Someone writes, “I seem to hear you saying that baptism is not essential, or, if it is, that it is not essential in the same way that faith is essential.”
* * *
Saving “faith” is not something we do in a series of events. It is what motivates and enables everything that we do in response to God’s kindness. Saving faith means trusting Jesus’ atonement as sufficient to bridge the gap our sins have caused between us and God, and entrusting ourselves to God to be his people out of gratitude for what he did for us in Jesus Christ long before we were even born.
Baptism is one way — indeed, the initial way, commanded by Jesus himself — for expressing that heart of trust/faith/commitment. It manifests repentance, embodies a submissive spirit and steps across the line separating believers from unbelievers in the eyes of a watching world. It signifies our union with Jesus — and with all those people whom he saves. It reminds us who we are and whose we are. It constantly calls us to the new and holy life to which God has called us in Jesus.
Much of the evangelical church has made too little of this Christ-given ordinance, in a mad rush away from an unbiblical sacramentalism which made too little of faith. Where modern Christians utilize “the sinner’s prayer,” the apostolic church commanded believers to be baptized. The New Testament does not envision an unbaptized believer, but no New Testament author ever suggests that a true believer is saved because she or he was baptized, or that baptism saves anyone apart from faith.
God does not send us to baptize, but to preach the Good News. Those who believe the Good News are to be baptized. When the evangelical church learns to grip both those statements and hold them tight, it will take a giant step forward — not only in biblical understanding but in practical Christian unity as well.