Peter commanded Cornelius and his family to be baptized in water, it certainly could not have been for the remission of sins for they had been saved already as their baptism of the Holy Spirit would indicate (Acts 10 & 11).

Ananias made an embarrassing flub in telling Saul to wash away his sins in baptism, for he must have known that Jesus had already forgiven those sins on the Damascus Road (Acts 9 & 22).

Instead of Paul telling the Philippian jailer to believe in Jesus and then speaking to him the word of the Lord, he should have said, “Just believe in Jesus! Nothing else needed!” (Acts 16). A midnight baptism for a whole family! Paul must have been off his rocker!

Forgive me if I have resorted to offensive style in trying to shock you into restudying this popular misconception about the place of baptism.

Even those who teach that faith is the only condition of salvation usually deny that factual faith is enough. They say it must be a trusting faith. “Accept him in your heart.” Well, now, that’s a work—a condition we must meet! “Accept him and pray the sinner’s prayer.” (Not Biblical advice!) That’s a work! “Repent.” Another work!

It is true that we are saved by faith, but not by factual, dead, or inactive faith. We can perform no work of merit. Our salvation is totally by grace—a gift. We do not merit gifts nor add to them by our deeds. But any gift must be accepted. Salvation is not forced on a person or given against the will. (No election with its irresistible grace!)

To illustrate, I may be destitute with debts I cannot possibly pay. A friend may call me and say, “Come by my house at noon tomorrow and I will take care of your every need.” The next day I go, and he gives me a check which I take to the bank to cover all my debts. Now, suppose I had refused his offer, saying, “I cannot come to pick up the check and take it to the bank. That would look like I was trying to earn it!”

Jesus says in essence, “Believe in me, change your heart about your sinful practices, and be baptized in a ceremony depicting your identification with me in my death, burial, and resurrection into a new life. Then the forgiveness brought by my death, burial, and resurrection will be effective in your life.” I accept! Who with any sense of logic could say that I was doing a work of merit, trusting in works, or trying to add to the finished work on the cross?

No, baptism does not save us. Nor does faith! Nor works. Neither have saving power. God saves us through the atonement of Christ. The gift is available. The check is written. Only those who accept it will benefit from its gracious offerings.

Water does not have power to give new life or to wash sins off one’s body, but those metaphors mean something. Cornelius and his family were righteous, but they had to be redeemed through Christ (Gal. 4:5). The Holy Spirit fell on them to show that God would accept Gentiles who would accept Christ. Then they accepted him. Paul directed the jailer to the road of faith and then told him things to do on that road to accept salvation.

The faith—the means of access to God by faith in Christ—is the gospel, the good news. “A great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). God will inflict vengeance upon those “who do not obey the gospel” (2 Thes. 1:7f). We must both believe it and obey it!

I accept you as a fellow disciple without judging your baptism. God does not have to consult me as to whom he can dispense his grace. I do not try to limit him. Neither do I try to dispense it for him. But conscience forbids that I advise you that you can accept God’s offered gift of salvation apart from immersion into Christ, your Savior.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works…(Eph. 2:8f). Acceptance of the gift is no work to boast about, but what of the good works to follow in the sanctified life? Can we boast of them? No.

Those works are the loving response to God’s gift. Do they have anything to do with salvation? Jesus said so when he divides the sheep and the goats in judgment (Matt. 25:31f). He did not give a regimen, schedule, or quota to perform to fulfill a lawful requirement, but Paul adds, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. While a person cannot do enough works of love to earn, merit, or add to salvation, failure of loving response brings loss of both sanctification and soul.

Legal rituals have no merit, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Gal. 4:6). If our faith is not working through love, we gain nothing,but lose all.

To disciples in Ephesus, Jesus warned, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:4f). This dire warning was to a church, but individuals compose the church.

Lack of faith working through love allows some to forsake the Spirit-directed life to follow fleshly desires. Concerning the works of the flesh, Paul wrote, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19f). The impenitent adulterer was to be delivered to Satan in hope of bringing him to repentance (1 Cor. 5:1-5).

There are many exhortations to do good works and to repent when we stumble. As long as we have a tender conscience seeking to do God’s will, we can have full assurance of our eternal salvation. But if we choose to renounce our faith or to continue to practice a sin, we have reason to live in fear of judgment.

There is a middle ground between eternal security and total insecurity. While a believer realizes his vulnerability to sin, he relies on God’s promises to give him strength to overcome it and to cover it by his atonement. []

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