by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 8:47am

QUESTION: When I was a young adult I learned that baptism was important for my salvation, so I was immersed. My problem is that this did not seem to result in the death to sin and rebirth to new spiritual life described in Romans 6:1-4 and Colossians 2:12 as happening in baptism. At another time, however, quite separate from my baptism, I went through a particularly strong life event when I did die to self and begin to live for Christ. I have seen this happen to others, too. How can this death to self, plus submission to the Lordship of Christ,happen independent of baptism?

ANSWER: First of all, the change in one’s life that begins with what we call “conversion” has two sides: the divine side and the human side. Part of it consists of what God does, and part of it consists of what the human agent does. A theological word for this is synergism, from two Greek words: ergazomai,“to work”; and syn, “with, along with, in addition to.” These two words are combined into a Greek word, synergeō,which means “to work with, to work together, to cooperate.” Calvinists hate this idea and consider it heresy while insisting on monergism,meaning that only one person is at work in the conversion process, namely, God. Non-Calvinists, who believe that even sinners have a truly free will, find synergism to be perfectly acceptable, though.

The first two things that happen in one’s life-change are the internal human actions of faith and repentance. Faith has two aspects: (1) believing that the gospel claims are true, and (2) deciding to trust in Jesus by surrendering one’s life to his Lordship. Repentance involves a hatred of sin and a commitment to rid one’s life of it.

The next things that happen in this life-change are two external human actions, namely, (1) the confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior (Romans 10:9-10), and (2) being baptized, i.e., immersed in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

As Acts 2:38 indicates, the next two conversion events are acts of God that happen in the moment of immersion. One is forgiveness of sins (justification),which is God’s declaration that from this point on he regards the sinner’s debt of eternal punishment for his sins to be paid in full. The other is that the Holy Spirit enters into the body or life of the convert and begins to dwell there in a special saving way.

What happens next is crucial in reference to the question we are discussing here. It is a two-fold action performed by the Holy Spirit at the moment he enters the convert’s body in baptism and begins to live there. In this moment the Spirit, like a divine surgeon, performs a two-fold operation upon the sinner’s spirit or soul. This operation is at the same time a work of death and a work of resurrection from the dead. First, the Spirit delivers a death-blow to the disease and power of sin that exist in the sinner’s soul. This is how we “died to sin” (Rom. 6:2), or how “our old self was crucified with Him” (Rom.6:6); and thus were buried with Christ “through baptism into death” (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). This is also called “a circumcision made without hands” (Col. 2:11).

Second, in the same moment or immediately thereafter, the Holy Spirit implants or infuses new life into the convert’s soul. What was once in a state of spiritual death (“when we were dead in our transgressions,” Eph. 2:5; see Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13) is now “raised up with Him” and “made alive together with Him [Christ]” (Col. 2:12-13). “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom.6:11).

This combination of death to sin and rebirth to new spiritual life is part of the new work of the Holy Spirit prophesied in Ezekiel 36:26, which the Spirit would begin to perform on the Day of Pentecost at the beginning of the New Covenant era: “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” The death to sin is the removing of the heart of stone; the rebirth to new life is the implanting of the heart of flesh. Together they constitute the work of salvation called “regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5) and new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal.6:15).

Overall, the two acts of God that are performed in Christian baptism are sometimes called the “double cure” of salvation: (1) forgiveness or justification, which takes away the sinner’s guilt and punishment; and (2) regeneration, which restores the sinner’s ability to obey the Creator’s law code as it applies to us in this New Covenant age. The latter includes death to sin and rebirth to new life.

In this essay we are mainly concerned with this latter event, the “regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). When the Spirit enters and performs his life-restoring operation upon the sinner’s soul, he continues to inhabit that person’s body (1 Cor. 6:19) for the purpose of providing him or her with spiritual strength to live a life of holy obedience.

In summary, the general conversion experience includes four things that the human agent does: the two internal acts of believing and repenting, and the two external acts of confession and baptism. It also includes four things that God does: the forgiving of sins and the bestowing of the Holy Spirit as indicated in Acts 2:38, and the two specific works of the Spirit (death to sin and resurrection to new life) that constitute regeneration.

From an experiential perspective, of these eight actions, the only ones we are consciously aware of are the four things that we ourselves do. We are cognitively conscious of our own faith and repentance, and we physically experience our own confession and baptism. However, neither God’s act of forgiveness, nor the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, nor the saving works the Spirit performs upon our souls, are felt, sensed, or perceived by us. We know they have happened only because of the promises of God’s Word.

The two issues raised by the questioner, then, are these: if the energizing work of the Holy Spirit happens in Christian baptism, (1) why do some unimmersed people seem to exhibit this new life and new lifestyle; and (2) why do some immersed believers not do a very good job of living this new lifestyle?

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  1. What I am sure about is that the New Testament teaches that immersion in water as a repentant believer is where one becomes saved. However, I am not the one who makes the final judgment concerning any specific individual’s salvation. That is God’s prerogative.

  2. My mother is a born again Christian, yet has never been immersed. There is no doubting it, however. I was baptised about 3 years ago and we tried to include her. Sadly, now nearly 87, she couldn’t manage the physical exertion and decided she couldn’t be immersed with me. So I hope you don’t think she isn’t saved?

  3. I am using Faith Once For All for a study on the inerrancy of the bible. I am confused by your explanation of how we know the current NT is reliable since we don’t have the original Greek that was written by God’s inspiration. can you refer me to any other source or explain further?

    • The key to understanding this is to distinguish between the original physical manuscripts of the Biblical writings (which we do not possess), and the original TEXT that was written on these manuscripts–which we DO have, with a very few disputed sections. We have the original text, thanks to the dedicated science of textual criticism. This science is possible, thanks to the VERY large number of copies and translations of all parts of the Biblical writings that are traceable as far back as the second century A.D. (and further for some OT sections). A very helpful explanation of this is the chapter by Greg Bahnsen in the book edited by Norman Geisler entitled “Inerrancy.” It is online at

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