A Dialectic Response to Mr. Cooper Abrams’ (2006) Alleged Refutation of the Necessity of “Baptism for the Forgiveness of Sin”
Mr. Abrams (2006) begins his treatise, alleging that water baptism is not “for”—in order to receive—forgiveness of sin, by assigning particular terminology and a generalized definition to the concept of water baptism, saying: “This position is commonly called ‘baptismal regeneration’ because it holds that one is ‘regenerated’ or saved only when a person is baptized” (para. 1). While we acknowledge that there are many people in this world who have been led to think of baptism in those terms, this paper purports to establish the fact that every authentic New Covenant child of God—believing that, indeed, baptism is “for the forgiveness of sin,”—knows better. They understand that the efficacy of baptism has nothing to do with the water, or the act of being immersed in water, in and of itself. The New Covenant children of God do not believe in “baptismal regeneration” or “water regeneration,” even though they do hold to the premise that baptism is when and where a living faith connects with God’s saving grace. They understand that baptism has nothing to do with the efficacy of the water, or the act of baptism itself, to merit, earn, warrant, or deserve salvation in any way.
For Mr. Abrams to begin his article by using such a term, and applying his particular definition to it throughout his article in such a broad and general way, is simply a rhetorical device—the appeal to the “straw man”—defined as:
…a common type of argument and is an informal fallacy based on the misrepresentation of the original topic of argument. To be successful, a straw man argument requires that the audience be ignorant or uninformed of the original argument. The so-called typical “attacking a straw man” implies an adversarial, polemic, or combative debate, and creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent’s proposition by covertly replacing it with a different proposition (i.e., “stand up a straw man”) and then to refute or defeat that false argument, (“knock down a straw man,”) instead of the original proposition. This technique has been used throughout history in polemical debate, particularly in arguments about highly charged emotional issues where a fiery, entertaining “battle” and the defeat of an “enemy” may be more valued than critical thinking or understanding both sides of the issue. (Straw Man, 2014).
After setting up his “straw man,” Mr. Abrams (2006) gives himself permission to call everyone who believes that water baptism is, indeed, for the forgiveness of sin, “baptismal regenerationists” (para. 2). Thus he has effectively labeled his “straw man.” The rhetorical practice of using names, labels, and general stereotyping—whether they accurately apply or not—is certainly easier than having to deal with actual truth and the real heart issues that are involved.
Mr. Abrams (2006) then goes on to offer a brief summary of what he thinks these alleged “baptismal regenerationists” believe and teach; using what he refers to as “supposed ‘proof text[s]’” (para 2). We might note that his blatant use of uncontextualized truth is precisely how the serpent approached and deceived Eve in the garden. It is also how Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness. False spirits are not opposed to using the Holy Scripture as a weapon of deception. They know that the closer to the truth, the better the lie. And the best lie is always the truth when it can be used that way.
By offering a barrage of scripture up front, Mr. Abrams (2006) give the impression of acknowledging and understanding his “straw man” enemy. He also seeks to give some impression of scholarship. However, it should be noted that a true scholar would not simply present his own, paraphrased, brief summary of what he thinks other people believe. Rather, he would offer actual documentation, in the words of his alleged opponents, to substantiate what they truly believe. However, that approach would require a tremendous amount of effort on the part of Mr. Abrams because of the way in which he collectively groups several different Christian denominational faiths together under his “straw man” campaign, saying, “Groups that teach this include the Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, many Pentecostal groups including the United Pentecostal Church, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Christ (Russelites)” (para. 2). Mr. Abrams then presents his argument as though what each of these respective groups teach on this particular issue is essentially the same thing—convenient for Mr. Abrams, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Furthermore, Mr. Abrams (2006) displays what is, at least, a serious editorial mistake, if not profound ignorance, when he denotes “the Church of Christ” as “Russelites.” Mr. Abrams errs in two ways in making this statement. First, he speaks of “the Church of Christ” as though it were one big denominational organization; when, in fact, such an organization does not actually exist. The people Abrams is referencing should be more accurately described as “the churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16); each being an independent and autonomous, nondenominational, community Christian fellowship linked only by love. While one of these local fellowships in a given location might be called “a church of Christ,” there is currently no such common denomination as “the Church of Christ” in the United States.
Second, Mr. Abrams (2006) errs in that, so far as history recounts, members of the churches of Christ have never been commonly referred to as “Russelites.” However, that term has been sometimes used of the Jehovah Witnesses denomination. What Mr. Abrams may have been referring to, with regard to what he mistakenly calls “the Church of Christ” is the term “Campbellite,” which is “a mildly pejorative term referring to adherents of certain religious groups that have historic roots in the Restoration Movement, among whose most prominent 19th century leaders were Thomas and Alexander Campbell. Members of these groups generally consider the term “Campbellite” inappropriate, saying that they are followers of Jesus, not Campbell” (Campbellite, 2014). But whether this is the term Mr. Abrams’ was fishing for or not, his spirit of pejorative name calling, just as with his general groupings of different faiths in seeking support for his “straw man,” is less than academic.
Mr. Abrams (2006) then launches a campaign of refutation in which he purports to knock down all the alleged tenets of his “straw man” and put the Holy Scriptures in their proper light. In so doing, he uses various terms and phrases that the Bible does not use to describe his perceptions of truth. For example, he calls baptism “an important first act of obedience” (para. 3)—nowhere in scripture is baptism referred to in this way—and seeks to redefine Biblical “faith” by equating it with mere “belief” by saying things like, “Overwhelmingly the Bible stresses that a person is saved by grace through faith and that salvation is a gift of God, freely given, when one believes in Jesus Christ for their salvation. (Eph. 2:8-9)” (para. 3). Of course, that is “not” what this passage of scripture actually says. It says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…”When Mr. Abrams adds the phrase, “when one believes in Jesus Christ,” he is only adding his own theological perspective, but couching it as though it were scripture. This is misleading at best and, perhaps, another deliberate deception.
Reading his own theological perspectives into scripture, as he has done here in Ephesians 2:8-9, characterizes a lot of the rest of Mr. Abrams’ (2006) campaign to negate the importance of water baptism—or any other physical expression of faith—in salvation; as, verse-by-verse, he seeks to offer, as the only reliable interpretation of scripture, his own theological constructs. Whether Mr. Abrams’ theology is rooted and grounded in the five basic tenets of Calvinism is a little hard to tell simply by this one manuscript. But it is clear that he has a Calvinistic approach to salvation insofar as he believes that faith, “faith alone,” and, in particular, his definition of faith—which equates to belief only—is all that God requires for salvation. This is seen in statements made by Abrams, such as:
- “The clear teaching of the New Testament is that it is faith and faith alone that saves” (para. 4).
- “God did not change the requirement for salvation after the cross. It was by faith only both before and after the cross” (para. 8).
- “For example look again at the issue here. Sixty passages, including the classic passage of Ephesians 2:8-9, say that salvation is received by faith and faith alone” (para. 9). We need to note here that, contrary to what Mr. Abrams (2006) so boldly asserts, there is not one single passage of scripture, NOT ONE, anywhere in the Bible that says that anyone is saved by “faith alone.” There is only one place in all of scripture where the term “faith alone” is even used, and that is in James 2:24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
Abrams (2006) also makes it a point to note that, “At least sixty times the New Testament states that salvation is received by faith with no mention of baptism” (para. 4). Abrams makes it sound as though, somehow, the sheer volume of scripture references one can cite has everything to do with establishing truth. But is it not true that if even one passage of scripture reveals a portion of God’s truth, that one passage must be accredited the same weight and significance as every other passage of scripture? Does the Bible not say, “The sum of Your word is truth, And every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting“ (Psalm 119:160)? So why would Abrams even attempt such a futile rhetorical tactic; except to try to win his point!
I think we can attribute much of Abrams’ (2006) efforts at explaining away the meaning of scripture to his fundamental misunderstanding of just what “faith” really is. As noted in the references above, and throughout his article, Abrams apparently equates “faith” with “belief.” There is little doubt that, for him, individual salvation takes place when people belief in Christ; although it is likely that even he might say that they must also “receive Jesus into their hearts as Lord and Savior”—another theological construct that can be found nowhere in scripture. But what Mr. Abrams is missing, what he needs to discover and come to terms with, is that Biblical “faith” is, and always has been, much more than mere “belief.”
Remember the Biblical teaching from the book of James—a book that I note Abrams (2006) keeps well away from—when he says:
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? [do not doubt we’re talking about “saving” faith here] If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected [brought to completion]; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-26)
At this point we may want to stop and ask ourselves, “Who do we really want to believe here, Mr. Abrams (2006)—who says we are saved by faith alone—or James, the elder of the church in Jerusalem, physical brother of Jesus, and inspired author of one of the books of the New Testament who says we are “justified by works and not by faith alone”? Both cannot be right, Either Abrams is right and we agree with him. Or, James is right and we agree with him.
There is one other option, but Abrams (2006) doesn’t like it very much. That option is that Paul in Ephesians 2:8-9 and James in James 2:14-26 are talking about two entirely different kinds of works. While Paul, in context, is talking about legalistic, meritorious works of law by which people seek to justify themselves, James, in context, is talking about works that are the expression of a living faith; but without which faith is useless, faith is dead and, therefore, are essential to our justification.
But Abrams (2006) will not accept the possibility of that explanation, for he says:
Often the baptismal regenerationist trying to reconcile his belief with Ephesians 2:8-9 will state that baptism is not a “work.” However, the word translated “work” is the Greek noun ergon ergon er’-gon and means a “an act, deed, thing done” (2). Baptism is indeed a physical act, to which a person submits and is physically immersed under water. It is the deliberate result of new believer exercising his will and agreeing to be baptized. This is the same word used in passages such as 1 Timothy 5:10, 25; 6:18, 2 Timothy 3:17, which refer to “good works” (kalos ergon). To silence any doubt note that the word is used in 2 Timothy 4:14, “Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works(ergon).” There can be no mistake that the word means some action a person takes. Alexander the coppersmith’s evil deeds were acts or works he committed. (para. 10)
What should be noted is that the same Greek word, “ergon,” is also used by James when he says, “You see that a man is justified by works [ergon] and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Mr. Abrams (2006) seriously misrepresents those who believe that baptism is essential to salvation when he lumps them all together under his “straw man” and says that they “state that baptism is not a ‘work’” (para. 10). No authentic New Covenant child of God that I know will ever say that baptism is not a “work.” Baptism is a work, just as confession is a work, and repentance is a work, and pursuing “the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14) is a work. But what Mr. Abrams fails to see, or what he will not agree to see, is that confession, repentance, baptism, and the pursuit of sanctification are not the kinds of works that the Apostle Paul was speaking of in Ephesians 2—meritorious works of law by which one seeks to justify himself. Rather, they are the kind of works that James was speaking of in James 2—expressions of living faith; the kind of faith upon which our access to God’s grace depends.
But just as no authentic New Covenant child of God that I know will ever say that baptism is not a work, so also, they will never tell you that their faith is in their works. We do not put our faith in the waters of baptism. We do not put our faith in the fact that we surrendered ourselves to God in baptism, or that we have repented of our sins, or that we confess with our mouth Jesus as Lord, or that we are in constant pursuit of sanctification. We know that none of these things can save us. We work, because a living faith will not allow us to do otherwise. And we know that, as James teaches, our works bring our faith to completion. But our faith is not in our works. Our faith is not even in our faith. Sadly people can misdirect their faith by putting their faith in the fact that they have faith. But we are not saved by our faith, any more than we are saved by our works. We are saved only “by” God’s grace, which He has poured out for us through the sacrificial gift of His Son. And that grace is made abundantly available to those who, by faith, surrender their hearts and lives to God in obedience to His will as expressed through His holy and inspired word—the Bible.
We can point to the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 for example after example of what faith is; each example involving not only a conviction in one’s heart, but a living demonstration of that conviction—bringing their faith to completion. For example, the book of Hebrews says, “By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household” (verse 7). Noah and family were saved by faith, but it wasn’t a dead faith that merely believed. Rather, it was a living faith that PREPARED AN ARK! Had they only believed, but taken no action, they would have perished. Why? Because, as James 2 says, “…faith without works is useless” (verse 20). In the same way, Hebrews 11 says, “By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days” (verse 30). Now we know that all the marching in the world could not have made those walls fall down. It wasn’t the marching that did it and the Hebrews children did not put their faith in their marching; they put their faith in Jehovah God. It was He who made the walls fall down and they knew that very well. But those wall didn’t fall until the marching occurred. Why? Because as James 2 says, “faith without works is dead” (verse 26).
Is it, then, too much for Mr. Abrams (2006) to imagine that faith is more than the mere mental acquiescence to the validity of something; that it is more than just belief, more than just accepting? In light of James’ teaching and what the Bible says faith really is, is it really too much for Mr. Abrams and company to imagine that God, as a prerequisite to gaining access to the blood of Christ, would call upon people to actually express the convictions of their heart by meeting Him at the watery grave of baptism, and there demonstrating their faith in what Jesus has done for them—His death, burial, and resurrection—through their own symbolic death, burial, and resurrection to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4)? Perhaps that is, indeed, just a little too much for a heart steeped in the doctrines of John Calvin to ever comprehend?
I love the Apostle Paul’s explanation of baptism, in addressing the church at Colossae, when he says: “and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12). In this passage, Paul not only defines baptism as the moment we receive our spiritual circumcision, but he points out exactly where the efficacy of authentic Bible baptism lies when he says that “you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God…” Every authentic New Covenant child of God that I know knows exactly where their faith was at when they were baptized; and it was not in themselves, not in their obedience, not in their performances, and certainly not in the “water” itself. Their faith was, and is, in “the working of God!” That is about as far away from the kind of meritorious works of law, which Paul addressed in Ephesians 2, as one can get!
Faith cannot be separated from works; any more than love can be separated from obedience. Jesus said, “If you love Me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15) and “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me” (John 14:21). While the Calvinists, and others like them, try to separate it all out and make “faith” one thing and “works another, or “love” one thing and “obedience” another, the truth is they are all one big ball of wax. As James points out, a living faith necessitates works and works of faith bring one’s faith to completion.
But not only do Abrams (2006) and company fail to differentiate between two entirely different kinds of works, thus throwing the writings of Paul and James into conflict with one another, but they also seem to neglect the very teachings of Jesus Himself concerning the importance of works to our salvation. Abrams says we are saved by faith alone, completely separate and apart from any works whatsoever, even works that are simply expressions of our faith. But Jesus said:
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
So now the question becomes, “Who are we to believe, Abrams (2006) or Jesus?” I think we all know the answer to THAT one. And, while I am sure that Abrams and company have found some way to explain away those statements made by Jesus—I mean, how could they not try to come up with something that will seemingly justify their position—it behooves us, as disciples of Christ and students of the Word, to not let these guys off the hook. There is simply no way that the Calvinists, or anyone remotely related to their doctrinal positions, can look at the teachings of Christ in this particular passage, and throughout the Gospels, and continue to hold to their doctrine of “faith only” without trying to do an awful lot of explaining away.
I am sometimes virtually dumbfounded at how far people will sometimes go to reinterpret a passage of scripture, or an event in Bible history, in order to maintain their doctrine. For example, concerning Luke’s account of the thief on the cross, Abrams (2006) says:
One passage the baptismal regeneration people have never really correctly understood is Luke 23:42-43 and the fact the thief on the cross was saved as Jesus declared, and was never baptized. They try to skirt the matter by saying this was before the Church Age when baptism was initiated. They state that Romans 10:9-10 requires that to be saved a person must believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. The thief could not have believed that because Christ had not yet arisen. The problem with that idea is that it does not take into account how were people in the Old Testament saved? Old Testament saints were saved by faith, through the grace of God as Hebrews 11 explains. This chapter is the Bible’s Hall of Faith and states repeatedly how from Abel on men believed the revelation they were given by God and were saved. Abraham never heard the name of Jesus Christ or of His death, burial and resurrection, but he was certainly saved…. (para. 5)
The Bible teaches that no one in the Old or New Testament who was saved, merited or earned it in any way. The thief died in the Old Testament dispensation during the time the Mosaic Law was in force. He expressed saving faith while hanging on a cross and had no time to keep any law therefore the keeping of any part of the law was certainly not a part of his salvation. Jesus declared that the repentant thief (malefactor) would be with Him that day in Paradise because the thief believed in Jesus Christ and nothing more… (para. 7)
As seen in this text, Mr. Abrams (2006) is very good a telling us what the Bible teaches—in light of his own theological positions. However, even a casual reading of Hebrews 11 reveals that the theme of the whole chapter is “faith in action”; demonstrating for us in example after example how that authentic “faith” is much more than mere “belief”; and how that it consists not only of a conviction within our hearts but the physical expression of that conviction, as well. In the section above, Abrams (2006) speaks of Abel, of whom the book of Hebrews says he “offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks” (verse 4). Does that sound like “faith” is only “believing” to you? Abrams also mentions Abraham, of whom the book of Hebrews says he “obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going” (verse 8). I’m thinking Abrams’ Old Testament appeals to faith being nothing more than a mental acquiescence to, or belief in, something is not doing him any favors.
But, back to the thief on the cross. I am amazed, startled even, at how quickly those of Calvinists heritage run to this particular illustration to try to prove their point concerning baptism not being a part of God’s plan for receiving the forgiveness of sin. They inevitably say, “Well, what about the thief on the cross, he wasn’t baptized and Jesus saved him?” To this point we must point out that:
First, if it’s just “baptism” we’re talking about, how does Mr. Abrams (2006) know that the thief on the cross had not been baptized with the baptism of John? He very well may have been. According to the Bible, “When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John” (Luke 7:29-30). Perhaps, at one time or another, the thief on the cross had, indeed, been among those people who were baptized by John, or one of his disciples. Just because he had sinned, and was now hanging on a cross beside Jesus, does not mean that he was totally disobedient to the will of God. It was the religious leaders—lawyers and Pharisees—who, like Abrams and company, “rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John” (verse 30). Why is it always the religious leaders who, seemingly, cannot see what the common people so easily see? But whether or not the thief on the cross had ever been baptized with the baptism of John is a moot point because, it’s Jesus’ baptism, commanded after His death, burial, and resurrection, that we have in view here, not John’s baptism.
Second—and, really, of greater importance—despite Abrams (2006) claims to the contrary, it remains important to the discussion to remember that the thief on the cross lived and died prior to Jesus’ commands concerning baptism. When Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) and, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16), He made these statements after His death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism, as taught in the New Testament, is an expression of saving faith symbolizing the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ—as we die to self and to sin (Romans 6:6), are “buried with Him through baptism into death” and raised up to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). How could the thief on the cross have be expected to have done any of that when Jesus had not yet died, nor had He issued His commandment regarding baptism? The whole appeal to the thief on the cross—with regard to Christian baptism, or any other New Covenant expression of saving faith—is a moot point!
If the Biblical account of the thief on the cross has anything whatsoever so say about our own salvation, it is not with specific regard to baptism or any other expression of the faith to which we are called in accordance with the terms of the New Covenant. Rather, much to the chagrin of the “legalists” on both sides of all such issues, it speaks to the beautiful, compassionate, ever gracious character of a wild and passionate God who will not be tamed or constrained by any man’s theology. I have had both conservative legalists and liberal legalist (and, yes, there are legalists—people who base their salvation, and that of others, on how well they adhere to particular tenets and practices of some religious doctrine or another—on both sides of every issue) tell me that, if God makes a single exception for any individual with regard to what He requires for salvation, then He must make that same exception for every person. Such legalistic thinking, however, does not take into account that God looks deeply into our heart—individually, person-by-person—and deals with us accordingly.
The thief on the cross is a first class example of God’s personal attention to, and intimate dealings with, the individual human heart. As the thief hung there beside Jesus, suspended between heaven and earth, and between two covenants—the Old Covenant with its Law of Moses, which was obsolete and passing away (Hebrews 8:13), and the New Covenant, which was about to be inaugurated with Christ’s own blood (Hebrews 9:15-16)—he was, to be sure, in a unique position. Whatever faith and obedience he had demonstrated in accordance with the Law of Moses, or even with regard to the prophetic authority of John the Baptizer, was now all behind him and there was nothing more he could ever do to show his penitence. He could do nothing to make restitution in accordance with the old law. He could offer no animal sacrifice for himself down at the temple. If he had not submitted to John’s prophetic authority, it was too late now. No one was going to take him down from that cross and over to the Pool of Siloam for baptism. Everything pertaining to the Old Covenant dispensation was behind him and irretrievable.
Likewise, whatever expressions of faith and love required by our Lord in accordance with the terms of the New Covenant in Christ were beyond him and out of his reach. He had no knowledge or comprehension of some future baptism that Christ had not yet even commanded, or of what such an act of surrender might mean with regard to becoming a New Covenant child of God.
All he had to offer God in that moment was a living faith in Jesus as the Christ; a saving faith that prompted him to, well, do something—so he opened his mouth and rebuked the other criminal, then confessed his own sin and guilt, and then, finally, confessed Jesus as His Lord and King as he entreated Him to remember him. It was not exactly in keeping with the Law of Moses under which, technically, he lived and died. It was not exactly what John the baptizer had been preaching earlier. It was also not even entirely in keeping with what Jesus Himself, and the apostles and prophets of the New Testament, would later command, following the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. But it was all that he had to offer in that moment; and, by faith, he offered what he had.
I think it incredulous for the Calvinists among us, or anybody else, to run to the thief on the cross and so tritely use him as some kind of rhetorical devise to justify their own theological positions; and especially to use him to negate something that Jesus Himself would later command following His own death, burial, and resurrection. I think it must break the thief’s heart—and I hate continually referring to him as “the thief,” must he continue to wear that label for eternity? Furthermore, I know it breaks our Lord’s heart for such a beautiful example of intimacy and compassion to be used in such a legalistic way. I also can’t help but think that, given the kind of heart that that man who was redeemed by Christ’s love on the cross reveals to us as he hung there beside Jesus, had he somehow miraculously survived that whole ordeal, and upon hearing his risen Savior say, “he who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16), that man would have been among the first in line to surrender his heart and life to Christ in baptism.
What I learn from the account of the redeemed man on the cross—thief no longer—is that God will forgive whoever He chooses, whether such forgiveness conforms to human expectations or not. And no amount of doctrine or dogma—Christian, Calvinist, or otherwise—can get in the way of that! As the Apostle Paul records it, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (Romans 9:18). But God does not harden good and honest hearts. I know this because Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8) and, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). If a person is actively seeking God, like that merchant who was constantly in pursuit of the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46), or even if a person simply has an open heart and, like the man who accidently found the hidden treasure buried in a field (Matthew 13:44), is willing to do anything to be a part of God’s eternal kingdom once they have discovered it, then God will surely give that person every opportunity to know the truth, to respond in living faith, and to be saved by the blood of Christ. But there is a huge difference between that kind of person—one like the man who was redeemed by Christ’s love on the cross—and someone who, being more devoted to their religion than they are the Lord, continues to walk contrary to the teachings of God’s word.
I was asked one time, by a liberal legalist, if I thought that someone killed in a tragic accident on their way to be baptized would still go to heaven. I answered, “In view of the thief on the cross, I believe that, yes, of course they would.” “But,” I continued, “I don’t think someone who is running in the opposite direction, away from the waters of baptism, will be saved.” When he asked me to explain that further, I simply said, “Well, as we learn from the account of the thief on the cross, it’s all about what is going on in our hearts. A surrendered heart seeking the Lord’s will is one thing, but a rebellious heart seeking its own will, or willing to put some theological concept ahead of the expressed will of God, is quite another.”
Not long after Jesus had issued His commandments regarding baptism, the Apostle Peter preached the first recorded gospel sermon on the Day of Pentecost—recorded in Acts, Chapter 2. Near the end of his sermon, when the people were convicted and cried out, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (verse 37), Peter told them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (verse 38). Simple enough, right! But along comes men like Mr. Abrams (2006) who says:
The true interpretation of Acts 2:38 is not clouded in a great mystery that cannot be understood. Anyone with the most basic skills in Bible study can research and find the correct meaning of the verse. Acts 2:38 says, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” The preposition “for” is the Greek work “eis” and simply means “with a view towards,” “in connection with,” “because of,” or “in light of.” In other words, Peter said that because they had believed and repented these people should now be baptized. (para. 11)
It appears that Abrams (2006) wants to distort simple Bible teaching by taking us to the original Greek language and arguing over the meaning of “for” [eis]. So let’s go there. It is important to note that:
…the standard Greek lexicons do not define “eis” as “because of” with reference to Acts 2:38. J.H. Thayer, for instance, translated the term as follows, citing Acts 2:38 — “eis aphesin hamartion, to obtain the forgiveness of sins” (Greek-English Lexicon, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1958, 94). Wm. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich, in a section where “eis” is defined as expressing “purpose,” with the sense of “in order to,” rendered the same phrase: “for forgiveness of sins, so that sins might be forgiven . . . Acts 2:38:” (Greek-English Lexicon, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1967, 228). Elliger states that “eis,” in Acts 2:38, is designed “to indicate purpose” (Horst Balz & Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990, Vol. 1, 399). In his discussion of Acts 2:38, Ceslas Spicq noted: “Water baptism is a means of realizing this conversion, and its goal—something altogether new—is a washing, ‘the remission of sins’” (Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994, Vol. 1, 242). (Jackson, 2014)
The “for” [eis] in Acts 2:38, when Peter says, ““Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for [eis] the forgiveness of your sins” means the very same thing that it means in Luke 24:47 when Jesus said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for [eis] forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Jesus made both repentance and baptism prerequisites to salvation. And Peter faithfully proclaimed the same on the Day of Pentecost.
Concerning Abrams (2006) treatment of the events recorded in Acts, Chapter 10 concerning the salvation of the household of Cornelius, he says:
Cornelius and those present with him, when Peter preached the Gospel to them, believed and received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit; following this they were baptized in water. If water baptism was necessary for salvation why did the Holy Spirit indwell them as believers BEFORE they were baptized in water? The baptism of the Holy Spirit refers to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life and receiving the new nature from God. Peter asks the question, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” (Acts 10:47) Peter is effectively saying that Cornelius was saved and had received the Holy Spirit as Peter had and those who believed with him, at Pentecost in Acts 2. Peter further said that Cornelius, who was now saved along with those there with him, should now be baptized in water. If salvation is received at baptism, as some believe, this passage would then be essentially and incorrectly interpreted as saying that the Holy Spirit will indwell the unsaved. (para. 18)
While Mr. Abrams (2006) seeks to line us out on what Peter is “effectively” saying—which is only Abrams personal interpretation of the scene—what he fails to grasp is that what the household of Cornelius received that day was not the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit.” The Bible does not say that they had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit (doesn’t anybody read their Bible anymore) only that “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message” (verse 44). In fact, the phrase or term, “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” does not actually occur anywhere in scripture. It is a manmade phrase used in many different ways according to various denominational doctrines.
However, the concept of a baptizing “with the Holy Spirit,” or similar wording, does occur several times in scripture:
- Matt. 3:11, “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
- Mark 1:8, “I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
- Luke 3:16, “John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
- John 1:33, “And I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, “He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.”
- Acts 1:5, “for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
- Acts 11:16, “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
The actual fulfillment of these passages of scripture, concerning a baptism of the Holy Spirit, occurred on the Day of Pentecost—Acts, Chapter 2. It was a onetime, historical event that took place when Jesus, in fulfillment of the prophecy made by Joel, poured forth His Spirit “on all mankind” (Acts 2:17). Thus the Holy Spirit, for the first time ever, was made available, freely accessible to all people everywhere. After that occurred, the Holy Spirit immediately began to empower the apostles, enabling them to speak languages they had never studied or spoken before.
Until the conversion of the household of Cornelius, all Christians were Jews or Jewish proselytes, and there were strong cultural mores indicating to their 1st Century minds that one must become a Jew—an adherent of the Law of Moses—before becoming a Christian. In other words, Christianity was for Jews only (that sounds rather strange to our modern ears). But the Apostle Peter and company, along with all Christians everywhere, needed to be convicted of the fact that Jesus died for all men everywhere, that salvation was not just for the Jews, and that one need not become a Jew in order to become a Christian. Hence the events of Acts 10. And what better way for God to demonstrate to Peter that on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit had been poured forth, He had been made available to all men everywhere, and not just to Jews, than to empower the household of Cornelius with a divine sign—in precisely the same way that He had empowered the apostles on the Day of Pentecost—by allowing them to also speak in foreign languages they had never studied or learned.
But this wonderful gift of empowerment was not some kind of second baptism of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had been poured forth only once upon “all flesh”—“baptizing” or immersing the whole earth in His presence; Jews and Gentiles. Acts 10 even says that what was so amazing to Peter was the fact that “the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out [past tense—on day of Pentecost] on the Gentiles also” (verse 45). Then came the empowering of the apostles, and later the household of Cornelius, as evidence of that. However, the giving of the “gift of the Holy Spirit”—or the “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit—occurs only at the point of baptism (Acts 2:38), when one is saved by the blood of Christ and access to God is thereby granted. This is why Peter immediately “ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48).
Mr. Abrams (2006) makes at least two significant errors when he jumps to conclusions and makes assumption that are not necessitated by scripture. First he says, “If water baptism was necessary for salvation why did the Holy Spirit indwell them as believers BEFORE they were baptized in water?” (para. 18). However, there is no indication that the Holy Spirit had “indwelled” them, but only “empowered” them. The Holy Spirit can empower whomever He wishes, whenever He wishes, ask Balaam’s ass (Numbers 22). If the Lord can open the mouth of a donkey and cause it to speak in a human language, He could certainly open the mouths of the household of Cornelius and cause them to speak in foreign languages. But that does not mean the Holy Spirit had indwelled them, or the donkey for that matter.
Second, Mr. Abrams says, “The baptism of the Holy Spirit refers to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life and receiving the new nature from God” (para. 18). However, both the use of the phrase “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” and the definition he here assigns to it are nothing but the mental constructs of his own theology; and not supported by scripture. As we have already seen, scripture references that point to what could be termed a baptism of the Holy Spirit do not refer to the “indwelling” of the Spirit, but rather to the “pouring forth” of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
I do not think it too bold, at this point, to make the assertion that Mr. Abrams (2006) is either incredibly deceived, reminiscent of Jesus’ statement, “if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14), or that he is under the influence of a terribly bold false spirit. For what he says next, in connection with Galatians 3:27, is simply a direct violation of New Testament teaching:
Galatians 3:27 is also misused as a supposedly “proof” text by those that teach baptismal regeneration. However, once again the context and even the simplest hermeneutic principles show this verse is not teaching this false doctrine. The context of the passage is teaching salvation by faith and verse 26 says, “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” Verse 27 is used out of context by the Baptismal Regeneration people and it says, “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The baptism here is the baptism of the Holy Spirit that comes when one by faith believes and is saved. This is the baptism of the Holy Spirit in which the believer is indwelled by the Holy Spirit and given the new nature of God as explained in 2 Cor. 5:17. Gal. 3:24 says “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”; this verse does not say here, or anywhere else in the Scriptures, that one is justified by faith plus works (baptism). If baptism regenerates and saves why not say so here and in the sixty some passages in the New Testament which address being saved but do not mention baptism as a requirement for salvation? (para. 33)
This passage and many others show the important truth that after a person is saved by believing in Jesus Christ as his Savior, baptism and an obedient life are important in showing the evidence of true conversion. (para. 34)
Here, Mr. Abrams (2006) is clearly teaching that there are at least two baptisms: water baptism and Holy Spirit baptism. He equates Holy Spirit baptism with belief and calls that salvation. Then, he emphasizes the need for a second baptism, water baptism; which, he says, is “important in showing evidence of true conversion.” However, the Bible says, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). Again we must ask the question, “Who do we choose to believe: Mr. Abrams who says there is more than one baptism, or the Apostle Paul, who teaches that there is but one baptism?
The baptism presented in scripture is, indeed, water baptism: “As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him” (Acts 8:36-28). But, we know that this water baptism is also an act of the Spirit and represents the moment at which we receive the indwelling of the Spirit: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:13). Water baptism “for the forgiveness of your sins” is baptism by the one Spirit into the one body, and it is at that moment that we receive “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). This is the “one baptism” of Ephesians 4; and anyone who advocates for more than one baptism, or two separate baptisms—water baptism and Spirit baptism—is operating under a false and deceitful spirit.
As Mr. Abrams (2006) closes his treatise on baptism, he not only reveals his own inconsistences, but circumvents his own line of reasoning with regard to “faith only,” for he states:
Some will argue that even if one believes in faith plus baptism they still have believed and are saved. However the fallacy of this thinking can be seen in the teaching that without the act of baptism added to belief there is no salvation. Let me say that again . . . the baptismal regenerationist believes that if he is not baptized he cannot be saved. Clearly, their belief is that baptism is as important as faith according to this teaching because if they are not baptized they are not saved. This teaching degrades faith whereas the Scriptures overwhelmingly speak of the necessity of faith for salvation (sixty times as mentioned earlier) without a hint of or reference to baptism. Surely, all this evidence should alert those seeking God’s truth that it is faith that saves . . . not the work of baptism. (para. 36) … Paul plainly and emphatically proclaimed that any Gospel other than what he taught, which God had given him by revelation, was a false gospel and those that preached a false gospel should be “accursed”; Galatians 1:8-10. (para. 37)
So let’s try to get Mr. Abrams’ (2006) teaching in perspective. First, he asserts that people are saved when they believe in Christ and, I assume, receive or accept Jesus into their heart as their personal Savior. He asserts that this “belief,” which he equates with “faith,” is all that is required and that our works have nothing to do with our salvation. But then he says that those who do believe and who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, but who happen to disagree with him and his doctrine of “faith only” are not saved, but accursed. Is that not an incredibly inconsistent theology? All that is required to be saved is belief, but even if you do believe, yet disagree with Abrams, you are accursed? Really? Has he not just shot down his own theology in which he asserts that all that is required is to believe? Is this not, ironically, the epitome of legalism?
As pointed out previously, in the section about the thief on the cross, even many of us who do believe that baptism is “for the forgiveness of sin” (because it is in baptism—the figurative reenactment of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ—that God has chosen to unite faith with grace) are not so legalistic as to presume to judge who is and who is not saved based on how well someone conforms to our own understanding of scripture. While we must always speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), we know that only God can stand in judgment of people’s hearts.
Of course, we do agree with the Apostle Paul’s teaching concerning those who he says deliberately want to “distort the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:7); we believe that they are, indeed, “accursed” (verse 9). But our theology remains consistent in that regard because we do not believe that “belief” is all that is required, or that Biblical “faith” equates to mere “belief.” If it did, then it really wouldn’t matter what one practiced, taught, or how they lived their life, so long as they believed. But, as James said, “the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:19-20).
Mr. Abrams (2006) is correct about a few things—no one is totally wrong about absolutely everything. But one thing, in particular, that he is absolutely correct about, and with which we heartily agree, is when he says, “A person is saved solely on the basis of the shed blood of Jesus Christ which atones for sin. This is the one ‘work’ that saves and was the sole work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, God incarnate in the flesh (John 1:1)” (para. 36). Nothing could be truer and every authentic New Covenant child of God knows it very well. But Mr. Abrams, in his apparent ignorance, in his rush to defend the tenets of John Calvin, and in his feeble “straw man” generalizations of what he presumes to think people believe, has missed the point entirely. Authentic New Covenant children of God—who do believe that baptism is “for the forgiveness of sin”—understand that baptism is not a legalistic work of law. It does not cause us to earn, merit, or deserve anything; any more than endorsing the back of a check causes one to earn or deserve the gift that has been presented to them thereby. Baptism is a surrender of our heart and life to Christ, a demonstration of the conviction that is in our hearts, and the expression of our faith in all that Jesus has done for us.
We know with all our hearts that it is the blood of Christ that justifies us (Romans 5:9), the blood of Christ that redeems us (Ephesians 1:7), the blood of Christ by which we draw near to God (Ephesians 2:13), the blood of Christ that cleanses our conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14), the blood of Christ that continually cleanses us of all our sins (I John 1:7), the blood of Christ that releases us from our sins (Revelation 1:5), the blood of Christ by which we have been purchased for God (Acts 20:28, Revelation 5:9).
Baptism adds nothing to the finished and complete work of Christ. As practiced by the authentic New Covenant children of God, there is nothing meritorious about it, nothing that causes anybody to earn, win, or deserve salvation. While we do believe what the Apostle Peter said, “baptism now saves you,” we understand that it has nothing to do with the washing of water or the “removal of dirt from the flesh” [legalistic works of law] but everything to do with “an appeal unto God for a good conscience” [an expression of living faith] (I Peter 3:21). And, as stated earlier, our faith is not in the water, nor in the act of baptism, nor in our own surrender, or our own obedience, or our own works. We have nothing of our own with which to come before God seeking justification. “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6). Rather, our faith, as expressed through baptism, is in one thing and one thing only: the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Baptism is of God. He designed this beautiful and elegant expression of faith to be simple and feasible for people the world over. Faith meets grace at the waters of baptism for it is there that Christ has chosen for us to be “united with Him in the likeness of His death” (Romans 6:5). As the Apostle Paul states, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4)
~ Salty ~
Abrams, C. (2006). Does the Bible say baptism is necessary for salvation? A Biblical explanation of the question and the verses used that supposedly teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. Retrieved from http://bible-truth.org/BaptismNotNecessary.html
Campbellite. (2014). Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campbellite
Jackson, W. (2014). Dallas professor rebuffs common quibble on “eis.” Christian Currier. Retrieved from https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/395-dallas-professor-rebuffs-common-quibble-on-eis
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.”
Straw Man. (2014). Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man