Sunday, December 5, 2010

Baptism and Salvation

I doubt if the church will ever agree on various things, one of them, unfortunately, being what the role of baptism is in the Christian life. Some, however, are absolutely certain that God never uses baptism as a way to bring us to saving faith.  I think that is very unfortunate.  How can you be so sure?  Read these verses and consider whether it's in the realm of possibility that perhaps God might choose to use baptism in a saving way:

In Matthew 28:18-20 our Lord Jesus Christ says: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

And in Mark 16:16 he says: "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; but whoever does not believe will be condemned."

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 6:4 -- "We were buried therefore with Christ by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life."

And, in Titus 3:4-8 he writes: "...When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure."

30 years ago God called me to serve as a pastor in the Lutheran church.  I believe God has blessed that ministry.  The Lutheran church's teaching on baptism is connected with verses like the ones above.  Now, I am the last one who would ever say that Lutherans get everything right, and I recognize that these verses can have a variety of interpretations, but to say, as some do, that God cannot use baptism as a "means of salvation" in anyone's life ever seems to contradict scriptures like these.

What do you think?  Can we really say that baptism is "not" a means of salvation?  Certainly baptism has been abused by those who look on it as a "magic" act of some sort, but does that truly and absolutely mean that God cannot use it in a saving way?

I really do want to know what you think.  Please write back!

Here's a question I'll answer for some of you:  Could I ever serve a church that was not Lutheran?  Yes, I think I could.  But I could not limit the power of God to do something in baptism (or in any other way) that seems possible according to the Word of God.


  1. But I think it is also fair to say that if one is baptized but doesn't believe, than they will not be saved. A physical act cannot dictate matters of the spirit; but can only represent them. If one is not baptized by the spirit, and washed clean by the cleansing mercy of Christs forgiveness; then they are not saved.

  2. Daniel, the question is whether God can EVER use baptism as a means by which someone is saved. Of course, faith (trust) is needed in any relationship. If we do not receive the gift of faith, there is no way to have the assurance of God's amazing grace, just like if you do not trust me, you will not receive anything I have to give you.

  3. We would not seek baptism, perhaps, unless the Lord had given us some kind of faith and trust that He will work through baptism in some way. However, can this be accomplished in infant baptism, when the baptized person is not conscious of their sinfulness, need for a savior or trust in the One who can work through this act? That's the problem that I have, as you know...

  4. The question I'm trying to get at, Becky, is whether God can EVER use baptism as a means by which people can come to saving faith. The debate about the age of baptism will continue forever since the Bible doesn't address that issue. The baptism of children is and will always be both a gift (because it shares free grace in a way that can never be said to be earned) and a problem (because of ongoing human sin). In my own life it seems to me that God used baptism as PART of the way that he drew me to himself, so it's hard for me to reject it for others, and I happened to have been baptized as a little child. The question I'm asking here is if it's possible for God to use baptism in the way that Lutherans have taught for centuries. Can this baptism be part of the "old clothes" in which we dance with the Holy Spirit of God.

  5. Dear Anonymous 9:34 p.m. - You asked many questions and made many points. I am simply asking one question, whether it's possible that baptism may be a means of salvation. I think you agree, from what you wrote, that yes, you think it can be, though you consider that to be a "straw man" argument. And you may be right about that! I'll give that some more thought.

    The other details would be best handled in a direct conversation, I think, rather than in an anonymous way.

    I'm sorry if this feels limiting to you, but I've found, with experience, that it's truly hard to have caring and in depth conversations with anonymous persons. I'm not pointing this at you personally, since I don't know who you are! I've learned, over a period of time, that conversations tend to be more gentle and caring when they are personal rather than anonymous. I extend the option to be anonymous mainly to encourage those who might be shy to speak out. I'd be surprised, from all you wrote, that you're a shy person!

    I do not mean to offend you in any way by trying to make this conversation more personal. I don't mean to attack or demean what you wrote in any way and I'd be glad to engage each of your questions by email or in person or here, if it could be done in a way where everyone knows who we both are.

    Thanks and peace to you in Jesus' name alone.

    I'll be glad to delete this comment if you'd care to continue this conversation. Thank you.

  6. Interesting timing on this topic. I recently spent a 2 hour car ride with someone and we "debated" infant baptism the whole way. This topic came up because he and his wife decided to not baptize their daughter. She is now 4 and still not baptized. They think it should be her choice when she is old enough to understand what she is doing. He asked me what I thought of that and my response was "why not do it?" I believe that baptism (at any age) is a gift from God and that the act itself at least shows a faith in God, not only for the baptizee, but also for the sponsors. Does baptism = salvation? I believe salvation comes from faith in Jesus Christ. Could this happen at baptism, sure. Should we be baptised? Yes, according to the Great Commission (Matt 28:16-20).

  7. Nice topic to debate pastor. I will chime in also. Romans 10:9 (NASB)
    10:9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved;
    John 3:16 (NASB)
    3:16 "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

    Just a couple of passages regarding this subject. I would not limit God either. I would not be so bold to say that God cannot save us through baptism. God can do whatever he chooses and how he chooses. I would not build a doctrine around what I would consider to be a gray area in regards to the connection between baptism and salvation. If God chose to save through baptism he could do so. I will trust God with that. God has made it very clear that salvation does come through a relationship with Jesus Christ. This is something that we can build a solid doctrine upon. If we teach that salvation is through baptism and teach that there is assurance of salvation through baptism; than we have missed the mark.

  8. Marc - for me, if baptism is anything at all, it's part of a relationship with Jesus Christ. If it's not, it's nothing, or worse. The scripture verses, especially Romans 6:4, seem to link baptism with that saving relationship. To take the two apart is to not scriptural. Unfortunately, some abuse baptism by disconnecting it from that saving relationship, a saving relationship initiated, in every case, by God himself.

  9. Praise God for who he is!!!
    Isaiah 55:8 "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," Declares the Lord.
    Psalm 115:3 Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.
    If Salvation through Baptism pleases God then who are we to say differently? But why dwell on the, "Mystery & the Unknown," when God says directly in his word where Salvation comes from...John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
    John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him

  10. I agree that the saving relationship is initiated by God also. Pastor this is something that I feel that I am starting to understand but is something that I have wrestled with. I thought for the longest time that I was Arminian but find myself to be more Calvinistic than I thought.
    Ezekiel 36:26 (NASB)
    36:26 "Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

    The way I understand it now is that God must act in us first. He places a new heart in us and then we believe. I thought that I had more to do with my salvation than God did (not really but you understand my point). I know that God first acts in us and then we believe. The other scenario gives me way too much credit for what God has done for me (us). I truly want to take none of the credit for what God has done in me and for me. In order to do this I must react to what God has first done for me and within me.

  11. Kate - somehow the Word of God needs to come to us so that we can believe and trust in Jesus. The question is whether God's Word can come to us through baptism. I agree that we ought not focus anywhere except on the sure and trustworthy Word of God, however it comes, however it is received in faith. If baptism is hazy, we ought not focus there. If you'll go back through this blog, you'll note, I think, how seldom I focus on this topic. It did come up recently, however, so I thought it as appropriate to mention it here.

  12. Marc, I couldn't have said it better. Whatever in the Christian faith points out our weakness and Jesus' strength -- that is a treasure more precious than gold. "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so... we are WEAK, he is strong... yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so."

  13. What of this passage from John 3?

    1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
    3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

    4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

    5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

  14. Mark, though "water" in this passage has often been understood to mean "baptism," it could very well refer to amniotic fluid and "natural" birth. The small catechism connects being born again with baptism through Romans 6:4, where we are "buried with Christ by baptism into death" so that "...we too might walk in "newness of life." The question about scripture, as we have discussed before, is just how literally we are to interpret the various passages. It is a challenge.

  15. Salvation is a free gift from God that is offered to everyone. As any gift the recipient must free willingly accept that gift if it is to be theirs. Much like if I hold out a $20 bill and offer it as a free gift. It is not truly yours until you actually take it (or accept it) from me. The question is: Can Baptism be a means for salvation? The dictionary says: "by means of" is the vehicle or path to a final destination. The final destination here is salvation. Can Baptism BE that path or vehicle to salvation? It depends on how one looks at the path. I think every path has multiple steps. I believe that Baptism can be a step in that path, much like the witness of christian friends, and everything else God puts in our lives to direct our paths. God can use these to bring us closer to him or increase our faith, to help make the decision to accept the gift of salvation, but they can't make that decision for us or magically give us salvation. They all bring us spiritually to the same point to say "yes" or "no" to God. So, can Baptism be the means of salvation? Yes, it can, if you see it as a step of many in a path, and no, if you see it as the only step in a path. The danger of officially saying that it "can be a means of salvation" is that many may misinterpret it to say that it "is the means of salvation", like it is a choice. Much like when you give a choice to someone: "You CAN choose this or you CAN choose that." In the end, the decision to accept that gift is still there, the point of saying yes or no to God.

  16. And I need to fall on my knees before God every day, surrendering once again to him as Lord of my life.

  17. Something to think about: Is baptism a "means of grace," that is, a way in which salvation comes to us, or is it a way in which we receive the gift of God? Does scripture give a clear answer or can we accept some ambiguity? It seems clear to me that baptism is part of a saving relationship with God. Exactly "which part" (delivery or reception or both) seems to be a part of the mystery Kate referred to last night. Misinterpretations, as Jeff mentions, are a part of life, so there needs to be a re-focus away from the "ritual" and toward the Word of God, which always has the power to transform and renew. Great conversation!

  18. I love this conversation! Makes us think. I'm not sure I am clear on what you mean in the first sentence of your last response, though, Steve. Are you showing two different ways to understand "means of grace"? Toni

  19. Toni - in a way, I suppose that's true... there's a need to have the Word of God come to us sort of like when a truck delivers a package to our home. The truck would be the "means" and the "package" would be God's grace. God's grace always comes to us through the Word of God--the powerful cosmos making Word that spoke in the beginning and that speaks whenever scripture is rightly used. But then there's the question of "receiving" the package that has been delivered. There is a need to take the package, open it, and use what's inside. We need to know our need for it, to be desperate enough to receive it, because what the package brings to us is forgiveness, and in order to receive forgiveness we need to know our weak and sinful condition. In effect, we end up running out naked, with all our defenses down, to pick up the much needed package of God's grace, or, perhaps, we can admit to someone else that we can't go out and get it and ask them to bring it the last few steps. So there needs to be a willingness to receive, and that "willingness" or "desperate need" could also be seen to be a "means of grace." Without the truck, however, without the delivery, there is no gift on the porch. So we should be thankful for every means by which God's grace might come to us, including, I believe, baptism.

    Sorry this seems so complicated. We adults tend to do that, don't we? We complexify things in our desire to understand. If only we could be as trusting as little kids. ;-)

  20. So is grace the same as salvation? Or are they somehow different?

  21. Jeff - I think, and please don't think I'm the ultimate authority, because I'm not... I think "grace" what God gives us and "salvation" is the effect the grace has on us when it's received. Of course, the two blend into each other and it's not easy for human beings to sort these things out in a perfect way, but that's how I understand it. It's like "grace" is the glass of ice tea you gave me on your screen porch last summer, and the effect of the grace received would be, in the case of ice tea, quenched thirst, and, in the case of grace, salvation. Salvation, of course, is a translation of the Greek word "sozo" which means both salvation and healing! Does that answer your question at all? Let me know if I can help more.