By: Garrett Best
I am encouraged by recent articles and videos on Youtube I have seen by several notable Christian thought leaders regarding the the importance of baptism. I believe the New Testament is riddled with evidence that early Christians believed in the import of baptism. It would be hard to read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism and argue that the institution is unimportant. It would be also very difficult to read passages in Paul like Romans 6 and Galatians 3 and leave thinking Paul didn’t believe that baptism was important. There has been so much debate over “baptism” and “works”. Many have argued that baptism is a work and therefore, contrary to faith in Christ. That seems to be a poorly reasoned argument to me, especially given the fact that two of the most explicit statements we have from Paul on baptism (Rom. 6 and Gal. 3) occur in the very letters where Paul is condemning Judaizing legalism. If Paul was trying to eradicate Judaizing tendencies (and if baptism were one of those tendencies as it is often argued), then why would Paul speak so positively of baptism in these anti-legalistic contexts? You can’t argue from Romans 3-5 that baptism is unimportant given the fact that Romans 6 follows immediately upon it. For Paul, the relationship between faith and baptism is not antithetical, but complimentary.
Roger Olson is a Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Baylor University. He has been one of the leading proponents of arminianism and has been published numerous times. In the July/August edition of the Christianity Today magazine, Olson wrote and article entitled, “Water Works: Why Baptism is Essential to the Life of Faith”. In the article, you can find statements like these:
And some congregations believe the only requirement for church membership is simply being a born-again Christian. This stands in stark contrast with the New Testament and all of Christian history. For the apostles and faithful Christians after them, baptism was a necessary rite of passage for joining the church. (pg. 64)
The New Testament never speaks of unbaptized Christians. Rather, it assumes that baptism is requisite for following Jesus in the fullest sense. It’s not until recently that Christians have assumed baptism is irrelevant or unnecessary. (pg. 65)
Indeed, some credobaptists will balk at the claim that obeying Christ involves being baptized, because they deny a necessary link between water baptism and salvation. However, the very word Christian means “Christ follower,” and rejecting or willfully neglecting baptism is disobeying Christ. Few Christians say baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. But the vast majority of Christians throughout history, including credobaptists, have believed baptism is an essential part of becoming a member of Christ’s body, the church, and of being a disciple in the fullest sense. (pg. 65)
Let me offer an analogy, though it will no doubt fall short of communicating baptism’s importance. Baptism is like a wedding ceremony. While it’s theoretically possible to get married without one, most Christians believe there is something defective about two people simply claiming to be married. Society may deem them married, depending on circumstances. But churches have tended, and with good biblical reason, to emphasize that it’s important if not required for a man and a woman to exchange vows before God and God’s people. Similarly, a person who claims to be saved but refuses to be baptized may very well be saved but is not living out the Christian life in the fullest and truest sense. The majority of Christians everywhere and across denominations agree on that point. (pg. 65)
In the 1998 edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Robert H. Stein wrote an article entitled, “Baptism and Becoming a Christian in the New Testament.” He is a senior professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has written extensively on the Gospels. In the article he says:
In the New Testament, conversion involves five integrally related components or aspects, all of which took place at the same time, usually on the same day. These five components are repentance, faith, and confession by the individual, regeneration, or the giving of the Holy Spirit by God, and baptism by representatives of the Christian community. (pg. 6)
The fact that the Christian community is involved in the experience of conversion guards against the privatization of the conversion experience. In baptism one is “baptized… into one body!” One is baptized by the church and to the church. Thus baptism is more an initiation into the believing community than an act of witness to the world. (pg. 14)
In the New Testament a person was not baptized for one of two reasons. Either they did not want to repent-believe-confess Christ and thus did not want to become a Christian or they did repent-believe-confess Christ but were physically unable to be baptized. The most famous example of the latter is the thief on the cross (Lk. 23:39-43)… Yet to establish an understanding of the normal conversion pattern based on extremely rare or unusual experiences is to emphasize the abnormal. In general a person could not be converted to Christianity in the New Testament apart from baptism. (pg. 15)
N.T. Wright is in my opinion one of the most significant theologians of our time. He is an Anglican bishop and professor of New Testament at St. Mary’s College. He has also been one of the leading theologians arguing for the new perspective on Paul. You can find Wright saying things like this about baptism:
Francis Chan, one of the most popular Christian writers and speakers in America, had this to say in 2011:
There’s also this from Chan in the same lesson. This sounds exactly like something you would hear from a pulpit in Churches of Christ.
Perhaps, Chan learned some of these views from his contact with the International Church of Christ which he spoke about for the first time last year at the Tulsa Workshop (http://www.christianchronicle.org/article/francis-chan-unloaded-his-heart-at-tulsa-workshop).
I should add a disclaimer that I don’t agree with everything Olson, Stein, Wright, or Chan teaches (which should go without saying). At the same time, I think these trends are very encouraging, particularly to those in the Restoration Movement who have been stressing the importance of baptism for decades. This is just another step towards making the unity of Christians more possible. May our prayers and striving for unity be intensified!