Baptism: Understanding and Validity

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Photo courtesy of Matt Hardy

Efficacious: having the power to produce a desired effect.

So says Merriam-Webster. So we’ll go with that. As in efficacious baptism. As in, an efficacious baptism is one that results in what the Bible says it will result in, specifically, the forgiveness of sins, and what we generally term as receiving salvation, or being saved.

Baptism is efficacious for salvation in that in the water of baptism God does the work of salvation for the one being baptized:

11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. (Col 2:11-14)

Paul places the culmination of God’s work of salvation for the individual in the water of baptism—“in which” we are “raised with [Jesus] through faith in the powerful working of God”; in baptism we are “made alive together with [Jesus]”; in baptism we are “forgiven us all our trespasses.”

It is in the water of baptism where God does his work of salvation for the one who has faith in Jesus.

But is it possible for someone to be baptized and God not do his work of salvation for that person? What if the person does not really believe in Jesus? What if the person does not understand what baptism is even for? What if the person thinks he is already saved before being baptized, and he is just doing it because Jesus commanded it? What if _____? Fill in the blank with whatever you think someone must know or believe in order for his baptism to be efficacious, but yet failed to meet it.

Is there a most basic, elementary understanding that one must have about the meaning and purpose of baptism in order for his or her baptism to be efficacious?

What would a most basic understanding even look like? It would be something along the lines of believing or understanding at the time of baptism that God was doing something toward your salvation that you could not do for yourself. I cannot think of anything more basic that reaches out toward God in the context of salvation in baptism.

However, the Bible simply does not teach this condition in order for baptism to be efficacious. In all the teachings on baptism as well as in the many real time examples in the New Testament, nowhere is it explicitly or implicitly taught that there is a certain understanding one must have about baptism in order for God to do his salvation work in it.

Consider that if one does believe that a certain knowledge is necessary, then where do you draw the line? Here are some of the things God works in baptism for the individual:

  • crucifixion of old self (Rom 6:1-8)
  • circumcision or putting off of the old self (Col 2:11-14)
  • death of old self (Rom 6:1-8)
  • burial of old self (Rom 6:1-8)
  • forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; Col 2:13)
  • rebirth/regeneration of the soul (Titus 3:4-7)
  • renewal of the soul (Titus 3:4-7)
  • raised with Jesus to new life (Rom 6:1-8)
  • gives us the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38)
  • in short, justification (forgiveness) and regeneration (new life)

If I did not understand that in baptism God was forgiving my sin, did he do it? If I did not understand that God was raising me with Christ as a new creation, did he do it? If I did not understand that God was putting off my old self, did he do it? If I did not understand _____, did he do it?

And what if I later come to such understandings? Do I need to be baptized again so that God will do for me now what he couldn’t/didn’t/wouldn’t before based on my ignorance?

God does not do his work of salvation in us based on how well and to what extent we understand that work. Even when it comes to the most basic point of baptism wherein one believes God is doing at least something for him toward salvation. There is no biblical teaching that requires a most elementary point of understanding for what one must know or believe about baptism in order for the baptism to be efficacious. The most probable inferred biblical position is that God works his work of salvation in baptism even in one’s ignorance or misunderstanding of it.

There is, however, something God requires in order for baptism to be efficacious, of which would be a most elementary standard—this is the gospel conditions. The gospel conditions of receiving salvation in baptism are faith, repentance, and confession.

The New Testament is explicitly clear that faith, repentance and confession are conditions we are required to meet in order for God to work salvation for us in baptism. Faith is not only a condition for salvation, but also the means of receiving it. Repentance is explicitly taught as a condition for salvation (Acts 2:38). Confession (that “Jesus is Lord”, reflecting belief in his divinity and lordship) is further explicitly taught (Rom 10:9, Acts 2:36).

When the gospel conditions for salvation are present in the one coming for baptism, will God not work salvation in baptism regardless of the person’s understanding, or misunderstanding, of what is actually happening in the baptism?

The locus of faith in receiving salvation is not faith in the content of baptism, but faith in the content of God and Jesus. This is why faith in Jesus, which includes knowledge about, belief in, and trust in his death, burial, and resurrection, is a condition for salvation (1 Cor 15:1-4). As we saw in Colossians 2 above, in baptism we are “raised with [Jesus] through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” If faith is not present in baptism, then it is an empty ritual.

So, what about “believer’s baptism”? Is it efficacious for salvation? Does God work salvation in baptism for someone who meets the gospel conditions but thinks they were saved at their first instance of belief or by saying the sinner’s prayer (as are popular teachings today)? Consider that the gospel conditions of faith, repentance, and confession are all met by those who actually do believe, repent and confess in a sinner’s prayer type of salvation doctrine, and so at the time of their believer’s baptism, or baptism out of obedience, even though they misunderstand that baptism is the culminating point in conversion and the time in which God forgives the sinner, they still meet all the same gospel conditions that one would who believes that baptism is the moment of salvation. While “believer’s baptism” is not a biblical teaching, the most probable inferred biblical position is that yes, in this situation, God does his work of salvation in baptism. It is hard to conceive otherwise.

With all of this said, it is proper to teach converts the scriptural meaning and purpose of baptism, and we must insist on it. This keeps the doctrine in accord with the teaching of scripture as well as corrects those with an improper understanding. Popular teaching today separates the salvation event from the water of baptism, which is not biblical and leads to confusion and division in the church.

So, insist on the correct teaching of baptism. Teach others as they are open to it. And may the correct teaching on baptism be embraced by the entire Christian world to eliminate confusion and division.

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