Christianity Today is probably the most popular journal in the protestant religious community. The magazine was founded by Billy Graham in 1956, and more than 100,000 copies of the journal are distributed each month. At times the magazine has some very good articles; on other occasions, it seriously is at variance with the Scriptures.
The periodical has a regular feature called “Good Question,” in which inquiries from readers are fielded. In the July issue (p. 62) there is a Question/Answer that is of particular interest. A question was submitted by a reader in Greenwich, Connecticut, and a response was issued by Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University (a Baptist institution in Birmingham, Alabama). Dr. George (Th.D. Harvard) is also an executive editor of Christianity Today. You can read the online version at the Christianity Today web site (Faith-based Bathing).
The question posed was this: “What is the role of baptism in faith and salvation?”
Professor George’s answer is intriguing. Normally one might have expected the standard Baptist rejoinder: “Baptism has no viable relationship to faith and salvation. Salvation is by faith alone, and baptism is but a ‘symbol’ of forgiveness already received—and that at the moment of one’s belief.”
But no, the good professor ventures into dangerous “waters” that could find him in some degree of difficulty with his religious kinsmen. Nonetheless, we feel compelled to applaud him for several of the comments he made. Note the following quotations from the esteemed gentleman, along with our observations.
- “We receive many wonderful gifts through baptism, but the most important role of baptism is to identify us with Jesus and with other believers who follow him. Baptism is our profession of faith.”
One could hardly fault this statement on the face of it. But here is the crucial question. What will be the plight of one who refuses to “identify with Jesus”? And what if one is unwilling to “profess his faith” through baptism, but, in fact, teaches that baptism is unnecessary in the divine scheme of things? Are there no consequences to such actions?
- [Baptism] “was an induction into a new way of life.”
In this statement, Professor George was addressing the practice of the first-century converts. Again, the issue is this. Does not this affirmation imply that if one is not baptized, he has not entered into the “new way of life”? And if he is not in the “new way of life,” is he not still in the “old way of life”? If language means anything that is exactly what one must conclude. But how can one leave the “old way,” and enter the “new way,” except by the “induction” method that God has prescribed? Can one stand inducted without the induction?
- The learned gentleman rightly notes that first-century baptism was connected with both faith and repentance, and therefore was not an ordinance to which infants are amenable. Rather, he argued, “baptism signifies an earnest pledging of ourselves to God (1 Peter 3:21) and thus presupposes a living faith in Jesus.”
One could scarcely disagree with that assessment if he entertains a reverence for the clear teaching of the Scriptures. Yet, our friend appears to “skate around” a bit as he asks: “But what about the many Christians who practice infant baptism?” He seems to grant some license to the views of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli who, in their various ways, attributed some degree of faith—either to the infant personally (at present, or in prospect), or as having a sort of proxy faith imparted by the parents. This surrenders ground where the New Testament does not.
But we must add this as well. One must be very careful of his grammar in paraphrasing 1 Peter 3:21. Baptism does not merely signify (or symbolize, as some would express it) a pledge to God; it is the act by which the pledge takes place—if one accepts “pledge” as the best rendition of the original language. Thus, no baptism, no pledge! No pledge, no forgiveness.
[Note: The precise meaning of the Greek term eperotema is disputed. The word is rendered as “answer” KJV; “interrogation” ASV; “appeal” ESV. Some scholars take it to indicate a “pledge.” If such is the case (and the point is controversial), the word reflects “the commitment of the believer to the stipulations of the covenant, i.e., to submitting his whole life to God ... it is the pledge of a person regenerated by the power of Christ’s resurrection, in which the believer shares through the baptismal rite...” (Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994, p. 33; emp. WJ). The sense certainly cannot be “the pledge of one who has already been saved”—which view would contradict numerous other texts of Scripture (Acts 2:38; 22:16).]
- Professor George correctly observes that church history has been cluttered with erroneous views regarding baptism, e.g., the notion that an unbaptized infant is consigned to “limbo”—which he calls a sort of “air-conditioned compartment of hell in which there was little suffering but from which there was no escape.” He also takes a justifiable shot at those who allege that baptism “automatically conveys eternal life”—as though no preliminary conditions are required, and no subsequent fidelity is expected.
- The gentleman then raises the knotty question as to what the fate will be of those who never yield to God’s command to be baptized. He says that “God is sovereign, and his mercy is not bound to the ordinary means of grace,” one aspect of which is “baptism,” he concedes. He seems to be suggesting that since God himself will be the final judge, he may decide to make exceptions to the conditions he has imposed in the Gospel plan.
One certainly can be sympathetic with the compassionate expression of concern for the lost that Prof. George expresses. And surely we must not question Heaven’s sovereignty. But is it not a fact that we must not venture into the realm of speculation to the point of suggesting that the Lord will do what, in fact, he has said in his Word that he will not do? For instance, Jesus declared that unbelievers will be condemned (Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:36). Should we verbalize the possibility, based upon our limited concept of God’s sovereignty, that the Lord will do the opposite of what he has promised? That is dangerous terrain upon which to embark.
- Finally, our friend (perhaps sensing the “slippery slope” he had just toe-tested) forcefully declares: “We must not abuse this principle [i.e., God’s sovereignty] . . . While God is not bound, we are! The Great Commission is still in effect, and Peter’s Pentecost sermon is still the message we proclaim: ‘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’ (Acts 2:38).”
Across the years it has been very difficult to find a Baptist minister who will cite Acts 2:38 without expending a considerable quantity of energy in trying to explain that the passage does not mean what it so clearly says.
There are churches galore that will not tolerate an admonition of the sort enunciated by the good professor, and we cannot but applaud Dr. George for his forthright, concluding statement. It is a rather amazing thing that the article found space in the host journal. But it did. And we are glad. The sentiment is “not far from the kingdom” and it represents a fresh breeze of courage and candor that is unusual in the community of “Christendom.”