Faith Saves; Baptism Doesn’t

Question from a Site Viewer
Tim, I found your answer to a question concerning 1 Peter 3:21 to be very good for the most part. Context is key to understanding any passage. Baptism saves no one. God saves. It is through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross that we can be forgiven. It is through his resurrection that we have the hope of eternal life. He conquered death. God saves. Not acts or works. Will there be people in heaven who were never immersed? My opinion; yes. Will there be people in heaven who were immersed? My opinion; yes. Now let us look at context a moment. You mention the thief on the cross being an example of salvation granted without baptism. True. But look at context. Jesus had not died. He had not been buried and then raised. The thief on the cross is not in the same situation as I am today. Nor was he in the same situation as the multitude who first heard the Gospel message on the day of Pentecost. This was after Jesus death and resurrection. What were people told to do? Repent and be immersed. Did the baptism save them? No. God did. But he chose that moment of obedience, in which he would grant forgivness and his indwelling Holy Spirit.

Here’s another point. The Holy Spirit dwells within the believer. At the home of Cornelius, speaking in tongues did not mean that they had the indwelling Holy Spirit of the believer. Rather, it was an instance of the spirit of God coming on these individuals just as he did in several places in the Old Testament. The purpose here was to show Peter and the other Jewish Christians that God would accept Gentiles on the same basis as Jews.

If belief, or faith alone brings forgiveness of sins, then Paul had his story wrong. In Acts 22:16, Paul is recounting his conversion experience. He had seen the Lord. He believed Jesus. There is no reason, from the accounts of the story, to think that he did not believe in Jesus from the day that he lost his sight. At the moment of his belief he should have been cleansed from his sins. And yet he says in Acts 22:16 that Ananias told him to arise and be baptized, washing away his sins, calling on the name of the Lord. Consider the Great Commission of our Lord to his followers. He tells them, and us, to go and make disciples. How are we to do this? By baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and also by teaching them to obey all that he has commanded. The biggest stumbling block that stands between those who believe that baptism is the point at which God grants forgiveness and gives the indwelling Holy Spirit, and those who believe baptism is a sign that the “already saved” do, is that people tend to view baptism as a work. If it were, then I would believe in a works salvation. But the fact is that the focus in baptism isn’t on what I am doing, but on what God is doing. I don’t earn salvation in baptism. I am not working. Rather, God is working during that time of my obedience. He chooses that time to apply the blood to my sins. If baptism is a work, then so is any form of sinners’ prayer. If I have to consciously pray, or ask God to save me, then that too is a work, if baptism is a work. Neither are though. In baptism, just as Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:21, I am making an appeal to God for a good conscience. I am asking him to save me, but it all depends on him. Let us not misunderstand one another’s point of view. God saves. He has given us an ark to build. If Noah had decided a tu-boat would better survive the deluge coming, then he would have drowned in the flood. He had to do what God told him to do. Did the Ark save him? No. God did. He has told us to be immersed. Does baptism save us? No. God does. But I need to “build” according to his specifications.

Tim’s Answer
I fully agree with you that there will be people in heaven who have been immersed. And there will be people in heaven who have not been immersed. And I will add that there will be people in hell who have been immersed. And there will be people in hell who have not been immersed. Immersion or baptism has never been a way into God’s kingdom.

I also agree with you that baptism is taught by Christ for all believers.

However, I do not think Scripture supports the position that God grants forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at baptism. First, as is explained in my analysis of the Acts 2:38 passage, I do not think the context supports a conclusion that baptism was a prerequisite for forgiveness of sins. Rather, I think the force of the passage, when compared with similar passages, is to the opposite; that the forgiveness of sins was the prerequisite for the baptism.

But, be that as it may, the example of Acts 2:38 is not normative even in the book of Acts. The Spirit came in Acts 2 on those in the upper room, not when they were baptized, but when they were praying. In Acts 8:14-16 and Acts 19:1-5, believers received the Holy Spirit, not at their baptism, but when Peter and John, and in the later passage, Paul, laid hands on them. In Acts 10:44, the Holy Spirit came on Cornelius at the speaking of Peter, not at baptism or the laying on of hands. I note, also, that while you may believe that this was not the indwelling Spirit, I suspect that your position has more to do with your theology than with the context of that passage. Peter says in the passage that the Holy Spirit came on Cornelius just like it did on the disciples in Acts 2 (Acts 10:47; 11:16-17). In what way do we understand the coming of the Spirit in Acts 2? Was it to indwell or simply to empower? We understand that coming to be what Christ said would happen in Luke 24:29 and Acts 1:4-6. If so, then it is the fulfillment of the John 14:16 promise of Christ. And there, Jesus said the Spirit would remain with the disciples forever. Thus, in the context, the event of Acts 2 was the coming of the Spirit to indwell the believers. All churches of which I am familiar believe this to be the case. And if what happened to Cornelius is the same thing that happened to the disciples in Acts 2, as Peter says it is, then it is hard to argue that this was empowerment and not indwelling.

So, we have in Acts 2 an example of the Spirit coming when people were praying. We have later in Acts 2 an example where the Spirit seems linked to repentance and baptism. We have in Acts 8 an example of the Spirit’s coming with the laying on of the hands of an apostles (This is not simply implied but expressly stated). We have in Acts 10 an example where the Spirit’s coming is linked solely to speaking. The baptism came later. And, we have in Acts 19 an example of where the Spirit’s coming is linked to the laying on of hands.

Is there a reason why you would see baptism as being the point at which forgiveness is given and the Spirit comes, rather than prayer, preaching, or the laying on of hands?

As for the forgiveness of sins, I note in Acts 8:13 that Simon was baptized but apparently he still needed forgiveness (Acts 8:22-23). Apparently, Simon’s baptism did not free him from sin.

The one constant in each situation of salvation is trust in Jesus. This is the constant throughout Scripture. It is the sole basis on which Abraham was declared righteous (Genesis 15:8). It is the basis on which the Psalmist places us under the blessing of God (Psalm 2:12). It is the sole basis given by the Psalmist for the forgiveness of sins (Psalm 34:1-2, 10). It is the basis that Jesus, John, Peter, and Paul gave us for eternal life (John 1:12-13; 3:15, 16, 18, 36; 4:39-43; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 7:38 [belief as the condition for having the Holy Spirit]; 9:35-38; 10:37-38; 11:25-26; 12:46; 14:1; 17:20; 20:30-31; Acts 4:4; 4:32; 5:14; 9:42; 10:43 [whoever believes will receive remission of sins]; 11:21; 13:12, 38-39 [he who believes is justified and has forgiveness of sins]; 14:1; 16:31; 17:12, 34; 19:4; 20:21 [repentance and faith]; 21:25; Romans 1:16; 3:22, 26, 28, 30; 4:3, 5, 11, 16-22, 24; 5:1 9:32; 10:6-17; 1 Corinthians 15:1-2; Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 9, 14, 24; Ephesians 1:13; 2:8-10; etc.) It is the basis for salvation in the Old Testament (Hebrews 11). These all died in faith, but they embraced the promise (Hebrews 11:13) and God has prepared for them a city. It is the basis for salvation in the New Testament, as pointed out in Romans 3-5, 10; Galatians 1, 3-5, Ephesians 2:8-9, and other passages. Paul goes so far to say that we should beware not to add anything to this good news.

The passages that talk about baptism are few in comparison, and given the overwhelming number of passages talking about salvation without any mention of baptism, it seems to me that the more plausible view is that baptism is a matter of obedience that sometimes accompanied salvation in those few passages, but was never a prerequisite. Thus, for example, in the end of Mark, we are told that those who believe and are baptized are saved. But then we are told that those who do not believe are condemned. That is, baptism accompanies belief, but belief itself is still the determinative factor.

Because I see Scripture teaching that salvation in the Old and New Testament comes exactly the same way, through faith in the revealed God, I do not know on what basis one can conclude that the salvation of the thief on the cross is different than salvation the day afterwards, or a year later. Salvation and justification have always been solely by faith. The thief was saved because Jesus died for his sins. Paul argues for our faith from the fact that Abraham was saved by the simple act of faith and that David was also (Romans 4). Because of his belief, Abraham was circumcised, but it was not his circumcision that saved him, brought about his forgiveness of sins, etc. There seems to be some linkage in Paul’s mind between baptism and circumcision (Colossians 2:11-13). But whether one grants this linkage or not, the Old Testament saints were saved solely by their faith (Romans 4; Hebrews 11). And I see nothing different in the New Testament. Paul tells the Corinthians that he did not baptize them (1 Corinthians 1:14) but then he says that he begot them through the gospel (1 Corinthians 4:15) and that they were saved through the gospel he preached which they received and in which they stood and by which they were saved (1 Corinthians 15:1-2). In Acts 19:1-5, Paul saw the unbaptized persons there as “disciples,” of whom Paul asked whether they had received the Holy Spirit when they “believed.” Paul saw them as brothers in Christ who had believed. Yet, they had not been baptized, at least not with the baptism of Christ. And yet, this was some 20 years after the death of Christ.

Are we to say that if we reach someone with the good news of Jesus when they are very ill, and having heard the good news, they receive it with joy, but they then pass away, they will not be saved? This is not an abstract issue. Back in the days of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the horrible atrocities, there were some Christians that were ministering in a United Nations refugee camp just inside Thailand. One night, this Cambodian refugee was dying and she asked the nurse about Jesus. The nurse told her the good news and this lady gave her heart to Jesus. She died that night. The next day, when the nurse came back to the building, other Cambodians there immediately demanded of the nurse that she tell them what she told that lady, because they had never seen any person die with such peace. This began a long prayed-for movement of God among the refugees. Like the thief on the cross, I have no doubt but that the lady will be in heaven based solely on her faith.

Paul tells us in Romans 10 that if we call on the name of the LORD, we will be saved. And this is precisely what the prophet Joel stated in the Old Testament.

You reference Paul’s conversion account in Acts 22:16 as support for a position that God imparts forgiveness of sins upon baptism. I am very hesitant to find that passage supporting such a conclusion. The words “baptize” and “wash” are both infinitives without any trace of being dependent one to the other. They are connected by “kai,” which is the general Greek conjunction. Literally, we might read the verse as “arise to be baptized and to let go of your sins, calling on His name.” Thus, in this verse, it appears that it may be the act of arising that brings about both baptism and a losing of sins. If there is any prerequisite to both baptism and the forgiveness of sins, it is that Paul needed to get up and get going. But there is certainly nothing in the grammar, either in the English versions or in the Greek, that would suggest that forgiveness happened at baptism. And Paul does not teach such doctrine any place in his many epistles.

As for the argument made by some that baptism is a work, I am not sure of the distinction that you see between baptism and, say, circumcision. Both baptism and circumcision were commanded by God. Both are rituals to be performed by those who come to Him. Yet, I think all readers of Scripture would see circumcision as a work. When Paul talks about works in Galatians 3:2-5, he seems to have circumcision right in mind (See Galatians 5:1-4). If circumcision is a work, then how is baptism not a work? It is a ritual we do at the command of our God. I do not see the distinction. I understand that it is an act of obedience. But so was keeping the law or circumcision. Is it somehow different because it is a New Testament command instead of an Old Testament one?

I think the clear teaching of Scripture is that forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit come from faith in the Lord Jesus. If we do not have the Holy Spirit, we are not of God (Romans 8:9). But all who believe on His name are His children (John 1:12). It is the gospel that is the power of God to salvation for those who believe, not baptism.

I would request that you examine what passages you would use to support a view that baptism is the point at which forgiveness and the Holy Spirit are given and compare them with the other statements in Scripture on belief, forgiveness of sins, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

However, most importantly, I believe the issue of baptism or faith should not be our defining issue. Rather, that issue should be love towards one another. In Hebrews 6:1-2, Scripture tells us to leave behind the doctrine of repentance from dead works and faith towards God, of the doctrine of baptisms and laying on of hands, and that we should go on to perfection. Paul tells is in 1 Corinthians 13 that the greatest of all is love. By love, His disciples are known. We will be judged by our Lord one day, not on the degree that our doctrine was right, but on how we treated our neighbor and how we loved our God in deed and action.

This is not to say that doctrine is unimportant. To the contrary, our doctrine should teach us to love one another. But as Paul states, “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

I pray that the Lord Jesus will give you wisdom in this matter and that He will ever draw you into a closer and more holy relationship with Himself. I do not say that you need to believe as I do. But I hope you will understand that some of us simply see any view adding something to faith as being contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, and more akin to compelling circumcision than you may see.


Related Articles:
Did Jesus Command Baptism in Order to be Saved?   (off-site)
Water Baptism – A Scriptural Description
The Translation of “eis” in Acts 2:38
Water Baptism – Is it Necessary for Salvation?

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