THE “PIOUS UNIMMERSED”
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 12:23pm
QUESTION: What is the salvation status of the “Pious Unimmersed”?
ANSWER: The question of the salvation status of the pious unimmersed has been a mind-boggling and heart-wrenching issue in the Restoration Movement since its beginning. The reason this question arose was that most of Protestantism since the days of the Reformation had abandoned the Biblical view of baptism as a salvation event and had adopted Huldreich Zwingli’s newly-minted concept of baptism as a visible sign of a salvation status already received. The early Restoration leaders, though, recognized that Zwingli’s new view was not the Biblical view, and for the most part they began to restore the view that baptism by immersion is an integral part of the way in which the sinner receives salvation.
Then as now, whenever we present immersion as a salvation event, we raise the question, “What about those faithful members of denominational groups who have never been Biblically baptized? Are they saved in spite of their failure to obey this aspect of the gospel, or are we saying that they are lost unless they are baptized properly?” In other words, “What is the salvation status of the pious unimmersed?” Below is a summary of how I answer this question.
First of all, we must recognize that the Bible, not church history, is the only authoritative source for our knowledge of the way of salvation and our knowledge of how baptism fits into that process. And the Biblical teaching is this: from Pentecost onward, God’s RULE has been that he bestows the double of cure of grace upon believing, repentant sinners in the act of baptism (immersion). This is what Christendom did in fact believe and teach for the first 1,500 years of its existence. It was not until the Zwinglian innovation of 1523-1525 that a revolution in the understanding and practice of baptism occurred.
If it is the RULE that God bestows grace in the act of baptism, then if he bestows this gift upon some at other times, this would be an exception to the rule. In such a case the exception would be something that only God knows about and something that only he has the right to grant. As a church, our responsibility is to believe and to preach the RULE, not a possible exception.
So what does this say about the salvation status of the “unimmersed,” as we are accustomed to calling them? Here we must draw a distinction between whether they are NOW in a saved state, and whether they will have eternal life in heaven following the Day of Judgment. I believe that in the Day of Judgment, God will not hold anyone accountable for a RULE (command, law) IF that person was truly unable to know it. “Where there is no law, there is also no violation” or transgression (Rom. 4:15). Among other things this must mean “where there is no ability to KNOW the law.” I take this as a general principle that applies not only to the moral law and its law commands, but also to obedience to the gospel commands. I also take it that this is the basic principle according to which God will judge every individual on the Judgment Day.
Someone has said it this way, that in the final Judgment God will judge everyone according to the principle of “conscientious response to available light.” Striving to live conscientiously in accordance with the light of the revelation that is available is what it means to be PIOUS; it is the essence of piety.
Here are two things to remember about this judgment principle. First, ONLY the omniscient God can apply the principle, since only the omniscient God truly knows what “light” of revelation is available to any individual, and since only the omniscient God truly knows if a person’s response to that light is really “conscientious.” Second, this is a principle that God will apply only in the future, only on Judgment Day.
As far as we fallible human beings are concerned in the here and now, we cannot judge any individual’s salvation status according to this principle. We simply have no way of knowing how much light one has, and how conscientious he or she is. Thus we cannot say, one way or the other, whether this or that individual will ultimately be in heaven. This is why it is neither our responsibility nor our ability to judge people in reference to their ultimate salvation. What we CAN know, however, is what the Bible teaches about salvation and about obedience to the gospel, and thus it IS our job to judge true doctrine and to judge whether others are teaching and following that true doctrine (see Titus 1:9). From a practical standpoint we can have a true understanding of what it means to obey the gospel, and we can pass judgment on whether any given individual has thus obeyed the gospel. Thus we can know whether they are, in this present moment, in a state of salvation or not.
But this is not the same as knowing whether they will ultimately be in heaven or not. I believe that on the Day of Judgment God will determine that many pious individuals that remained unimmersed all their lives were conscientiously following the Word as it had been explained to them and for which they were responsible. But in this lifetime, once such a person does become aware of the true meaning of baptism, he becomes fully accountable for believing it, following it, and teaching it. In this case on the Judgment Day the principle of “conscientious response to available light” will no longer excuse a failure to obey the gospel command of baptism.
Here I will attempt to diagram how I regard the salvation status of three groups of “the pious.” (One should see my previous note, on church unity, where I deal with the visible and invisible church.) These three groups are (1) the pious immersed in Restoration Movement churches, (2) the pious immersed in other churches, and (3) the pious unimmersed. The question is, where are they NOW, and where will they be after the Judgment?
NOW, in the NOW, in the Later, in
VISIBLE church? INVISIBLE church? HEAVEN?
Pious immersed, YES YES YES
in R.M. churches
Pious immersed, NO YES YES
in other churches
Pious unimmersed NO NO YES