This is a response I just sent to someone. There’s nothing personal in it, so I wanted to post this here. I hope there’s something helpful in it:
The thing that helped me most with baptism was comparing it to the sinner’s prayer, something I believe Peter does in 1 Peter 3:21. Peter says baptism now saves us, and then he explains how it saves us. It saves us by being the appeal to God for (or from) a good conscience.
The KJV and other versions have answer or pledge in the place of appeal, but after reading through several lexicons, I would argue that the NASB’s “appeal” is the only reasonable translation there.
So, baptism is an appeal to God for a good conscience.
That fits very well with the verses on baptism in the NT. In Acts 2:38, Jews ask Peter what they should do since they are convicted about crucifying Christ. He tells them repent and be baptized for (eis – into) the remission of sins, and they’ll receive the Holy Spirit. See how that fits with 1 Pet. 3:21? They wanted a clean conscience. He told them to be baptized, and their sins would be forgiven, and they’d receive the Holy Spirit.
Baptism was the way they carried out their faith. It was their “sinner’s prayer.”
Of course, you know there’s no sinner’s prayer in the NT. Read through Acts, and you’ll see that everyone was baptized immediately, the same day. Baptism was the apostles’ sinner’s prayer. The Philippian jailer was baptized in the middle of the night!!! (Acts 16)
When Paul had been convicted by Christ on the road to Damascus, Christ sent him to wait there. Ananias came and told him, “What are you waiting for? Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord!” (Acts 22:16).
So Paul, too, washed his sins away in baptism, despite having seen the Lord 3 days earlier. Baptism was his sinner’s prayer.
The early church believed the same way. All Christians believed in baptismal regeneration, including the Reformers, all the way into the 17th century. A symbolic baptism has to be the worst-attested doctrine believed by any large group of Christians ever. It’s new, it obviously violates many Scriptures on baptism.
Baptists and others like them deal with this by using verses on faith to teach about and argue for their version of baptism. They have to. Pretty much all the verses on baptism clearly disagree with them. Church history disagrees with them–100%, across the board–all the way until a century AFTER the Reformation.
So here’s how what I teach differs from the Roman Catholics. One, the Catholics baptize babies. That’s an indication that they think baptism does something spiritual even apart from faith. I don’t believe that.
I believe baptism is an appeal to God for a good conscience. Babies can’t do that. We believe, and then we join ourselves to Christ in baptism. In the beginning, it was really that simple. It wasn’t that baptism was a magic rite. It was the baptism was the proper response of a believer to hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and believing.
Okay, so here’s the real difficult issue:
What about those that don’t know?
What about me personally? I was witnessed to by pentecostal believers. They believed, like the Baptists, that baptism is symbolic. So rather than have me respond to God with baptism, as the Bible teaches, they had me pray a prayer. Of course, even the prayer was ineffectual, because like Cornelius in Acts 10, I had received the Holy Spirit as soon as I heard the Gospel and said I believe it. The power of the Spirit fell on me, gave me a good conscience, and changed my whole world as soon as I said, “Yes, I believe.”
I was baptized a month later, wondering what good such an act was, because doing the “public testimony” seemed so meaningless as to be ridiculous. What sort of public testimony is baptism nowadays? Lots of people have been baptized. Many of them repeatedly. Most of them live lives that are a testimony AGAINST Christ.
So baptism is a lousy public testimony. Live a holy life! That’s a great public testimony.
And, Scripturally, how does one explain Paul baptizing the Philippian jailer in the middle of the night? What sort of public testimony was that? How about Cornelius with Peter? It seems clear Cornelius was baptized in his house, on the spot. What sort of public testimony was that?
I believe God makes exceptions. I believe he made an exception for the thief on the cross. I believe he made an exception for Cornelius, pouring out the Spirit on him before baptism.
I believe he makes exceptions for us ignorant 21st century Christians who think baptism is symbolic and can be waited on. He forgives our sins and fills us with the Spirit because we ask him to by a sinner’s prayer or a prayer to be filled with the Spirit. Being merciful, loving, and kind, he answers that prayer.
Scripturally, though, the example set for us–and the command of Christ–is that baptism be the appeal to God for a good conscience, not something else, not even an actual verbal prayer.
I hope that answers your question. Justification does come upon faith, but faith always acts. So responding to the Gospel by an act of faith, such as baptism or the sinner’s prayer (one being biblical and one being the tradition of Charles Finney and D.L. Moody) does not contradict justification by faith. Instead, it shows us what justification by faith looks like.
Remember, Peter didn’t say in Acts 2:38, “You don’t have to do anything. You have already believed, so you’re justified.” No, he said, “Repent and be baptized.”
Clearly, those Jews believed . How could the be cut to the heart, as the Scripture says, unless they had believed what Peter taught? Yet, Peter still told them to repent and be baptized.
One needs to perform an initial act of faith.
I’d love to say more about Peter’s initial act of faith, but this email is long enough. The first time Peter received a command of the Lord, it was to throw his nets on the other side of the boat (Luke 5). When he did so, the effect was incredible. He acknowledged he was a sinner, and then, when the boat got to land, he forsook everything and followed Christ.
Amazing, isn’t it? Jesus didn’t tell him to be baptized, to read the Scriptures, or any such thing. Instead, he told him only to throw his nets on the other side of the boat. Peter said, “At your word, I will do it.”
He did it. The response to the Word, by obeying it, was like eating it. The Word was implanted in his heart like a seed and he was born again (Jam. 1:21 w 1:18). At that point, because he responded/obeyed, he didn’t need to be told he was a sinner. He didn’t need to be told to follow Christ. The Word of God was now in him, and so he knew what he was supposed to do!
Of course, I know there’s issues with me saying he was born again there and not later, after he repented for denying Christ. But Jesus said that Zaccheus was saved (Luk 19) right there on the spot. There, once again, the Word of God (Jesus) told Zaccheus something simple. He told him to hurry, to come down, and that Jesus would eat with him. Zaccheus complied, and the Word of God was planted in his soul. Jesus didn’t have to teach him to repay those he’d cheated. He knew already because the Word was in him.
Then, as I said, Jesus said that salvation had come to him that very day. It had! And it was because of his positive response to the Word of God.
Baptism is our positive response to the Word of God. It’s like eating it. When we respond, the Word of God will go down in us like a seed, saving our souls.
Well, I guess I did say all of that about Peter. Sorry for the long email. I hope it’s a blessing to you.