Faith or faith plus baptism?

by Barry Newton

A week ago, I returned to my office to discover an articulate question on the answering machine. “When is a person justified, upon faith or upon faith plus baptism?”

The question merely caused me to smile. It would seem reasonable to presume this theological trap had been set by a very sincere and ardent individual. Unfortunately, his question assumes a false framework.

Obviously, he assumed faith in Christ is merely something in one’s head and heart and therefore can easily be separated from the physical activity of baptism. What message might cause him to consider the possibility that perhaps when the gospel calls for people to trust in Jesus this involves baptism? What could lead him to consider the possibility that faith and baptism might be inseparable?

Suddenly the idea of a question he would never consider popped to mind. And so, the internet sped along a brief email suggesting that biblical faith and baptism cannot be separated followed by this question:

“When is a person justified, upon faith or upon faith plus saying a sinner’s prayer?”

The goal was not to win an argument, but to help someone reexamine their assumptions in view of God’s word. For if we are going to think biblically, we need to start with biblical definitions and with a biblical framework, not merely inherited ones.

I anticipated he would have a hard time even comprehending how faith and baptism could be inseparable, Yet, I felt assured he would immediately object to separating faith from inviting Jesus into one’s heart.

If from his perspective he would acknowledge that it is impossible to separate faith from the activity of saying a sinner’s prayer, then we would be prepared to begin examining the scriptures regarding the nature of faith and whether faith in Christ can be separated from the activity of baptism.

As far as I can determine, when the New Testament authors used faith to mean trusting in Jesus, they would be shocked at even conceiving of the idea of “faith plus baptism.” Why? Because they taught and practiced that for someone to begin to trust in Christ for salvation required immersion.

To end this little story, he informed me that he held to a Reformed viewpoint and wanted to know if I had any resources explaining my understanding of the gospel in more depth. Nearly a week ago I sent an email with a variety of links. And then there was silence. Wherever he is I hope he chooses to rely upon Christ’s death for him by being buried with Christ in baptism.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They have two boys attending university.

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7 thoughts on “Faith or faith plus baptism?

  1. “Obviously, he assumed faith in Christ is merely something in one’s head and heart and therefore can easily be separated from the physical activity of baptism.”

    Or, maybe he got it from people who got it from the bible…Acts10:44 “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” Peter preached, they believed and received the Spirit…they were saved without water baptism or some formal “sinner’s prayer.” Just like the thief on the cross. Just like Abraham for that matter:

    Rom4:3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness… 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised…
    20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord….

    Back in the Reformation, Luther put it like this, “we are saved by faith alone, but true faith is never alone.” So yes, the Reformed types are in agreement that true faith will inevitably produce fruit, or works. Real faith will motivate us to confess Jesus as Lord in public and accept the physical sign of the covenant in water baptism (assuming we have not already been baptized.) But don’t miss that Abraham was “saved” and declared right with God before he accepted the physical sign of the covenant. Circumcision was a sign of “righteousness by faith” – it pointed to it, but it was not the thing itself. Many Jews have made that mistake with circumcision and it seems many Christians intend to follow their error with baptism.

    The water of baptism is not magical and can only “remove dirt from the flesh” (1Pet3:21). It is not water baptism that unites us to Christ. All four gospels testify to this: Jesus baptizes with the Spirit (Matt3:11;Mark1:8) and THAT is the baptism which corresponds perfectly to salvation and that is the only washing that can actually make us clean. Water baptism is not itself that spiritual washing but rather it is a sign or symbol that points us toward Jesus’ true cleansing (which is typically described as sprinkling or pouring):

    Isa52:13Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted. 14 Just as many were astonished at you, My people, So His appearance was marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men. 15 Thus He will SPRINKLE many nations…

    Ezek36:25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

    Psa51:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin…7 Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow…

    (For reference to Psa51:7: Numbers 19:18A clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, and SPRINKLE it… Also Exod12:21-22/ Heb10:22/Heb11:28(NAS)/1Pet1:2 –sprinkled with the blood of the Lamb.)

    And going back to Acts:

    Acts10:44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit FELL on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was POURED OUT even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ….11:15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit FELL on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

    It’s the same Greek verb in 11:16 for both “baptisms.” Baptism with the Spirit (see also Acts2) is clearly pictured as a “pouring out” which “falls” on the recipients. So if you didn’t know at all what the word “baptize” meant, you would conclude from this passage that being baptized with water means the water is poured out from above and falls on you, as Cornelius and company’s baptism with the Spirit reminded Peter of John’s baptism with water. (And focused Bereans will notice that the language of Acts10:47 implies that water was to be brought to them for baptism, rather than them going to the water.)

    “Immersion only” is a tough position to defend from the scriptures…but teaching that water is what unites us to Christ is even more problematic.

  2. Charles,

    According to Genesis 1:21 which says, “So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.” what came first, the chicken or the egg?

    The egg right? First the creature then the offspring. God’s word settles it.

    Now according to Mark 16:16 which says, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” what comes first, baptism or salvation?

    The answer is baptism. First baptism then the blessing of salvation. God’s word settles it.

    Now if we can let God’s word settle the question about the chicken and the egg then why can’t we allow God’s word the settle the question about baptism and salvation.

    One must have faith (understanding, trust and desire) before being baptized for anything else would only result in a wet sinner. But put a gospel grounded faith and baptism together and the result is a washed sinner through the blood of Jesus Christ (Acts 22:16, Revelation 1:5).

  3. Mark1:7 And John preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

    Which baptism is Mark 16:16 referring to? I think Mark gave you the answer back in chapter 1 but you missed it. You clearly think water can do more than “remove dirt from the body” as Peter put it…while I think it’s essential to be “washed in the blood.” (1Pet1:2) Water baptism is a sign – it points to that washing but water does not wash you spiritually.

    You didn’t address Acts 10-11 at all. They were washed by the Spirit BEFORE they were baptized with water. But that doesn’t fit your tradition, does it? Like I said, many Jews were convinced that physical circumcision really cut away their spiritual uncleanness…but that was just a sign pointing to their need for the real circumcision (Deut10:16, 30:6; Jer4:4,9:25, for starters).

    Paul preached eagerly so that those who heard and believed would be saved – yet how concerned was he with water baptism? “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius…”(1Cor1:14) Doesn’t sound to me like he was concerned that some of those who heard and believed might fail to be saved due to water baptism…

    No one is arguing that we should NOT be baptized with water. The questions are “does water baptism save” and “is immersion the only valid form of baptism?” Water baptism is correctly understood as a second order issue, not as something to divide over…but I completely understand that that is difficult for Baptists to hear…

  4. Charles,

    Again, let the scriptures speak instead of trying to speak for them.

    The intent of water baptism in the New Testament was never, is never, and will never be to remove the “filth/dirt of the flesh” – the intent and design of water baptism is to have the soul washed through the blood of Jesus Christ so we can have a clean conscience before God when it comes to sin.

    The apostle Peter himself says water baptism does more than “remove dirt from the body”:

    “Baptism is like that. It saves you now – not because it removes dirt from the body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” (1 Peter 3:21 – CEB)

    Placing your own “not” where you want it to be doesn’t change where the “not” belongs (think Genesis 2:17 and 3:4).

    As to your reference to Acts 10, if they were already “washed” from their sins then why were they washed again through baptism? (Acts 10:47) It was because they weren’t washed from their sins yet.

    The apostle Peter knew good and well that it took faith (Acts 10:43) and baptism for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38) for a person to find forgiveness when it comes to the gospel – he was the one who preached it. It takes faith and baptism to be saved (again think Mark 16:16).

    And the importance of baptism to Paul? I’d say Acts 22:16 sums that up well enough – “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”

    If you take what Paul was saying in 1 Corinthians 1:14 in context, instead of taking it as a pretext, you’ll see that Paul was saying what he was saying because the Christians at Corinth were using it as a reason to have sinful pride and as a point of division – which was the exact opposite of the intent (which was union together within the body of Christ) that baptism was designed to have (1 Corinthians 1:10-17, 12:12-14). It’s really that simple.

    As far as the circumcision comparison that you were attempting to make, I don’t trust the water in and of itself, I trust the grace of the God who tells me that water is a part of His plan and I believe and obey it no matter how others neglect it or abuse it (Hebrews 5:9). So your point has no point.

    I won’t get into a long drawn out debate here because the scriptures and explanations that I have provided (along with the original article) are easy enough to understand for one who is looking for the truth. God bless in your studies, Charles.

  5. Vacations are wonderful, but it is also fantastic to be home again. I do not need to reiterate Eugene’s appropriate comments. In addition to them, I might briefly add the following observations:

    In Acts, Luke used phrases like “believed” or “became obedient to the faith” to signify conversion. At other times, when Luke delves into the details about how individuals or groups of people relied upon Christ for salvation, we read how they were baptized. Accordingly, what we discover within Acts is not a disparity about how to rely upon Christ, but rather summarized stories of conversion (“they believed”) sprinkled among more in depth accounts of conversion indicating baptism was involved.

    Further evidence that Luke used “believe” to summarize conversion can be seen by comparing Acts 15:7 with the fuller description of that event in Acts 10:47-48 which includes water baptism.

    For a second observation on the conversion story of Cornelius’ household in Acts 10, we discover in Acts 15:8 and 11:15-17 the purpose for the Holy Spirit coming upon Cornelius’ family. It was not to save them, but to offer Jewish Christians the strongest confirmation possible that God desired to accept the Gentiles. Peter’s words in Acts 10:28 describe the barrier preventing Jewish Christians from sharing the Gospel with the Gentiles. But with the heavenly vision (Acts 10:11-16) God had started to soften Peter’s heart toward accepting the Gentiles thereby eventually causing Peter to acknowledge God’s desire for the Gentiles (Acts 10:28, 34-35).

    In fact it is because of this Jewish barrier against the Gentiles, that the Jewish Christians criticized Peter (Acts 11:2) … until they heard the undeniable proof how God had revealed He was accepting the Gentiles since He also gave them the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:15-17).

    It is significant that it is only after this sign of acceptance, that Luke records some Christians went to Antioch “and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.” Acts 11:20

    May the Lord bless all of us in our study of His word.

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