“Baptism is the most important event in the life of a child of God.” If one were to declare thus in a typical American Baptist church, that person would almost immediately be labeled a heretic or at least be charged with misunderstanding the Word of God. “Baptism is merely an outward picture of an inward reality,” they would answer. “Baptism does not save a soul.” To which I would respond, “A symbol of what?” To which they would reply, “Of dying with Christ and being raised with him.” “Which is what?” I would ask. To which I would expect an “I do not know,” or a “Being born again,” or an “Accepting of Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.”
The sad irony for most of us who call ourselves Baptists is that we bear baptism in our denominational title, yet we by and large have no clue what baptism is. In this way, we are much like the Circumcision party of whom the apostle Paul writes in Galatians 5 in that we, like them, bear the symbol of God’s covenant in our title, and, we, like them, understand the symbol of the covenant with great precision, and yet we do not understand the reality behind the symbol. We, like the Circumcision party, are zealously meticulous about practicing the symbol correctly, giving lectures and preaching sermons on why baptism by immersion is the only acceptable mode of baptism, all the while neglecting to teach upon the reality of baptism. We will harp upon the mode of the symbol to such detail so as to say that a baptizer cannot hold the nose of the one being baptized because dead people do not hold their noses, yet we neglect to teach that baptism is matter of the heart performed by the Spirit of God not by the letter of the law.
“What is the big deal? Why does this zealotry upon the proper mode of baptism have any weight upon the health of the church?” The reason that this emphasis upon the proper mode of baptism has been a burden upon the church is that it more often than not draws attention from the teaching of the reality that is baptism. And by focusing upon the symbol and neglecting the reality, we who call ourselves Baptists have neglected the proper teaching of the Gospel. For if what the apostle Peter writes is true, namely that “Baptism saves you” (1Pt. 3:21), and salvation comes through the Gospel alone, then baptism is the Gospel. Therefore, our proper understanding of baptism is essential to our proper understanding of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
However, before I address the proper understanding of baptism and the Gospel, I need to first address why we need baptism and the Gospel that accords with baptism. In his Epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul bookends his letter by testifying that he has two charges as an apostle: to preach the Gospel and to bring about what he calls the “obedience of faith” in those to whom he preaches (Rm. 1:1, 5; 16:25, 26). As we read further into the Epistle, we find that these two charges given to the apostle–to preach the Gospel and to bring about the obedience of faith–are not two separate charges, but they are in fact the same charge. In other words, the Gospel is the obedience of faith. For we find in the Epistle that no one will see God and have life apart from the Gospel, and no will see God and have life apart from the obedience of faith. For the apostle writes, “He will render to each one according to his works. To those who by patience in well doing seek glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rm. 2:6-8). Therefore, obedience is necessary for salvation and eternal life, and disobedience leads to damnation. Therefore, since obedience to the law of God saves a soul, then obedience therefore has some part in the Gospel.
However, despite the clear declaration that “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rm. 2:13), the apostle seems on the surface to contradict himself later in the letter by writing that salvation comes from faith alone apart from works of the law. He writes, “For the Promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents (obeyers) of the law who are to the be the heirs, faith is null and the Promise is void” (Rm. 4:14). Thus he writes later, “Therefore, we have been justified by faith” (Rm. 5:1), seemingly contradicting what he had written earlier, namely, “The doers (obeyers) of the law will be justified” (Rm. 2:13). So then which is it? Are we justified by faith, or are we justified by obedience?
The answer to the question is not an easy one, and it has been typically answered in one of three ways. Two of the ways are false ways and are prevalent in the church even now, and one is true and not as prevalent. Both false ways distort the language of the Gospel, and both are, because of this, a false gospel. The first of the two false ways to deal with what the apostle calls the obedience of faith is the emphasis of obedience to the neglect of faith. This is what we would call a works-based Christianity. And though it is found across denominational lines, the chief example of this way is Roman Catholicism. These who hold to such a works-based gospel focus upon the deeds of men and neglect the righteousness that comes by faith, and as such, they must distort the language of the Gospel to change the Christian religion from a heart and Spirit-based religion to one that is deeds based. Thus when you speak to many Roman Catholics, you will hear them speak of charity instead of love, of penance instead of repentance, of service instead of worship, and of sacrament instead of grace–all these manipulations highlighting their distortion of the Gospel.
The second is its opposite, and it likewise distorts the Gospel and its language. It is the response the apostle’s declarations that emphasizes faith to the neglect of obedience, and it is prevalent in many churches who call themselves Evangelical. This way emphasizes the initial will and response to its gospel call, and neglects the fruits of true faith, which is obedience unto holiness and eternal life. Thus those who hold to such distort the language of the Gospel by using phrases such as “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior” instead of “Believe and repent,” “Once saved, always saved” instead of the doctrine of the “Perseverance of the Saints,” and, perhaps the worst of all, “You have accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior, will you not accept him as your Lord?”
And though both distort the language of the Gospel so as to make it what it is not, both have a much more fundamental problem, namely they both rest upon the work of men. This is such a problem because both presume that men by their nature are able in their present state to perform in such a way so as to bring themselves into God’s favor. The problem with such a presumption is that the apostle Paul declares in Romans 5 that all men are sons of Adam, and as his sons, have him as their head and are therefore children of disobedience and slaves of sin and unrighteousness. Thus the apostle says of men in Adam:
None is righteous, no not one;
No one understands, no one seeks for God;
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
No one does good, not even one;
Their throat is an open grave;
…They use their tongues to deceive;
…The venom of asps is under their lips;
Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness;
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
In their paths are ruin and misery;
…And the way of peace they have not known;
…There is no fear of God before their eyes (Rm. 3:10-18).
For this reason, no man can work his way to God, for, “No one does good, not even one,” and no one can will his way to God, for, “No one understands, no one seeks for God.” It is for this reason that the apostle writes later in the Epistle, “So then, [salvation] depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy” (v. 9:16), and why he quotes the prophet Isaiah later in that chapter same concerning Israel, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah” (v. 9:29).