Doctrine of the Church (Part 3)

May 11, 2014     Time: 00:41:14

In our lesson we have been thinking about baptism as a sacrament or an ordinance. Last time we presented a case for thinking of baptism as a sacrament; that is to say, a means of grace, an event that brings about spiritual rebirth and regeneration and unites us with Christ in his death and resurrection and with the body of Christ, his church.

Now we want to look at an alternative interpretation or understanding of baptism. This would be to view baptism as an ordinance, not as a sacrament and not as a special means of grace.

Those who think of baptism as an ordinance rather than a sacrament remind us that the process of conversion and initiation in the New Testament was a process – a process that involved, first of all, repentance and faith, then receiving the Holy Spirit, and finally water baptism. So conversion and initiation involved the elements of repentance and faith, receiving of the Holy Spirit and regeneration, and then following the Lord in water baptism. Conversion is inward. Initiation is outward. It is the public identification of the believer with the Christian church – with the body of Christ. It is a sign, as it were, of that inner work that has taken place in conversion. The key to conversion is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. When a person is regenerated by God, when the Holy Spirit comes into him, he is baptized in the Holy Spirit and, as we would put it, is born again, born anew to spiritual life and eternal life. So the key to conversion will be baptism in the Holy Spirit. The key to initiation into the Christian church, however, is water baptism. So Spirit baptism is the key factor in conversion. Water baptism is the key factor in initiation into the Christian faith.

So what makes a person a Christian on this view is not water baptism. That is a matter of his public initiation. What makes him a Christian is that inner work of the Holy Spirit – of regeneration that has made him born anew to eternal life.

Let’s look at some passages in support of this understanding.

First, 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14. Here Paul is recalling his experience of sharing the Gospel with the Thessalonian believers. He says,

But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Notice the elements in their conversion that are here described. First of all there is God’s election. He says, “God chose you from the beginning to be saved.” So there is God’s election of these persons. Then there is God’s calling. He says, “To this he called you through our gospel.” Then there is faith. It says that it is through “belief in the truth” that they are saved.[1] And then, finally, regeneration by the Holy Spirit: he says, “sanctification by the Spirit.” So all of the essential elements of conversion are there: election, calling, the response of faith, and sanctification by the Holy Spirit. There is no mention whatsoever of baptism in Thessalonians. It is these elements that are sufficient for conversion and being a Christian.

Look over, similarly, at Galatians 3:1-5, then also verse 14. Paul says,

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain?—if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?

Then in verse 14 he refers to “the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles [in Christ Jesus], that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”

In Galatians again we have these essential elements to conversion. There is preaching. Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified before the Galatians by Paul and the apostles. There is faith. He says, “You received the Holy Spirit by hearing with faith.” Then there is the reception of the Holy Spirit. He refers in verse 2 to receiving the Holy Spirit and then also in verse 14 “receiving the promise of the Spirit through faith.” So the preaching of the Word, the response of faith, and then the receiving of the Holy Spirit make a person a Christian.

Now, naturally these persons who had become Christians were then baptized. It would be unthinkable for a genuine regenerate Christian to then refuse the act of initiation and refuse to be baptized. So Paul can go on to say in Galatians 3:26-27, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” So they are sons of God, children of God, through faith. They were then all baptized, of course. Therefore all of them who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. The two went like a hand in a glove.

Turn over to 1 Corinthians 1:13-17. We alluded to this last time in the discussion time. Here Paul is reminding the Corinthians of his behavior among them in preaching the Gospel. He says,

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius; lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Without wanting in any way to depreciate the importance of baptism, I think it is undeniable that it is clear that baptism did not lie at the heart of the Gospel for Paul. This wasn’t the main concern that he had. He preached the cross of Christ faithfully. People responded. Then he may or may not have baptized some of them. This clearly wasn’t at the heart of the Gospel message for Paul.[2]

Turn over then to 1 Corinthians 6:11. This is one of the verses to which the sacramentalist appeals as a baptismal verse to show baptismal regeneration. Paul describes the various sins of the unrighteous and then in verse 11 he says, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” The washing here is interpreted by the sacramentalist to be a reference to baptism. But there is no reason to take it that way. The washing here is not talking about the physical washing you have in water. It is talking about spiritual cleansing, right? “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of Christ through the Holy Spirit.” So this is a spiritual washing or cleansing that takes place.

It is not enough to appeal to the phrase “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” to prove that this is a baptismal verse. Remember the sacramentalist points out that people were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he takes that as evidence that this is a baptismal verse. But the problem with that argument is that the expression “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” appears elsewhere in Scripture – it is not just a baptismal formula. For example, look at Ephesians 5:20. Here Paul says, “Always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.” This is a verse which has nothing to do with baptism but uses this phrase “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Another example would be 2 Thessalonians 3:6: “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” Here he issues a command “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It has nothing to do with baptism.

So when he says, back in 1 Corinthians 6:11, that “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” there is no reason to think that this is a baptismal formula. This is talking about a spiritual cleansing or washing. It is the Spirit who does this. So this would be consistent with what we said about the inner regeneration through the Holy Spirit that takes place in conversion.

What about Romans 6:1ff? Again, this is a passage on which the sacramentalist heavily relies to show that in baptism we are united in Christ’s death and resurrection and therefore come to be members of his body. Well, it seems to me that the person who defends baptism as an ordinance will say that what we have here is a metaphorical description of baptism. Paul says in verse 3,

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

He uses the metaphor of burial and rising again to describe what goes on in baptism. This isn’t a literal burial with Christ but metaphorically speaking we are buried with him in baptism. So this serves a symbolic function. It is, as I say, an outward sign of this spiritual reality.

Finally, all of the gifts which we saw last time are ascribed to baptism.[3] You will remember that impressive list I read from G. R. Beasley-Murray about all of the blessings that are ours in virtue of baptism. The point that the person who thinks of baptism as an ordinance wants to make is all of these same blessings are ascribed simply to faith. They are all the result of faith. Beasley-Murray himself recognizes this. On page 272 of his Baptism in the New Testament (which I quoted last time) he has this to say, “n the New Testament, precisely the same gifts of grace are associated with faith as with baptism.” The same gifts of grace that are ours in virtue of being baptized are ours in virtue of our faith. Then he begins to enumerate this.

Forgiveness, cleansing and justification are the effect of baptism in Acts 2:38, 22:16, 1 Corinthians 6:11; in 1 John 1:9, forgiveness and cleansing attend the believing confession of sin, while the doctrine of justification by faith in Romans 3-4 scarcely needs citation. Union with Christ comes through baptism in Galatians 3:27 and is accorded to faith in Ephesians 3:17. Identification with Christ in his death and resurrection is rooted in baptism in Romans 6:3ff, Colossians 2:11f; faith alone is in view in Galatians 2:20, and in Colossians 2:12 faith is the means whereby new life is gained in baptism. Participation in Christ’s sonship is bound up with baptism in Galatians 3:26f since it becomes possible through union with Christ; but in verse 26, faith is explicitly mentioned as the means whereby sonship is possible, and in John 1:12 faith alone is in view. Membership in the Church, the Body of Christ, is through baptism in 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:27ff; while it is quite certain that in the New Testament Church membership would have been normally dated from baptism (the Acts [of the Apostles] shows that exceptions were for a time possible), faith is so strongly the hall mark of the Church that it can be called ‘the household of faith’ (Galatians 6:10), and union with Christ is, as we have seen, through faith. The Spirit is given through baptism according to Acts 2:38, 1 Corinthians 12:13, but to faith in Galatians 3:2, 14. The new life of the Spirit is given in baptism according to Titus 3:5, John 3:5, but to faith in John 1:12-13. The inheritance of the kingdom is for the baptized in John 3:5 but for faith in Mark 10:15, John 3:14-18, 5:24, 20:31. One New Testament writer makes the summary statement, ‘Baptism saves you’ (1 Peter 3:21); another makes the yet more characteristic assertion, ‘By grace you have been saved through faith’ (Ephesians 2:8); the former asseveration had to be qualified by the writer, but the latter stands luminously self-evident![4]

In that lengthy passage, I think you can see that all of these wonderful blessings and graces that are ours in virtue of being baptized are said to be ours in virtue of our faith in Christ. I think the reason for this is simply that baptism and conversion are so closely linked in the New Testament as conversion and initiation that they are described as one. You could ascribe these blessings either to one half of the process or to the other half of the process.[5] They are united. It would be unthinkable that there would be born again, regenerate Christians who would refuse to be baptized and would therefore not undergone initiation. So all Christians, having been duly baptized, could ascribe these wonderful blessings that are theirs in virtue of their conversion and initiation either by ascribing them to baptism or to the fact that they have had saving faith in Christ.

That is the first point: that conversion and initiation in the New Testament involved repentance and faith, reception of the Holy Spirit, and then water baptism. These are, as I say, rather like a hand in a glove. The one is the outer skin of this inner life and animation through the Holy Spirit.

The second point that the person who defends a non-sacramental view of baptism will want to make is that when you look more closely at the New Testament, you find that water baptism does not necessarily coincide with Spirit baptism. Remember for the sacramentalist, these are co-incident. It is in water baptism that one is baptized in the Holy Spirit. These happen at the same time. That is why water baptism is a sacrament – a means of grace. You are baptized in the Holy Spirit when you are water baptized.

But the New Testament doesn’t bear that out. Let’s just look at examples in the New Testament of baptism. First, begin with John’s baptism – John the Baptist – then with baptism as practiced by Jesus himself, as we saw. In those baptisms, the Holy Spirit was not received. The Holy Spirit was not given through John’s water baptism or in the baptism that Jesus administered. The Holy Spirit was promised only at Pentecost and in post-Pentecostal experience. The sacramentalist will respond by saying that this was a unique situation. It was after all pre-Pentecost and therefore John and Jesus’ baptism was unusual; it was unique in not conveying the Holy Spirit. But notice that when Jesus gives the Great Commission to the disciples to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, he commands them to teach all that he has commanded them, baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So it is a continuation of the baptism that he was carrying out during his ministry, and they probably thought of this practice in exactly the same way. It is an external sign of repentance and faith.

Let’s turn then to the baptism of the Holy Spirit that does occur at Pentecost in Acts 2. In Acts 2 we read the story of how the Holy Spirit came upon the New Testament church. Notice that this did not occur in the context of water baptism. The twelve disciples, and those with them, were not being baptized in water when the Holy Spirit came upon them. This was quite apart from that. The sacramentalist will say that this situation is unique because the disciples had already followed Jesus. Perhaps they had already been baptized during his ministry. So there was no need for them to be re-baptized or baptized again. But nevertheless, even if that is true, the point is that Spirit baptism doesn’t take place in conjunction with water baptism for these disciples.

Now we skip ahead to Acts 10:43-48. This is the story of the preaching of the Gospel by Peter to a Roman centurion named Cornelius and his household. Notice that the members of Cornelius’ household, upon hearing the Gospel, are baptized in the Holy Spirit prior to water baptism.[6]

While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Here we see that these persons, upon hearing the Gospel and believing it, received the Holy Spirit and then water baptism followed as a subsequent act. So they are not simultaneous. The sacramentalist will say that this was an exceptional circumstance because this is the first reception of the Gospel by the Gentiles. It was to show that the Gentiles are also acceptable to God as well as Jews. Granted. But once again we see that water baptism and Spirit baptism don’t coincide.

Let’s look at the case of the Ephesian disciples as opposed to Apollos in Acts 18:24-19:7. We alluded to this last time.

Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and expounded to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him, and wrote to the disciples to receive him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully confuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve of them in all.

Notice the similarity between Apollos and these Ephesian disciples. They only knew the baptism of John the Baptist. They had not been baptized in Jesus’ name. But the Ephesian disciples were compelled to be water baptized – to be re-baptized – because John’s baptism was not adequate. But in the case of Apollos they didn’t rebaptize him, did they? He knew John’s baptism but they didn’t baptize him in the name of the Lord Jesus. Why not? The difference is that Apollos was “fervent in the Spirit.” He had the Holy Spirit. He was regenerate. But the Ephesian disciples hadn’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit. Therefore, they needed to submit to water baptism in Jesus’ name. It was the presence of the Spirit that made the difference in whether or not a person was a genuine regenerate Christian. It shows that the key to being a Christian is the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life.[7]

The sacramentalist would say, in response to this, that in Acts 18:25 when it says that Apollos was “fervent in Spirit” that is not the Holy Spirit, it just means he was zealous – he had a spiritual disposition as in, for example, Romans 12:11 which says, “Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.” The problem I think is that Romans 12:11 does refer to the Holy Spirit. That is what this is about. Similarly, with Acts 18:25, it is talking about a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit. That was the case for Apollos. So both of these – Romans 12:11 and Acts 18:25 – are talking about the presence of the Holy Spirit and shows that it was this that was key to being a Christian. Notice again that the Ephesian disciples did not receive the Holy Spirit in the act of water baptism. Again, it was after they were baptized in water that Paul laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

Look then at Acts 9:17-18. This is Paul’s own conversion.

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized, and took food and was strengthened.

Here, again, Paul first receives the Holy Spirit and then he is water baptized. They are not co-incident. Water baptism follows Spirit baptism.

Look at Acts 8, which is the reception of the Gospel by the Samaritans. Acts 8:4-8, 14-17:

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to a city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did. For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

This is so strange a passage it is difficult for any view of baptism to understand! What you have here is people who believed in the Gospel, they were baptized in water in the name of the Lord Jesus (this was authentic Christian baptism), but they didn’t receive the Holy Spirit until the apostles came down from Jerusalem and laid hands on them. But whatever view you take of this unusual circumstance, the undeniable fact is that water baptism in the name of Jesus Christ was not co-incident with their reception of the Holy Spirit. Spirit baptism came later in this case, after water baptism.

So when you look at the book of Acts carefully what you discover is that Spirit baptism never coincides with water baptism! Never! There isn’t any case in which water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit are coincident. Rather, baptism serves as the culmination of a person’s act of faith. It is the climax of a person’s act of faith in coming to Christ.[8] Here we might compare 1 Peter 3:21. The author says, “Baptism . . . now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Baptism now saves you as an appeal to God for a clear conscience. Baptism is an expression of the believer’s faith. It is an appeal to God. Baptism is an act of calling upon God. So baptism is not a means of grace. It is a means of faith. It is an expression of a person’s faith in Christ and his being initiated into the Christian faith. Baptism on the ordinance view then is not God’s gift to man, rather it is man’s call out to God – an appeal to God. It is placing one’s faith in him.

On this second point then, to summarize: water baptism just doesn’t necessarily coincide with Spirit baptism. In the book of Acts, it can come before, it can come after. There is no suggestion that through being water baptized you are baptized in the Holy Spirit and regenerated. So baptismal regeneration just doesn’t have any support, it seems to me, in these instances in the book of Acts. Coupled with the first point that was made (that all of these blessings are ours in virtue of faith alone) it seems to me that the view of baptism as an ordinance makes good sense. It is the culmination of a person’s faith in God; an expression of that initiation into the Christian faith that is a sign of this inward conversion that has taken place.


Question: Looking at baptism as a sacrament rather than an ordinance – is that where people feel like it is a necessary part of salvation?

Answer: Yes. Because it is a means of grace; it is the way in which you receive saving grace and are united with Christ. You are united with him in baptism, with his death, and resurrection. So you need to be baptized in order to be saved, unless by some miracle of God (like the thief on the cross, for example). God would make an exception. But the normal practice for the sacramentalist is that baptism is the means by which salvation is given to us.

Followup: So would the people that believe that that is not the case feel like, by including baptism as a part of the plan of salvation, that is denying that faith is necessary?

Answer: No, no. You will notice I didn’t do that in any way. I didn’t make the charge that the sacramentalist view is works-righteousness. The sacramentalist will insist that there needs to be an exercise of faith. This will then get us into the question of infant baptism, which we will talk about next time. But to have a sacramentalist view is not to deny the necessity of faith.

Followup: So is that a false way of looking at baptism – this sacramentalist view?

Answer: I am not persuaded that it is correct. It seems to me that the ordinance view (for the reasons that I explained) is the correct interpretation. So I would regard baptism as an ordinance and not as a sacrament.

Followup: So it wouldn’t have to be done to be saved?

Answer: Oh! Well, now, I didn’t say that! The person who refuses to undergo baptism – that would just be incomprehensible to the New Testament Christians because this would be to refuse to be initiated into the Christian church and would be to refuse publicly to acknowledge Christ in this way. He is living in disobedience and sin and therefore you would need to question, “Where is that person’s heart?” What sort of a wicked heart would refuse to follow Christ in Christian baptism?[9] So this may well be something that is very, very important – if not essential – to salvation in the normal scheme of things (except in extraordinary circumstances like the thief on the cross).

Next time we can begin with discussion of these points.[10]


[1] 4:55

[2] 10:03

[3] 15:01

[4] G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1973), pp. 272-73.

[5] 20:05

[6] 25:03

[7] 29:52

[8] 35:02

[9] 40:14

[10] Total Running Time: 41:14 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)