“Why,” various readers have inquired, “do Churches of Christ emphasize baptism ‘for the remission of sins,’ as if that were its only biblical meaning?”
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The New Testament does speak of baptism “for the remission (forgiveness) of sins,” of course (Acts 2:38), and Christians of most denominations acknowledge the same each time they recite the Nicene Creed. But the Apostles, evangelists and earliest followers of Jesus spoke of baptism in many other ways as well. How this particular phrase, found in a single biblical passage, became a universal and almost-exclusive formula among Churches of Christ is an interesting story.
The early-to-mid 19th century was a time of intense religious revival, feelings and debate in the United States. That era saw the creation of several indigenous American religious groups, including the Stone-Campbell “Restoration Movement,” the Millerite Revival or Adventual Movement, and Joseph Smith’s founding of the “Latter Day Saints.” Among the established churches, an ultra-rigid, creedal Calvinism fiercely competed with the “revivalism” which marked the Second Great Awakening. Alexander Campbell and his associates sought a hearing amid all those dissonant voices.
Calvinists then commonly believed in a “secret election.” That meant that no one, however devout or humble, could ever be assured that he or she was among God’s chosen people. Revivalism often sought assurance of salvation through a charismatic-type experience, a better-felt-than-told inner peace in response to prolonged and anxious praying. Preachers invited people to come to the “anxious bench” at the front of the church where they would agonizingly “pray through.”
Although Barton W. Stone had been a leader of the Cane Ridge (Ky.) Revival and believed in extraordinary spiritual manifestations, the logical and pragmatic Campbell prevailed in influence as their two movements coalesced and finally merged. What evangelism needed, Campbell concluded, was a uniform, scriptural point of formal conversion, at which new believers could be assured that their sins were forgiven and that they were indeed among the chosen People of God.