“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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Alexander Campbell wisely saw the need for an objective touch-point, a spiritual milestone, at which the believer could grasp God’s promises and claim assurance of heavenly pardon. This he found in the first gospel sermon reported in the Book of Acts. When the hearers on Pentecost were convicted in conscience and panic-stricken for their sins, Peter told them to “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” (Acts 2:38). Campbell saw here the solution to the hyper-Calvinist anxiety growing out of God’s “secret election,” and to the revivalist converts’ quest for an often-elusive and subjective sense of peace.
Baptism was eminently scriptural, Campbell observed, ordained by Jesus himself. It was also clear, objective, historical and personal. Campbell saw it in much the same way many evangelicals today view “the sinner’s prayer.” It was the initial act of commitment to Christ. It was how faith reached out with empty hands to receive God’s grace. It had no merit of its own, although it formalized the reception of God’s forgiveness accomplished through Jesus’ sacrifice. Campbell’s friend, the great evangelist Walter Scott, popularized baptism far and wide as the believer’s official moment of conversion, and “baptism for the remission of sins” quickly became a hallmark of Restorationist preaching.
Neither Alexander Campbell nor his father Thomas, nor Barton W. Stone, Walter Scott nor Isaac Errett — all founding fathers of what became Churches of Christ, Christian Churches and the Disciples of Christ — believed that baptism itself saved anyone. None of them doubted that God forgave genuine believers who were not “properly” baptized. These men did not think they were the only Christians. It was a tragedy of history that many of their spiritual descendants turned the formula of “baptism for the remission of sins” into a basis for separating from other Christians, even denying that other believers were Christians at all.
By the grace of God, that grievous situation is rapidly changing among many Churches of Christ today, as we move nearer the intent of our founding fathers and closer to the teaching of the New Testament itself. At the same time, I happily commend to fellow-Christians outside our Restoration Movement the New Testament practice — rightly understood — of baptism “for the remission of sins.”