IS BAPTISM THE FIRST STEP OF OBEDIENCE?
(This is the second edition of an article by Jack Cottrell, first published in Christian Standard in April 10, 2005.)
A church leader was recently asked to explain his convictions and practice concerning baptism. He replied, “I have always believed that when a person sincerely comes to trust Jesus Christ as leader, forgiver, and Savior, and repents, the first step of obedience is to be baptized into Christ. That is what I have always taught, believed, and practiced” (Christian Standard, 6/27/04, p. 6).
What does it mean to think of baptism as “the first step of obedience” once one has believed and repented? The unstated but clear implication is that there are two categories of “things we do.” If baptism is the first step of obedience, then the faith and repentance which necessarily precede it must belong to a separate category of actions, one that does not count as “obedience”; the other category is the category of obedience and includes baptism. The other acts of obedience in this second category will share the same character and purpose as baptism (except they are not first).
Thus understood, baptism as “the first step of obedience” is in perfect harmony with the modern (unbiblical) concept of baptism introduced by Zwingli in the 1520s (Christian Standard, 6/27/04, pp. 7-9). For Zwinglian Protestants, the moment when faith becomes present in the sinner’s heart is the moment when the sinner becomes saved (i.e., forgiven and born again). All acts of obedience that follow this point, including baptism, are considered to be the good works of the Christian life. All such works, including baptism, are taken to be part of the on-going sanctification process. As far as salvation is concerned, baptism is no more significant or necessary than church attendance, prayer, marital faithfulness, and benevolent works. It simply has the distinctive of being first.
Usually, those who describe baptism as “the first step of obedience” know exactly what they are saying, and are thereby deliberately excluding baptism from the category of things necessary to receive salvation. In my judgment this is serious false doctrine. It may be, however, that some who use this language have simply never thought carefully about what they are saying, and do not realize that this phrase actually strips baptism of its saving significance.
This essay is an attempt to help both groups, in the light of Scripture, to think through the significance of saying that baptism is “the first step of obedience” and to consider whether this is truly a biblical concept or not.
I. TWO KINDS OF OBEDIENCE
The first point is that there are two categories of “things we do.” One is the things we do in order to enter the saved state; the second is the things we do after we have become saved. The term “obedience” properly applies to both, and so does the term “works” in the general sense of “things we do.”
This means that there are two kinds of commands: law commands and gospel commands. The former are the commands addressed to human beings as creatures by God as our Creator, beginning with Adam and Eve. Such commands constitute God’s law, in whatever form it may be received (e.g., written on the heart, Mosaic law, New Covenant law). The ten commandments are an example. By giving us such commands God is saying to us, “Because I am your Creator and you are my creatures, this is how I am requiring you to live.”
Such commands are absolutely binding on those for whom they are intended. This means that obedience to such commands is essential as opposed to optional. For example, it is necessary to obey the sixth commandment (“You shall not murder”) because the Creator and Lord of the universe has required it. Some call this the “necessity of precept.”
Paul calls obedience to law commands “works of law” (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16). In this phrase “law” must not be limited to the Law of Moses; it refers to law commands of every kind. Thus “works of law” (in the sense of “good works,” Eph. 2:10) are the things we do in obedience to the Creator’s law commands, i.e., in obedience to our “law code.” This is what Paul means when he refers to “works” in other texts, even when he does not add the qualifier “of law” (e.g., Rom. 11:6; Eph. 2:9; Titus 3:5). One can see this by comparing Rom. 3:28 with 4:6.
The other kind of command may be called gospel commands. These are the instructions addressed to human beings as sinners by God as our Redeemer, when he tells us what to do in order to receive salvation. These are not the things already required of us as creatures (law commands having the necessity of precept), since, now that we are sinners, even future perfect obedience to such commands can not make up for past sins. God alone can redeem us in the sense of making up for our sins; this is what he has done in Jesus Christ. He offers this already-accomplished redemption to us sinners as a free gift, but only upon certain conditions. These conditions are given in the form of gospel commands, obedience to which is sometimes called the “necessity of means” but which is more properly called the “necessity of condition.” I.e., obedience to these commands is necessary as meeting the conditions by which God has specified that we initially receive the gift of salvation.
In the New Testament, obedience to this second kind of command is called “obedience to the faith” in Acts 6:7: “A great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” In three other texts it is called “obedience to the gospel,” as implied by reference to disobedience to the gospel. In Romans 10:16, referring specifically to the Jews who heard the message of salvation, Paul says (literally), “For they have not all obeyed the gospel” (ESV). In 2 Thessalonians 1:8 Paul says that God will condemn “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Also, 1 Peter 4:17 speaks of “those who do not obey the gospel of God.” If the gospel can be obeyed and disobeyed, then it must contain commands.
Our response to both law commands and gospel commands is called obedience. In both cases it may also be called “works” in the general sense of “things we do” (in the sense that faith itself is called a “work” in John 6:28, 29).
II. OBEDIENCE TO THE GOSPEL
The unsaved sinner’s primary concern should be to obey the gospel commands in order to become saved. What are these gospel commands? How do we know what is included in this category? No one biblical text gives the complete answer. We must examine all the teaching of the New Testament and collate these commands as they are emphasized individually or in pairs in specific contexts.
The Restoration Movement has generally been on target by identifying the gospel instructions as believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. These are not commands addressed to us as creatures, telling us how to live a godly life. They are commands addressed to us as sinners, telling us how we may receive salvation. Baptism as an act of obedience is in this latter category, but it is not the first step. The actual first step of such obedience is faith. “What must I do to be saved?” “Believe in the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:30, 31). This is an imperative, a command. Faith as an act of obedience to this command is necessary for salvation and precedes everything else. Such faith is a work in the sense of “something we do” (John 6:28-29), but it is nonetheless necessary for salvation and is fully compatible with salvation by grace (Rom. 4:16; Eph. 2:8). The works that are not compatible with salvation by grace (Eph. 2:9) are the other kind of works (obedience to law commands), as discussed below.
Repentance and baptism are likewise commanded in a salvation situation: “What shall we do?” “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:37, 38). These are gospel commands, spoken to sinners seeking salvation. A similar command to be baptized is addressed to Saul of Tarsus in Acts 22:16. Repentance and baptism are thus obedience to the gospel, and are works in the same generic sense that faith is (i.e., “something you do”).
The only condition for salvation that is not directly stated in the New Testament in the form of a command is confession of faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord, though it is clearly taught as such a condition in Romans 10:9-10, which thus gives it the force of a gospel command. Also, “calling on his name” in Acts 22:16 is a form of this confession; and though it is grammatically a participle, it too receives the force of a gospel command because of its attachment to the two imperatives, “be baptized” and “wash away your sins.”
All of these acts—faith, repentance, confession, baptism—are thus done in obedience to commands. And all are done for the purpose of receiving salvation. That this is the case is seen by comparing two verses of Scripture, Acts 2:38 and Romans 10:10. The key word in both verses is the Greek preposition eis, which conveys the concept of purpose and/or result. In Acts 2:38 Peter instructs sinners under conviction to repent and be baptized eis—”unto, for the purpose of”—the forgiveness of sins. As the original, unrevised NIV translation puts it, “so that [eis] your sins may be forgiven.” In Romans 10:10 the same preposition appears twice. First Paul says that one believes with his heart eis—”unto, resulting in”—righteousness; then he says that one confesses with his mouth eis—”unto, resulting in”—salvation.
All four of these acts thus are conditions for receiving salvation (in the sense of necessity of condition). Is there a certain order in which they must occur? Actually there is a natural chronological sequence in which they do occur. Faith and repentance as inward changes in the mind and will naturally come first; confession of such faith usually follows; baptism completes the sequence. Thus in reference to obedience to the gospel, baptism is not the first step of obedience but the last. (Many Restorationists have referred to baptism as “completing your obedience,” in which case “obedience to the gospel” should be meant.)
III. OBEDIENCE TO THE LAW
One who has obeyed the gospel instructions to believe, repent, confess, and be baptized is now a Christian. He has received forgiveness of sins and has been regenerated or born again. At this point the other category of “things we do,” or the other kind of obedience, begins. This is the (saved) creature’s obedience to the law-commands of the Creator, as they now apply under the New Covenant. Such obedience is required according to the necessity of precept, i.e., we are obligated to obey God’s laws simply because they ARE God’s laws.
Such obedience is “works” in the generic sense of “things we do,” and also in the Pauline sense of “works of law” (Rom. 3:20, 28), i.e., obedience to the Creator’s law-commands. These are the works of the Christian life, and they are the content of sanctification.
What is the “first step of obedience” in this sense? It could be one of any number of things, but it will never be baptism, simply because baptism is not part of this category of obedience. Baptism is the fourth step of the sinner’s obedience to the gospel, and is in no sense part of the Christian’s obedience to his law.
That baptism is not a step in our sanctification or a part of our Christian obedience to the law is clearly seen in the only command Jesus personally ever gave concerning baptism, i.e., the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). This should be carefully noted: this is not a command for anybody to be baptized, but a command for Jesus’ followers to baptize others. It is one of four actions Jesus commissions his church to perform in this text: go, make disciples, baptize, and teach.
One must not leap to the conclusion that these four actions are distinct and that they are performed chronologically in this order. This is very important: the only main verb in these verses is “make disciples”; the other three actions are participles. The verb “going” is an aorist participle and represents the precondition for making disciples, i.e., “Having gone into all the world [Mark 16:15], make disciples.”
The other two verbs in the Great Commission, “baptizing” and “teaching,” are present participles and represent actions that are concurrent with the action of the main verb. As such they are the actions by which we make disciples, namely, by baptizing those who respond to the gospel and by “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (NIV).
The main point for our purpose here is the distinction Jesus makes between these two things, i.e., between baptizing (on the one hand), and teaching converts to obey all his commands (on the other hand). This latter obedience is obedience to the Lord’s law-commands, or works in the Pauline sense of “works of law.” If baptism were “the first step of obedience” in this sense, as many claim, it would make no sense for Jesus to separate baptism from general obedience here; baptism would simply be assumed to be a part of “everything I have commanded you.”
But Jesus does distinguish baptism from this category of obedience to law-commands, and so should we. Baptism is not the first step a convert takes as a Christian; it is the last step the sinner takes to become a Christian.