by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, October 20, 2011 at 1:15pm

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? E.g., here is a person who was sprinkled as a baby as a mark of membership in a local church, based solely on the fact that he was born to parents who were already members of that church. That person is now an adult and is actively involved in church activities and sincerely believes that he is a Christian (i.e., saved). What is your assessment of this situation?

ANSWER: I will say first of all that I may have addressed this kind of question in an earlier note. I tend to forget what I have already covered, and am not inclined to dig through all the old files. So I beg my readers’ indulgence if this is repetition. (Much of the following comes from page 373 of my book, “The Faith Once for All,” and page 374 of my book, “Power from on High.”)

First, I unequivocally affirm that the NT consistently and unambiguously teaches that Christian baptism is the immersion of believing, repentant sinners for the purpose of receiving salvation. I have set forth the textual evidence for this in my book, Baptism: A Biblical Study (College Press: 2006 edition). The conclusion (p. 155) sums up what this book accomplishes: “Altogether we have studied twelve separate texts in detail, with references to several others along the way. What is remarkable is not only the fact that they do present baptism as the time God has appointed for initially bestowing salvation upon believing, repentant sinners, but also the fact that they are unanimous in doing so. This is not some obscure inference that must be laboriously forced from the fringes of a few texts, but is the central theme of them all! And at the same time, no other meaning emerges to serve in even a secondary role, much less to challenge the one main idea that baptism is for salvation.”

In spite of this clear Biblical teaching, many who have not been thus Biblically baptized, but (e.g.) have been sprinkled as babies, assume that their baptism was sufficient and that they are saved. Others who have observed their lives draw the same conclusion. The main reason for these assumptions is the ongoing presence of Christian commitment and service, and especially the presence of the “fruit of the Spirit” described in Gal. 5:22. Surely, anyone who manifests this fruit must have the indwelling of the Spirit and therefore must be saved!

However, this is not necessarily the case, for two reasons. First, the various virtues listed by Paul—love, joy, peace, and the rest—are in reality the natural state for human beings made in God’s image. Such “righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:24) are part of the original “image of God” which the Creator gave to the human race in the beginning and which is still present in every sinner to some extent. Thus we can expect these virtues—at least some of them, to some degree—to be present in most people. (From the negative side, this is the same reason why we do not find all of the “deeds of the flesh” present in all sinners.)

The second reason why individuals who do not have the Spirit’s indwelling presence can manifest the fruit of the Spirit is that such folks have been convicted of sin, righteousness, and judgment by the Spirit-inspired Word of God (John 16:8-11), and they are making an effort to obey the Word and to lead a virtuous life. They are trying to live according to the Bible, under the knowledge and motivation engendered by Biblical teaching. Those who have thus come under the influence of the Word (Heb. 4:12-13) will be able to bear the fruit of the Spirit to some extent. This explains why OT saints, none of whom had the indwelling of the Spirit (which began on Pentecost), were able to exhibit these virtues.

Thus when anyone seeks to live according to the moral teaching of the Word of God, the Spirit of God is at work in his life. When that person, through free-will effort, becomes more loving, more patient, or more self-controlled, he is under the influence of the Holy Spirit and is thus producing “the fruit of the Spirit.” This does not mean that every person who thus bears some of the Spirit’s fruit is saved. It does not mean that the Spirit is dwelling within him. He may simply be under conviction through the power of the Word.

Because of the clear teaching of Scripture on baptism itself, I must conclude 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 if so, only He knows about it. 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 (e.g., observations about the “fruit of the Spirit”) 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 and within him whatever works of salvation He has not already worked. See 1 Peter 3:21: baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience”; and Acts 22:16: “calling on His name” for salvation is the sinner’s prayer just before baptism.

This sinner’s prayer can be something like this: “Thank you, Father, for salvation through Jesus Christ, and for whatever works of salvation you may already have bestowed upon me. Thank you that I have been able to live under the light and power of your Word. Thank you for showing me the true meaning of baptism as taught in your Word. Though I have not yet done so, I gladly now submit to your command to be baptized for the forgiveness of my sins and for the gift of the Holy Spirit. And I call upon you to give me now whatever aspects of salvation you have not already given me. Thank you so much. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.”

We thus leave it in God’s hands to know about this person’s past; our concern and our confidence are now focused on the present and the future. By submitting to baptism thus, in the Biblical way, a person can now be sure of his present status before God.

But what about those (e.g.) sprinkled as babies who never have the opportunity to learn or do what is right regarding baptism? What will happen to them in the final judgment? I believe 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, while acknowledging that this is solely God’s decision.

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. Only God knows how much light (truth) is “available” (can be known) to any individual, and only God knows whether that individual has responded “conscientiously” to it. For us today, as individuals and as the church of Jesus Christ, our standard is the written Word of God alone. We must continue to believe, proclaim, and apply the clear Biblical teaching about baptism without cowardice and without compromise.

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