Friday, June 26, 2015

Is Baptism Required for Salvation?

Baptism. It’s a pretty basic Christian concept. Jesus Himself told His disciples to go into the world and baptize other followers. But is it something we do to receive salvation?

Today we’ll look at another point in the United Church of God’s article, “Is Belief All That’s Required for Salvation?” Just like the first post in this series,the express purpose is not to criticize the United Church of God or other splinters within the Church of God community. Instead, it is our intention to demonstrate how COGs’ teachings on conditional salvation - conditions God requires man to meet in order to be saved - can be used to control, and even to spiritually abuse, its members.

Let’s take a look at the claims UCG makes in its article. They are generally applicable to what most COGs teach about baptism and the laying-on of hands. On the surface, their claims seem harmless enough, but in the wrong hands, it's easy to see how this teaching can lead to spiritual abuse in some COGs.
“Baptism is to be followed by the laying on of hands by a true minister of Jesus Christ, which allows us to receive God’s Holy Spirit and truly belong to Him (Acts 8:17, Romans 8:9). Unless we surrender our lives to God through baptism and the laying on of hands to receive His Spirit as instructed, we fail to meet – whether knowingly or unknowingly- His prerequisites for receiving His gift of salvation.”
How could that lead to abuse? Well, the more mainstream COGs usually recognize your baptism as valid if it was performed in another COG ground. But more conservative groups sometimes insist that your baptism wasn’t any good if it wasn’t done by one of their ministers. Why? Because COG teaching is that a “true minister” must lay hands upon you in order for you to receive the Holy Spirit. If it was one of those false ministers in a Laodicean group, well, you're taking your chances if the physical act of baptism and actual laying-on of hands are conditions.  Do you really want to gamble with your salvation?

Further, they may insist you meet certain conditions before they will even baptize you. Like committing to attend services with only their COG group, no matter what the circumstances. Or pledging not to contact family members from other COG groups, or outside your COG group. Or quitting a job. After all, those fun guys over at the Living Church of God recently disfellowshipped a member over his nursing home job. Basically, baptism can be dangled like a carrot over your head to control any kind of behavior or personal situation that a minister doesn't like. And if you object, they can simply refuse to baptize you and dash any hope of salvation. And the chances good that you will submit to that pressure. After all, is it really worth your eternal life?

Before we go any further, let me be perfectly clear. Jesus commanded his followers to be baptized. I recognize that, I believe it, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do it.  I've beep baptized. Twice, actually. Once in the COGs; once after leaving. So go ahead and get baptized if that's where Jesus is leading you. But understand why you’re doing it and what it really symbolizes. Do it for the right reason, and don’t let anyone use it to control your worship, your personal life and your decisions.

Baptism and Belief

So anyway, we should probably get back to the Bible. The first verse UCG writer Scott Ashley pulls out is Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.” There you have it. Those who believe and are baptized will be saved. Those who do not believe will be condemned.

Wait. What? The second half of the verse say that those who don’t BELIEVE will be condemned. It is not parallel in construction to the first sentence. On its face, Mark 16:16 does not say those who are not baptized will be condemned. Renown theologian John MacArthur, whom the COGs quote regularly, notes that baptism is not a prerequisite according to this scripture. He then expounds further on the topic of baptism in his commentary on Acts 2:38:

“Peter was obeying Christ’s command from Matthew 28:19 and urging the people who repented and turned to the Lord Christ for salvation to identify, through the waters of baptism, with His death, burial and resurrection.” MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1438.

Why? “This is the first time the apostles publicly enjoined people to obey that ceremony. Prior to this, many Jews had experienced the baptism of John the Baptist, and were also familiar with the baptism of Gentile converts to Judaism. For the new believer, it was a crucial but costly identification to accept.” (MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1439)

Wait. I thought Christians were baptized for the remission of sins, or to have their sins forgiven?
“This might be better translated ‘because of the remission of sins," MacArthur opines. "Baptism does not produce forgiveness and cleansing from sin. The reality of forgiveness precedes the rite of baptism. Genuine repentance brings from God the forgiveness of sins and, because of that, the new believer was to be baptized. Baptism, however, was to be the ever-present act of obedience, so that it became synonymous with salvation.” (MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1439)
Water certainly is a symbol of washing and cleansing from sin, and in a sense baptism does symbolize washing and purification from sins. More importantly, however, baptism symbolizes our death and resurrection with Christ, as Romans 6:1-11 and Colossians 2:11-12 indicate. It’s true that Titus 3:5 does mention Christian salvation through the washing of regeneration. I invite any COG minister who insists that this passage is about physical baptism to explain to me how he can hold that view yet simultaneously teach that baptized COG members aren’t born again until the resurrection. If he finds a way to wiggle out of that one, he can next explain how making physical baptism part of the salvation equation jives with Ephesians 2:8-9, and how that makes baptism anything other than the church bestowing saving grace upon individuals.
“If baptism and participating in the other sacraments are necessary for salvation because they are necessary for receiving saving grace, then salvation really is based on faith plus works. In contrast to this, the clear New Testament message is that justification is by faith alone. Therefore we must conclude that no work is necessary for salvation. And therefore baptism is not necessary for salvation. ” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 973
Some claim that 1 Peter 3:21 teaches that we are saved through baptism: “And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

As usual, the COG explanation helicopters in on a single verse to make its point rather than consider the verse in context. This passage explains Noah’s Ark as a metaphor for the spiritual safety found in Christ.
“To be sure he is not misunderstood, Peter clearly says he is not speaking of water baptism. In Noah’s Flood, they were kept out of the water while those who went into the water were destroyed. Being in the ark and thus saved from God’s  judgment on the world prefigures being in Christ and thus saved from God’s judgment on the world prefigures being in Christ and thus saved from eternal damnation.” MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1915-1916. 
Why be baptized?

So why exactly do I think you should be baptized if it is not required for salvation or the forgiveness of sin? Because Jesus commanded it, and we should obey the one who died in our place. Because baptism is the outward symbol of the beginning of Christian life. Individuals who have begun the Christian life through regeneration should be baptized, after giving a credible profession of faith. (A proper understanding of the doctrine of regeneration makes this topic much easier to understand.) The Biblical pattern is that only those who have given reasonable evidence of believing and trusting in Christ should be baptized:

(Acts 2:38-41) Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission for sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousands souls were added to them.  It would appear that those who received his message confessed their belief, then were baptized.

(Acts 8:12-13) But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done. Simon believed and then was baptized.

(Acts 8:35-38) Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water, what hinders me from being baptized?" Then Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.

(Acts 16:14-15) Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us. Lydia was baptized after God opened her heart and she responded.

(Acts 16:30-33) And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved. You and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Paul instructed the jailer to believe, and once they had professed belief, they were baptized.

We know spiritual giants like Abraham and David received the gift of salvation, but we have no evidence they were ever baptized. Hebrews 11 gives us a long list of others who were saved because of their faith with no mention of baptism. We know for a fact that the thief crucified with Jesus was not baptized, although the COGs would dispute this man received salvation. In Acts 10:44-46, we see Cornelius is saved before he was baptized. Short story long, none of these men received salvation because they were baptized, and neither do you.

The Laying on of Hands

The second part of this equation is the teaching that the Holy Spirit is only imparted when a “true minister of Jesus Christ” lays hands upon you. This clearly gives ministers the potential to claim you weren’t baptized by a true minister, and that you don’t have the Holy Spirit. A minister who was baptized and hands laid upon him by another minister who had the same done to him under the authority of Herbert W Armstrong, founder of the modern Church of God movement, who was baptized by a true minister of Christ... oh, wait....  HWA was baptized by - and must have therefore received the Holy Spirit from - a BAPTIST pastor if his teachings are correct on this point of doctrine. Oops. That’s embarrassing. About as embarrassing as the fact that this false teaching once again makes salvation dependent upon something we do, in violation of Ephesians 2:8-9.

The COGs typically hang this doctrine on Acts 19:1-6 and 2 Timothy 1:6. I’ll look at 2 Timothy first, since it’s shorter. Simply put, UCG likely takes it out of context, according to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Paul, who was Timothy’s mentor, spent much of his correspondence with his protégé instructing him in his pastoral role. Here, Paul was most likely referring to the account of Timothy’s ordination, not imparting the Holy Spirit.

Now let’s look at Acts 19:1-6 and what UCG claims it teaches. During his travels, Paul came into contact with some Ephesian disciples whom had been baptized by John the Baptist but had not received the Holy Spirit.
“Paul came upon some believers in Ephesus who had been baptized by no less than John the Baptist,"  UCG states in its article, Is the laying on of hands necessary to receive the Holy Spirit? "Yet they had not received the Holy Spirit for two reasons. One is that they did not have the laying on of hands. The other was that they apparently did not fully understand the Christian way of life, the covenant into which one enters through baptism."
It's no shock that those baptized by John the Baptist didn’t receive the Holy Spirit. The last time I checked, John the Baptist died long before Jesus did, long before the New Covenant was given. Further, John’s was a baptism of repentance pointing to Christ, not the same thing as Christian baptism.

Paul’s first question – did you receive the Holy Spirit – indicates he understood that true belief and receiving the Holy Spirit always went together. This is likely why he followed up with his second question – what baptism did you undergo? These men probably believed they were true disciples, but likely followed the teachings of John the Baptist, much like Apollos, whom Priscilla and Aquila needed to correct, according to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary. 

Perhaps the Holy Spirit “came upon” them when Paul laid hands on them as a dramatic demonstration to them  that baptism into the name of Jesus was superior to that of John the Baptist. For whatever reason, the Holy Spirit did come when Paul laid hands upon them. But this is not the way it happened every time. Let’s consider Acts 10:44-46, in which believers receive the Holy Spirit before Peter is even done speaking.

(Acts 10:44-46) While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? And then he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.

 The Holy Spirit fell on Peter’s listeners while he was still speaking. He did not lay hands upon them. It would these people had believed while Peter was speaking and undergone the internal work of regeneration. Baptism came afterwards. We see another account like this in Acts 11:15-17.
But wait! If the laying-on-of-hands doesn’t impart the Holy Spirit, then why must you be baptized by a "true minister of Christ"?

Ding ding ding! That's right! You DON’T! The Bible does not make any restrictions on who can perform baptisms. Churches usually have their pastor or other ordained representatives perform baptism ceremonies, to safeguard the practice from abuse and to properly explain the symbolism to those witnessing the ceremony (Systematic Theology, p. 984). It is certainly reasonable to do so. But there is no scriptural reason the responsibility couldn’t fall to a mature, unordained believer. Especially in remote areas where no “official” pastor is available.


At the end of the day, baptism is a positive, biblical ordinance.  I was baptized once in the COGs and chose to be baptized a second time after I departed.  Regardless of any wording in the actual ceremony, the major focus of my COG baptismal counseling was my understanding of and commitment to keep "God's" rituals and ordinances as defined by the COGs as an implicit matter of salvation.. And I know many others see it that way, too, because they threw it my face after I left. I say that not as a point of anger, but as a point of fact.

If you feel like God is leading you toward baptism, by all means, do it. But do it for the right reasons. To declare that you are leaving the old man behind, not just Easter and Christmas. To signify that you are placing your faith in the shed blood of Jesus, not in keeping the holy days or the Sabbath. And never, ever let the very ordinance through which you declare yourself a servant of Christ be used to control and enslave you to men.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

1 comment:

xHWA said...

Just goes to illustrate the myriad contradictions in the system.

The Holy Spirit is supposedly necessary in order to even understand that you are supposed to keep the law in the first place. Yet one doesn't have the Holy Spirit at all until baptism and laying on of hands by a *qualified* Minister. While at the same time, keeping the law is precondition for baptism.

You have to keep the law in order to be baptized. You have to be baptized in order to have the Holy Spirit. You have to have the Holy Spirit in order to keep the law.