Spiritual Perspectives


AT THE RIVER’S EDGE: MEETING JESUS IN BAPTISM (A REVIEW)

Gary W. Summers

     Within the past two weeks many churches have received a booklet and a letter from the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University.  The letter is addressed, “Dear church leader,” and is signed by Jack R. Reese, who is the dean of the aforementioned college.  The opening words are: “Preaching baptism and practicing it faithfully are crucial for the church in these days.”  While we agree wholeheartedly with that statement, the irony is that men like distinguished Carmichael Professor, Carroll D. Osburn (from Abilene Christian University) are the ones who have undermined the Bible’s teaching on this subject, insisting that whether we baptize for or because of the remission of sins should not be a barrier to fellowship.

 

     Therefore, we seek pardon for being a tad skeptical of anything coming out of ACU regarding the role that baptism plays in salvation.  The booklet is designed to give people insight into baptism (which it does, in part).  ACU’s goal is that it will be used as a basis for Bible study in adult classes and youth groups.  Such a decision would not be wise because, despite a few excel-lent thoughts, the material is seriously flawed.

 

     The authors are Jeff W. Childers and Frederick D. Aquino.  The former of these co-authored The Crux of the Matter (along with Jack Reese).  In this book, faithful members of the church and Gospel preachers are accused of being judgmental and legalistic.  Brethren are told that the authors, in their “study of the Scriptures began to call into question some of the conclusions we had reached in earlier decades" (18).  Really?  Why?  The Bible still teaches by direct statement, approved example, and implication.  What has changed?  If someone comes along and shows a better way of doing things, we would all profit.  If someone demonstrates that we have been guilty of poor interpretation techniques, fine—show us the better principle.  But we are not about to trade fundamentally sound principles just because certain “professors” are bored with them.  They further write:  

 

Third, as we began to move out of our isolation and have real dialogue and relationship with people from other religious groups, many of us were astonished to see demonstrations of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. Some of them seemed to evidence more Christian virtues than many of us. How could this be, if they had not come to the right under-standing of the truth as we saw it (18)?

 

     Commenting on this paragraph in February of 2001, this reviewer wrote:

Read this paragraph again, for this is truly "the crux of the matter." The faulty assumption is that denominational people have the fruit of the spirit and thus must be saved; the truth is that they have the appearance of the fruit because they have followed the teachings of the Word of God with respect to those things. The Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures, and when people follow them, they are better for it. Many denominational folk have given up being immoral because the Scriptures teach against it…. In fact, that many live a purer life does not prove they are Christians, either.

This is nothing more than the philosophy of Max Lucado, as espoused in an article he wrote eight years ago: "A Dream Worth Keeping Alive: Liking the Fruit But Not the Orchard." Lucado also saw people who possessed the characteristics of Galatians 5:22-23, and he too wrongly concluded, "Why, they must be Christians." Who knows what will hap-pen if he meets a patient Buddhist? In keeping with the spirit of this age, the means of determining who is a Christian has passed from objective criteria to subjective—from "Has he obeyed the gospel" to "Does he seem nice?"

     That review went on to emphasize the importance of approaching the Bible objectively—to use the Scriptures to determine who is a Christian, rather than feelings.

     Strengths

     The River’s Edge does have a few strengths.  It affirms that baptism is “a total immersion into him” (referring to Jesus, although the authors never capitalize the personal pronoun) (4).  They state correctly: “Baptism is not just a command to be obeyed, an essential requirement to be checked off the list” (5).  They periodically elaborate on that point:

We bring them to the riverbank, but we also wait for them on the other side, ready to walk along-side them, telling them stories of the kingdom, challenging them to grow, and providing the re-sources they need to mature and to serve their Lord (14).

     They emphasize the importance of commitment, even going so far as to warn that “following Jesus isn’t for everyone” (18).   They also urge that changed lives should be indicative of all Christians: “Transformation into the image of Christ is the chief aim of the Christian life…” (23). These are all points that the Scriptures teach, and they should be emphasized. 

The Importance of the Subject

     Since baptism is something that has been emphasized by the churches of Christ, perhaps we ought to explain the reasons for the attention that we give to it.  The reason is NOT that it is more important than faith or repentance.  In responding to God’s grace, we must first decide whether we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and whether we believe in the God Who inspired that Word.  Once the evidence leads us to the correct conclusion (John 20:30-31) and we are ready to trust God and His Son Jesus to save us from our sins, another major decision must be faced.

     Are we willing to repent?  Everything else hinges on this point.  We may know and be convinced of the truthfulness of the Word and the Deity of Christ, but do we really want to give up the sinful things in life that we practice?  Many people want to grasp tightly all their worldly lusts and still be a redeemed Christian, but it simply does not work that way.  A change in our actions, attitudes, and even our thinking is absolutely essential.  Do we trust in God enough to give up sinful things and be satisfied with the spiritual blessings that come in their stead?    It is precisely at this point that the most difficult decision is made.

     If we determine to belong to God, then confessing that Jesus is the Son of God and being baptized are really no problem at all.  If we are hungering and thirsting after righteousness (Matt. 5:6), and we know that baptism is required, we will be like those on Pentecost: “Then those that gladly received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:41; cf. v. 38).  If all this is so, then why do we emphasize baptism?

          Primarily, the reason is that there has been a concerted denial of its involvement in salvation.  Many are preaching the unbiblical doctrine of “faith only,” which does not allow for repentance, confession, or baptism.  Most “sinner’s prayers” do not mention these, either.  Thus, we have taken it upon ourselves to call attention to the role of baptism in salvation.

 

Weaknesses and Errors

 

     Therefore, this booklet is greatly disappointing: while it discusses many worthwhile aspects of baptism, it does not take the opportunity to highlight its most crucial element—the forgiveness of sins.  The word blood does not occur in this booklet, which is remarkable.  In fact, stating the truth about the blood of Christ washing away our sins in baptism is not thought worthy of mention, and, to the contrary, the authors think it should be ignored.  They write: “Discussing baptism’s essentiality reveals little, but looking into its essence can open our eyes to see the power of Jesus to cleanse and renew broken lives…” (5). 

 

     Wait a minute!  How can the authors divorce baptism’s essentiality from its essence?  Its essence is the very thing that makes it essential.  If baptism is involved in man’s obtaining forgiveness of sins (its essence), then how can its essentiality be minimized?  Yet the authors of this booklet do minimize baptism.  Consider the following two sentences.

 

Baptism is a marvelous point of entry for disciples and should not be commandeered by agendas that reduce it to a simple rule or that focus solely on de-bates about its essentiality. Such agendas distract us from the essence of baptism, weakening our understanding of the discipleship it pictures (10).

     If the authors are trying to move ACU out from under the dark clouds of suspicion regarding what they teach concerning salvation, this booklet will not accomplish that goal.  The above statement insults those who have prepared diligently and debated successfully over the years on this very topic.  No one who has ever engaged in the arena of honorable public discussion (by the way, have these men ever presented their views publicly and had them challenged?) ever had any other “agenda” but to teach people the truth concerning what the Bible says. If anyone has an agenda, it would be the authors of this booklet, and their purpose is to direct people’s attention away from what the Bible teaches about the essentiality of baptism!

     They also affirm that “it’s unlikely that total agreement on every baptismal issue can ever be achieved” (10).  What kind of gobbledegook is this?  Those who are willing to hear what God has revealed on the matter stand in agreement.  A sincere student of the Word will want to know what the word transliterated baptism means; does the New Testament authorize sprinkling and pouring or only immersion?  A true disciple is not going to say that Biblical information is not important.

          A true disciple will not be satisfied to be baptized and not know the reasons behind it.  Yet the authors scrupulously avoid the fact that baptism is for the for-giveness of sins.  In fact, Acts 2:38 is cited only one time in the entire booklet, and it is misapplied: “When a person is baptized ‘in the name of Jesus’ to receive ‘the gift of the Spirit’ (Acts 2:38), he or she is putting on Jesus, like putting on a different suit of clothes or a new skin (Galatians 3:27)” (8).  First of all, the verse does not say that we are baptized to receive the gift of the Spirit.  Peter spoke thus:

 

Repent, and let every one of you be baptized for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

 

     Receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit is the byproduct of being baptized for the forgiveness of sins.  Never did Peter or any other New Testament preacher tell sinners to be baptized in order to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

 

     Second, why did the authors of this booklet omit the reason that Peter did give for baptism—for the remission of sins?  This is no accident or oversight; what we find in their words is a deliberate attempt to remove the purpose the inspired Holy Spirit put into the text and replace it with an idea that (although in the text) is not the purpose for baptism.

 

     The writers progress even further in their clumsy ef-forts to obscure Acts 2:38.  They provide three reasons for baptism.  The first one refers to John 3:5-8 and the new birth, which is certainly an important passage.  But then they say, “Our baptism connects us to the birth of Jesus. It is as if the Spirit of God were hovering over the waters, ready to bring forth a new creation at God’s command (Genesis 1:2)” (9).  What exactly is the connection between Jesus’ birth and our new birth, according to them?  This text makes no sense.

 

     “Second, in the water, we’re also joining Jesus in the Jordan river. His presence in the water purifies it, transforming it from a muddy stream into the cleansing waters that sanctify us to become his servants” (9).  What?  Cleansing has nothing to do with the physical quality of the waters (1 Peter 3:21).  We are cleansed by the blood of Jesus WHEN we obey from the heart the command to be baptized (Rom. 6:17-18; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; Rev. 1:5).

 

     The third point about joining Jesus in His death, burial, and resurrection is Scriptural, and they cite Romans 6:3-4.  But they cannot bring themselves to say that baptism is essential to salvation or that it is the means by which our sins are washed away.  Although they argue that we must die to ourselves, there is no hint that we must die to SIN.  Romans 6:6 (which they do not mention, although it is in the context) gives both of these: “Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin, For he who has died has been freed from sin” (Rom. 6:6-7).

 

          That the authors harbor a low view of the true purpose of baptism is seen by their opening comments.  They describe baptism as “a long-awaited event or the spontaneous response to an inspiring sermon” (3).  In what church has baptism been a long-planned event?  Someone might make the decision to be baptized and plan for the following day, but we never encourage any-one to put off obedience—particularly for a long time.  In the New Testament, all obedience was immediate.  What the authors describe sounds more like a ritual than baptism the way it is taught in the New Testament. 

 

     This notion was not accidental; they later encourage planning “the structure of Sunday worship around baptismal events” (13).  This sounds like what the denomi-nations do when they plan for a baptismal service every six months or so.  They do not keep their baptisteries clean and ready for use.  They only fill them up once or twice a year for their special public services.  If one is going to pick out special clothing for the occasion (13), he certainly does not regard baptism as essential—the  way it is presented in the New Testament.  The authors (apparently) do not view baptism as the passing from a lost state into a saved one.  Why would someone who has been taught about salvation properly want to wait to have his sins removed?  Imagine Ananias saying to Paul, “And now why are you waiting?  Arise and go buy some special baptismal clothes and in two weeks we will have a ceremony” (Acts 22:16)!!

 

     In their haste to dispense with baptism for the remission of sins, the authors (in effect) challenge the Lord Jesus Christ. 

 

For example, when we ask, “Is baptism the work of God or a human work?” we are forcing a false distinction that does not fit the full incarnational glory of God being unveiled in Christ (10).

 

     Pardon the unsophisticated expression, O erudite and educated writers, but Hogwash!  People need to know the answer to that question.  If baptism is of men, then it is a work of human merit and cannot be considered part of salvation.  If, on the other hand, it is the “working of God” (Col. 2:12, a Scripture not mentioned in this section), then it must be regarded as essential. 

 

     Furthermore, did it never occur to these “scholars” that this is the very question Jesus asked?  “The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?” (Matt. 21:25).  Would they deign to take the Lord to task for pitting humanity against God (11)? 

 

     More could be said by way of criticism—especially regarding the Holy Spirit (#5, 29), but these comments are sufficient to convey the point that these authors, with the endorsement of Jack Reese, dean of the graduate school of theology, have attempted to sanitize salvation by re-moving from it the concepts of sin and the blood of Christ shed on the cross.  They have tried to remake baptism into a positive, personal, “extreme makeover” experience.  We are much safer with the New Testament, which pre-sents baptism as that which removes the sins of the penitent soul, without which he would remain lost.

 

 

For addition information on this specific topic click here: http://www.spiritualperspectives.org/articles/documents/apostasy

 

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