What is Salvation?

Note: This is a particularly long post, but the subject matter deserves it. I had thought to break it into several different posts, but thought it best to keep it, and any resulting discussion, together in one place. It also serves to answer a series of posts that I have done on Christian fundamentals *. The things enumerated here are the very core of what we, as Christians, ought to stnad united on.

In the process of this long conversation at Virusdoc, the question came up - what is salvation? Sounds simple enough, but it seemed (incorrectly I believe) that some commenters were contending salvation to be the mere forgiveness of sins. Is this all that salvation is? Or is salvation merely the receipt of a ticket to heaven? What does it entail? The conversation is still going on there, but has long drifted away from the question of what salvation is (not even the original topic either.) I have kept that question in the back of my mind since, however. I'm going to make a go at answering it.

Let me start by saying that neither simple explanation above seems adequate for what is described as salvation in the NT. Even the simple term 'saved' implies more than that. How can one be saved unless they are in peril? So our salvation implies a sort of rescue. To be rescued one must be in a danger greater that they can handle themselves. After all, if they could handle it they would not need saving, would they? You don't 'save' a mere swimmer, but one who is drowning. It also implies a change of state, from danger to safety. If one is drowning and is then saved, the implication is that they are no longer in the water, or a least have been given some means of support which they lacked before and are therefore out of danger.

Another part of any salvation from danger is the decision to get help. Here the drowning analogy tends to fall apart as most folks who are drowning know it and are desperate for help. However, most of us are familiar with the concept that the first thing an addict needs to do is realize they are one. Without that realization, there is no desire to change and hope for recovery. Of course, realization is only the first step, one must then decide to pursue change. I imagine there are hundreds of drunks and addicts out there who freely admit that is who they are and have no desire to change it.

The question in regards to Christian salvation, then, is this: What sort of danger are we in? If we need to be saved, what do we need saved from? Certainly, a destiny in Hell is part of that, but is this all? Is it only for the afterlife that we are in danger? Jesus said that he came to give us life to the full (John 10:10), implying that our salvation is more than being with God after death. It seems that if all we have been granted is an eternity with God, it makes no sense to leave us here on earth after our salvation. In fact, in Acts 5:20 God describes being a Christian as a new type of life. It's something new, not seen before. So salvation has implications on who we are and how we live here on Earth as well as after death.

Christian salvation then, it seems to me, has three parts - realization of our peril, a decision to abandon our sinful ways followed by a new life.

Realization of the Problem
So what is the peril that plagues us? Why is it that we need to be saved? Put plainly, it's sin. Sin is what plagues us all. I'm convinced that it is the root of all of our troubles. Dig to the bottom of any of our struggles, conflicts or problems and you'll find sin. Sometimes it's easy to spot, sometimes not so easy, but none the less it is there. Our problem is that we do not take sin seriously. Our society sin is not serious, its funny. When I was a kid I can remember going to barbershop singing events with my father. One of the men attending would frequently wear a shirt that said "Wanna sing?" on the back. Except he thought it was funny to blank out the 'g' at the end so it said "Wanna sin?" Jaguar has a new marketing campaign for it's XJ8L that touts it as so good it's sinful (see link in lower right of their page). It lists the 7 deadly sins (lust, greed, pride, sloth, envy, wrath and gluttony) and shows how the new car satisfies each one. Sin as a virtue.

But the problem isn't so much the sin itself, but what that sin produces. The scriptures teach clearly that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23). We can look around and see the obvious effects of sin in each other's life. But the real problem is that our sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:1-2). In our sinful behavior we have not only hurt our lives here on Earth, we have built a wall between us and God. It does not matter how good or loving God is, we have cut ourselves off from Him.

But we, in our pride, are blinded to that reality. We like to think that we are just fine. We are not murderers or rapists, we are Good People. But God does not have that standard, he has a higher one. If we look in passages like Galatians 5:19-21 and Colossians 3:5-10 we quickly see that we are guilty as charged, absolute sinners. We have been angry or drunk, we've used filthy language, we've lusted and in doing so we've separated ourselves from God. Jesus Himself convicts us in Luke 9:23-26 where He tells us that self denial is a requirement in order to follow God. In Luke 14:25-33 He tells us that nothing, not even our closest relationships, can match our love for Him. In fact we must give up everything, complete surrender, in order to be His disciple. If that weren't enough, we have the admonition in James 4:19 that tells us that we are in sin when we know of good that we could do, but don't do it. Who can say that they measure up to God's standards as described in these verses (and others)?

Before we can be saved, we must understand that is us, through our sin, who have built a wall between ourselves and God. We must stand face to face with our extreme shortcomings before God and own up to them. We must absolutely recognize and realize our need for God's grace, for though we've built the wall we cannot tear it down.

Decision Time
Once we have come to the realization of who we truly are before God, we have a decision to make. We can either continue in our sin, blatantly turning from God or we can commit to being different. Do you want to continue to add to that wall between the Almighty and yourself or do want to choose a different path? If we are going to receive salvation God demands repentance. Repentance is simply a decision to take a different path. It's not a commitment to perfection, it's a direction change. I was once told that the word sprung from a military term that meant to do an about face. You were going east, turn and go west. You were living your way, now you will live God's way.

The fact remains that we are not capable of living perfectly from this point on, let alone to make up for our past shortcomings, but that does not change the fact that God expects repentance. The verses mentioned above make it clear that people whose lives are characterized by sin cannot be saved. Jesus said in Luke 13:1-7 that unless we repent, we will perish. In response to the people's plea of "What shall we do?" when confronted with their sinfulness, Peter replied that they should repent (Acts 2:36-38). Repentance was the expected response to the message of God (Matthew 11:20-24, Luke 3:7-9), in fact it was to produce repentance in sinners that Jesus came (Luke 5:32). God loves it when we repent (Luke 15:1-11). Isn't that the point of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32)?

There are many more passages that speak to the necessity of repentance. See Acts 3:19, Acts 5:31, Acts 17:30, Acts 20:21, Acts 26:20; 2 Corinthians 7; 2 Timothy 2:25; 2 Peter 3:9, Revelation 2-3. Repentance is an undeniable part of our salvation. We have wronged God. He created us to be a certain way and we have turned from that and Him, nearly at ever opportunity available. Once we are aware of that, we can remain that way, mocking God, or we can choose to turn away from our sin.


Reconciliation
We've realized our problem (separation from God due to our sin) and in light of what we've done we have determined to take a new path, God's path. As important as these first two aspects of salvation are, they cannot save us. Realization of our sinfulness does not bring us closer to God in and of itself; it can only point us toward repentance. And though we repent with all our might, even If we somehow remained perfect from here forward, we cannot earn our way into God's good graces. We need forgiveness, reconciliation.

Forgiveness, even among men, cannot be earned. Forgiveness cannot be demanded. It cannot be bought. It can only be granted by the one sinned against. The sinner has no power to produce it. It can only come through the grace of the one wronged. In our relationships we try though, don't we? We act so much nicer and serve and kiss up to the one we've wronged, hoping for forgiveness. And when we've been wronged, we are tempted to take advantage and squeeze some extra 'good deeds' from the sinner before letting them off the hook. Thankfully our God is not like that. He is willing to forgive, more than that, He longs for us (Luke 15:11-32). All he asks from us is to love Him and to completely to surrender to Him (Luke 14:25-33) and turn our lives over to Him.

God, in His amazing love and mercy, has graciously offered us a means to wipe our slate clean. He has sent us Jesus to bring forgiveness to the world (John 3:16, Acts 5:31, 13:38, 26:18, Eph. 1:7). Through Jesus' death and ultimate sacrifice on the cross, our debt is repaid. God's demand for justice is satisfied (Romans 3:21-26). Our sins demanded punishment (Eph. 2:3) and God, in His mercy, sent Jesus to take it for us (1 Peter 2:24, Isaiah 53). Make no mistake; it is because of God's mercy that we have the opportunity to be reconciled to Him.

But how is it accomplished? The book of Hebrews gives us incredible insight into how Jesus' sacrifice fits into the Old Testament law and sacrifices, both fulfilling them and ending them. That knowledge, however, does not help us to actually connect with God's grace in Jesus. God has put this out there, but how do we experience it? We simply get baptized.

Today there are many different ideas about baptism, but in the NT church they only had one definition (Eph. 4:4). Hebrews 6:1-2 talks about the NT Christians being taught about baptism, describes it as an 'elementary teaching', but it does not go into detail about what was taught. The interesting thing is that there is no single passage in the Bible where we can look to have baptism defined and described for us. We must dig through many passages, piecing the puzzle together, to discover what baptism meant to the NT church. Today people talk of infant baptism or baptism as an outward sign of an inward grace, the Bible never talks about baptism in those terms. It speaks of baptism always at the point of conversion and it is described as providing salvation.

Baptism is the means provided by God for us to receive forgiveness. When Peter preached that first message of the Good News on Pentecost in Acts 2, he told the convicted masses to repent and get baptized 'for the forgiveness' of sins. Paul understood baptism to be for our forgiveness when he wrote the book of Romans. In Romans 6:1-10 Paul describes our connection to the saving power of Jesus blood and crucifixion as happening through our baptism. When Paul was baptized he was told to do so to wash his sins away (Acts 22:16). Peter comes right out and says it in 1 Peter 3:20-21: baptism saves us. He takes pains to remind us that it is not due to a physical clean up, no it's an internal transformation that happens when we are baptized. God is doing the work, not us. Jesus told the twelve in Mark 16:16 that it is our belief and our baptism together that saves.

The early church believed the same thing. For this point I'll quote from a short paper on baptism by my friend Douglas Jacoby:

References to baptism in the patristic literature abound! It is extremely clear that for the first few centuries everyone was in agreement that baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, and was the only way to be saved. We will limit our survey to the earliest patristic writers.
  • Hermas, c. 140-150 AD: ... when we went down into the water and received remission of our former sins... (Shepherd, IV.iii.1) Note: Remission is simply another word for forgiveness.
  • Justin Martyr, c. 150-165 AD: As many as ... believe that the things are true which are taught by us ... and decide to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their past sins, and we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are born again... (Apology, 1.61)
    Then, in discussing John 3:5, Justin continues: In order that we ... may obtain the remission of sins ... there is pronounced in water over whom who has chosen to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and the Lord of the universe. (1.61)
    In his discussion of the Eucharist (Lord?s Supper), he says that no one is allowed to partake of the communion except the man who ... has been washed with the washing that is for remission of sins and unto a second birth, and is so living as Christ has enjoined (1.66)
  • Irenaeus, c.130-200 AD: We have received baptism for the remission of sins ... And this baptism is the seal of eternal life and new birth unto God. (Dem. 3.41f., Haer. 5.11.2)
  • Creed of the Council of Nicaea, 325 AD This fourth century creed is well known. It is ironic that, although it is cherished by churchgoers the world over, the import of its words is frequently overlooked: ... I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins ...
Naturally, these affirmations do not stand on a par with the authority of scripture, but they do shed light on the early Christians? understanding of baptism.

So in the Bible, at the founding of the church, and for the first several hundred years baptism was taught and understood as the means of receiving forgiveness of sins. Any other means of connecting with the cross to receive God's grace has been invented since.

But what of the sinners prayer or simply accepting Jesus into your heart? These are well understood and widely accepted beliefs. There is simply no example of such conversions happening in the Bible. There are verses that can be made to support such a view, taken alone and out of context. (The origins of the sinners prayer have been documented in this article by Steve Staten, teacher and elder in the Chicago Church of Christ.) Yes there are conversions in the Bible where baptism is not mentioned, but it's not being included is not proof that it did not occur. Yes, it is not mentioned where the apostles got baptized, but that does not infer that they didn't. Yes, the thief on the cross did not get baptized and was promised salvation, but we re talking about the Lord Himself. If Jesus cannot make exceptions, who can? Besides, baptism is he means of connecting with the saving power of Christ's death, burial and resurrection. Jesus had not yet died, so the man's baptism would have been meaningless.

Does it seem as thought his post regarding the meaning of salvation has turned into a treatise on baptism? Perhaps. It was, in fact, born out of a discussion on baptism in the comments of another blog. But take a look back over the rest of my words. Is there anything aside from my thoughts on baptism that would offend most Christians? I think the teachings on our own sinfulness and our need to repent are commonly believed and relatively unquestioned. Baptism for salvation, however, is not. It is an idea that is scorned by many Christians as an attempt to 'earn' our salvation. A foolish notion indeed. But does an honest examination of the Bible and church history support any other means of connecting with God's grace? I don't think so.

So it is my view that salvation, in a nutshell, is restoration of our relationship with God. In order for that to happen, we must first recognize that it is lost. Moreover, we are responsible for that lost relationship with God due to our own sin. We must also make the decision to repent, that we will no longer live that life of sin but will surrender ourselves to God. Lastly we need the forgiveness that comes through baptism into Christ.


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[Note: the following are two comments I posted on a salguod.net thread about the nature of salvation. Growing as it did out of two posts on the role of baptism in salvation (one here, one on radicalcongruency.com--which I won't link... Read More

23 Comments

Doug, Could you describe the elements you think are essential for a baptism to be effective? In other words, since I'm assuming a bath doesn't confer salvation, how would you design a biblical salvation-inducing baptism? Are there specific things that must be done or said?

A terrific post. Thorough and well researched. For some time, I have thought that not only does salvation mean being spared the wrath of God in which we all are entitled (Romans 3:23), but also we are being saved from ourselves. You mentioned the sin in our own lives. Truth be told, if sin were irradicated from this world, starvation, poverty, war, crime, violence, bigotry, hate crime, "Jehad", and what more would all disappear. This would also irradicate the spread of STD's, National borders, and indecent trade practices. It would encourage fair trade, fair medical care, fair justice (for what ever need there would be for it), and so forth. As individuals, we would be saved from our basic Freudian motivators, lust and appetite. Plus ego stumbling blocks like jelousy, embarasment, greed, and the basic human desire to get something for nothing. In practicle terms, we would be saved from bad decision making. Repentance not only qualifies us for a opportunity to be baptized and reconciled to our Master and our Father, but to live the most honorable life one could ever hope for. That is to live to serve mankind in the Holy way that Christ did. To give our lives up for the sake of the work of God. To eliminate SELF, and indulge in Christ. Nothing is more honorable, noble, or pure. We get to abandon a life of self indulgence, and live a life that will be recorded in the heavenly records of eternity and all things Godly. What more could anybody want. Well, we know by the scriptures (John 3:19-21) that most will fear that light, and love the darkness. Sadly only few will know this life (Matthew 7).

If you're asking if there is a specific ceremony or method to baptism, well I see no such pattern in scripture. I can imagine that the early church had such a tradition, but the Holy Spirit has determined that it is not important to share with us.

So absence of any prescribed ritual, I think the important things are just what I've described above, our realization of our depravity and our decision to submit to Christ. If you take a look at Jesus teachings, He demanded a total commitment to His will. Our own will and desires are completely subservient to His. It's a radical calling that is quite challenging to live up to. So, we are baptized into Christ, not into a church or organization, but Christ (Acts 2:38, Acts 19:5, Romans 6:3, 1 Corinthians 1, Galatians 3:27).

I also believe that full immersion is important, not sprinkling. Romans 6 and Colossians 2:12 both describe baptism as a burial. When you bury something you don't simply throw a handful of dirt on it. No, you completely cover it, submerge it, if you will, in the dirt. If you go read the entire paper from Douglas Jacoby linked above, the other part of it deals with baptism as immersion.

The last, perhaps most important thing is our faith. It is in our faith in God's power and willingness to forgive that saves us at baptism. We cannot simply 'do what we're told' and have it be effective. We must understand it, know what we are doing (Luke 14:28-33) and believe that God can and will do just as He promised when we are baptized. Look at Colossians 2:11-12:

In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

I really don't think there's anything important about how or where we get baptized, or even by whom. I was baptized in an agricultural tub that our campus ministry used to take to meetings in order to baptize. It was in a lecture room in the 'Old Chem' building at the University of Cincinnati. My wife was baptized in the pond of her apartment complex in Indianapolis (in April!) I've seen baptisms in bathtubs, formal church baptisteries, the Ohio River and even film of one in some sort of 55 gallon drum. I don't even think that the person baptizing even has to know what they're doing, it's the knowledge and faith of the one immersed that matters.

Here is a few scripture considerations on baptism.

John the Baptist was the first administrator of water baptism. (Mark 1:4-5)

Jesus was baptized in water to fulfill all righteousness and to leave the perfect example.
(Matthew 3:13-16)

Jesus commanded baptism in His "great commission" as a condition of pardon. (Mark 16:15-16)

You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Acts 8:26-28)

It is for the remission of sins. (Acts 2:38, 22:16)

It puts you into Christ. (Galatians 3:26-27)

It must be preceded by faith/belief and repentance. (Mark 16:16) (Matthew 2:38)

It is a burial (immersion). (Colossians 2:12)

Paul,

It's interesting that you'd mention John's baptism. I had deliberately avoided that because it's a different animal. His is described in Mark 1:4-5 (that you referenced) as "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" whereas Christian baptism is described as simply "for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38). Of course, Jesus hadn't been crucified yet so the connection to His death burial and resurection is not possible.

You also said that John was the first to baptise. I think it was someone on the long thread at Virusdoc (see link near the top) that said that this sort of immersion was not uncommon in Jewish culture at the time. It was used when a Gentile converted to Judaism. It was uncommon for it to be applied to Jews, however. The implication was that they too needed to be reconciled to God, somewhat offensive to them. I haven't done any research into that, do you know anything of it?

Doug, you mention that it wasn't possible to connect with the death, burial and ressurrection of Christ prior to those historical events. I would have to disagree, and this points to an artificial historical division of the means of salvation that also came up in the discussion on my blog. Regardless of the historical period in which an individual lived, it is God's grace that saves. David, Moses, Abraham, Noah: all were saved by their faith. Read Hebrews 11, a long compilation of people saved by God's grace, none of whom were baptized.

The sacrifice of Christ occured at a defined time in history, but its effects transcend history forward and backward. I would argue that the death, burial, and ressurrection of Christ were merely the tangible expression of God's grace which had been operant since the dawn of time, which is why David could be justified by his faith in that grace.

If you're going to employ a synthetic historical division of God's redemptive actions into Pre-Jesus, Jesus, and Post-ressurrection periods--where the means of salvation is different in each period--you need to justify this approach more clearly than you have done thus far.

Erik,

Interesting observation. I would tend to agree that the effects of the cross transcend history. However, we as humans do not. Prior to the cross, people cannot be told to connect to it. God, however, seems to have perhaps retroactively applied the cross to those who came before it. I'm not sure I can be dogmatic about it as I have not studied the issue, but looking at Romans 3:25 it speaks of God "in his forbearance [leaving] the sins committed beforehand unpunished". I'm not exactly sure what that means or if there are other scriptures that elaborate on that concept, but it would seem that Jesus' sacrifice reaches both forward and backward through history, applying to those who in faith follow God. But there's no way for anyone to go back and command those pre-Jesus to be baptized. It's a new teaching, with meaning and relevance only for those who've come after Jesus.

As far as dividing history, I see enormous justification in dividing it. The Bible teaches of two covenants, new and old. In the old, redemption and forgiveness of sins comes through the Levitical priesthood and the temple system of continuous animal sacrifices. In the new, Christ perfect sacrifice has brought justification once for all. (Hebrews 10:11-14) Before Jesus, a connection with God only through he priests, after Jesus we ourselves can go and meet with god. God's people go from Jews to Christians – even our calendar is divided between AD and BC. All of these things are separated by one point in history – the cross of Christ. Jesus' death changed the world and changed how we relate to God. The cross of Christ changed everything.

So it is not surprising then that there would be a new way to connect with the grace of God. I whole heartedly agree that it is only through God's grace that we are saved, but that does not nullify baptism. I agree, and said so above, that it is our faith that saves us, but that does not nullify baptism either. Millions of people get dunked in water every day in bath tubs, beaches and pools, but only a few of then for the forgiveness of their sins. The difference is their knowledge of what's going to happen and their faith in God's power and willingness to do it. (Colossians 2:12)

As far as the third division of history that I may have hinted at in your blog between the actual period of Jesus' life and the time prior or since, let me clarify. I don't see an actual division of history there. Perhaps I indicated that before, I don't recall my exact words or the particular context (I do recall the conversation, however).

Also, I thought I'd take a minute to talk about the reasons behind this post. The point was not to start a new debate on baptism, although I expected that to some degree. It was not to provide a step by step method of salvation to convert readers. I am a pretty skeptical about this sort of anonymous conversions. Community and connections are so important to our faith, spiritual health and growth, what value is there in such anonymous calls to be saved?

The point was to talk about salvation holistically. Too often such conversations tend to emphasize one aspect or another, such as what happened over at Virusdoc's blog. Typically mainstream Christians react to the idea of baptism for salvation, emphasizing that it our faith that saves. Church of Christ folks and others who believe in baptism for salvations tens to emphasize it while talking little about faith and repentance. My point here is that it is not that simple. It cannot be boiled down to a single topic or one dimensional debate. If we are going to teach God's salvation we have a responsibility to teach the whole of what the Bible reveals about it, not camp out on what we know best.

Salguod - do you believe that it is by our own volition that we come to the point where, "We must absolutely recognize and realize our need for God's grace, for though we've built the wall we cannot tear it down."? In our fallen nature are we able to recognize our need for the God of the bible?

I have a very different/postmodern/liberal view of salvation in that I see god as one who desperately desires to save each human, and doesn't place any requirements on salvation other than a tiny seed of faith. Words, actions, and rituals have no inherent meaning in this process, since Jesus has made it clear that we can rigorously practice the strictest religion with an utterly dead heart. The core of meaning or faith resides in the heart and mind of each man and is, for the most part, inaccessible to anyone but that man and God. In that sense, I believe that it is possible for people to be saved with no religious knowledge at all, no knowledge of Jesus at all, but merely by turning toward God in their souls and seeking his love and forgiveness. I think baptism and other religious traditions are very important within Christian communities (or in the case of the NT, transforming Jewish communities where baptism was already common and understood), but I believe baptism to be a cultural peculiarity, a ritual of deep symbolic value, and not anything God requires. It may help us feel united with Christ and it may help us understand the transformation of salvation in a more tangible way, but those are things that help us and not God. I think the audience of the gospels (ultra-orthodox Jews) were so used to the idea that you had to DO something to be right with God that this attitude may have influenced the way the bible was written. If baptism were as central to obtaining forgiveness as you and others have suggested, I believe it would be mentioned in every single text that speaks of salvation. Since it is not, and the concepts of repentance and faith are, I am forced to conclude that baptism isn't an essential element for all people at all times. If it were, and if the Holy Spirit were overseeing the writing of the NT, don't you think God would have made sure it was always included unambiguously? I would hope.

My approach to this doctrine has little to do with specific passages (although the several that refer to salvation by grace through faith are important in my belief) and much to do with the overall message of the scriptures: that of a God who desires relationship with his people and goes to great lengths to make it clear that such relationship is not obtained through our ideas of religion or ritual, but through faith in his grace and love as evidenced in Christ. This is not to say that once we HAVE a relationship with God that He won't make requirements of us, particularly in the way we treat our neighbor, but the establishment of the relationship is utterly based on his grace.

Every time humans try to add a physical active requirement to that grace (baptism, mass, abstaining from alcohol, circumcision, tithing, the list goes on), it becomes oppressive, self-focused, and divisive. Because ultimately, physical requirements for salvation turn in a means of our deciding who is and isn't "one of us". I appreciate that that is not your desire, but these types of discussions so often turn into that as we saw at RadicalCongruency. This was where I was going with my question about specific requirements for the method of baptism, because you know that is where this topic ultimately leads when you start designing doctrine for a church. Before you know it, we are declaring that Mother Theresa (or fill in the blank) isn't "saved" because they were sprinkled at birth and not immersed at conversion. I don't think I have any reason to doubt the verity of the transformation in the life and work of Mother Theresa. Her life was obviously characterized by the work of the Holy Spirit and was dedicated to service of the poor in the name of Christ. What's the chance that the God of Christ is going to turn her soul away because of a physical detail like when and how she got wet? It's appalling to me to present God's justice and grace in that light. This type or reasoning is the end result (at least institutionally) of placing requirements on others for salvation. It is clear from Acts that the NT church was already struggling with this urge to legalize Christianity within its first few years (the circumcision debate), and I think it is possible that their early views on baptism (if indeed they believed it to be required for salvation, which I don't see clear evidence of in the text) were also in error and accordingly have evolved over time.

Rong,

Yes, I do believe that we are capable of recognizong our need for God. I find a consistant pattern in scripture of men realizing their sinfulness and seeking after God. Why do you ask?

Erik,

I want to understand you more clearly before I comment. What is the role of the Bible in defining your faith? What I hear from your post is that the scriptures give us the big, broad picture of God and His character, but you rely on your own reasoning and experiences to sort out how to experience Him. Since our reasoning and opinions change over time, I wonder what sort of foundation you hang you faith on if not the scriptures? I'm not trying to be critical here, just seeking to better understand your point of view. I'll admit that I have a very difficult time relating to most of your post.

As far as the comments about Mother Theresa. If confronted with this question, I would politely refuse to answer. Yes, I have the conviction that God expects us to be baptized for forgiveness of our sins and salvation. Yes I understand that the Catholic church doesn't teach that and therefore she was probably not baptized. There are people who like to force a conclusion between those things; however, it is not my place to judge someone else's servant. Where she stood on judgment day is between her and God, period. Frankly, I too cannot imagine God turning her away either, but who likes to imagine God sending anyone to Hell?

Erik,

One more question. Do you think it's possible that a ritual can have roots other than cultural? In other words, is it posible that God has established any ritual and actually required it? You seem to put all rituals into the 'man made' or 'culture based' category.

Doug,
You pose many questions. Let me try to tackle them one at a time, in the order you wrote them.

"What is the role of the Bible in defining your faith?"

As I see it, the bible is key as a historical document testifying to the events of Jesus' life. In addition, it serves as a written record of the lives and thoughts of men and women who sought God and were sought by him. It is also a record of men and women who sought God in ways he did not always intend and in ways that did not always please him, so I think it is a record of a people who poorly understood God, most especially before Christ. Although I believe God played a role in inspiring these men and women to write, He did not take veto authority over either their own cultural background or their ignorance/bias/perspective. So what we have is an invaluable, but not infallible, record of God's relationship to humanity.

That said, I don't think that I consider the bible to be the "foundation" of my faith as you put it. Faith in God and Christ existed long before the written texts we have, and the Christian church was a dynamic, growing body for centuries before anything even resembling the new testament existed. So Christian faith would not seem to require the bible, at least not if a believer finds himself within a vibrant community testifying to the reality of Christ. If I were to describe the foundation of my faith, I would have to describe it as having multiple foundations.

The first foundation would be that of my experience of reality as a conscious, moral, finite human being. This is where I first became aware of a sense of my creator and my fallenness. This psychological/existential foundation remains one of the most important, because it is what continuously draws me back to Christ. I would, in Christian terms, refer to this as the pull of the Holy Spirit in my heart and mind.

The second foundation (one which is weak for me, but still central) would be the continued evidence of God's pull and transformation in the hearts and minds of others: Christian community.

In many respects, the Bible--as a third foundation--is merely a reflection of this community backwards in time, recorded for all posterity. But the processes at work in my heart, the hearts of my Christian friends, and the hearts of those recorded in the scripture are the same. If I had no evidence of God's pull in my life or the lives of people I know, the Bible would be of little interest to me. It would be an anomoly, a historical curiosity speaking of a God who no longer seemed real.

I realize this "foundation" for my faith may seem somewhat unstable. But the real foundation of our faith is not the text, but the person of Christ. And a person can only be known in the now, in the daily interaction. Such relationships are inherently unstable and filled with doubt, anger, miscommunication, betrayal, and reconciliation. If I do not have the foundation of what seems to me to be a dynamic and real interaction with God, then what good is it if I can expouse the depths of Greek grammar?

I think it is problematic to try to approach the Bible as a sole foundation for our faith. As I've written about before, the Bible per se cannot be approached without an interpretive framework. My interpretive framework for understanding it has to be the previous and continuing experience of God in my own life. It so happens that I feel the broad message of God's love and the gospel (as I described above) is consistent with what I have experienced: God calls us from within our sin, and asks only that we turn from that sin and toward him. I also experience God as a relentless (but gentle) pursuer, who seems to be unwilling to let me go my own way without calling me back.

I have never experienced this God as someone to place physical barriers or prerequisites on his forgiveness: humans are the ones who do that, in an attempt to feel self-justified or attain absolute certainty and security about such questions. I don't need absolute certainty or security, only to trust in God's mercy and justice when it comes to judgement.

You ask if a ritual could have divine origins instead of human. I think that God could institute rituals as a physical means of helping humans understand something particularly complex (or deceptively simple) about his love, grace, or plan for us. I think circumcision, baptism, the ritual of animal sacrifice for forgiveness of sins, and many other biblical rituals fall into this category. But I think it is also clear that all of these rituals point to one thing: the gospel as fulfilled in Christ. But to point at something or illuminate it is not the same thing as being required to enjoy it. Rituals, whether divine or human, point to a truth and do not contain it (here I differ both from the CoC and the RCC, since the catholics believe that the communion bread and wine actually become the sacrifice. I think this can be true only in a some muted spiritual sense.)

You avoid the point of Mother Theresa wisely, but unfairly I think. A logical conclusion of your doctrine on the requirement for baptism in salvation is the judgement that anyone who is not baptized will be eternally condemned. You can't avoid this aspect of the doctrine because it's unpleasant. And in fact, I think you must face this squarely for at least two reasons: i) in doing so, I believe you will come to realize that such a judgement is in fact inconsistent with the message of Christ, something which becomes apparent when you realize how many people must be condemned to hell by this doctrine and how few people Jesus was willing to condemn (and for which reasons he did condemn them); and ii) there are many in your church and others who do use such a condemnation to psychologically manipulate other believers.

Acts 10:44-48 is a key passage for me on this issue: the gentiles responded to the gospel, received the holy spirit, and were speaking in tongues as singing praises before they were baptized. I echo Peter here: who am I to say that believers today who clearly express the fruits of the spirit do not deserve full entry into the family of God? Later, in the next chapter, Peter says this most explicitly, and does so within the context of acknowledging that what really saves is baptism with the spirit of God: Acts 11:15-18:

"As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?" When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life."

This passage is a key example of the evolution of understanding God's grace that occurs during the young Christian church. If this evolution were still in process when Acts was written, I think it wise to consider everything written in the New Testament as an incomplete work in progress, and accordingly to interpret everything we read there within the larger historical context of God's movement within humanity and especially within the relationships forged by him through Christ both in the gospels and today, in our own lives.

Sorry for the length of the comment! But you raised some important questions that I wanted to address fully. This took some thought on my part, but it has really helped me clarify what i believe on this and why.

I posted some modifications of my comments here over on my own site, for my own reference and posterity. I didn't intend to send a trackback ping--apparently MT 2.661 automatically pings other MT blogs when you link to them in your entry. Kind of annoying.

Hope all is well!

BTW - Erik and Virusdoc are the same person. I've come to know him well engough that it seems a bit odd and impersonal for me to call him 'Virusdoc'. I realized that the rest of you might not know that, though!

There's an excellent new article on baptism at Douglas Jacoby's website. It's a 13 page PDF, but worth the time to read. It's made me think even more about my position on the things I've posted here. More later when I have more time. Check it our here.

Thanks for the link; I'll give it a read!

Erik,

I finally have some time to respond to your comments, there's much to respond to.

As I re-read your words, it strikes me that you and I may be speaking of two different things when it comes to 'foundations'. When I do so I mean that which helps define what Christianity is and who God is. You seem to be referring to those things which led you to where you are.

If I had no evidence of God's pull in my life or the lives of people I know, the Bible would be of little interest to me. It would be an anomaly, a historical curiosity speaking of a God who no longer seemed real.

Viewed in that light I could also add those things to my foundations along with the faith of my parents and the utter failure of my own way to produce anything close to fulfillment. Perhaps it is those two things that lead you to believe, but where is it that you go to define God, truth and Christianity? For me that is the Bible, for all other sources – community, books, my personal reasoning – all of these are flexible and changing. The Bible is constant, stable and unchanging.

I also see some inconsistencies in your thoughts. The first of is the contrast between your awareness of cultural bias and your desire to avoid it and your reliance on things that are heavily influenced by culture. Modern Christian communities and your own experience of reality are both shaped by your American culture. The Bible has been the same for centuries and from my reading and study on the subject the evidence suggests that the text we now have in the NT is the same set of documents held to by the early church. Now each succeeding generation views that text through their own cultural lens, but the text itself is constant. We should absolutely try to understand the culture in which the words were written and compare it to our own. In doing so we can attempt to remove the effects of differing cultures on our understanding of God's meaning.

The second inconsistency is the direct conflict of your words with those of Jesus mainly and the rest of the NT as well. In thinking about this post, I came across the words of Jesus regarding the wise man building on the rock. My original thought was that that rock, stable and unchanging, was the Bible. That's not what Jesus says, though. He says it is His words and putting them in practice. It is His words, not the entire Bible, and not simply hearing them but acting on them too.

That said, here are some things you said that I see directly contrasting with Jesus' words:

I see god as one who desperately desires to save each human, and doesn't place any requirements on salvation other than a tiny seed of faith.

Jesus said to repent or perish (Luke 13:1-7). Repentance and transformation are consistently portrayed, by Jesus and throughout the Bible, as vital to our reconciliation to God. True, it is the heart that is more important, but the heart without the transformation is false (James 2).

I believe that it is possible for people to be saved with no religious knowledge at all, no knowledge of Jesus at all, but merely by turning toward God in their souls and seeking his love and forgiveness

This is in direct contrast to Jesus who says that no one comes to the father except through him (John 14:16).

I believe you will come to realize that such a judgment is in fact inconsistent with the message of Christ, something which becomes apparent when you realize how many people must be condemned to hell by this doctrine and how few people Jesus was willing to condemn.

Jesus said that few will be ultimately be saved, not many (Matthew 7) so the condemnation of many, in and of itself, supports Jesus' teaching. Now, I'm not saying that just because a doctrine condemns most people it must be correct, only pointing out that Jesus said that few will be saved.

There are a few of your other comments that I don't think accurately line up with what's portrayed in other parts of the Bible:

I think the audience of the gospels (ultra-orthodox Jews) were so used to the idea that you had to DO something to be right with God that this attitude may have influenced the way the bible was written.

I believe that several of the NT letters were written to a primarily Gentile audience. Certainly the NT church was a blend of Jews (probably a range of liberal, conservative, unorthodox and orthodox) and Gentiles.

If baptism were as central to obtaining forgiveness as you and others have suggested, I believe it would be mentioned in every single text that speaks of salvation. Since it is not, and the concepts of repentance and faith are, I am forced to conclude that baptism isn't an essential element for all people at all times.

Repentance and faith aren't mentioned in each conversion account, the same as baptism. Usually faith is implied, but often not stated. Repentance is frequently not mentioned. Some only mention baptism. I don't see any consistency in what was or was not mentioned, but there is a consistency in that one or more of faith, repentance and baptism are commonly included in conversion accounts. Why single out baptism as the optional one?

… ultimately, physical requirements for salvation turn in a means of our deciding who is and isn't "one of us".

I agree, too often people latch onto something and use our new knowledge as a club to beat those who don't agree with us. You aren't a Christian because you haven't been baptized. I've been guilty of that and it's shameful. That doesn't nullify the reality of baptism, however.

That leads to your further comments on Mother Theresa, namely facing the facts of where my convictions lead. I do acknowledge the natural conclusion that my beliefs lead to. I have had to face it squarely. It has profound consequences, taken at face value, for many I know and love, some very close to me. But I see great evidence for its validity and truth, in scripture and in history. I'm hesitant to be very vocal about it, however, for two reasons. One, the ensuing debate over baptism presents a warped view of salvation focused on one aspect of it instead of the whole. Two is the reason I stated above, it is not my role to determine a person's ultimate status before God. God will do that at the appointed time.

As far as many in my church and others believing differently. I doubt many in my church do, it's one of the beliefs held and taught by our congregation. I do understand that most of Christianity holds a different view. What I do not see, however, is evidence supporting any other means of forgiveness. There is much to validate the connection between forgiveness and baptism, where is the evidence to connect forgiveness with anything else? Sinner's prayer? Simple 'acceptance' of Jesus? If it's there I honestly would like to see it. My desire above all else is to teach the gospel correctly. I've changed my beliefs in the past and will do so in the future if the evidence warrants it.

My intention is to make you think about what you believe, not to attack you. I feel compelled to say this again because some of my thoughts are pretty critical of your ideas. My desire is that you examine and explore them and perhaps clarify, correct or change your position. There's a part of me that wants to jump up and down about how wrong you are, but I've learned (partly from you) that it quite arrogant to assume that I have a lock on what God is or means. Who am I? What do I know? Why should I assume that my perspective is more valid that anyone else's? Instead I want to listen and examine what you've said and learn myself. I am so grateful to be able to be in contact with men like you and others in my church who love God yet see Him from a different angle. Another tile in the mosaic, as someone once put it.

Doug, Thanks for the response. I just found it this morning and I'll have to give it a good read before I can respond. But I didn't want you to think I was off steaming about it!

I just found this linked from Doug Jacoby's site. Excellent article! I have wanted to write a concise summation of the Christian message, and I am glad to find you have already done it. :)

I plan to share, link, and copy (in case you ever take it down:) ).

Thank you for the time it took to do this!

Sean - Thanks for stopping by. This is a very old post, going back to my early days of blogging. If I were to write this again, I think I would say things a bit different, but by and large I still stand behind it.

I'm glad it encouraged you and that you find it useful. You're free to share it how you please, I would ask that you simply give proper attribution when you do.

I am curious as to where you found the link on DJs site. I wasn't aware that he had linked to this and I'm quite encouraged that he did.



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  • Sean - Thanks for stopping by. This is a very old post, going back to my early days of blogging. If I were to write this again, I think I would say things a bit different, but by and large I still stand behind it. I'm...

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  • Doug, Thanks for the response. I just found it this morning and I'll have to give it a good read before I can respond. But I didn't want you to think I was off steaming about it!...

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