Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Understanding the relationship and order between saving faith and water baptism

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Acts 16:25-30 But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; 26 and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” 29 And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, 30 and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

Probably one of the oldest questions in the world is: "which came first, the chicken, or the egg"? We won't labor any further to answer that question. In today's post we aim to understand the relationship and order between saving faith and believer's baptism. The main point will be that saving faith comes first, with believer's baptism being the obedient and public testimony of what the Lord already did in the baptismal candidate's prior salvation. 

A clear passage that demonstrates the order of saving faith and baptism
What makes today's opening text so important is the clarity it gives to the order of saving faith and believer's baptism. The question is raised by the Philippian jailer to Paul with respect to what is required for salvation. So many people today assume that baptism grants salvation. The relationship between saving faith and baptism often becomes muddled among Christians. Some will teach that baptism is optional or not even required for the Christian. Others will teach that saving faith is found in the baptism waters. Still others will teach that faith is certainly where one begins, however, baptism is necessary to complete one's salvation experience. Who is right? Are any right? As always, we must go to the scriptures to evaluate any position on such matters, including one's own.  

A clear passage that gives the order and relationship between saving faith and water baptism
Whenever we consider the New Testament's teaching on believer's baptism, all three sections of the New Testament that mention it must be included: the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles. Here in Acts 16 we find Paul's response to the jailer's question in Acts 16:31 - "They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” The Gospel has been and always will be about receiving Christ's salvation by grace alone through faith alone. This simply means that saving faith, by itself, is necessary and sufficient to receive salvation in Jesus Christ. No effort on our part, including baptism, can be included in the equation of defining salvation. Undoubtedly we are saved by grace through faith alone.

Nonetheless, we must hasten to add that following saving faith, one is saved unto a faith that is never alone. This means that true saving faith will be followed by good works. The chiefest of these good works is believer's baptism. One does not get baptized to get saved, nor to complete saving faith initiated by faith nor to find saving faith in the baptismal waters. As we read on down through Acts 16:32-33 "And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. 33 And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household."

Notice the order: faith, then baptism. The jailer became reconciled unto God the moment he responded in saving faith to Paul's preaching and teaching. The change wrought in his heart resulted in a desire to obey God. The jailer was saved by grace through faith alone to a faith that would never be unaccompanied by the desire to do good works. As the jailer cared for Paul, we find him being baptized. The baptism was the jailer's way of testifying to others of the change he had experienced in saving faith in Acts 16:31. 

Does the New Testament support the notion that water baptism is believer's baptism?
As we noted earlier, one must consider the entirety of the Gospels, Acts and Epistles when attaining unto an understanding of the relationship between saving faith and baptism. In other words, water baptism's proper candidates are to be those who have responded in knowing, saving faith in Jesus Christ per the Spirit's calling and work. What do we find in the Gospels, Acts and Epistles?

1. Baptism was prescribed by Jesus in the Gospels for those who have believed the Gospel. Matthew 28:18-20. 
Notice what Jesus commands in Matthew 28:19 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." How is one made a disciple? saving faith. What does the disciple then do following their faith commitment to Jesus Christ? get baptized. Such an order of faith, then baptism, lies at the heart of Jesus prescription for the church back then and today. 

2. Baptism was practiced by the apostles and early church upon those who believed the Gospel. Acts 2:41-42; Acts 10:44-48; Acts 16:31
I won't take the time to go through each of these verses, only to note that not one time do we find unconverted, non-believing people getting baptized. In the book of Acts, we find cases where people were baptized as a result of their salvation in saving faith. 

3. Baptism's powerful meanings refer to those who first believed in Christ and then were to be baptized
Whenever we consider key texts on baptism in Paul's and Peter's letters (epistles) to the churches, the imagery which they convey about baptism presuppose saving faith prior to baptism. In Romans 6:4-11 we see baptism likened unto being buried and raised from a watery grave. Such imagery presupposes a genuine work of saving faith in that person's life, a work appealed to by Paul in Romans 3-5. Or again, the imagery of baptism being likened unto exiting from the old way of life presupposes new life having been granted already in saving faith. Yet again, we find Paul comparing baptism to picturing taking off old clothes and putting on new garments. Such symbolism presupposes the reality of saving faith prior to such baptism. 

In Peter's first epistle, we find him comparing baptism to the promise of a good conscience to God in 1 Peter 3:21. Whether we look at Paul's letters or Peter's words, all agree that saving faith necessarily occurs prior to baptism. Without the precursor of a salvation experience, water baptism loses its meaning. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 notes: "Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead."

In briefly surveying the New Testament evidence, it can be concluded that saving faith does indeed occur prior to and separate from the event of water baptism. 

Closing thoughts
Today's post aimed to clarify the relationship and order of saving faith to believer's baptism. We considered the clearest text on the subject in the book of Acts, noting how, in practice, the Philippian jailer believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and then followed by with believer's baptism. We then surveyed key verses in the Gospels, Acts and Epistles to understand the relationship between saving faith and believer's baptism. The conclusion from this survey is exactly what we found in the Acts 16 text - saving faith comes first and separately from water baptism. Water baptism represents the first major step of Christian obedience. Such truths are fundamental to instructing new converts to the Christian faith and reinforcing to those already saved and baptized what constitutes the Gospel.