Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Spring 1990 -- Volume 3:1
THE GOSPEL AND WATER BAPTISM:
A STUDY OF ACTS 2:38
LANNY THOMAS TANTON
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Is the demand for baptism (i.e., immersion in water) a part of the Gospel? Should every evangelistic sermon and every Gospel tract, in order to be biblical, include a demand for baptism? Should the unbeliever hear in clear and forceful terms that unless he is baptized he cannot be saved, cannot receive eternal life, cannot have the forgiveness of sins? There are many who believe that baptism is essential for salvation and is of the essence of the Gospel. Many of these same people point to Acts 2:38, 22:16, and 1 Pet 3:21 (along with other verses) to support their belief.
Many who maintain that baptism is part of the Gospel are sincere, thoughtful, Bible-loving, Bible-believing people. In fact, other than their demand for baptism, many of these same people could be considered fundamentalists! I know this for a fact because for years I was taught, and believed, and even preached that baptism was necessary for salvation. I was a minister in a denomination that proclaimed this position.
I no longer hold this position and I have left that denomination in which I proclaimed this false gospel. However, I bear no ill will toward any members of my former denomination. I left it long enough ago that I can now look back and evaluate my experience with them with objectivity, love, and humor. Nor do I have feelings of superiority in my present church. I remember all too well ministers of other churches who failed to answer squarely my questions regarding Acts 2:38, 22:16, and 1 Pet 3:21. They would cite Ephesians 2 or Romans 4 to prove that salvation was by grace through faith alone. However, when I asked them about those passages which seemed to teach that baptism was necessary, I was told that they were "problem passages" and that they were "unclear" and that one did not build a theology on passages of that nature. I eventually came to see that the "problem" was that they did not know what to do with these verses! To dismiss them, sometimes in a cavalier manner, was their way of ignoring a crack in their theological system. (Denial is an oft-used method when applying the Word of God to our lives and theology--despite our denials to the contrary!)
Over the years I have come to see that Acts 2:38, 22:16, and 1 Pet 3:21 can be understood at face value while, at the same time, maintaining with integrity the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone. Therefore, it is my hope that over a period of time I will be able to write a number of articles dealing with each of these "problem passages," thus sharing with the reader the fruit of my study and encouraging him or her to hold fast with confidence the Gospel of grace through faith alone.
Much heat has been generated by theological discussions and debates over whether or not Acts 2:38 and its demand for baptism is part of the Gospel. One humorous example of this "heat" is the account (probably apocryphal) of a youngster who was heard to say, "Give me an axe and two .38s and I'll whip any Baptist preacher in the world."1 Another example, not so humorous, is of a preacher who, commenting upon the motives of those who disagreed with what he thought was the obvious interpretation of this verse, wrote, "One has to want to misunderstand that verse in order to do so" (italics in the original).2 While many more examples could be cited, these are sufficient to indicate the intensity of emotion which discussions and debates over this verse and the subject of baptism can produce. These examples also remind us of the importance of stating accurately, evaluating fairly, and discussing politely the various interpretations of Acts 2:38.
The purpose, then, of this article is to explore the relationship between the demand for baptism and the promise of the remission of sins in Acts 2:38 in order to answer a larger theological question: Is baptism necessary in order to receive the remission of sins? In order to find the best possible answer to this emotional question, we will state and evaluate the various options found within the commentary tradition.
Acts 2:38 reads as follows:
II. The Sacramentarian Interpretation
The first view to be considered might be called the sacramentarian interpretation.3 This interpretation holds that baptism is necessary in order to receive the remission of sins and that the phrase "remission of sins" is a synonym for salvation and receiving eternal life. This view would interpret Acts 2:38 in a straightforward manner: "Repent and be baptized in order to (receive) the remission of sins."4 In other words, unless a person is baptized he cannot be saved.
With varying degrees of dogmatism, those denominations which are historically related to Alexander Campbell and his efforts to reform the Church (called "the Restoration Movement") hold this position. These denominations are, in alphabetical order, the Christian Church, the Churches of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ.5 Of these three, the most vocal in their defense have been the Churches of Christ.6 It should be noted that the Mormons,7 the Christadelphians,8 and the Roman Catholic Church9 largely agree with this interpretation.
This position, as I have noted, has been held with varying degrees of dogmatism. Some, like the Churches of Christ, would hold that the demand for baptism as a condition for salvation is absolute and has no exceptions (i.e., unless a person is baptized he cannot be saved). However, others are a little less dogmatic and would see Acts 2:38 as expressing the "normal" manner in which people are saved and are also willing to admit the possibility that a person could be saved without baptism. An example of this less dogmatic position would be, surprisingly, Alexander Campbell himself.10
Be that as it may, I will record here the defense of the more absolute and dogmatic position (i.e., the position that says that if a person is not baptized he cannot be saved). The defense of this interpretation can be summarized in four points.
First, this interpretation has in its favor the prima facie reading of the text. In other words, they take the passage at face value. In fact, it is argued, that if theological issues were not involved one would naturally come to this interpretation.11 Also, the force of the prima facie reading is strengthened upon consideration of many of the proposed alternatives which fail to give a convincing assurance of their validity (i.e., some of the proposed alternatives give evidence of a special pleading and use lexical and grammatical subtleties in the hope of finding anything that will support a meaning other than the prima facie reading of the text).12
Secondly, this interpretation harmonizes easily with other passages, also taken prima facie, which connect baptism with the remission of sins and salvation. Two especially strong passages that are consistent with this interpretation are Acts 22:16 ("And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord") and 1Pet 3:21 ("There is also an antitype which now saves us--baptism [not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God], through the resurrection of Jesus Christ"). Thus this interpretation provides theological consistency on the subject of the necessity of baptism for salvation.
Thirdly, this interpretation gives a stated purpose of the demand for baptism. Baptism is for (in order to receive) the remission of sins. Some of the other interpretations of this verse leave the demand for baptism unexplained. In fact, other than Acts 2:38 and 22:16 and 1 Pet 3:21 is there any verse in the NT which clearly states the purpose of water baptism? Would God leave such an important command and act unexplained in all of the NT?
Fourthly, this interpretation places an emphasis on Acts 2:38 that, according to the defenders of this position, fits the uniqueness of the occasion in Acts 2. Acts 2 records the beginning of the Church Age and contains the first evangelistic sermon after the death and resurrection of Christ. For the first time in this dispensation people ask what they must do in light of the fact that the Messiah was crucified. They are told to repent and be baptized in order to be saved (cf. also Acts 2:40). Because of the uniqueness of Acts 2 (i.e., its place in the dispensational scheme of the history of salvation) the quest for a proof-text for the terms of salvation should start here rather than in Ephesians 2 or Romans 4. Acts 2 is, as one Churches of Christ author describes it, "the hub of the Bible."13
Obviously, this interpretation is highly debated and a number of objections have been made stating what are believed to be its deficiencies. We will cite only a few of these objections.
First, the most popular objection to the sacramentarian interpretation is theological: If correct, this interpretation would make salvation the result of faith and works. Ephesians 2:8-9 and Rom 4:4-5 and 11:6 are quite clear that salvation is by faith and not works. According to this objection, the sacramentarian interpretation makes baptism a means by which a man actively participates in receiving salvation, i.e., he does something: He works to get salvation.
However, in all fairness, it should be said that this objection has received a strong counter-objection. The Dictionary of Biblical Theology, a work of Roman Catholic scholars, points out that faith is contrasted with works of Law, not obedience.14 Also, some Churches of Christ writers point out that because baptism is a once-for-all, non-repeatable act and is related to the free gift of salvation, baptism is, therefore, not to be considered a "work."15 In this there may even be some support from Evangelicals who, while rejecting the position that baptism is necessary for salvation, would admit that it is not a work, at least on the basis that the passive voice ("let every one of you be baptized") indicates that the one being baptized is not "doing" anything.16
Secondly, this interpretation contradicts the Gospel of John's teaching on the means of receiving eternal life. This Gospel, based upon the purpose statement of John 20:30-31, nowhere makes baptism a condition for receiving eternal life.17 In fact, if baptism is necessary for receiving eternal life, the Gospel of John, a self-designated "Gospel tract," with its sole emphasis on faith, is both incomplete and, to that extent, misleading.
Thirdly, this interpretation makes the "gift of the Holy Spirit" something that is given after baptism. However, it is clear that Cornelius received the gift of the Holy Spirit before his baptism (Acts 10:44-48; cf. especially 10:45 where the identical phrase "the gift of the Holy Spirit" used in Acts 2:38 occurs). Also Acts 19:2 indicates Paul's assumption that the Spirit was given at the moment of faith. Efforts by Churches of Christ writers to explain away this difficulty have not been successful.18
In summary, while this view appears to be grammatically strong, it is theologically weak.
III. The Causal Eis Interpretation
This interpretation understands the preposition eis ("for") in Acts 2:38 to be causal, indicating the reason or cause antecedent to the act of baptism, rather than telic, indicating purpose or result (Gk., telos). Accordingly, Acts 2:38 should be translated: "Repent and be baptized...because of the remission of sins." Thus salvation occurred before, not at, the moment of baptism.
This interpretation has the support of such outstanding evangelical scholars, past and present, as W. A. Criswell, Julius R. Mantey, A. T. Robertson, Charles C. Ryrie, and Kenneth S. Wuest.19 Also, the eminent British grammarian, Nigel Turner, admits that in some contexts, such as Acts 2:38, a causal usage is possible if demanded by one's theology.20
This position has been supported basically for two reasons. First, this interpretation is able to maintain an evangelical theology, since it holds that salvation is by faith alone-not faith plus baptism.
Secondly, this interpretation has been defended by comparing parallel passages where a causal usage is possible. These passages are Matt 3:11; 10:41; 12:41; Rom 1:16; 4:20; 11:32. To use just one of these parallels, Matt 12:41 states that the people of Nineveh repented because of (eis) Jonah's preaching. To say that they repented "for," or "in order to," the preaching of Jonah is impossible. They heard his message and then repented. Other parallels have been found in extra-biblical Greek by Mantey.21 Some support comes from the overlap between eis and en ("in," "by") and since en has some causal force it is possible that eis has some too.
Despite the respected and scholarly defenders of this position, the weaknesses of this position have limited its acceptance.
First, although it is "commentary counting" and, therefore, no sure proof of truth, this interpretation has found limited support from other Greek scholars.22 Neither Liddell-Scott nor Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker (BAGD) lists any causal usage for eis in their respective Greek lexicons. Furthermore, BAGD cites Acts 2:38 under the category of "purpose." A causal eis is not a normal usage and may indicate special pleading.23
Secondly, the reasons the causal eis sounds plausible is because, as J. W. Roberts has pointed out,
Thirdly, in regard to the other passages in the Scriptures which have been cited for support of this position, Roberts makes this forceful objection:
Also, parallels in non-biblical Greek which have been used to support the idea of a causal eis have been likewise debated.26
Fourthly, the phrase "for the remission of sins" is found five times in the NT (Matt 26:28; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:3; 24:47; Acts 2:38). Matthew 26:28 has our Lord saying concerning the Lord's Supper: "For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (NKJV). Since no one would argue for a causal usage in Matt 26:28 no one should argue for it in Acts 2:38 either.27
In summary, the causal eis interpretation is theologically strong, but lexically weak. The causal usage is, in the words of M. J. Harris in his grammatical supplement to The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, "unlikely."28
IV. The Syntactical Break Interpretation
The syntactical break interpretation29 holds to the normal meaning of eis ("for") as indicating purpose, but understands the phrase "for the remission of sins" to be connected with the command for repentance and not directly related to the command to be baptized, which is seen as a parenthetical comment. Thus, this interpretation would translate Acts 2:38 as follows: "Repent (and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ) for the remission of sins."
While this interpretation has been held at least as early as 1860,30 more recent defenders include Aubrey Malphurs, Bob L. Ross*, Frank Stagg, Ned Stonehouse, and Stanley Toussaint.31
The syntactical break interpretation rests on two major arguments, one grammatical and the other theological.
The grammatical argument is subtle, especially for those who read only the various English translations, and points to a difference in number in the two Greek verbs metanohsate ("repent" which is a second person plural) and baptistJhto ("be baptized" which is a third person singular) and the plural found in the phrase "for the remission of your sins." Toussaint states clearly his defense of this position:
The theological argument is based on the relationship between repentance and remission of sins found elsewhere in the writings of Luke. In Luke 3:3 and 24:47, and in Acts 3:19 and 5:31, repentance and the remission of sins are directly linked and baptism is either not mentioned or subordinated. In Acts 10:43 the remission of sins is linked directly to faith alone. This is used to argue that baptism is not directly related to the remission of sins. In fact, in light of Luke 3:3 ("a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins"), it could be argued that baptism is the outward symbol of repentance, but that it is repentance and not the outward symbol that brings remission of sins.
This position is impressive. However, a number of serious objections have been raised which we need to consider.
First, the defenders of this position have not demonstrated that a comparable syntactical break exists elsewhere in the writings of Luke, nor have they tried to demonstrate it from any parallels from non-biblical Greek sources. While this does not negate the possibility of such a break existing in Acts 2:38, it does raise the issue of whether or not there is here a special pleading using niceties of Greek grammar.
Secondly, this interpretation leaves the purpose of baptism unexpressed in the passage. According to this interpretation, one never learns from reading Acts 2:38 why one is to be baptized. Actually, it would be more natural to extend the parenthesis (if there is one here) to read: "Repent (and be baptized...for the remission of sins) and you shall receive..."
Thirdly, it is more natural to connect the prepositional phrase "for the remission of sins" to the nearest antecedent or to both verbs (they are connected with kai, "repent and be baptized") rather than to connect it to the first verb only.
Fourthly, this interpretation reflects some misunderstanding about Greek grammar. This position rests upon a difference in number between the two verbs and the prepositional phrase. This is something that the standard Greek grammars do not address. While the grammars do discuss the agreement of subject and verb, they do not discuss the idea of agreement between verb and prepositional phrases. In other words, the argument that a syntactical break occurs here which makes for a parenthetical statement is very hard to support. In fact, there is evidence that a change in number in the verbs, as in Acts 2:38, strengthens the demand for baptism and in no way affects its natural relationship with the phrase "for the remission of sins."33
Fifthly, the theological argument for this interpretation is very interesting and not without merit. Baptism can, in the light of the passages cited for support of this position, be understood as expressing ceremonially the repentance which by itself brings forgiveness (cf. Luke 3:3). However, while this may explain Acts 2:38, it may be questioned whether this approach gives us a method for dealing with the more difficult passages of Acts 22:16 and 1 Pet 3:21. These verses are not easily dismissed as speaking merely of the importance of the symbolic value of baptism. These two passages, however, must await further articles in this Journal.
In summary, this view is grammatically weak, but theologically possible. However, for an excellent presentation of the theological support of this position see Robert N. Wilkin's article on repentance in this issue (pp.16-18).
V. The Conversion-Initiation Interpretation
We now come to the view called "conversion-initiation."34 In essence, this position holds that a person becomes a Christian (i.e., receives the Holy Spirit) by a complicated process composed of three elements: faith, water baptism, and the reception of the Spirit. However, the reception of the Spirit may come before or after water baptism. While faith and the reception of the Spirit work an inner transformation called conversion, water baptism works at an objective and ritualistic level called initiation. This position would not change the translation of Acts 2:38, but would refrain from using this verse as an automatic formula for every conversion.
Several contemporary scholars hold this position. Some of these advocates include F.F. Bruce, James D. G. Dunn, and Richard N. Longnecker.35 Others, who have not designated their interpretation of Acts 2:38 as "conversion-initiation" but who have a view compatible with it are G. R. Beasley-Murray, Richard Averbeck, Ian Howard Marshall, and even John Calvin.36 I should also include here, as my personal belief, that the less dogmatic sacramentarian position of Alexander Campbell would also fit here fairly easily!
This position is basically a theological one composed of three points.
First, according to this position, there is no set theological sequence (i.e., not simple cause and effect order) within the "conversion-initiation" experience of the NT. Acts itself shows that the gift of the Holy Spirit is sometimes contrasted with water baptism (Acts 1:5; 11:16), sometimes unconnected (Acts 2:4; 8:16f.; 18:25), sometimes in natural sequence (Acts 2:38; 19:5), sometimes in a different order (Acts 9:17f.; 10:44-48).37 The ambiguity which is seen in Acts should be taken seriously since it shows that God exercises His freedom. Life is more complicated than formulations of doctrine, but the Lord is able to look after the exigencies of life outside the range of the formulas.38
Secondly, the "conversion-initiation" interpretation basically consists of three elements: faith, water baptism, and the gift of the Holy Sprit. Faith is the "efficacious" element and the reception of the Spirit is the climax. Water baptism is important for faith as "the necessary step of commitment, without which they could not be said to have truly 'believed.'"39 But, the Spirit is given in response to faith, not baptism. Dunn goes to great length to make this clear:
Thirdly, regardless of how complicated and irregular the process of "conversion-initiation" may be in Acts, those who hold this view often agree that Acts 2:38 states the normal and expected order for salvation. Dunn states:
Longenecker, in his commentary on Acts, also agrees that Acts 2:38 sets the pattern:
Thus Acts 2:38 is considered the norm for salvation in Acts in that it mentions the three elements of "conversion-initiation," but Acts 2:38 should not be understood as stating the exact, always-followed order for salvation. The exceptions are many and striking.
While I like the fact that the "conversion-initiation" interpretation attempts to be evangelical and tries to account for all of Luke's soteriology instead of simply finding a solution to Acts 2:38 alone, there is something in this position which is very frustrating: It is too ambiguous! In fact, there is so much ambiguity in it that both Alexander Campbell and a modern Evangelical could hold this position--as long as no one pressed the implications of the statements too much or asked for too precise a definition of the terms used!
For example, it is claimed that Acts 2:38 is the theological "norm" for Lucan theology. But then numerous examples are cited which are contrary to this "norm." To me this raises the question of whether Acts 2:38 is indeed the "norm," or, if the statements about it need to be more carefully and clearly modified than they are at present.
Another example is the role of water baptism. Dunn says that the reception of the Spirit is in response to faith, not water baptism. However, to believe and to be baptized
Although I know that Dunn and the others would reject it, I still feel that this statement could be acceptable to many sacramentarians and used to prove the necessity of baptism. Dunn appears to say that C (the reception of the Holy Spirit) comes because of A (faith), but A is not truly A unless it is accompanied by B (baptism). This raises the question: how does this argument avoid the logical deduction that B is as necessary as A in order to receive C?
This position is certainly in need of better articulation. However, until it becomes clearer it will, I believe, be rejected by the vast majority of Bible students.
VI. The Ultra-Dispensational Interpretation
The ultra-dispensational interpretation understands Acts 2:38 in a straightforward manner (much like the sacramentarian view) but believes that Acts 2:38 applies only to Israel and to a special situation which is no longer applicable. In other words, Acts 2:38 is not for today.
This interpretation has been held by Charles F. Baker, E. W. Bullinger, Harry Bultema, A. E. Knoch, Cornelius Stam, and Charles H. Welch.44
The defense of this position is basically theological. It teaches that the concept of the Church as the Body of Christ (Jew and Gentile in one body with full equality) was revealed only to Paul during his prison ministry (Eph 3:1-9), after the Book of Acts was written. Therefore, the whole of Acts is not directly applicable to us today any more than the OT is directly applicable. Acts 2 concerns Israel and the judgment coming upon her for her rejection of her Messiah-King (Acts 2:39-40).
Also, this position makes a distinction between the forgiveness of sins and the doctrine of justification by faith. A. E. Knoch explains:
As a dispensationalist, I find this position attractive. However, the idea that Acts 2 is not the birth of the Church and is unrelated to this dispensation is a serious deficiency. This view has been so thoroughly refuted in Charles C. Ryrie's excellent book Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965) that we need not restate the arguments here.
While the idea that forgiveness is different from justification has merit (and will be considered in our next interpretation), the claim that the Church was not in existence in Acts 2 and, therefore, Acts 2 is not applicable today, is by itself enough to make us look for a better interpretation.
VII. The Transitional Interpretation
This "transitional interpretation"46 holds that those who heard Peter's message in Acts 2 and believed it were regenerated at the moment of their faith, whether that occurred before or after their repentance. However, in order to receive the forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter's audience had to repent and be baptized. This condition is applied in Acts only to Palestinians exposed to the baptizing ministry of John and of Jesus. It is not applicable to Gentiles at all as the case of Cornelius's conversion shows. Cornelius received the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit at the moment of faith, along with regeneration and justification.
This view has not had a wide hearing and, therefore, its advocates are few. However, this position is held by Zane C. Hodges and Craig Glickman.47 Those who held a position which is somewhat compatible with it include Arno C. Gaebelein and Harry A. Ironside.48
The defense for this position is intricate since each of its points builds on the one before it. Broadly speaking, the support for this view is both grammatical and theological.
The grammatical support for this interpretation comes from the prima facie reading of the text. In this it agrees with the sacramentanan view. The normal force of both the words and the grammar all point to understanding Acts 2:38 as saying that one must both repent and be baptized in order to receive the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. All efforts at lexical and grammatical subtleties are rejected.
However, the burden of support for this position is theological.
First, this interpretation affirms its belief in the evangelical position that John's doctrine of regeneration and Paul's doctrine of justification are both by faith alone. In this, it disagrees with the sacramentarian interpretation. Hodges notes:
This observation allows the transitional interpretation to take Acts 2:38 at prima facie understanding and yet remain evangelical. Acts 2:38 is not telling anyone how to be eternally saved, justified, regenerated, or how to avoid the lake of fire!
Secondly, this interpretation holds that some of Peter's hearers did believe and were, therefore, justified before Acts 2:38 was spoken. The question of Acts 2:37 ("Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?"') implies that faith was already present. Again, Hodges writes:
Thirdly, this interpretation holds that Acts 2:38 as well as the rest of Acts 2 is unique and is not directly applicable to us today. This uniqueness is seen in three ways.
First, Acts 2:38 is unique in regard to its situation. On this point Hodges writes in detail:
Secondly, Acts 2:38 is unique in regard to the matter of forgiveness. The other interpretations considered in this article assume that forgiveness is roughly the same thing as justification. It is not. Again, a detailed distinction is made by Hodges:
Thirdly, Acts 2:38 is unique in regard to the Holy Spirit when compared with the rest of the book of Acts. Concerning the offer of the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:38, Hodges makes four points:
Therefore, in regard to the gift of the Holy Spirit three observations follow: (1) although the OT saint was regenerated, he did not permanently possess the Spirit (John 7:37-39); (2) the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which is a sign that one has entered the Church Age, was given to the Jews in Acts 2 upon their baptism; and (3) as one goes through the Book of Acts it becomes apparent that regeneration, forgiveness, and the reception of the Holy Spirit occur, normatively, at the moment of faith (Acts 10:44-48). "No Gentile exceptions are noted by Luke in the remainder of Acts, so that in Cornelius Luke no doubt sees normative Gentile experience."54
The unique manner in which the gift of the Holy Spirit is given in Acts 2 could be compared to the empowerment of the Spirit which came to our Lord at His baptism. On this analogy, S. Craig Glickman offers this insight:
Because this view has not been widely circulated it has not been widely criticized. One work was found by a Churches of Christ debater which criticized this interpretation.56 However, its objections are of marginal worth because the polemical tone did not allow the transitional interpretation to be understood accurately. However, the chief objection (besides the objection that the view may be too complex) is found in the assumption that in Acts 2:37 some actually believed in Christ. This boils down, naturally, to the nature of faith and repentance (a subject beyond the scope of this paper).57 As a result of this article perhaps someone who accurately understands this interpretation will write a paper that surfaces more numerous and difficult objections. However, unless and until insurmountable problems arise, this interpretation is the one that I hold.
The purpose of this article was to state and evaluate the major interpretations of Acts 2:38. Every position has problems, but the goal is to find the position that has the fewest major objections and solves the greatest number of problems. I hope that my article will help the reader to see a refutation of the argument that the Gospel contains a demand for baptism. The Scriptures state that Satan blinds the eyes of the unbeliever so that he will not see the Gospel clearly (2 Cor 4:4). Let us not do Satan's work for him by further confusing the unbeliever with an unclear gospel of faith plus water baptism.
* Note by Bob Ross: Brother Tanton has somehow inadvertently misstated my view which is expressed in my small book, Acts 2:28 and Baptismal Remission. Also, I have had several public debates with Church of Christ ministers on baptism, and have never taken the position attributed to me in Bro. Tanton's treatise. Please notice that no statement is quoted from me which would indicate what my view is on the passage. Anyone who wishes to have my short article #502 which briefly states my understanding of the matter is invited to email your request to email@example.com.
1Bob L. Ross, Campbellism--Its History and Heresies (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1976), 85. Ross has written two books about the Churches of Christ and their position on baptism. The one quoted here is the larger and more comprehensive of the two. The other book, entitled Acts 2:38 and Baptismal Regeneration (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1976), limits itself more to a refutation of the position of the Churches of Christ on Acts 2:38. Both books are not above sarcasm and are, in my opinion, inadequate treatments of the arguments of the Churches of Christ. In fact, Ross does not give anywhere near enough space to the two strongest passages in favor of the Churches of Christ position, i.e., Acts 22:16 and 1 Pet 3:21. In other words, Ross is guilty of an old debater's method of attack: Hit the weakest points in your opponent's argument and hope that others ignore your opponent's strongest points. Debaters win debates, but it is to be questioned whether or not they find truth.
2Mark Lewis, "The Necessity of Baptism for Salvation," Firm Foundation (May 3, 1983), 6.
3Some in the Churches of Christ may, understandably, object to this designation because they do not see baptism as a sacrament, but rather as a command to be obeyed by a believing individual. J. W. Roberts, a Churches of Christ Greek scholar (Ph.D. in Greek at the University of Texas) and Professor of New Testament at Abilene Christian University has objected to the understanding that baptism is a sacrament. He comments: "But is there no choice between baptism as a sacrament and baptism as an empty symbol? Is there no choice between the understanding of baptism as a sacrament in which the validity is in the act performed in the name of Jesus without regard to whether the recipient is an infant or a hypocrite (that is, without regard to faith and penitence of the baptized) and an understanding of baptism as an act of faith of a penitent obeying a command which the Lord in his own name has made a condition of pardon? The preaching of the Restoration Movement has been as strongly against any magical or 'sacramental' efficacy in baptism as anyone else. They have repudiated the Roman Catholic doctrine of baptismal regeneration and infant baptism.
"It is quite another thing to insist on the Bible teaching that baptism to a penitent believer is for (in order to) the remission of sins. This is the form the proposition usually takes in public discussions. The New Covenant sees baptism as an act of faith (Gal 3:26-27; Col 2:1 2f.); it is part of that 'obedience of faith' unto which the Gospel was proclaimed (Rom 16:26); it is connected with faith as a condition of salvation (Mark 16:16) and with repentance as a condition of pardon or remission (Acts 2:38). It is precisely in this respect that the Campbells and Scott in the early Restoration Movement saw their declaration of baptism for remission of sins upon a confession of faith in Christ as a 'restoration' of the primitive practice following the centuries of 'sacramentalism' in Roman and Protestant theology." See J. W. Roberts, ("Baptism for Remission of Sins--A Critique," Restoration Quarterly 1 ): 226ff. For a similar viewpoint, yet one held by a Baptist, see G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), 7, 13, and his Baptism Today and Tomorrow (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1966), 20-21.
The designation "Sacramentarian Interpretation" is mine. If any object to it they may substitute whatever term they wish to describe this position (provided they avoid such tendentious appellations as "The Only True, Correct, and Biblical Interpretation"!).
4Alexander Campbell published a translation of the Bible entitled The Sacred Writings of the Apostles and Evangelists of Jesus Christ, Commonly Styled the New Testament, which was shortened to The Living Oracles (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1954). To this translation Campbell also wrote prefaces, various emendations, and an appendix, all of which are quite interesting. In other words, this translation had Campbell's "seal of approval." Therefore, it is of interest to note its translation of Acts 2:38, "And Peter said to them, Reform, and be each of vou immersed in the name of Jesus Christ, in order to the remission of sins, and vou shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
5Of the many works dealing with the history' of the Restoration Movement, some of the best are James DeForest Murch, Christians Only (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing Co., 1962); Louis Cochran and Bess White Coch ran, Captives of the Word (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1969); J. W. Shepherd, The Church, the Falling Away, and the Restoration (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Co., 1964); and Earl West, The Search for the Ancient Order, 3 vols. (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Co., 1965).
6For example, see the large volume of recorded debates by Churches of Christ preachers and scholars, a sample of which might include Hardeman-Bogard Debate (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Co., 1938); The Nashville Debate on Baptism (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Co., 1951); Smith-Bogard Debate: The Plan of Salvation (Dallas: Gospel Broadcast, 1953); Warren-Ballard Debate (Longview, TX: Telegram Book Co., 1953).
7It is most interesting to note that two associates of Alexander Campbell left him. One of them, Sidney Rigdon, left to join the Mormons (Murch, Christians Only, 120). For more information about the activities of Rigdon after he espoused Mormonism and about his high status and influence in that movement, cf. John Ahmanson's Secret History: A Translation of "Vor Tids Muhamed," translated by Gleason L. Archer, Jr. (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1984).
8It is also interesting to note that the second of the two associates who left Campbell, Dr. John Thomas, formed the Christadelphians (Murch, Christians Only, 120). Thus two cults were formed by Campbell's followers. We, of course, must avoid the trap of "guilt by association." Many of the doctrines of both the Mormons and the Christadelphians are strongly denounced by members of the Churches of Christ.
9Francois Amiot, in the Roman Catholic Dictionary of Biblical Theology (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), edited by Xavier Leon-Dufour, writes: "But faith in Christ does not only mean that the mind accepts the messianic message; it involves a total conversion, a complete abandonment to Christ, who transforms the whole of a man's life. It normallv leads to a request for baptism, which is its sacrament and in the reception of which it finds its perfection. Paul never separates the two, and when he speaks of justification by faith it is only in contrast with the alleged justification by the works of the Law, to which the Judaizers appealed. He always takes it for granted that the profession of faith is crowned by the reception of baptism (Gal 3:26f.). By faith a man responds to the divine call that has become clear to him through the preaching of the apostles (Rom 10:14f.), and this response is, moreover, the work of grace (Eph 2:8). At baptism the Spirit takes possession of the believer, incorporates him into the body of the Church and gives him the certainty that he has entered the Kingdom of God.
"It is quite clear that the sacrament does not act in any magic way. The total conversion that it calls for must be the start of a new life in a spirit of unshakable faithfulness." ("Baptism," Dictionary, 42-43.)
10In his famous reply to the "Lunenburg Letter," Campbell responded to a lady who wrote him asking if the unimmersed were Christian. In part, he replied: "Who is a Christian? I answer, Everyone that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will...I cannot...make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion into the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and in my heart regard all that have been sprinkled in infancv without their own knowledge and consent, as aliens from Christ and the well-groomed hope of heaven.
"Should I find a paedo-baptist more intelligent in the Christian Scriptures, more spiritually-minded and more devoted to the Lord than a Baptist, or one immersed on a profession of the ancient faith, I would not hesitate a moment in giving the preference of my heart to him that loved most. Did I act otherwise, I would be a pure sectarian, a Pharisee among Christians. Still I will be asked, How do I know that anyone love my Master but by his obedience to His commandments? I answer, In no way. But mark, I do not substitute obedience to one commandment, for universal or even general obedience. And should I see a sectarian Baptist or a paedo-baptist more spiritually-minded, more generally conformed to the requisitions of the Messiah, than the one who precisely acquiesces with me in the theory or practice of immersion as I teach, doubtless the former rather than the latter, would have my cordial approbation and love as a Christian. So I judge, and so I feel. It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known." (Millennial Harbinger, September, 1837.) For further analysis of this letter see Glenn Paden, "The Lunenburg Letter," Restoration Quarterly 1 (1958): 13-18.
11Roberts, "Baptism," Reformation Quarterly 1(1957): 233.
12This should become evident as we discuss the various alternatives stated in this article. This is the reason why it was so difficult for me to leave the Churches of Christ: I could see clearly my position, but to refer to Greek and other grammatical niceties which are not reflected in any well-known translation was to leave me unable to judge whether what I was being told was the truth or not.
13In fact, this is the title of James D. Bales's exposition of Acts 2. Cf. The Hub of the Bible (Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Book Club, 1960). Bales, a Ph.D. from U.C.L.A., was Professor of Christian Doctrine at Harding University, Searcy, Arkansas (a Churches of Christ school).
14Cf. footnote 9.
15Actually, there are a number of attempts to answer this objection that baptism is a work. One approach is to deny that the Bible teaches the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Dr. Thomas B. Warren, in his debate with L. S. Ballard, states, as one of his arguments that a salvation by faith without works is a salvation by a dead faith, according to James 2. Also, he points out that the only time the Scriptures use the phrase "justification by faith alone" is in James 2 where it is plainly stated that one is not justified by faith alone (Warren-Ballard Debate).
A second approach is to argue that faith, when cited alone, is often used as a figure of speech (metonymy) which puts a part for the whole. The Bible teaches that repentance (Acts 11:18), confession (1 John 2:23), and baptism (1 Pet 3:21) are also necessary. It is useless to point to a passage and say "It does not mention baptism here, therefore, it isn't necessary," since passages can be found that do not mention faith. All of the conditions are necessary, but not all are found in a single verse. (This is a second argument that Warren used in his debate with Ballard; cf. Warren-Ballard Debate.)
A third approach is to admit that baptism is a work, but an allowable type of work, i.e., one which is not forbidden by Paul in Eph 2:9. Tom Montgomery attempts to support this position as follows: "The New Testament mentions at least four kinds of works. There are (1) works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21), (2) works of the law (Gal 2:16; Rom 3:20), (3) works of merit (Titus 3:5; Eph 2:8-9), and (4) works resulting from faith (James 2:14-26).
"Baptism does not merit our salvation. Please note that (1) Naaman did not merit his cleansing from leprosy by dipping in the water of the Jordan seven times (2 Kings 5:1-14), (2) Saul did not merit his cleansing from sin by being baptized (Acts 22:16), and (3) we are not attempting to merit our salvation by being baptized in response to our Lord's statement in Mark 16:16. But it is clearly inconsistent to call Jesus 'Lord' and refuse to do what he said (Luke 6:46)."
"Baptism is a work. However, it is a work (or deed) that God requires as an outgrowth of our faith ... A faith that will not produce these deeds (works) required by our Lord is a dead faith (James 2:26) and a dead faith cannot save any one (James 2:14)." (Tom Montgomery, "Is Baptism a Work?" Gospel Advocate [May 18, 1982]: 243.)
A fourth approach is to say that baptism is not a work because the verbbaptizw is almost always in the passive voice, indicating that it is something done to the person and not something the believer does. Cf. David Lipscomb, Romans (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Co., 1950), 82.
A fifth approach is based upon an effort to define the concept of "works." Alexander Campbell argues: "We do not, however, place baptism among good works. Good works have our brethren, and neither God nor ourselves, for their object. They directly and immediately terminate upon man; while, in the reflex influence, they glorify God and beautify ourselves." (Alexander Campbell, Gospel Advocate [April 7, 1983]: 198.)
A sixth and (for our purposes) final counter-objection pressed by a writer for the Churches of Christ is that used by Bales: Baptism is not a work because it is performed only once. He writes: "If baptism is an act of obedience performed by the Christian, a good work which the Christian does, why is not the act repeated from time to time? What good works are there which are bound on the Christian which should not be performed more than once if the individual has the opportunity and ability to do good work? Why, among all the works that a Christian is to do, is baptism the only one that is done once for all? Observance of the Lord's Supper is a privilege and a responsibility of the Christian. Does anyone maintain that it should be done once for all? That we should not partake of it but once in a lifetime, even though we have opportunity to partake of it more than once?
"Does not the fact that baptism is once for all--when it is done scripturally--indicate that it is not in the category of works which a Christian should perform?" (James D. Bales, The Case of Cornelius [Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing Co., 1964], 50).
16An example of this is a Dallas Theological Seminary professor who readily admitted to me that baptism was not a work because it was related to salvation (however, not in the same cause and effect relationship that the Churches of Christ taught)!
17The only place in John where baptism might be considered as having some bearing upon salvation is Jesus' reference to water in His conversation with Nicodemus: "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). For an excellent refutation of this view and a statement of the various options possible, cf. James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975): 1:243-48; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 215-19; Zane C. Hodges, "Water and Spirit--John 3:5," Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (July-Sept, 1978), 206-20. The strength of the position that water baptism is indeed meant in John 3:5 primarily rests upon the assumption that the mention of water refers to water baptism. This assumption is gratuitous.
18Cf., for example, the already cited work of James D. Bales, The Case of Cornelius. Bales tries to argue that the gift of the Holy Spirit which Cornelius received was not the same gift of the Holy Spirit promised in Acts 2:38. This fails to seriously grapple with the fact that the same phrase is used in both Acts 2 and 10. The same author, the same speaker, in the same book, in the same kind of context, the same phrase-with two different meanings? This is most unlikely.
19W. A. Criswell, Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1978), 96; H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 103-104; also Ralph Marcus, "The Causal Use of Eis in then New Testament," Journal of Biblical Studies 70 (1951), 45-48; and "On Causal Eis Again," Journal of Biblical Studies 70 (1951), 309-11; A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), 389; also his Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), 3:34-36; Charles C. Ryrie, The Acts of the Apostles (Chicago: Moody Press, 1961), 24; Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), 3:76-77.
20Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1963), 3:266.
21Cf. footnote 19.
22Roberts observes that the following do not accept this position: "Thayer (p. 94); AG (p. 240); Zorell, F. Lexicon Graecum Novi Testamenti (Paris, P. Letheilleus, 1931); Hermann Cremer, Biblico-Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (N.Y., Scribner's, 1885), p. 126f.; Albrecht Oepke in Theologisches Woerterbuch, Vol. I. p. 537; Grundmann on sin in Theologisches Woerterbuch, Vol. I, p. 308." See his "Baptism," 227.
Also Roberts notes: "One finds eis listed for this passage as purpose (final or telic) in the following works: Winer, N. T Grammar (p. 397); Vincent, M. R., Word Studies in the N.T. (p. 280); R. J. Knowling, Expositor's Greek New Testament; E. DeWitt Burton, International Critical Commentary on Galatians; C. F. D. Moule, Idiom Book of N. T. Greek (p. 70); F. F. Bruce's new commentary on Acts (75-77), etc." ("Baptism," 228.)
23It is interesting to note that the only translation I found which adopted the causal usage was Kenneth S. Wuest's The New Testament: An Expanded Translation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961): 276. Wuest translates Acts 2:38 as follows: "And Peter said to them, Have a change of mind, that change of mind being accompanied by abhorrence of and sorrow for your deed, and let each one of you be baptized upon the ground of your confession of belief in the sum total of all that Jesus Christ is in His glorious Person, this baptismal testimony being in relation to the fact that your sins have been put away, and you shall receive the gratuitous gift of the Holy Spirit."
24Roberts, "Baptism," 233-34.
26Cf. Marcus, "On Causal Eis," 309-11; and "The Elusive Causal Eis," Journal of Biblical Studies 71 (1952): 43-44.
27J. C. Davis, "Another Look at the Relationship between Baptism and Forgiveness of Sins in Acts 2:38," Restoration Quarterly 24 (1981): 80-81.
28M. J. Harris, "Appendix," in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), 3:1187.
29Again, this is my designation of the position. I never found anyone who held this position give it a name. I hope that is acceptable; if not, then anyone can give it a more suitable, objective title!
30Roberts cites A. P. Williams as holding this position in a work entitled Campbellism Exposed, written in 1860 ("Acts 2:38--A Study in Syntax," Gospel Advocate [July 22, 1984], p. 704).
31Aubrey M. Malphurs, "The Soteriology of the Churches of Christ" (Th. D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1981), 167-69; Ross, Acts 2:38,45-49; Frank Stagg, The Book of Acts (Nashville: Broad man Press, 1955), 63; Ned Stonehouse, "The Gift of the Holy Spirit," Westminster Theological Journal 13 (1949-1951), 1-15; Stanley D. Toussaint, "Acts," The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Press, 1983), 359.
32Toussaint, "Acts," 359.
33Cf. Carroll D. Osborn, "The Third Person Imperative in Acts 2:38," Restoration Quarterly 26 (1983), 81-84. Osborn's work is based on Judy Glaze's excellent work, "The Septuagintal Use of the Third Person Imperative" (Master's thesis, Harding Graduate School of Religion, Memphis, n.d.), 24, 33.
34This designation is made by James D. G. Dunn in his book Baptism in the Holy Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970).
35F. F. Bruce, Commentary on Galatians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 185-87; Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit; Richard N. Longnecker, "Acts," in Expositor's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 9:336.
36Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament: Richard Averbeck, "The Focus of Baptism," Grace Theological Journal 2 (Fall, 1981): 265-301; Ian Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 5:80-81; John Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), 1:78-82.
37Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 90.
38Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, 301-302.
39Dunn, Baptism, 96-97.
42Longenecker, "Acts," 336.
43Dunn, Baptism, 96-97. There is no doubt that this is why Beasley-Murray (Baptism, 393-94), states that "...there ought to be a greater endeavour to make baptism integral to the Gospel...Baptism is...a proper subject for exposition in the enquirers' class, along with instruction as to the nature of the Church, of worship, of Christian obligation in the Church and to the world, etc. Peter's response, however, to the cry of his conscience-stricken hearers on the Day of Pentecost was not, 'Repent and believe,' but 'Repent and be baptized'! (Acts 2:38). Naturally faith was presumed in repentance, but Peter's answer told the Jews how to become Christians: faith and repentance are to be expressed in baptism, and so they are to come to the Lord. Baptism is here a part of the proclamation of Christ. In an Apostolic sermon it comes as its logical conclusion...Baptism and conversion are thus inseparables; the one demands the other, for neither is complete without the other...Finally, there should be an endeavour to make baptism integral to Church membership."
44Charles F. Baker, Understanding the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Grace Bible College Publications, 1981); E. W. Bullinger, How to Enjoy the Bible (London: The Lamp Press, n.d.); Harry Bultema, The Bible and Baptism: A Re-Examination (Muskegon, MI: privately published, 1952); A. F. Knoch, On Baptism (Los Angeles: Concordant Publishing Concern, n.d.); and Concordant Commentary on the New Testament (Saugus, CA: Concordant Publishing Concern, 1968); Cornelius Stam, Acts Dispensationally Considered (Chicago: Berean Bible Society, 1954); Charles H. Welch, An Alphabetical Analysis (Surrey, England: Berean Publications Trust, 1955), 1:102-109.
45Knoch, Concordant Commentary, 181.
46Again, this is my designation of this view. This position was never designated by anyone who held it. I took this title from a phrase in Zane C. Hodges's defense.
47Steven Craig Glickman, unpublished class notes in 903 Soteriology and Evangelism (Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall, 1982); Zane C. Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege (Dallas: Redenci�n Viva, 1981); and unpublished class notes for 227 Acts (Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall, 1984).
48Arno Clemens Gaebelein, The Acts of the Apostles (New York: Our Hope, 1912); Harry A. Ironside, Baptism (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, fourth edition, 1989).
49Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege, 100.
51Hodges, "Acts," 15-16.
55Glickman, "Soteriology," 148.
56Jerry Moffitt, Is Baptism Essential to Salvation? (Austin, TX: Jerry Moffitt, 1979).
57See the chapter on "Repentance" in Zane C Hodges, Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Dallas and Grand Rapids: Redenci6n Viva and Zondervan Puhushing House, 1989), 143-63. Cf. also Robert N. Wilkin's series on repentance in JOTGES, vols. 1 and following.