The Church of Christ is a family of churches that historically speaking, grew out of the Restorationist movement of the 19th century. Out of a desire to restore unity to Christians at large, Restorationist leaders sought to re-establish the purity of New Testament worship and return the church to apostolic foundations. It is for this reason that leaders within the movement trace their spiritual origins to the apostolic church and why movement is distinguished by its rejection of historic confessions and creeds and a reliance upon the Bible as the sole source of doctrinal authority.
According to the movement’s original founders and contemporary proponents, theological tradition has been the cause of significant disunity among Christians. Therefore, statements like, “No book but the Bible,” and “No creed but Christ” not only summarize the movement’s approach to tradition but also serve as a rallying plea to all Christians to set-aside doctrinal differences that are based on creedal tradition rather than Scripture and come together on the basis of Scripture alone. There are over two million Church of Christ members in the world today.
Doctrinal Distinctive: Baptism is Necessary for Salvation
While there are some things we might commend in the Church of Christ—a commitment to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, the practice of church autonomy, and a commitment to a plurality of elders—there is a doctrinal distinction within the movement that Christians should be leery of.
The Church of Christ maintains that baptism by immersion is essential for salvation. That is, a person is not forgiven of their sin and justified before God until they have believed and been baptized. Importantly, baptism does not replace faith—one must believe in Christ in order to be saved—but faith is not consummated and salvation is not secured until the believer has been baptized.
On an anecdotal level, I can testify to this particular doctrinal distinctive. A few years ago, while in a conversation with a Church of Christ leader in a local congregation, I asked if between the time of initial faith in Christ and baptism the believer was still under God’s condemnation. His answer was a straightforward, “Yes.” His answer coincides with Church of Christ theology. About twenty years prior to that meeting, while evangelizing on the campus of USC, I spoke with a young woman who vied for the necessity of baptism with a shrug: “Better to be safe than sorry.” In her mind, even if this is a disputable doctrine, better to have all of one’s bases covered.
While the movement claims their view represents the clear teaching of the New Testament, their doctrine of baptism is actually a departure from the New Testament and rightly labeled a heresy. I don’t use this word lightly. Scripture has sharp words when a given teaching begins to tinker with the means of our right standing with God (see Gal 1:8-9). Due to the seriousness of this error, it is essential that we examine the Church of Christ position on baptism in some detail.
The argument for the necessity of baptism for forgiveness of sins centers around three primary exegetical arguments.
- Jesus taught that whoever “believes and is baptized” will be saved (Mark 16:16).
- Peter connects the forgiveness of sin to baptism (Acts 2:38).
- Peter taught in his second epistle that baptism saves us (2 Pet 3:21).
Let’s consider each of these arguments.
Jesus Taught that Whoever “Believes and is Baptized” Will be Saved (Mark 16:16)
There are two problems with appealing to this passage as support for the Church of Christ position. The first is whether we should treat this passage as canonical Scripture. Most English translations place Mark 16:9-20 within brackets and include a footnote explaining that this passage is not found in some important early manuscripts. After considering the evidence, New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger concludes in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, “Thus, on the basis of good external evidence and strong internal considerations, it appears that the earliest ascertainable form of the Gospel of Mark ended with 16:8.”
But even assuming for the sake of argument that the text is canonical, it still does not teach that baptism is essential for salvation. Jesus’ statement “whoever believes and is baptized” (v. 16a) is followed immediately with “whoever does not believe is condemned” (v. 16b). The basis for one’s condemnation is unbelief, not a failure to be baptized. This interpretation comports with the rest of the New Testament which designates baptism as a vital aspect of discipleship but is also careful to distinguish baptism from faith as the instrument of salvation.
Peter Connects the Forgiveness of Sin to Baptism (Acts 2:38)
While we must strongly reject the Church of Christ position on the role of baptism in salvation, we can understand how they come to such a conclusion when considering a text like Acts 2:38. Peter had been preaching to his Jewish brethren about their history, the person of Christ, and their role in crucifying the Messiah. Upon hearing these words, Peter’s listeners were deeply convicted and asked the apostles how they might escape God’s judgment: “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” (Acts 2:37)? Peter responds:
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.Acts 2:38
With this statement, the argument goes, Peter combines repentance with baptism as the conditions by which God grants the forgiveness of sins to the sinner. But is the Church of Christ interpretation the best way to take this text? Insight is gained when we consider the book of Acts as a whole and other instances where Peter or the other apostles are preaching.
For example, later in Acts, when Peter was preaching at Solomon’s Portico, he tells his listeners, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). In this passage, Peter makes it clear that the blotting out of their sins was dependent upon their repentance, not upon their baptism. When Luke summarizes the fruit of this preaching event, he emphasizes the faith of the listeners but does not note their baptism. “But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand” (Acts 4:1-3, emphasis added).
When Simon the magician attempted to purchase the Holy Spirit with money, Peter responded, “Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:22). In this text, Peter explains that Simon’s forgiveness would be conditioned upon his repentance, not upon his baptism.
When Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius, he spoke only of faith in Christ: “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). Similar to texts we’ve already examined, Peter explains that the forgiveness of sin is conditioned upon faith in Jesus. Furthermore, the issue of baptism isn’t broached until it is clear that Cornelius and his household have exercised genuine faith and received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.Acts 10:44-48
Note the order of events. Peter preaches forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit then falls upon those who heard this word of forgiveness thus confirming the genuineness of their faith. Peter responds to their salvation with the question, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people?” The answer, of course, is “no” because these people had just exercised saving faith and come into a right relationship with God. As a result of their salvation, they would participate in baptism—an event that symbolized what just occurred in their life (God had raised them from death to life and washed away their sins) and served as a public witness of their obedience to Christ.
When the frightened jailor pled with Paul and Silas for how he could be saved, they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 19:31). This text conditions the jailor’s salvation upon faith in Jesus and nothing else, including baptism. In other words, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ resulted in immediate salvation apart from meeting any other conditions.
Drawing together this evidence in the book of Acts, we conclude that Peter’s statement in Acts 2:38 cannot mean that he is combining repentance and baptism as concurrent conditions for salvation. Rather, he is joining the condition for forgiveness with the symbol that demonstrates what has occurred in the life of the believer. Baptism is a vital aspect of discipleship, as Jesus indicated in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) which is why it is so closely connected to conversion in the New Testament. Believers, therefore, were exhorted to get baptized immediately. Such a strong connection between salvation and baptism as the believer’s first step of obedience is reflected in Peter’s statement in Acts 2:38. Given the rest of the book of Acts, however, we can safely conclude that Peter did not mean to suggest that baptism completes or secures salvation. Throughout Acts, salvation is the fruit of faith in Christ, nothing else.
Furthermore, the apostles’ promise of repentant faith in the Lord Jesus leading to immediate salvation coincides with Jesus’ own message. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was clear that the only condition for salvation was genuine faith (John 5:24; 6:35, 40, 47; 7:38). The epistles also teach that faith is the sole means of salvation without any reference to baptism. “By grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom 4:5; see also Rom 3:26-31).
Most importantly, to say that baptism is required for salvation is to take glory away from the work of Jesus Christ. God structured salvation in such a way that he alone receives the glory for its accomplishment (1 Cor 1:30-31). While it is true that Christ commanded baptism, it is nevertheless, according to Church of Christ doctrine, a work in distinction to faith that the believer must accomplish to secure his salvation. Regardless of what Church of Christ proponents may claim, baptism must be seen as a work in distinction to faith because, according to Church of Christ teaching, a person is still under God’s judgment until they are baptized. Thus, faith itself is not sufficient to secure one’s salvation. Such an argument runs counter to clear New Testament texts and the very structure of salvation.
Now, the Church of Christ actually denies that baptism is a “work” that man accomplishes. Their objections notwithstanding, the reason why baptism must be classified as a work in their doctrinal scheme is because the New Testament puts faith in opposition to anything other than faith as the means of justification (Rom 3:26; 4:5). When Paul says, for example, that we are saved by faith apart from works (Eph 2:8-9), he defines “work” as anything different than faith as a means of our salvation. Even works that might proceed from faith cannot secure our salvation, as Paul argues in Titus 3:4-5:
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 (emphasis added).
Therefore, anything other than faith that a Christian might do or passively participate in, including baptism, is not the basis or instrument of their salvation. Only Christ is the instrument of their salvation, received through faith alone. A person is declared fully righteous before God and fit for heaven at the moment of saving faith (Rom 3:25). Baptism does not change that status negatively or positively.
Peter Taught that Baptism Saves Us (1 Peter 3:21)
Granting the texts I just mentioned in the gospels and the epistles, the Church of Christ points to a passage in Peter’s first letter to support the idea that baptism is necessary for salvation.
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, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 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. 21 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, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.1 Peter 3:18-22
The primary text is verse 21: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you.” Again, similar to passages we’ve already examined, this text does not support Church of Christ doctrine. Peter’s comparison of the flood and baptism is a typological one. When God flooded the earth, the water was the instrument of death and judgment. Similarly, for the one being baptized, their submersion under the water symbolizes the judgment God enacted in their death. Happily, their death was not their own, it was Christ’s. The instrument of salvation, therefore, is not baptism, but Christ’s resurrection. Peter makes this point explicit when he says, “Baptism, which corresponds to [the judgment wrought by the flood], 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” (emphasis added). Baptism is a vivid picture of the believer dying and rising again with Christ (see Rom 6:3). The act of baptism itself does not save, but it does graphically symbolize God’s powerful work of salvation in the life of the believer.
As we close, we might ask: Why are there a few texts in the New Testament that seem to connect the forgiveness of sin with baptism? The reason for this close linkage is because the apostles viewed baptism as the first and immediate response of obedience for the believer. When Jesus commissioned his church to make disciples, he said that the first step of obedience for the disciple was baptism, followed by a life of learning to heed everything Christ has taught (Matt 28:18-20). To wait for baptism was to postpone the first step of obedience to Christ.
While we must strongly reject the Church of Christ’s view that baptism as necessary for salvation, we must not therefore conclude that baptism is unimportant. I’ve known some Christians who have waited multiple months, even years, before getting baptized. This prolonging of baptism does not fit the biblical model. Barring any physical conditions or life circumstances that may inhibit one from getting baptized, once a person has believed in Christ for salvation, he or she should, out of obedience to Christ, immediately follow this faith with water baptism. Nevertheless, they should never view their baptism as an act that secures their salvation. Baptism is a picture—a glorious one, we might add—of what has happened in the life of the one being baptized: They have died with Christ and raised to newness of life.
Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition (New York: United Bible Societies, 1998), 105.
See Tom Schreiner, The New American Commentary, New International Version (Nashville: B & H, 2003), 190-97.