Baptism and the principle of doubt

Years ago, I listened as Dick Sztanyo presented an excellent lesson on ethics. In it, he enumerated a number of principles for ethical decision-making. One he called the “principle of doubt.” Citing Romans 14:23, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (ESV), Sztanyo reasoned that if one doubted the rightness of an action, one should so act as to remove the doubt.

The context of Romans 14 discusses morally neutral actions that may prick the consciences of weak Christians, thus causing them to sin. The principle of doubt calls the weak to avoid those actions and thus clear their consciences. May the principle of doubt also be applied to another class of actions?

Baptism is most assuredly a morally good action. It is required by God (Mark 16:15, 16), in order to cleanse the sinner from his or her sins (Acts 22:16), to enter into a relationship with Christ (Romans 6:1-14; Galatians 3:26, 27), and thus be saved from sin (1 Peter 3:21). It is a new birth accomplished by the power of God (Colossians 2:12, 13).

But what if someone does not truly have faith in Christ? What if someone does not alter their life? What if someone does not make Jesus their Lord? Are their sins forgiven? Were they truly baptized?

It could take years for someone to realize that their immersion may not have been sufficient. Perhaps they begin to doubt their initial understanding, or their initial submission and commitment to Christ. Perhaps they believe it is possible they were never truly saved.

It is common to negatively compare what we knew in the past to what we know now. As one learns more, they grow in faith and appreciation for God. This is good and healthy. As we grow, we may fall victim to a kind of cognitive bias and feel less and less confident about what we knew when we decided to put Christ on in baptism. In these cases, another immersion is not necessary. One needs to be reminded of what they understood and committed to when they were previously immersed (see this article, and the comments following).

For those who cannot shed the doubt, the principle of doubt should be applied. They should so act as to be confident in their salvation (1 John 5:12, 13).

Friend, do not go through life with nagging doubts. If you have obeyed the Lord’s commands, be confident in your salvation. If you have not obeyed the Lord’s commands, do so, abide in his love, and you will have confidence when he comes (1 John 4:16-18).

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