What Is the Spiritual Status of the Unimmersed?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 5:08pm
ANOTHER SERIOUS QUESTION: We know some very spiritual individuals who have never been immersed into Christ but who are living very dedicated, Spirit-filled lives. We agree that they should be immersed as the New Testament teaches, but are we to think about their present spiritual status? Are they saved or not?
MY REPLY: This is an extremely difficult and delicate situation, and making a negative judgment in this case is certainly one of the hardest things a spiritual leader will ever be called on to do. But one of the things we have to settle in our own minds is this: what is the ultimate standard or criterion of truth? If we conclude that THE BIBLE is that standard, then we must have the courage to follow it consistently. On the other hand, if we conclude that PERSONAL EXPERIENCE is the criterion of truth, then we can go pretty much wherever we want to on this issue and many others, regardless of what the Bible says. (One may want to consider Matt. 7:21-23.)
I have had to face this question before, in a pastoral situation. We had a Seminary student from Egypt who had been “baptized” as an infant and who had been active in his Presbyterian-type church all his life. He was a very spiritually-minded young man, and gave every appearance of bearing the fruit of the Spirit. As a sincere student of the Word, he came to understand the true Biblical teaching on baptism and decided that he must be immersed into Christ for the forgiveness of his sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. I personally baptized him thus, and we followed the steps outlined in the second paragraph of the selection below, taken from p. 373 of my book, “The Faith Once for All.” At his baptism I prayed a prayer with him something like this: “Thank you, Lord, for this young man’s life, and for allowing him to be born and reared in a family that honors Jesus, and for his own personal desire to live as a Christian. Thank you, Lord, for everything you have already done for him, especially in reference to his salvation. Only you know for sure what that may have been. But he has now seen that the New Testament clearly promises forgiveness and the indwelling Spirit in the act of baptism as that act is received in faith and repentance. Thus, so that he can be sure of his salvation status with a certainty that is based on your Word and not on his own experience, he is now submitting to baptism on the Bible’s own terms. As he is being baptized, we are calling upon you to do for him now whatever you have not already done for him in this regard. Having thus obeyed your Word, we leave the past in your hands, and look to the future with confident hope.”
The following is the excerpt from “The Faith Once for All,” 373, that discusses this further:
This raises the question, what is the spiritual status of the millions of people who have mistakenly followed the false views of baptism, whether in regard to meaning, subjects, or mode? This is a very difficult question and cannot be thoroughly answered in the brief space available here. In general, though, we may answer it in two steps.
First, in view of the clear teaching of Scripture on the subject, we must say that only those who have consciously received immersion as a saving work of God can be confident of their present status as Christians and as members of the body of Christ. It is, of course, possible that in some cases God has made exceptions and has acted outside his stated plan of bestowing salvation upon believers in immersion, but we have no right to presume upon God in this respect. If someone who has not been biblically baptized is convinced that God has saved him, we may follow this procedure. One, while granting that God may have made an exception, we must insist that no one can know this for sure. Experience can be deceiving (Matt 7:21-23). Two, we must make sure that the biblical teaching on baptism is clearly understood and accepted. Three, we must invite the person of unsure status to receive baptism properly, while calling upon God to work upon him whatever works of salvation he has not already worked. Only then can a person be sure of his present status before God.
Second, with regard to the future, in the final judgment we can expect God to judge all persons who have received baptism improperly in the same way that he will judge everyone else, namely, in accordance with their CONSCIENTIOUS RESPONSE TO AVAILABLE LIGHT. No one will be condemned for failing to meet some particular requirement as long as he is conscientiously responding to whatever light is available to him (see Rom. 4:15). It is obvious that human traditions have seriously distorted and limited the light of Scripture concerning baptism, and many sincere people have responded in good conscience to what light they have. For this reason we may hope to see such people in heaven.
This last point does not permit us to give anyone false assurance about his present state of salvation, however; nor does it give us the right to change the clear teaching of Scripture on believers’ immersion for salvation. The “available light” principle applies only to future judgment, and it can be applied only by the omniscient God. For us today, as individuals and as the church of Jesus Christ, we must continue to believe and proclaim the clear Biblical teaching about baptism without cowardice and without compromise.