Does the Bible teach baptismal regeneration, that one is saved by baptism?
Well, there are some groups who believe in some nuanced form of “baptismal regeneration”. Some groups baptize babies on the ground that it is a necessary sacrament for their salvation. Catholics and Lutherans would fall in this camp. There are other groups who would still require profession of faith before administering water baptism, but still believe that the baptism was the occasion of regeneration. The Church of Christ would be one such group.
There are many mediating positions on baptism which are highly nuanced. While some groups deny that water baptism should even be practiced (Quakers, Friends), other groups (already mentioned) believe baptism to be necessary for salvation. There is everything in-between those two bookends.
Baptists have tended to emphasize baptism as an outward sign of an inward reality; attributing no sacramental grace in the act. The confessional reformed traditions (Westminster, Belgic, Heidelberg, Dordt) have offered fairly nuanced and qualified statements about baptismal efficacy. This is a rough overview and I am well aware I’m not doing all groups justice in this brief treatment. I’ll proceed to specifically answer in the negative to the question on whether baptism saves.
Baptism, as an act in and of itself, does not save. The view that baptism does save is known as “ex opera operato”, that salvation is imparted efficaciously in the act itself apart from the consent of the one baptized. Hitler would be in heaven today if his baptism alone saved him. While some groups seem to teach baptismal regeneration, they also need to maintain a doctrine of apostasy, or qualified regeneration based on persevering faith. Essentially, baptism saves those who remain saved. Catholics, Lutherans, and Church of Christ folks all believe in some qualified view of baptismal regeneration because neither of the groups are willing to say that one remains saved based solely on baptism. In other words, all the mentioned churches that believe in baptismal regeneration also believe in discipline and possible excommunication.
The Bible gives us cases of baptized people who have gone on to apostatize. Because of such evidence, we can clearly rule out any notion that baptism itself saves one in and of itself with disregard to the subsequent life of the one baptized. Because of this obvious evidence, some will conveniently tie the efficacy of baptism to God’s decree of election. In other words, baptism truly saves those who are among the elect. The instrumental cause would be God’s decree of election, which is then conferred through the baptismal act itself. Luther, however, actually believed in baptismal efficacy as dependent upon faith. He taught that the infants are actually exercising consenting faith when receiving baptism, which then brings about more grace. Things get even more complicated the more you dig. It gets more complex and more nuanced.
The complexity is due to not wanting to say baptism is just some optional accessory to salvation, which clearly doesn’t represent the heart and teaching of Scripture, but then also wanting to navigate the tricky waters of defining what exactly baptism does do on the other hand. If anything, this should beget some humility from all sides of the issue.
A few things to keep in mind for all parties:
- The Bible doesn’t teach baptism as the instrumental cause of regeneration or justification. One can perhaps argue that it formally makes one part of the visible church, but no matter how high ones ecclesiology, none could equate church membership with decretive regeneration.
- The Bible annexes faith, repentance, and belief with baptism. As a Baptist, I therefore believe that some sort of visible faith is the basis for baptism. Baptism is a means of grace for the believer, whereby they gain a good testimony (1 Peter 3:21). It is impossible to render such faith unless one has been regenerated and converted, thus called by God. While there is always room for hypocrisy and the such, we are called upon to administer the sacrament based as best as we can discern on visible faith. John the Baptist baptized only based on some visible repentance, but couldn’t guarantee that each person rendered perfect, genuine, God-wrought repentance. Paul said in Romans 10:9 that if one believes in the heart and confesses with the mouth that, “Jesus is Lord”, they shall become saved. While public confession is important, it is not the instrumental cause of regeneration or salvation. Merely saying the magical 3 words doesn’tsave anyone. One is saved when the confession proceeds from the believing in the heart. I think that’s what’s going on with Peter when he says that, “Baptism now saves you”. He proceeds to state that such is an “appeal to God”. So far as one’s baptism proceeds from the earnest desire for a good conscience does it save.
- The Bible gives testimony of those who demonstrated God’s work of conversion prior to baptism. One such case is Cornelius’ household (Acts 10). Peter contends for their water baptism and initiation into the church based on the testimony of God’s work of grace in his presence. Do note that Peter sought their baptism, signifying to us that baptism is of upmost importance. It’s not enough that one supply enough descriptive narrative to show that some were believers prior to baptism, while failing to acknowledge that these are exceptional cases. I think it was F.F. Bruce who said that the thought of an unbaptized Christian would be unheard of and even thought an anomaly to the early church. Clearly, we have become too lax in regards to the importance of baptism in the modern Evangelical church. No wonder that many disillusioned Evangelicals have flocked to traditions that believe God IS doing something in the sacraments. Folks don’t want the sacraments qualified to death in what they aren’t doing, but would rather embrace some mystery in that something is being done. Qualifications are necessary from each side of the issue.
I’m not attempting to answer exhaustively the proper mode of baptism and the many other concerns attached to this rite. Does baptism save? I can answer “yes” (with many qualifications) or can just as comfortably answer “no” (with many qualifications). Having said that, I’m a credo-baptist who believes that God does do something to the one baptized and the one who receives the supper. I’m a qualified sacramental credo-baptist. I don’t believe in baptismal regeneration if one understands regeneration in the formal “ordu salutis” (order of salvation) sense. Here it is important to note the traditional order of salvation. I know that some would accuse me here of importing systematic theology where it ought not be imported, but I would fire back that the other camp is importing al kinds of theology as well, so we’re both guilty as charged, if we are guilty at all.
Regeneration precedes faith, which then possesses the promises of God through the occasion of conversion. At the first instant of God-wrought faith, the sinner is converted. This conversion consists of an actual transfer from darkness to light, from being children of wrath to children of promise, from being guilty as charged to justified by union with Christ. None can confess Christ as Lord in a saving fashion apart from the Spirit. It is this Spirit of adoption that enables us to even declare “Abba! Father”. One is thereby fully adopted in this heart cry of faith. The person who is thus converted by faith is called into the waters of baptism to solemnize and formalize this union with Christ. Though they posses all of the realities of salvation prior to baptism, the baptismal act grants further grace of assurance before the triune God. Since the baptismal act is public and visible, the person baptized is thereby formally counted as part of the visible church. Luke notes that 3000 were baptized and “added” (Acts 2:41).This denotes that those who believed and baptized were formally counted as part of the visible church. Now part of the visible church, the baptized believer is to continue their discipleship as part of the gracious institution and participate in the sacrament of communion, thereby being perpetually assured that they are indeed part of God’s covenant people and heirs of salvation.
© 2011, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.