Salvation and Baptism

Several weeks ago, Marsha and I had an extended conversation with a pastor regarding the concept of Salvation, and that led to another discussion regarding evidences and ultimately, baptism.  Then last week he sent me an email asking if I would elaborate our position to him in writing.  I thought this discussion would be interesting for the Trekkers folks to contemplate, since every one of us can be called upon at any time to "give an answer for the faith that is within us," and since there are so many understandings of these topics in the Christian theological community.  I also welcome other people's perspectives taken from Scripture to add to our own understanding.


Here is the pastor's request to us.






I sent an earlier e-mail and am following up with you.  Again, I truly enjoyed our conversation on Sunday.  I thirst for genuine theological debate and discussion. It is what true followers of the Christ we confess seek to do, for without it, we are wandering around being led by whatever whim this corrupt world has for us.  When you get an opportunity, please forward to me a brief thesis on your thoughts concerning “saved” and “Baptism”. I am looking forward to pushing my own boundaries and study what might be perhaps another facet to our ongoing sanctification through and by the gift of grace from this Trinity we hold fast to. 



And here is our response to him.  I'm not sure how "brief" it is.


Marsha and I have discussed your request at length, particularly since the biblical teachings concerning Baptism are dependent on so many other foundational antecedents, going all the way back to the questions of "Why did God create?" (answer: For the praise of his glory, including the demonstration of his Grace); "What is his ultimate purpose in creation?" (answer: to sum up all things under his son Jesus Christ); and "What is the game plan of creation and world history?" (answer: to redeem a people for himself that will be perfected into Christ's image of glory.)


So to address the subject of Baptism as part of that plan of Redemption is to open a vast treasure of study, particularly definitions of biblical terms, to fully grasp its significance.  But since you requested a short statement of what we believe the Scripture teaches, I pray that the following will at least let us "continue the conversation," as they say.  I do not expect that this will satisfy every question and objection, but those questions and objections are fully addressed by the Bible itself, in the correct context.


It is clear that Baptism and Salvation ("saved") are closely connected, as Peter says, "Baptism now saves you."  And to understand that connection, we must first understand what it means to be saved.  The Bible uses the term saved in many ways, but the three primary ways are with respect to the triune nature of man, reflecting the triune "image of God," ie, that man is a three-part being of spirit, soul (or mind, including intellect, emotion and will), and physical body.  Paul delineates in his closing to I Thessalonians, praying that God would "sanctify you wholly, that your whole body, soul and spirit be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."  All three parts need to be, and ultimately will be, "saved" by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, for those whom the Father chose before the foundation of the world.  


Man's spirit is born "dead" and needs to be saved (made alive) by the new birth of the Spirit of God. This is accomplished by his work exclusively through the Gospel (Word of God) as Jesus said in John 6:63 and James 1:18 affirms (many other passages as well.)  The result of this new birth is that a person believes, as Paul says in Romans 10:17 ("Faith comes through hearing the Word of God.")  This is a universal truth throughout Scripture, from Adam to Abraham to every believer (infant through old age) today.   Those who believe are alive; those who do not (or not yet) believe are dead, spiritually.  In that sense, believers can say that  we "have been saved" (past tense, once-for-all event.)  In addition, it's all God's work, with the person only aware that he now believes God's Word and in his Son, where he did not previously.   Paul uses the term "justified" by the blood of Christ for this state, reserving the term "saved" for the salvation of the soul (mind) as explained below.


Man's soul (mind) is by nature "dead in trespasses and sin" and thus needs saving as well.  This is what we call "present-tense salvation."  In this tense of salvation, which Paul also calls "being transformed by the renewing of the mind," we who have been born again by the Spirit are being saved by the life of Christ within us, as we cry out "Abba, Father" by his Spirit.  Interestingly, the same two agents are active in this experience of Salvation, namely, the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.  But, there is an important distinctive from the new birth.  This present-tense salvation is neither instantaneous nor is it totally passive to the person being saved.  It is rather an active partnership ("calling on the name of the Lord") between God's Spirit and my spirit, with his Spirit being the initiator.  Paul asks, "Having been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved by his life?"  It is a progressive growth in love of Christ, obedience and dependence upon him, a process also called "sanctification."  The result is that I become more Christ-like and will eventually be perfected after I am delivered ("saved") from the bondage of sin and corruption. This process of salvation is unique for each person, with some believers agreeing with God willingly and some resisting tooth and nail.  But Paul says that those who have been justified have also been "predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son," so the end of the road is the same for all of God's people.


Man's body is likewise in a state of corruption and death, physically, and therefore needs "saving."  Paul says that "we groan within ourselves, waiting for the redemption of our body."  And that aspect of Salvation is yet future, to be consummated at the return of Jesus Christ and our bodily resurrection. 


So every one of God's people, who are chosen before the foundation of the world, needs (and has) three aspects of total Salvation, culminating in a new whole person to live under Christ on the new earth, the "home of righteousness," as Peter calls it.   And what about Baptism?  After prayer and study, the only consistent explanation that Marsha and I see in Scripture is that Baptism is a significant step in the present-tense salvation of the soul, prompted by God's Spirit.  In fact, Peter says just that, when he writes, "Corresponding to this (Noah's being saved by water,) Baptism now saves you (not the putting away the filth of the flesh, but the appeal of a good conscience toward God) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ," ie, his life.  And the "you" he is addressing are already born-again believers.  In other words, Baptism involves a confession of my sinfulness and a commitment to be saved from the corruption and death of my own mind, the devil and the world culture, as Noah was. (He was already born again, because he built the ark "by faith," and he was a "preacher of righteousness.")  The water of the Flood literally saved Noah from the condemnation of his culture, just as Baptism saved the Jews who heard Peter's sermon at Pentecost ("Be saved from this perverse generation.")  If you are moved by God's Spirit to be Baptized, it is a huge first step in that total salvation of the soul.  Anyone in a Muslim or Jewish culture who becomes Baptized really understands its significance in their lives, but we Westerners have largely come to take it for granted.  Marsha and I also do not have an objection to an infant's being Baptized, as long as we understand that it does not automatically result in new birth, but it does represent being set apart with God's people for sanctification (similar to what Circumcision was for the Israelites.)  Those who insist on only adults being Baptized can't guarantee that they are born again of the Spirit, either. 


Wow, I'm sure that I've said something wrong somewhere. (Solomon said, "Where there are many words, transgression is unavoidable.")  Please accept this explanation with that proviso.


Ken McElreath