Since the Restoration, members of the Lord’s church have grappled with the question of what to do with those we meet who have been immersed in water for some religious reason, but not for the forgiveness of sins. For instance, there are those who teach that the purpose of baptism is to admit the already-saved believer to a particular denomination. When we encounter someone like this, do they still need to obey the gospel (including the call to baptism for forgiveness of sins), or are they already a Christian by virtue of their earlier baptism, so that they need only to join a local church?
This is a question of great importance. As with all matters that relate directly to salvation, our souls and the souls of others depend on us getting it right. There’s certainly plenty of appeal to the second position. None of us like having to say to somebody, “Um, you think you’re saved from your sins, but you’re actually not.”
However, this more comfortable view cannot be defended from Scripture. To start with, we must recognize that obedience to God is often not a matter of merely doing the right thing. Indeed, there are many places in the Bible when even a generalized desire to obey God is not enough to satisfy the mental aspects of a commandment.
Consider, for instance, the Lord’s Supper. The outward form of obedience here is simple: eat bread, drink cup. However, sharing in the Lord’s Supper in a God-pleasing way requires a great deal more mental effort from us, and partaking only from a generic desire to please God doesn’t satisfy the Scriptural requirement. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 that as we eat, we must examine ourselves and discern the body (in context, the Lord’s body). Anyone who doesn’t do this is eating and drinking judgment to themselves, and this is true even if they are thinking, “I’m doing this because God told me to.”
The same holds true for baptism. As with the Lord’s Supper, satisfying God in this matter requires a specific mental intent from us. Acts 2:38 doesn’t say “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, and you will receive the forgiveness of sins.” If that were the case, the reason for baptism wouldn’t matter.
Instead, the text says, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (in context, the salvation of Acts 2:21) This is a passage that requires specific mental intent. If we wish to receive the gift of salvation, we must come to baptism with the purpose of seeking forgiveness of sins.
Of course, there are many other texts in Scripture that express the same idea in slightly different language. The objective of baptism is variously described as entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5), washing away sins (Acts 22:16), walking in newness of life (Romans 6:4), putting on Christ (Galatians 3:27, and, most simply, salvation (1 Peter 3:21). Even this is far from a complete list of the relevant passages, but all of them teach the same truth. We must come to the water in search of salvation, and if we do not, we are not going to be saved by accident! Those who are not seeking are not going to find.
At this point, it’s worth noting that many of the other rationales advanced for baptism do not appear in Scripture. For instance, nothing in the New Testament ever says that we should be baptized to join a church. That’s teaching as doctrine the commandments of men, plain and simple.
Similarly, the baptism of Jesus is not an example for us. He was baptized with the baptism of John, and the narrative of Acts 19:1-5 reveals that the baptism of John is no longer sufficient. The Ephesian disciples had experienced the same baptism that Jesus did, but they still had to be “re-baptized” in the name of Jesus. In our baptisms, we must seek to be united with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, not with His baptism.
In Paul’s great list of the essentials of the faith in Ephesians 4:4-5, he includes “one baptism”. If we wish to enjoy the unity of the Spirit with others, all of us must believe in and accept Bible baptism—baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Spiritual unity, whether with God or with His people, is impossible without agreement on and obedience to this fundamental doctrine.
Teaching otherwise is extraordinarily dangerous. There are few things more perilous to the soul than the false assurance of salvation. If someone has not fulfilled all the Scriptural requirements for baptism, they remain in their sins, and this is true even when they incorrectly believe that they have been saved. When we assure someone like this that they’re already in a right relationship with God, we are doing nothing less than encouraging their feet down the path to hell.
Souls have already been eternally lost and will continue to be lost because of this pernicious false teaching. We dare not accept it. Otherwise, in addition to imperiling the souls of others, we endanger our own.
– Matt Bassford