Was Paul’s Theology Consistent on “Conversion”?
J. Carl Laney is a Professor of Biblical Literature at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Laney is a respected scholar but in some serious particulars his theology is flawed. For example in his book, Answers to Tough Questions From Every Book in the Bible, he raises the issue of whether baptism is essential to salvation. In response to that question, Professor Laney writes:
“The Bible teaches clearly that salvation and the forgiveness of sins is always through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9), not the result of baptism” (1997, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 243).
Let us carefully reflect upon this matter. First, Paul was an apostle of Christ, and his teaching was a revelation from God (1 Corinthians 2:10ff; Galatians 1:11-12).
In view of this, one must conclude that whatever the apostle taught obviously was consistent with:
- the teaching of Jesus himself;
- the doctrine of the other apostles;
- the facts of his own conversion;
- his instruction in texts beyond Ephesians 2:8-9.
To suggest otherwise is an indictment of the Holy Spirit himself. Thus, consider the following.
The Great Commission – In the Great Commission the Lord declared: “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16; cf. Matthew 28:19). Both belief and baptism are preliminary to salvation. Did Paul intentionally exclude one of the Savior’s conditions in Ephesians 2:8? Was the apostle inconsistent with his Lord?
Peter’s Preaching – On the day of Pentecost Peter charged: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ to obtain the forgiveness of your sins...” (Acts 2:38). Peter made baptism a condition of salvation (just as much as salvation is conditioned upon Christ’s death; cf. Matthew 26:28 for the identical purpose phrase). Was Paul inconsistent with Peter? Did Paul subtract from his fellow apostle’s gospel? Or are the accounts compatible?
Paul’s Conversion – At the time of his own conversion, Paul was commanded to “be baptized, and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16), and he obeyed the divine imperative (9:18). Did Paul later change his theology and decide to omit baptism from the plan of salvation? Did the apostle practice one thing, but then preach a different gospel?
The Case in Ephesus – Was Paul’s teaching in the Ephesian letter (written from his Roman confinement – Acts 28:30-31) inconsistent with what he practiced when he earlier visited the city on his third missionary journey (19:1-7)? On that occasion he taught twelve misguided men better than they previously knew regarding the identity of the Christ. These men subsequently were “baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus” (v.5), which has no reference to “words spoken” at the time of their immersion. Rather, the phrase signifies to “become the possession of and come under the dedicated protection of the one whose name they bear” (cf. Matthew 28:19; Acts 8:16; 1 Corinthians 1:13, 15; Danker, et al., 2005. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago, IL: University Press). Is the apostle now nullifying what Luke says he taught some eight years earlier?
The Larger Ephesian Letter – Was Paul confused and inconsistent in the Ephesian epistle? Consider the following.
First, in the passage under consideration (2:8-9), the apostle wrote “by grace have you been saved through faith....” Three verses earlier he had written “by grace have you been saved...,” yet he identified this previous text with the event when God “raised us up with him [Christ]” (v. 5). Elsewhere Paul pinpoints the “raising” as coming forth from the water of baptism (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12). Does the apostle deny in verse 8 what he affirmed in verse 5? Such a conclusion is nonsense.
Second, in 2:8-9 Paul attributes “salvation” to God’s grace and man’s faith. In 5:26 he declares that our “cleansing” (the equivalent of being “saved”) results from the “washing of water with the word.” It is almost universally conceded among Bible scholars that the term “water” in this text is a reference to baptism. The names supporting this identification are legion among both commentators and lexicographers. Commentators e.g., Alford, Bloomfield, Calvin, A. Clarke, Ellicott, Meyer, Plummer, Robertson, etc. make the connection. And lexicographers e.g., Robinson, Abbott-Smith, Thayer, Arndt-Gingrich-Danker, Kittel, Spicq, Balz-Schneider, Mounce, etc., are of similar persuasion.
The facts precipitating this discussion are worthy of serious reflection, and they generate both perplexity and melancholy. Consider the following.
It is possible to become technically classified as a “scholar” but be ignorant of the most fundamental issues of life. One may read Hebrew and Greek, yet be unable to understand the ABCs of biblical truth when a theological bias clouds rational thought. Such is the equivalent of the surgeon who can skillfully remove a brain malignancy but cannot figure out how to apply a band aid!
Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology (1998, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), is a volume of 1,312 pages, and yet the distinguished scholar has no clue as to the substance of the fundamental plan of salvation. In one sweeping sentence, he dismisses Acts 2:38; 22:16; Ephesians 5:26, and Titus 3:5 as having any causative relationship to the cleansing of one’s soul from sin (1998, 1019). The command mode of Acts 2:38, the exemplary impact of 22:16, and the inferential force of the texts in Ephesians and Titus are dismissed with the wave of a sectarian hand.
Many modern religionists, like the Pharisees and scribes of the first century, are so blinded by their traditions — whether of Catholicism or Protestantism — that they simply cannot fathom the simplest, most fundamental realities that appear to be inconsistent with their theological predispositions. If one may borrow some imagery from Paul, many minds are “hardened” to gospel truth, and a “veil” of traditional bias shrouds their hearts, so that they find it impossible to see the clearest truths.