At church we’ve been having a discussion about whether baptism is necessary for salvation. I should say, the elders have been having that discussion, and I’m an elder. Where I go to church, we elders and the pastor are the church’s leadership. So it’s important for us to align on such matters.
We elders all come from different faith traditions. The various branches of Christianity all follow God and Jesus, but there are so many branches because we don’t agree on all doctrinal points.
In my church, the elders have historically agreed on key doctrinal points. Crucially, we have also agreed that only a few points are key. When we don’t agree on non-key doctrinal points, we come to agree what we will teach on them so there is unity.
Over the last few years a couple elders have stepped down and a couple new elders have come on. It’s reopened some formerly settled doctrinal points. We recently realized that we might not agree on whether baptism is necessary for salvation.
There is no doctrine more central to the faith than that of salvation. It’s how we access God’s waiting forgiveness of our sins, and it’s how we are joined with him forever. We need to get this one right.
I’m in a Restoration Movement church. You know us as the Churches of Christ, independent Christian Churches, and the Disciples of Christ. We believe that a person must make his or her own decision to follow Christ. We link baptism to that decision (in different ways, as I’ll explain in a moment). Therefore, we don’t baptize infants.
If you decide to follow Christ in one of our churches, we’ll ask you to publicly confess your faith: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and I accept him as my Lord and Savior.” If you’ve never been baptized, or if you were baptized before you could choose for yourself, we will baptize you. It’s quite a spectacle, as we dunk your full body into a pool of water. Bring dry clothes.
(We believe that baptism, by the way, is a sacrament any believer can administer. I baptized one of my sons. Read that story here.)
The Bible says in Ephesians 2:8-9 that we are saved by God’s grace through our faith in him. I believe that you’ll hear this preached in every Restoration Movement church. We agree that we must confess our faith to be saved.
We are not all aligned on baptism’s role, however. Some of us also say that unless you are also baptized you can’t access that saving grace, for the act of baptism washes your sins away. Acts 2:38 is usually cited in support. Some of us say that baptism it is a necessary step of obedience to God, but in itself does not accomplish salvation. The rest of us say that baptism is nothing more than an outward sign of the grace you have received, and a public declaration of your changed mind and heart.
This is tricky stuff. Many learned and earnest people have carefully and prayerfully studied the Bible on baptism’s role in salvation, and yet my faith tradition is still divided by these three positions. I hew to the middle one: we are saved entirely by grace through faith, but baptism is a necessary step of obedience.
I’m just a man serving as best I can, fallible and imperfect. I’m always open to looking at scripture again, and again, and again. My study and prayer, as open-minded and -hearted as I can make it, has certainly expanded, refined, and outright changed my understanding of other doctrinal matters many times. But this is where I stand today on baptism.
We said goodbye to my mother-in-law not long ago. She was 90; her time had simply come. She and her husband are deeply faithful Catholics. I had little contact with Catholicism before marrying their daughter Margaret. I watched firsthand how the beliefs and traditions of the Catholic faith comforted this family through this loss. The funeral mass was powerful. The priest was fantastic. He modeled Christ at every moment, with every turn, as he helped this family grieve. He materially helped me grieve as a non-Catholic. I’ve never been to a funeral that so thoroughly helped a family say goodbye to a loved one.
My mother-in-law was baptized as an infant, before she could choose. I know that there is a path of preparation in the Catholic Church, that a young person at a certain age can choose to continue, to be confirmed. My mother in law chose confirmation.
She deeply loved God and Jesus. She obeyed and served to the best of her ability throughout her life.
I don’t find the Catholic pattern in the Bible. But do I think my mother-in-law is saved? Oh my goodness, yes. She was a human being with shortcomings, but I saw every one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) in her. She belonged to God. It would be a miscarriage of God’s grace and justice if my mother in law is anywhere other than with God in his Kingdom today.
All of us who try to figure out what God asks of us misinterpret or misread something somewhere and believe — and therefore act — wrongly. I’m highly suspicious of anyone who says they’re certain they’re right, or that they know the one proper way to think, believe, or act.
Yet I have to believe something, especially when it comes to crucial matters like how one is saved. I have come to believe that salvation is by grace through faith, chosen freely, and that baptism is a necessary step of obedience to that saving grace. But I cannot bring myself to criticize any soul who earnestly follows God and, thoughtfully and prayerfully, believes and practices something different.