In the previous article, What is the Gospel?, we examined a broad overview of how the Bible describes the true gospel which saves. One of the points we saw was that the gospel is something which must be obeyed, not simply something to believe. We will look now at what is involved in this obedience to the gospel.
Is Obedience Beyond Simply Believing Part of the Gospel?
My brother, Nathan, said in a Facebook discussion in 2014:
Baptism is not part of the gospel–it’s a response TO the gospel. We don’t have faith in our baptisms but in Jesus Christ and the power of His resurrection (Rom. 10.9-10).
He has affirmed several times in conversations I have had with him that baptism is not part of the gospel. The result of this idea is that as long as people believe the gospel, there is no particular work of obedience, even baptism, that is required for salvation. Since nobody knows everything perfectly, we cannot require people to believe or understand anything beyond who Jesus is and what He did in order to have fellowship with them.
In an email to me on December 21, Nathan wrote:
In my understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I now know that God doesn’t save people because they are right about everything. He saves us because we believe in His Son. As soon as we believe we stand justified in His sight–even before we work works of repentance and before we work works of faith. We are not justified by works, as the NT repeatedly states; we are justified by faith.
Now, in his Facebook discussion, Nathan did say say the following about baptism and fellowship:
…we’re not talking about who IS actually in Christ, because we cannot really know that. We are just talking about folks we will accept in Christian love and faith as brethren. We are talking about what a person must know beyond the gospel (Jesus Christ died, was buried, raised again the third day, ascended to the Father as Lord and Christ) before his faith will be credited as righteousness. Can we make that call? Obviously many will not recognize others as true Christians unless they have the same knowledge and have done things exactly the same way. Is that the right way to do things? Or is it better to say, as Jesus said in Luke 9.50, “he who is not against us is on our side”? I’m sure I would accept many more into my circle of fellowship than many of my brethren. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I’m going to just teach the Bible, let the chips fall where they may, and let God do the sorting of the good and bad fish.
We are also not talking about people who have not experienced some form of baptism. I cannot be in Christian fellowship with anyone who has not been baptized. But we’re talking about people who have been baptized in ways other than full immersion because that’s what they have been taught and believe is right and true.
So he says that although baptism is not necessary for salvation, he will not have fellowship with anyone who does not think he has been baptized. This is because the teaching that we must be baptized is clear in the scriptures and anyone who is not baptized is probably in rebellion and does not really hold up Christ as Lord. I cannot see how this really can work in light of the idea that baptism is not part of the gospel and salvation comes prior to baptism. This is still requiring knowledge and obedience of something beyond what he claims is in the gospel in or order to have fellowship with them, which does not seem fair if faith alone is all the is required to be in Christ. How can you refuse to have fellowship with someone who is in Christ? But regardless of this inconsistency, Nathan does not believe that baptism is part of the gospel or necessary for someone to be saved.
Of course, my brother is not the first person to come up with this idea. This is probably the most common idea regarding the gospel in the denominational world today. Is it true? Is baptism not a part of the gospel?
The Gospel is Something That Must Be Obeyed
In our previous article, one of the points we made about the gospel is that it is something that must be obeyed. This is undeniable as the scriptures are very clear about that. But there is an argument that simply believing the gospel is obeying the gospel. But what if there are commands that are given as conditions to receiving the grace of God beyond simply believing in your heart? Would they not then be part of the good news of salvation? They certainly would. Instructions on how to receive the grace of God through faith in Christ is part of the good news. So what commandments did Jesus give regarding receiving salvation? Did He say that our salvation is based only on our understanding of what He did and Who He is? No, He gave us more than that.
We must be born again
John 3:3-8 says:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (ESV)
Nathan claims that we have nothing to do with being born again. In an email he sent out to many people on April 24 Nathan wrote:
Jesus did speak the sentence, “You must be born again” in John 3.7 in His conversation with Nicodemus. However, we should not read this sentence the same way we read “You must love the Lord your God” or “You must take up your cross and follow Jesus.”
Certainly you MUST be born again, but this new birth is not something YOU do; it’s something which must happen to you. In their conversation, Jesus and Nicodemus speak of two different births, one of the flesh and one of the Spirit. Paul described two boys born to Abraham in Galatians 4.21-31. Ishmael was born of the flesh to the slave-woman, and Isaac was born of the Spirit to the free-woman. Ishmael was born of the will and effort of Abraham; Isaac was born of the will and power of God.
Then after making his case that you cannot even believe the gospel, cannot practice righteousness, and cannot grow in respect to salvation if you have not already been born again by the Spirit, he makes this conclusion:
So what do you do about Jesus’ statement, “You must be born again”? Nothing! Being born is not your job. What IS your job is how you respond to God’s word. How you respond to the gospel reveals whether or not you have been born again. If you come to Christ in faith, you have been born again. If you have a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, you have been born again. If you desire to serve Jesus above all others and you take up your cross daily to follow Him, you have been born again.
Of course this makes nothing about our salvation our job, since if God makes us born again (through nothing we do at all), then we will automatically obey Him. Well, if this is how God is, then we cannot question Him, but this is certainly not how He has revealed Himself to us. So let’s examine this common argument that being born by water is the fleshly birth and being born by the Spirit is the spiritual birth.
First, Jesus’ wording would make no sense if this was the case. Jesus says, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit….” If being born of water is speaking of our fleshly birth, why does He make it a requirement for entering the kingdom of Heaven? Wouldn’t He just leave it out? It would make much more sense to just say, “unless one is born of the Spirit,” if that is indeed what He meant to say. But that is not what He meant to say. He meant to say what He said. Water is part of being born again. We can see this clearly when we look at Romans 6. In verses 1-4, Paul writes:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 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, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (ESV)
Notice the “newness of life” here. Is that not the same concept as “being born again?” But when does that occur? Paul says it happens in baptism. Certainly it is not the water itself that makes us born again or gives us newness of life. That is why Jesus did not simply say “unless one is born of water, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The Spirit’s work is required. But this happens in baptism. Titus 3:4-7 reads:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (ESV)
The Holy Spirit is very clearly involved in our regeneration and renewal (new birth). But when does that new birth happen? According to Romans 6, it happens when we are baptized. According to Jesus in John 3, the new birth is of water and the Spirit, implying that the Spirit’s involvement is at the same time as the water’s involvement. Let’s look at some other clear statements that show that baptism is required for salvation.
Baptism now saves us
1 Peter 3:18-22 states:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (ESV)
Here Peter makes it clear that he is talking about water baptism as he makes the point that it is not the removal of dirt from the body (it isn’t the work of the water on your physical flesh) that saves, but because in baptism you are appealing to God for a good conscience. The power of baptism is the suffering and resurrection of Jesus. But baptism is still required for salvation to such an extent that Peter can state, “baptism now saves us.”
Baptism is for the remission/forgiveness of sins
Acts 2:37-41 says,
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (ESV)
There are many ways “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” is explained away, but it always comes does to theological reasons–they don’t accept what it says at face value because they don’t believe that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. In Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament he argues that it means “because of the forgiveness of sins” but also makes it clear that he takes that position because he simply does not believe that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. But when we put this verse together with what Peter says in 1 Peter 3:21 and what Jesus said about being born again, it fits perfectly as being a requirement for salvation. His further exhortation here to, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation,” also indicates that although they believed (which is why they asked what to do and why Peter never told them to believe), they were not yet saved.
Baptism is to “wash away your sins”
When Paul is retelling the story of how he obeyed the gospel, he leads us up to the point that Ananias comes to him. By that time, it is very clear that Paul (Saul at the time) has faith in Jesus and has had a change of heart (repented of his sins). That is why Ananias does not tell him to do either of those things. But what does he say in Acts 22:16?
And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name. (ESV)
Some translations are made by people who hate what the word of God says about baptism so much that they actually change the wording of this verse. The Good News Translation says here:
And now, why wait any longer? Get up and be baptized and have your sins washed away by praying to him. (GNT)
But that is not what it says. It clearly connects baptism and washing away your sins. Faith has to be behind it or it won’t do any good, which is what “calling on his name” is all about. Nathan’s objection is that our sins are not literally “washed away” and so baptism is simply a picture of what has already happened. It is true that our sins are not literally washed away, but that is a picture of what happens when we are baptized! God does the forgiving and removal of sin, not the water, but He does it when we are baptized, as we saw in Romans 6, 1 Peter 3:21, and Acts 2:38. There is absolutely nothing in the context here that would indicate that the baptism was a picture of what had already happened. That is true of every passage that speaks about baptism.
Jesus says baptism is necessary to be saved
After His resurrection, Jesus made a very clear statement in Mark 16:15-16–
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (ESV)
Jesus simply says whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. It is true that He does not mention repentance, which Acts 2:38 makes clear is necessary for salvation as well, but it does make clear that baptism is necessary. There are two common objections to this passage.
One objection is that it isn’t clear that this passage is original and may have been added later. I think the evidence is overwhelmingly against that. I suggest that if you have that idea, you examine the evidence yourself and make your conclusion based on the evidence, not on what you want to believe.
The other objection is that He says that whoever does not believe will be condemned. He doesn’t say that whoever is not baptized will be condemned. This is true. But if baptism is part of the gospel (as I certainly believe it is), then if you believe the gospel, you will be baptized. Only those who do not believe will not be baptized.
Preaching Jesus means preaching baptism
Acts 8 contains another story that applies to our topic. In Acts 8:35-38, we read:
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” — And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (ESV)
What did the eunuch know about baptism? He knew what he had heard when Philip was preaching the gospel (good news) about Jesus. Is baptism part of the gospel? The inspired prophet, Philip, apparently thought so. I have no choice based on all the evidence but to think so as well.
Galatians includes baptism as part of the true gospel
The book of Galatians is about the false gospel that one must keep the Law of Moses (or at least part of it) to be saved. Throughout the book, Paul is contrasting faith with works of the Law. In Galatians 3:23-27, Paul says:
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 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. (ESV)
He says that we are sons of God, through faith. But he doesn’t stop there. He says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” How do we get into Christ? Through faith–through baptism. Baptism is part of faith. It is part of the obedience of faith that Paul talks about in Romans. To say that we are saved without or before baptism is to say that we are saved without being in Christ or before we are in Christ. This cannot be true. Obedience in baptism (in addition to faith and repentance) is part of the gospel and must be obeyed if we are going to be saved.
Without it, we have what 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10 says:
in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (ESV)
The gospel demands obedience. Christ requires faith (which is an active confessing faith, we can see in Romans 10:9-10), repentance, and baptism for salvation. To not require it is to preach a false gospel for which we will be condemned.
My brother, Nathan, sent this response to the article:
Where have you heard or read me as saying “baptism is not necessary for salvation”? I don’t believe that and I don’t think I’ve written it.
Baptism is completely necessary. Repentance is completely necessary. Works of righteousness are completely necessary (James 2). Obedience in every way is necessary. But WHY is it necessary? Because we have faith in God! We don’t do the works in order to have faith; we do the works because we have faith. The works always prove our faith and come from a heart of faith. Of course, men can do the works without faith.
Lord willing, I’ll be baptizing two men from my prison class over the next couple of days. I’ll baptize them INTO Christ. They are calling on the name of the Lord, and baptism is part of that. They will go on through their lives calling on the name of the Lord.
In John 3.5, Nicodemus brings up the physical birth. Jesus says the physical birth is not enough. You must be “born of water and the Spirit.” This phrase “water and the Spirit” refers to the same spiritual concept. Over and over in John’s gospel, Jesus says things which people take to be physical when He’s really talking completely on the spiritual level. This is the first. In chapter 4 He tells the woman at the well that He has living water. In chapter 6 He says He is the bread of life and we must eat His flesh and drink His blood. In chapter 7 He says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.” We must not be so quick to apply Jesus words in John 3 to baptism!
I agree that Titus 3.5 is a parallel passage, and I don’t believe that’s talking about physical washing, either. I believe both Titus 3 and John 3 point back to Ezekiel 36.25-27: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” Being born of water and the Spirit (the “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit”) is something God does–it’s “not by works of righteousness which we have done” (Tit. 3.5). Baptism certainly points to it, symbolizes it in significant ways, and is connected to it. It’s similar to Jesus’ teaching in John 6, which does not refer to the Lord’s Supper, but the Lord’s Supper certainly points back to the reality of Jesus as our food and drink.
Points to ponder :-)
Love you, Joel,