Chapter on Baptismal Regeneration
this is written primarily for those in the Oneness Pentecostal movement, the subject of
Baptismal Regeneration has application for those in the Church of Christ
Oneness Pentecostals teach that baptism in water is an absolute prerequisite for salvation. This position is commonly called "baptismal regeneration" because it holds that one is "regenerated" only when he or she is baptized. It is not unique to the Oneness movement. It is also taught by the Catholic Church and by the hard-line wing of the Church of Christ.
There are several passages baptismal-regenerationists use in an attempt to substantiate their position. In Acts 2:38, the classic prooftext for the Oneness view of salvation, Peter responds to the Jews' question about salvation by saying, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins ..." Again, Ananias is reported to have told Saul, shortly after his conversion, to "Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away ..." (Acts 22:16). Along the same lines, Peter seems to suggest that the manner in which Noah's ark saved his family "through water" is a symbol of the "baptism that now saves you" (1 Peter 3:20-21). This, it is further maintained, is no different from what Jesus meant when he told Nicodemus that "no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5), the water here referring to baptism. And Paul, it is argued, reveals that he sees baptism as mandatory for salvation when he tells the Romans that "all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death ..." (Romans 6:3-4; cf. Galatians 3:27; Titus 3:5). According to the United Pentecostal Church and most other Oneness groups, then, unless we are baptized, we have not died with Christ and our sins are not forgiven.
Let it first be acknowledged that the passages used by Oneness Pentecostals (and other baptismal regererationists) in defense of their position do show that baptism was regarded as an essential aspect of the ordinary saving experience of early believers. In the strongest possible terms, baptism is associated with one's being united with Christ (Romans 6:4-5), with one's "putting on" Christ (Galatians 3:27), with the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), and, paralleling the Old Testament practice of circumcision, with one's becoming a member of the New Covenant community (Colossians 2:11-12). There is nothing to indicate that this act was perceived as being in any sense peripheral to the gospel. It was in ordinary cases (with some possible exceptions, cf. 1 Corinthians 1:15-17) the first things Christians did after responding in faith to the gospel message (see Acts 2:38, 8:34-38, 10:45-48).
This is not, however, the same as saying that salvation was ever seen as being directly contingent upon baptism. The continual insistence in the New Testament that it is faith, and faith alone, that saves a person is itself enough to prove this (e.g., John 3:15, 36, 5:24; Acts 2:21, 10:43, 15:9, 16:31; Romans 1:17, 3:22-30, 4:3, 5, 5:1, 9:30, 10:9-13; Acts 15:9, etc.). At least sixty times in the New Testament, eternal salvation is explicitly tied to faith and/or repentance with no mention of baptism. Relatedly, Paul, who conceives of baptism as paralleled with Old Testament circumcision (Colossians 2:11-12), explicitly argues that Abraham was justified by God before he was circumcised (Romans 4:9-12). As important as circumcision was, it was for Abraham a "sign" and "seal" of the righteousness he had by faith. This seems to be how Paul thought of baptism. The fact that the thief on the cross could be saved without being baptized further corroborates this point (Luke 23:42-43, 18:9-14).
The passages adduced by the Oneness Pentecostals do not prove the contrary. First, the fact that Peter commands the Jews in his Pentecost sermon to be baptized "for [eis] the forgiveness of sins" does not entail that the forgiveness of sins comes as a direct result of baptism. The preposition eis in Greek can simply mean "with a view towards," "in connection with," or "in the light of." If this interpretation is meant, Peter is in this passage simply saying that baptism should follow the repentance that has brought about the forgiveness of sins (cf. Acts 15:9). The act of divine forgiveness renders baptism important and significant.
This further makes sense out of the fact that in Peter's next two recorded sermons to unbelievers in Acts, he directly associates the forgiveness of sins with repentance and faith in Christ without even mentioning baptism (3:17-26, 4:8-12). Paul preaches in a similar fashion (Acts 16:31). Indeed, Paul tells us that he rarely baptized people at all, since this was not his calling (1 Corinthians 1:15-17). It would, I think, be quite impossible to see how this could be if he or anyone else believed there was a direct causal relationship between baptism and divine forgiveness. How could an apostle of Christ not be called to bring people into a forgiven relationship with the Father?
The Oneness understanding of baptism is also difficult to square with the fact that the Holy Sprit, we learn from Acts, is sometimes given in a dramatic fashion before individuals are baptized in water (Acts 10:44-48). Is one thus to suppose that God poured out His Spirit in this fashion upon people whose sins He had not yet forgiven? This reversal of the Acts 2:38 baptism-Spirit order is, I think, enough to tell us that we should not take Acts 2:38 as a sort of ironclad formula to which God is bound. It is also enough, I believe, to teach us that the remission of sins is not causally connected with water baptism.
What closes the case on this, however, is the recognition that Luke and Mark use this exact same phrase, "for [eis] the forgiveness of sins," in relation to the baptism of John the Baptist (Luke 3:3; cf. Mark 1:4). Yet John's baptism clearly did not, in any literal sense, wash away people's sins. Why else would his disciples need to believe on Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and be rebaptized (Acts 19:4-6)?
The parallel passage in Matthew says that John's baptism was a baptism "with water for [eis] repentance" (Matthew 3:11; cf. Acts 19:4), and this seems to be equivalent with the phrase "for [or unto] the forgiveness of sins." The act of being baptized certainly didn't bring about repentance. Rather, baptism was the result of repentance, and it derived its significance from the act of repentance. In just the same way, the act of being baptized, both for John and Christ's disciples, didn't literally bring about the forgiveness of that had already occurred, and the act derived its significance from this divine act.
The other passages used by baptismal-regenerationists are no stronger in proving their
case. In fact, far from showing the regenerationist view of baptism, 1 Peter 3:21 can most
easily be read to show the opposite. The entire passage reads:
The author is here drawing a double analogy: The water of the flood is to baptism what baptism is to our present salvation. That he is here talking symbolically is clear not only from the fact that he explicitly says he is talking symbolically, but also from the fact that he goes on to clarify that he is not talking about any literal washing or "removal of dirt from the body," as though the water had any efficacy in itself, but about baptism as a "pledge of good conscience toward God." The reality that brings forth baptism is the act of repentance and the forgiveness of sins that produces the saint's "good conscience."
Turning to John 3:5, there is simply no decisive reason to think that Jesus is referring to baptism when he says that one must be "born of water." It is certainly difficult to suppose that Nicodemus would have understood "water" as referring to the not-yet-existent ritual of Christian baptism. What is more, the subject matter of this entire passage is the activity of the Holy Spirit in contrast to the flesh, and it would be most awkward for Jesus to disrupt this train of thought midstream with a reference to a still-future ritual. Hence it seems most likely that "water" is being used as a metaphorical synonym for "Spirit" in verse 5.
What further supports this conclusion is the fact that Jesus speaks in a similar manner, but with a different analogy, three verses later. Here being "born of the Spirit" (no mention of water this time) is likened to the wind blowing (John 3:8). But, clearly, being born of the Spirit and being born by the wind are not two different things. Then why think being "born of water" and being "born of the Spirit" are distinct?
In keeping with other sections of John and of other New Testament writings, it seems most reasonable to assume that water here symbolizes the life and purification ("washing") that the Spirit brings, just as the wind symbolizes the freedom by which the Spirit moves (cf. John 4:10-15, 7:38; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5; Revelation 22:1). In fact, this religiously symbolic use of water was common in ancient Near Eastern thought, and Nicodemus would have readily picked up on this.
The general teaching of Scripture, then, is that those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ shall be saved. Baptism, obedient living, a transformed life, and many other aspects of the Christian life will ordinarily in due time result from this saving faith. But salvation is not itself the result of any of these things. And the few references that some have supposed to teach the contrary, I have shown to be mistaken.