Baptism, conscience and sin

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The other day I wrote about how I approach the question of people who have been baptised in a paedobaptist context and whether or not a baptistic church should treat that as valid when welcoming someone into membership.

The article was part of a series on baptism but it was responding to something Steve Kneale had written on conscience clauses. Steve has since responded here and I thought it might be helpful to engage further.

So, I wanted to take a little bit of time just to think about this further. You see, in order to answer the question, we also have to come back to another thing I’ve been teasing out recently and that’s our understanding of what God has commanded and what is involved in obedience.

We are told that baptism is a command and therefore failure to obey the sin is disobedience. We might from there conclude that someone who is in public disobedience on something so serious should be subject to church discipline. Indeed, there is perhaps the crucial argument for refusing membership to someone who won’t be baptised. Why bring someone into membership, when you are immediately going to have to remove them from membership afterwards?

Think that through though. Listen carefully to how it sounds. When we talk in terms of obedience and discipline then the implications are that

  1. Someone professes faith in Christ publicly and therefore is admitted into the church as a member
  2. They are now subject to the pastoral care and discipline of the church.
  3. They later choose to disobey God’s Word on an important matter suggesting evidence of a rebellious rather than repentant heart
  4. In order to protect them from false assurance, the church from false teaching and unbelievers from false witness, discipline is exercised.

In other words, discipline is concerned with ongoing discipleship. Do we obey the commands that Jesus taught and which he commissioned his followers to keep on teaching after his ascension? This would make baptism a command for those who have already believed to obey.

What then is the nature of Jesus’ command regarding baptism? The answer is that he commands his disciples to

“Go and make disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

In other words, the focus of Jesus command is on those who do the baptising not those who receive it. The ones who are disobedient are those who fail to baptise. 

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a requirement or command to be baptised. It means that in terms of subsequent discipleship the command is to baptise.  The expectation at that stage being that you have already been baptised.

However throughout the New Testament there is a call to “believe and be baptised” or “repent and be baptised.”  The nature of that command is different. It is a command. It’s something God calls us to do and that we must respond to. However, it is one of invitation. It’s less “wash your hands” before you can have dinner or “say thank you before you leave the table” and more “come and eat.”

In fact, this is how essential it is.  Those who believe and are baptised are the one who are saved.  So as I’ve been arguing in my articles, baptism is part of that event where someone believes in their heart and confesses with their mouth, publicly putting their trust in Jesus.  The baptismal water does not magically make you a Christian but nor is it quite right to say “baptism is something you do because you are already saved.” Baptism is the external visible sign, the vehicle if you like by which you move from being unsaved to being saved, from not believing to believing, from not being part of the church to being part of it. 

This means that because it is a sign, it does matter. We cannot just ignore it. However, it also means that it isn’t the most important thing in event. So, we can confidently say that just as someone could be a physical descendent of Abraham and circumcised that this on its own without faith could not bring you into the covenant, so too baptism without faith is dead, it doesn’t save.  Yet the reverse is not true. It is possible to have saving faith without getting baptised as demonstrated by the thief on the cross.

And for that reason, we allow that the two may not align.  Now the idea of an unbaptised Christian is rare – but it is possible, the thief on the cross is perhaps the prime example. So, we allow for timing issues. It is possible that someone may express faith but not be able to get baptised until later.  And I would suggest that whilst it is not without its problems there is room for  little bit of leeway the other way too.  It may be possible that someone goes through the waters of baptism, expresses the words of faith and then as they are drying off afterwards they are fully hit by the significance of what they have just said and done so that their heart is truly awakened to God.  It’s possible too from this perspective that we might see the one baptised as a baby as having believed and baptised -if slightly in the wrong order.

This brings us back to our starting point. You see, this is all to do with signs, actions and signals (dare we call them virtue signals?)  What I do signals things about what I believe. Baptism and communion signal my beliefs on certain things. So too do our actions on membership and discipline.

This is part 1 of 3. The second part will follow tomorrow

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