Is Baptism an Act of Obedience to a Command?

Is Baptism an Act of Obedience to a Command?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 12:58pm

QUESTION: In your book “Baptism: A Biblical Study” you say, “The Bible never treats baptism as a work of law or as a simple act of obedience in response to a command” (p. 139, 2006 ed.). Did not Christ command His disciples to go and make disciples, baptizing them (Matt. 28:19)? When the Jews asked Peter on the day of Pentecost, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37), did he not command them to “be baptized” (2:38)? Was not their baptism thus an act of obedience to a command?

ANSWER: First, the only command in Matt. 28:19 is to the APOSTLES (and by extension, to all Christians as they carry out the Great Commission). This is not a command to sinners to “be baptized.” We often hear it said that one reason to be baptized is because Jesus commanded it. The fact is that in the red-letter portions of the Gospels, Jesus NOWHERE commands anyone to be baptized. He gives us significant teaching about the nature of baptism, but the only place where his teaching takes the grammatical form of a command (actually, a participle) is when he commissions Christians to baptize others.

Acts 2:38 is a different story, however. Here the Apostle Peter does command those seeking salvation to “be baptized.” Though Peter is cited as the author of this command, we know that he was speaking through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who in turn was passing along the further teachings of Jesus himself: see John 16:12-15. In view of this John passage, we must conclude that everything taught by the apostles was actually the teaching of Jesus; so in this sense we can say that Jesus is the author of the command to be baptized. This is just a technicality, though. Whether taught by Jesus during his earthly ministry, or taught by him through apostles as inspired by the Spirit, the truth and authority of the teaching is the same. Thus we have here in Acts 2:38 a divinely-given, Christ-originated command to be baptized.

So – how can I say (in the above quotation) that the Bible never treats baptism as “a simple act of obedience in response to a command”? The easy answer is that baptism is MUCH MORE than “a simple act of obedience,” one that is equivalent, e.g., to always telling the truth, honoring one’s parents, and taking the Lord’s Supper. It is rather a very complex event in which not only the human subject is doing something, but also in which God himself is working the double cure of salvation.

The more complete answer, though, is found in the fact that there are actually TWO KINDS of commands, and thus two kinds of obedience to commands. This distinction is found especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul. On the one hand, Paul speaks of WORKS OF LAW (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16), which are acts of obedience to one’s law code, or the commandments that govern our day-by-day lives before God. (This is what Paul means by “works” in other texts also, such as Eph. 2:9.) This should be shouted from the housetops: the word “LAW” in this crucial phrase is NOT the Law of Moses as such. (In the phrase “works of law” in these passages, there are NO definite articles. It is “works of law,” not “THE works of “THE law.”) The “law” in this phrase includes EVERY law code as applied to individuals and groups at any time in world history. The law code of the Jews from Moses to Christ was indeed the Law of Moses, but the law code that applies to all human beings (even Jews) in this Christian era is especially the aggregate of all the moral and religious requirements authoritatively revealed through the NT Scriptures. We perform “works of law” whenever we do what is required to “be holy” as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). Paul’s point about such works of law is that, since all are sinners, NO ONE can be saved (justified) by how well we obey our law code, since salvation under the law system requires perfect obedience to all law commandments that apply to us (i.e., our law code). We are still obligated to obey them, of course, simply because God is our sovereign Creator, Lawgiver, and Judge. The fact that we cannot be saved thereby is irrelevant as far as our obligation to obey such commandments is concerned. (See Rom. 6:1ff.)

The other kind of command is GOSPEL commands, which are God’s instructions to sinners on how to be saved, i.e., how to become saved and how to stay saved. Obedience to these gospel commands is NOT in the category of “works of law” (obedience to law commands), but is rather what Paul calls OBEDIENCE TO THE GOSPEL. The first such reference is in Rom. 10:16, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel.” (Many English translations sadly mangle this simple phrase.) Here Paul is explaining why God is rejecting the majority of individual Jews: they have refused to obey the gospel! Obedience to the gospel is necessary for salvation. The other reference is in 2 Thess. 1:8, which says that at his return Jesus will inflict vengeance (on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Clearly, those who do not obey the gospel are lost.

It is critical to make this distinction between the two kinds of commands and the two kinds of obedience. Salvation is at stake. No sinner can be saved BY “works of law,” i.e., by living a holy life. One of the biggest problems in Christendom is the constant but futile pursuit of salvation via the vain effort to be “good enough.” On the other hand, no sinner can be saved WITHOUT “obedience to the gospel.” How does this apply to our present question? Simply thus: baptism is not a work of law, but an act of obedience to the gospel—as are repenting of one’s sins (Acts 2:38), and believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior and confessing him as such (Rom. 10:9-10). We must avoid the hermeneutical error of isolating any of these passages from the others.

Thus baptism is an act of obedience to a command—a gospel command, not a law command. As such it is related only to the other gospel commands (believe, repent, confess). It is absolutely NOT in the category of the commands we are obligated to obey AFTER we become Christians. It is NOT our “first act of obedience” now that we are Christians. It is rather our LAST act of obedience as unsaved sinners, the act that ushers us into our saving relationship with Jesus.

I go into more detail on this in my book, “Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace” (College Press, 2009), ch. 13, “Baptism and Grace.” See also “The Faith Once for All,” chs. 19-20, “Conditions of Salvation” and “Baptism.”

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