Questions about the Essential Nature of Baptism (by Immersion)

This entry is more along the lines of a position statement as I am answering questions for potential employment. These questions may be helpful to some of you as well. I hope they help.

A. What about death-bed confessions? Aren’t they valid expressions of faith for salvation?

Rather than being a purely hypothetical question, I have been witness to a few of these, most recently this summer, where we had a patient who desired to be baptized on their deathbed. The patient was going into hospice the day we baptized the patient, and died about a week later. So I think this patient qualifies. When I went to talk to the patient in the morning, the patient could barely speak. But as the day progressed, the patient became more animated. On the patient’s request, the patient was baptized by immersion thanks to some helpful equipment we have at our hospital.

I tell you what I have seen, that those on their “death-bed” who express faith in Christ, and are capable of doing do, usually have enough time for us to make arrangements for them to be baptized, even by immersion. Now that’s not going to be true in the home, or maybe even at the nursing home. But what I remember is this: Without faith, you cannot please God. If that death-bed confession is an honest expression of faith, I cannot tell that person that they are not going to heaven. I can’t make that call. But what I have seen is that such a person, with a desire to be baptized, will be given enough grace by the Lord to be able to be baptized before they die.

What I have seen far too often is the families of such individuals who beg and plead the Chaplain to save their dying loved one, and by the time we receive the call, the person has passed into unconsciousness and doesn’t wake up enough to even be addressed by the Chaplain.

B. What about the thief on the cross? He had no opportunity to be baptized, and yet Jesus told him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

I think we make a lot of assumptions about the thief on the cross.

First, that this is the first time he had ever met Jesus. From Luke 23:41, we get a sense that the thief knew about Jesus, enough to be able to pronounce him innocent compared to himself. It’s very likely that the thief had heard Jesus speak, maybe even was baptized by John or even the disciples. We just don’t know enough to make that assumption.

Second, we assume that the thief wanted to be saved. From Luke 23:42, it seems the thief wasn’t asking that at all. He simply asked Jesus to remember Him when Jesus comes in power. It is possible to construe here that the thief believed in the resurrection, just as Martha did in John 11:24.

Third, as an argument against the essentiality of immersion, we must remember that baptism marks the death, burial and RESURRECTION of Jesus. There is no way at this point in time that the thief could have received Christian baptism, since Jesus had not yet risen from the dead. The thief’s faith, if we may be so bold, is the same kind of “saving faith” expressed by Abraham, Moses and David. They believed in the Coming One, though they had not seen Him risen. Jesus simply extended that same grace that He extended to Abraham, Moses and David (and many others) by promising the thief entry into “Paradise”, which I argue is not the same thing as “Heaven” theologically, but that’s another subject.

C. Are you saying that without baptism a Person is not saved?

First, let me clarify what salvation is. Salvation is salvation from the eternal penalty of sin, i.e., Hell. Salvation is eternal life with Jesus and His people, living in Heaven with Him. Salvation on this earth means living in Christ, through the Holy Spirit before God the Father. We have a way of escape from temptation. We have fruits of the Spirit because of His abiding in us. We have a fruitful and abundant life because of the Spirit who lives in us. Our salvation in Jesus Christ is the only true hope we have in this world. But we cannot achieve or receive it on our own. We MUST have help.

Jesus laid down His life for our sins nearly 2000 years ago. This we apprehend by faith and a decent amount of reason. We know such a One named Jesus of Nazareth died in Roman custody outside a small town in Judea called Jerusalem on a cross. We apprehend by faith that He did it to pay with His own perfect blood the penalty of our sins, the way sacrifices work to pay for sin. Jesus said, after He rose from the dead to His disciples, that they should go and preach this gospel to the whole world doing three things: making disciples, baptizing, and teaching. Thus throughout the New Testament, baptism is a part of the ongoing story, from Saul (Paul) to Cornelius, to the Phillipian Jailer, etc. The Apostles thought baptism necessarily followed belief in the gospel. I don’t think I know better than the Apostles or the Christ who initialized it.

I don’t proclaim myself an expert in all things baptism. Such is a mystery too deep and too profound for me. But I do know amazing things happen during baptism that we cannot receive any other way, namely, the cleansing of our soul through the “washing of regeneration”, the seal of the Holy Spirit, the promise of eternal life, and the beginning of an abundant life in Christ. I believe that baptism (by immersion) is essential to receive these things. God will not place His Spirit into an unholy place. The altar of our souls must first be cleansed by the sprinkling of blood, just as the altar of the Tabernacle once was. We must be made holy before the Holy Spirit can abide in us. This doesn’t not simply happen with faith, otherwise the saints of the Old Testament would have enjoyed this too. The presence of the abiding Spirit is unique to the New Testament (as evidenced by Pentecost) and can only be received through Christian baptism.

To put it conversely, what do you do with a Christian who refuses baptism? Is some one who resists baptism still considered saved? I believe that if a person is not baptized, but believes in the Lord Jesus Christ with all his heart, he can still be saved (by reason of his faith) but I would not want to be in his shoes when he stands before God. God will ask him why he didn’t take that step in baptism. What would you tell God? I also believe there will be a host of preachers on that day who will be held accountable for the myriad of souls they led astray by not telling them about baptism.

D. What About Foot-Washing?

Having examined the foot-washing issue, I think there is far more to it than merely washing feet. The symbolism behind it actually solves a problem we have had in the Christian Church for decades, that is, what to do when a backsliding believer wishes to be re-baptized or re-dedicated. I believe as Peter protested to be washed, hands feet and head, Jesus’ response is most telling:

Jesus answered, “People who have bathed and are clean all over need to wash just their feet. And you, my disciples, are clean, except for one of you.” (Joh 13:10)

Now consider the one who has been “soiled by the world” and feels repentant, and wishes to come back to the fold. They may wish to be re-baptized. While some see no problem with this, I do, since I believe that which happens in baptism cannot be replicated.

But what about people who turn away after they have already seen the light and have received the gift from heaven and have shared in the Holy Spirit? What about those who turn away after they have received the good message of God and the powers of the future world? There is no way to bring them back. What they are doing is the same as nailing the Son of God to a cross and insulting him in public! (Heb 6:4)

While they are still sinning, they can’t come back. But if they repent, I believe Jesus allowed them a way home. They have been washed (i.e., baptized) so they don’t need to be baptized again. But since their “feet” have been “soiled”, they do need their feet washed. Coincidentally, notice that Jesus does this the night before all the disciples (but John) abandon Him. And this foot-washing is a powerful statement. Rather than Jesus dying again for their sins and their reenactment of the death, burial and resurrection, it is a fellow believer, kneeling before them, taking towel and bowl, and humbly washing their feet. There is a direct sense of accountability in this act of humility. It is humbling for the one receiving as well as the one giving it, especially as it is done before the body of believers. (There is also a subtle call-back to the OT tradition (See Ruth 4:5-8) of the “unsandaled”, that is, one who refuses to carry his responsibility in the raising up of children to his deceased brother. In foot-washing, the sandals are removed, for the feet to be washed, a reminder of responsibility broken, and after the feet are “baptized”, the sandals are restored. It can be a very powerful and moving moment for all involved, and it satisfies the need to do “something” as a show of repentance and acceptance back into the Church. This is why I think it never shows up again (except Hebrews 6:2?), because of its rarity in the life of the church. Also, it reinforces the uniqueness of baptism, but allows the repentant a way back that is repeatable, and can be done again and again as a show of repentance.

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merittmusings

I've been in ministry in the Christian Churches/ Churches of Christ for 20+ years. Finished my doctorate in Biblical Studies in 2015. Serve today as a Hospital Chaplain.

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