Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sacred Cow: Baptism

Yesterday, the Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution affirming the use of the Sinner's Prayer. In my previous post, I turned to David Platt, Paul Washer and Francis Chan to refute the doctrine. Interestingly, it was Platt's talk at the Verge Conference this year that motivated the resolution as well as a counter to increasing Calvinist influence in the SBC. Eric Hankins, who wrote the resolution said invitations to the Sinner's Prayer are accompanied by calls to repentance and costly discipleship. Unfortunately that last part isn't in quotes in the Christianity Today article, because I'm genuinely interested if he really said that. In fact Platt's and Washer's criticism of the use of the Sinner's Prayer is specifically because it usually lacks the command to take up our cross, give up everything, and follow Christ.

So what is necessary for salvation? The obvious answer, which the Sinner's Prayer addresses, is faith in Christ alone. But if you dig into the Bible, you'll find that salvation is more nuanced. In fact the word that we often point to in scripture as "saved" literally means delivered. So context is very important to discern from what we are delivered and if saved in that context actually refers to our eternal salvation. With that in mind, a quick survey of "saved" scriptures leads us to either inconsistencies or contradictions. One cannot simply cherry-pick a single scripture to justify their position. And if you take each scripture reference as being true and not contradictory, then you get what looks like ingredients, if you will, for salvation. These ingredients are hear the Gospel, have faith in Christ, repent from your Christless life, confess (or call on) Jesus as Lord, and be baptized. It is not one or another, it has to be all the above.

A friend of mine and I were talking recently how the Churches of Christ and Baptist churches have always been "at war" and the battle is fought over where in that sequence above one is saved. The problem with the Sinner's Prayer is that it only addresses three parts of this: hearing the Gospel, responding with faith in Jesus, and responding to an invitation to call on his name. Hankins above quickly notices this discrepancy and notes that the Sinner's Prayer is followed by calls to repentance and costly discipleship.

It is here that we diverge. "Costly discipleship" includes baptism because Baptists argue that one is baptized out of obedience, which puts baptism on the same level as other "fruits" of discipleship such as practicing hospitality, forgiving others, loving your neighbor, etc. Yet I read in the Bible that the "alter call" from the very first sermon preached was to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. (Acts 2)

So the Baptists have planted their flag on "faith alone" while Churches of Christ planted their flag on baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And sadly, just as the Sinner's Prayer does not include every ingredient for salvation, the dogmatic adherence to baptism by some in the Churches of Christ has come at the cost of the other ingredients. This brings me to my next "sacred cow", baptism.

One problem is that the symbolism and significance of the act is not frequently taught (Romans 6 and 1 Peter 3 are good places to start). Because of this Jeremy Myers, blogging at, wrote a whole series on how and why baptism needs to be reconsidered. He starts from the right point, in my opinion, but comes to the wrong conclusion. He argues, in essence, that since we no longer know what baptism means or is about that we need a different, culturally relevant, ceremony to signify our conversion.

I would argue instead that we need to renew instruction on the whats and whys of baptism in the New Testament while looking back on the covenant relationships in the Old Testament. (for more, see the comments on Jeremy's post "Buried in the Trees and Sky")

Baptism can also easily become a box that one checks to make sure they're doing everything right without the heart being behind it. It is then used as a measuring stick for church growth and effective ministry. Baptism is no longer a means to salvation, but the ends of a church's or ministry's effort. Some argue that baptism is a "work". It is. When it becomes the central focus of your church as the ends and not the means, then it is in fact a work as our faith is no longer placed in the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, but in the water and ceremony of our church's tradition.

Yet if submissively allowing yourself to be dunked in water is a work, then isn't also the alter call and Sinner's Prayer? Are not those also "efforts" expended in order to be saved? Don't we also count how many "accepted Jesus" at a rally or crusade? I believe the line to be drawn between surrendered humble obedience and a salvation of works is who the emphasis is on. With the altar call and Sinner's Prayer "I" invite, "I" accept, "I" pray Jesus into my heart. While in baptism I allow someone else to do the work for me. Yes, a preacher, minister, father, spouse or friend may be doing the act, but if my faith is not in the water nor in the one baptizing, then I am literally drowning myself to die and allow God to raise me up into a new life.

A scripture that really helped me come to terms with this was 1 Peter 3 where we read that baptism is a "pledge of a good conscience" (v 21) The NIV footnote says pledge can be replace with response, but I believe that also misses the point. The Greek word eperotema is translated by the English Standard Version and Holman Christian Standard as "appeal". That makes the whole tone of this verse more passive. In baptism, we appeal to the grace of God- it is not us doing the work, but Christ in us.

I could go on and on, but I encourage you to study this out for yourself. The latest issue of New Wineskins has many articles this month on baptism that are well worth the read. I also want you to honestly go back to Francis Chan's video that I posted yesterday. He goes further in this video below:

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