A New Restoration: Watering Down Salvation (Part 5)
Few things upset parents more than when children don’t do what they’re told. Mom asks the kids to do the dishes and the dirty work is still in the sink 24 hours later. Dad requests the trash gets handled but the siblings argue over whose turn it is, and nobody does it. Sometimes clear commands fall on deaf ears, hard hearts and closed minds. The kids know what is right to do, but fail to do it. They’d rather fuss, fight or forget about it all together.
Sometimes I wonder if God is having that moment with His Church right now. He’s told us what to do and we change it to be convenient or cool. It has to drive God crazy. I’m not talking about altering methods to match ever-changing culture, but I am talking about reinventing a Core Command for expedience.
You want to start a fight in any church? Simply ask: how is a person “saved?” No theology is more divisive than soteriology (a distant second is eschatology). The theology of salvation is like the old Burger King motto: you can have it your way. Such sentiment sells burgers but its hell on salvation. If God’s kids get messed up on soteriology, people will pay eternally. After all, a relationship with God is the last thing Satan wants and if he can get the Church to fuss, fight or, better yet, completely forget the Core Command, he wins battles.
What’s the Command? Jesus told his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded (Matthew 28:19-20).” Go. Baptize. Teach. The Greek for “go” is literally translated “as you are going.” It’s a command on the run. Later, on the day of Pentecost, Peter will launch the Church with a similar proposal linked to a promise: 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).” Repent and be baptized (command) so that sins are forgiven and Holy Spirit given (promise).
Sounds so simple. The faith of someone seeking conversion is demonstrated in his or her repentance and baptism (which produces forgiveness and Divine companionship). The core of Christianity is the “death, burial and resurrection.” The core of salvation is baptism, when a believer models this “resurrection” and becomes infused into Christ and His Body.
So should we be surprised 20 centuries of churchianity has polluted and perverted baptism more than any other doctrine? I doubt it. In large segments of evangelical Christianity it’s merely a faith additive, like some exotic flavor squirted into soda; something you do when you want to show others you’re “saved” or “born again.” In more historic veins of Christendom, baptism has been politically corrected and reduced to infant ritual; something done to you out of family and church tradition. And in some corners of churchianity, like the Quakers and Salvation Army, baptism has been excommunicated altogether. Ouch.
Here’s a truth you can bank on: if a doctrine is key, even essential, to salvation then expect it to be polluted and perverted. The evil one doesn’t want anybody “saved” or following Christ, period. And the greatest evidence this thing called “baptism” means something significant is how we’ve reduced, expanded, blended or eliminated it all together in the Christian faith experience.
Starting with the word: baptism.
Do you know where we got it? It’s in the Bible, right? No. The word in the Scriptures we read as “baptism” is a transliteration of the word baptisma, which means to “plunge under or immerse.” The act is never associated with “sprinkling” (rhantizo) or “pouring” (cheo). “Baptism” found cultural rooting when Anglican translators for King James inaccurately translated the Greek. The Church of England (a.k.a. Episcopal Church in America) was essentially a Catholic church that used protestantism for political reasons. Anglicanism is mere political division from Roman Catholicism, rather than a commitment to fundamental reforms in the church. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church ritually “poured” infants (affusion) and the Anglican Church didn’t change that doctrine. King James was “affused” as an infant.
Consequently, when he authorized his translation, James expected to read what he already believed. His Anglican translators delivered The King James Version of the Holy Scriptures to those politically correct expectations. Overall, they had few problems, except with baptisma. Since they might lose their heads if they translated baptisma as “immerse,” they opted for the word baptism instead. It’s a transliteration not a translation. And it’s caused nothing but trouble ever since. Consequently, for the sake of clarity, I will translate (not transliterate) the word baptisma within its original meaning: immersion.
Once the word no longer held its efficacy and meaning, it continued to evolve and morph within modern Protestant Christianity (since 1517 A.D.). Martin Luther demoted five of the seven Roman Catholic sacraments save two: infant affusion (pouring) and the Eucharist. However, it was Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli who recast the rite as symbolism. It was merely an outward sign of an inward reality. The Anabaptists (literally “re-baptizers”) promoted believer “baptism” of already “affused” adults. Essentially, pedo-baptism was invalid, though they still rarely, if at all, practiced immersion. The Quakers, originating from the teachings of Anglican George Fox in the 1640s, abandoned the rite altogether and were sorely persecuted for this heresy among other beliefs.
Eventually, the sacrament was watered down further within evangelical churchianity to become just a sign of church membership, not salvation; or a public testimony that you had been saved. Consequently, immersion (or sprinkling or whatever) for salvation, as taught by Roman Catholicism and many early reformers like Luther, was abandoned. You got dunked when it was convenient for you, your family or the church. Today, church bodies hold baptismal services monthly, quarterly or annually. In the Roman Church, pouring morphed into a “sprinkling” or dabbing while in Pentecostal and charismatic traditions, baptism faced a new theological division: water from Spirit. Water immersion is an act of obedience but there’s a second “baptism in the Spirit” or “anointing” (evidenced by tongue speaking or other spiritual phenomena). In some extreme forms of Pentecostalism, you’re not considered “saved” until you speak in tongues.
Unfortunately, all this is churchianity. Since the third century A.D., when infant immersion was introduced (though clearly not widely practiced until much later), a slow deviation away from the Original Command occurred. Immersion was originally the norm, but pouring (three times to thoroughly soak a candidate) was allowed if necessary and no larger body of water was available. Because early church theology also linked forgiveness of sin to baptism, eventually it became common to postpone the rite until the last possible moment (Constantine was baptized on his deathbed). As a result, expedience and convenience demanded other forms. By the 10th century A.D. affusion (pouring) became the standard Roman form while eastern Catholic churches continued to immerse. Ironically, aspersion (sprinkling) was actually rare and only used as a “baptism of the sick” who couldn’t be immersed or thoroughly dowsed.
Even in churches that practice believer immersion, the rite has been compromised. It’s not uncommon for children as young as four to be immersed (a recent trend in evangelical circles to accommodate those from pedo-baptist traditions). Historically, Protestant believer immersions were only for adolescents and adults. Some faith communities (like the Amish) only immerse adults over twenty. Additionally, immersion now happens in a heated pool (baptistery) in front of a congregation on a Sunday morning, performed by an ordained minister.
What’s the truth? It’s not rocket science nor difficult to understand but you better buckle up. And beware, you will get wet on this ride. Nearly every church today has missed the point, to some extent, small or great.
The New Testament and the Acts of the Apostles reveal immersion (being plunged under water) was the “death, burial and resurrection” experience (Romans 6:3-6, Colossians 2:12-13)—a living metaphor that mere sprinkling or pouring cannot replicate. Immersion also symbolizes a mysterious washing away of sin, past and future (Acts 22:16) and when a believer formally receives the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 10:47-48; 19:2-5). In his letters to the churches, Paul will describe immersion as becoming part of the Body (I Corinthians 12:13) and being clothed in Christ (Galatians 3:26). Immersion replicated the Red Sea experience (I Corinthians 10:2) when the Israelites were “saved” from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 15:1-2). Peter clearly says immersion “saves” a person (I Peter 3:21). Immersion is both the place and time a person is separated from sin, clothed in Christ, grafted into the Body (Church) and saved.
It’s no secret the early church practiced immersion of believers and the rite was connected to salvation for 1500 years. No one was “saved” without it. So any theology or practice that varies from immersion “for the forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38) is a perversion of the Original Command.
This is why the book of Acts is a helpful template to restore the Original DNA.
Acts reveals no one waited to be immersed. When someone “believed the message” they were immersed in water. It happened at midnight (like the Philippian jailer, Acts 17:33), along the road (Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:36-38) or even when poor baptismal theology was confronted (John’s disciples, Acts 19:1-7). Until the third century, there’s no evidence of dedicated baptismal pools (as found in the Dura-Europos house church, c. 235 A.D.).
It’s why I’m calling for a New Restoration of the Original DNA. Like children, we fight, fuss and largely forget the Original Command by Jesus: Go. Immerse. Teach. We’ve polluted and perverted “baptism” into ritual that suits us. It’s inconvenient to immerse someone immediately, at any hour, so we don’t. It’s inconvenient to interrupt our well-timed worship services with spontaneous immersions so we anoint “baptism” Sundays or dedicate a day quarterly or annually to perform the rite. Since many sadly don’t believe it’s connected to salvation, it’s not that big of a deal. Once we forget why we do it, anything goes and nothing matters. We’ll see the same thing with the Lord’s Supper.
Isn’t immersion meant to be done publicly? No. Actually, there is no indication that any of the immersions in Acts were held publicly. Public conversions and baptisms emerged in the Great Awakening. Furthermore, most immersions happened privately (Ethiopian eunuch) or within home environments (Cornelius). And they didn’t occur at a building on Sunday morning either. Immersions were 24/7/365 not 1/7/52.
One final rub: it’s error that only ordained clergy perform the rite. Paul tells the Corinthians that he immersed very few of them (I Corinthians 1:13-17). In fact, there is no stricture of any kind on who can or cannot immerse save possibly one: the immerser must already be immersed (and even this one could be argued). In reality, evangelism is organic (spontaneous), and so must be the sacrament of immersion. All we know is the command and the early church example is clear. Anyone who “accepted the message” (Jesus is the Christ and He’s Alive) was immediately immersed. Who did it was inconsequential. My personal practice, like Paul, is to immerse very few, unless I am the primary evangelist. Instead I encourage fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, friends and mentors to immerse.
Of all the clarion calls in this New Restoration, few have more value and need than a return to biblical soteriology. It’s clearly time to reboot the Original DNA and the Great Command: Go. Immerse. Teach. If your church doesn’t practice immersion, repent. If your church doesn’t teach immersion is connected to forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit, repent or find one that does. If your church only immerses on Sundays or in church buildings, repent. If your preacher, pastor or priest is the only one who can immerse, repent.
We’ve watered down the Gospel too long. Don’t you think it’s finally time we did what Dad commands? I do.