Stand back, folks; I feel a sermon comin’ on and I’m a-fixin’ to preach it:
Water baptism never saved anybody.
By itself, that is.
I believe that.
I also believe that no kind of “spirit baptism” has ever brought anyone into a close relationship with God. Of itself. And I can say the same for faith by itself, or confession or doing good deeds or accepting Jesus as your personal savior … by themselves.
Or any combination of the above.
The fact is, I believe in the sovereignty of God and of His Son. I believe the gospel proclaimed in spray-paint from virtually every highway underpass in the 1990s:
I don’t approve of the medium. Just the message.
The message of grace.
Nothing I’ve ever read in the Bible persuades me to believe otherwise.
Jesus forgives sins. He puts me in a relationship with His Father. Not my confession. Not my acceptance. Not my piety. Not my getting wet. Not even my getting filled.
He forgave the sins of a man who wanted to be healed badly enough for his friends to cut a hole in a roof and let him down through it. The man didn’t ask for his sins to be forgiven, but just to convince others that He had the authority to do so, Jesus healed him (Matthew 9:1-6; Mark 2:4-12; Luke 5:19-26).
Not to mention a sinful woman who lavished her tears on His feet (Luke 7:36-50).
And there’s certainly a strong implication of forgiveness in His reassurance to a thief on a cross at His side (Luke 23:39-44).
At the same time, I believe that God wants to bring us into a close relationship to Him; wants to forgive our sins; wants to save us – and wants to do so by transforming us from our old selves into the likeness of His Son (II Corinthians 3:18).
So I believe one of the ways God asks us to become like His Son is through obedience, which Jesus learned the hard way (Hebrews 5:7-9).
Another way is that God asks us to become like Jesus through the likeness of His death and burial and resurrection in baptism (Romans 6:4).
He asks us to imitate Christ, Who was Himself baptized to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:14-16).
He also asks us to imitate Christ, Who made the good confession of His own identity as God’s son (I Timothy 6:13).
I could go on and on with requests God has made of us to be like Jesus: sacrificial giving, sharing with others the message of our relationship with Him, supporting each other, worshipping from the heart, suffering rejection from non-believers, and so on.
How can any one of these requests be considered optional?
They’re all gifts from God.
But let me just talk about one; the one that gets short shrift most often: baptism.
It’s hard not to see water when scripture talks about baptism. John the baptizer performed it in a river. So did Jesus’ disciples. As did Philip. The water of baptism is compared by Peter to the floodwaters which saved Noah’s family from the evil of the surrounding world. There are lots more references, but you get the picture.
It’s also easy to see how the light reader – or the reader with an agenda or preconception – could confuse baptism with the giving of God’s Holy Spirit. They occur together frequently in scripture. The Spirit is spoken of as being “poured out” and people are said to be “filled with” Him.
Others have hashed out these issues to exhaustion; they’re not my primary focus here. My point is that water baptism is a gift from God – one of many – not to be lightly refused.
You doubt my perception that baptism is a gift from God?
Then what did Jesus mean when confronted by a question designed to trip Him up and His response was another trick question (Matthew 21:23-27; Luke 20:1-8): “John’s baptism – was it from heaven or from men?” It was more than a trick question. They knew that if they answered “From heaven,” He could ask them why they didn’t believe; if they answered “From men,” the believing people would stone them.
Jesus knew that baptism was a gift from heaven; was part of the way that the “voice crying out in the wilderness” John was preparing the way for Him. And He knew it was a way that would lead all the way to the cross and the tomb.
What a gorgeous picture from such a gory precedent! What potent portent! In baptism, we are privileged to “act out” Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:4). It’s as if we’re washed clean the way water does to dirt, but it is by His blood cleansing our sin. It’s part of the way we join His bride; His family. Paul speaks of that relationship as so intimate that he compares it to a husband giving his wife a private bath (Ephesians 5:25-33).
Maybe there should be a baptismal commitment by the penitent that begins: “With this baptism I die to self; and with all my worldly and other-worldly affections I Thee endow ….”
It’s no wonder that God wants us to experience it; share it; be blessed and challenged by it!
How can we look at this gift and tell God, “That’s nice, but I’d like something different”? Or “Ooh, ooh! I want baptism! I just don’t want to get wet.”
That’d be like saying, “Ooh! Ooh! I want to be like Jesus! I just don’t want to do any of the things He did.”
At the same time, how can we view baptism as an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end? As if it were somehow divorced from Christ by its supposed co-equal importance? Or as if it were the only request God had made of us?
The trouble with Restoration churches is that we’ve tried to sell baptism as part of a package of minimum requirements, instead of as part of a plethora of requests from God to be like His Son and be challenged, blessed, and drawn closer to Him by them. As if there could be such a list of minimum requirements for being like Him, when Jesus Christ spent every day of His life on this earth finding new ways to walk the extra mile. As if anything we could do would even begin to merit the forgiveness, the salvation, the relationship with God that He provides.
Remember the highway underpass message?
Sermon’s over. Move along, citizens. Go back to your lives.
I don’t think I can.
I don’t think we’re supposed to.