Is Baptism a “Bullseye Belief?”

Monday (7/12) was the launch of my first book in partnership with Renew.org. I was honored and humbled when they asked me to write the third volume of their “Real Life Theology” series of books. It is a series designed as a sort of catechism for young disciples and for those who are involved in disciple-making. As such, they are intended to be short and “to the point.” I was glad to play my small role in helping this much-needed series become a reality.

My book is called “Christian Convictions: Discerning the Essential, Important, and Personal Elements.” Basically, my book is about distinguishing between the elements of faith that are absolutely essential for salvation and all of the other things that a Christian might believe. The operative metaphor that I use is that of a target. The target represents the total of everything that a Christian believes. Many beliefs are marginal, existing only on the periphery of what a Christian believes. Often these are beliefs of personal preference or opinion. In these areas, we may have wide disagreement with other Christians, but we can still confidently call each other brothers and sisters. Other beliefs are more important, coming closer to the center of the target. These are often the beliefs that if someone held to something different, they might need urgent correction. But despite this need for correction, we should be hesitant to regard those who disagree with us as lost people. The bullseye of the target represents those things that are absolutely essential for a person to believe in order to be saved. If you don’t believe these things, you cannot be considered a Christian. Now, the bullseye of a target is necessarily small. Not a lot fits at the center of a target. So it is with Christian belief; there aren’t a lot of beliefs that fit on the bullseye.

These are the “bullseye beliefs” that I identified in the book:

The essential truths are that God exists, Jesus is Lord, Jesus is the risen Savior, and salvation is by grace and not by human effort. The essential markers of our salvation are the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and a faith that perseveres.

I occasionally get two different kinds of pushback when I use this bullseye metaphor. Some people get nervous about the language of essential beliefs. It sounds too restrictive, confining, or dogmatic. It sounds, dare I say, fundamentalist. These people want to shrink the bullseye out of existence. Such a mindset is completely foreign to Scripture and historical Christianity. What you believe matters. What other people believe matters. We shouldn’t allow a fear of dogmatism inherited from our culture convince us that truth doesn’t matter. Christians believe stuff, and that’s a good thing.

The other kind of pushback that I sometimes get comes from people who tend to want the entire target (or at least large portions of the target) to be the bullseye. Most of my important beliefs and many of my personal convictions are essential. I’m not sure that I can fellowship with others who disagree with me. I’m not even sure that I can call those who disagree with me on important issues my brother or sister in Christ. I deal with this mindset a little bit in the book. It is true that we typically draw denominational and sectarian lines based on beliefs that are not necessarily on the bullseye (e.g. one group believes in the speaking in tongues while another group believes that charismatic gifts have ceased), but hopefully we have enough humility to recognize that authentic brothers and sisters exist in every Christian denomination.

I regularly go through the “target exercise” with my apologetics classes where we map out various Christian beliefs. In apologetics we do this for the purpose of identifying those beliefs that deserve more – or less – attention as we defend and commend the faith. For instance, I’d rather spend more time defending the resurrection than trying to identify where dinosaurs exist in Scripture. One important topic that sometimes comes up in that class is where we should place water baptism on the target. I have literally spent my entire life proudly associated with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ). I was baptized in a SCRM church. I attended a SCRM college and seminary. I had a preaching ministry in a SCRM church, and I have taught in a SCRM college for sixteen years. One of the distinctives about the SCRM is our enthusiastic embrace of adult (or, at least non-infant) believer immersion for the forgiveness of sins. We of course believe that this is the proper biblical understanding of baptism. But is our understanding of baptism a bullseye belief?

Let me say as clearly as I possibly can that I wholeheartedly affirm the unambiguous statement of Acts 2:38. I affirm the urgent importance of repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. I affirm that water immersion of believers is both normative and awesome! There are few things as exciting to me as watching a person publicly surrender to Christ in the waters of baptism. I think that if you are following or considering following Jesus and have not gotten baptized, you should be like the Ethiopian. Stop whatever you’re doing and run, don’t walk, to the water to initiate your covenantal commitment to Jesus. Further, I think that if you are not teaching baptism as a necessary element of conversion and discipleship, you are in error and you need correction. Frankly, I hate arguing about baptism because it’s so awesome. Arguing about it seems to demean its importance. Baptism is a beautiful gift. You don’t argue about beautiful gifts. You celebrate them!

The case for the importance of baptism is strong. I won’t do an exhaustive study in this space, but staying in the book of Acts, we could consider the case of the Philippian jailer who, when he asked how to be saved, was told to believe in the Lord Jesus (16:31). This belief was immediately followed by water baptism (16:33). We can make the same observation about the Ethiopian in Acts 8 and of course Saul (Paul) in Acts 9. We should also be quick to point out that Jesus himself was baptized and assumed that baptism would accompany our work of making disciples (Matthew 28:19). Paul lists our “one baptism” as one basis for our unity alongside of our one Lord, one faith, and one God (Eph. 4:5). In both Colossians 2 and Romans 6 Paul uses the dramatic imagery of being buried in the waters of baptism to teach the good news of our new life in Christ. Other biblical arguments are sometimes made drawing on passages like Mark 16:16, John 3:5, Heb. 10:22, and 1 Peter 3:21. Some of those arguments are better than others, but it suffices to say that the case for the importance of baptism is strong.

But is our particular understanding of baptism a “bullseye belief?” Is a person not saved unless they hold to a particular position on baptism? Well, Paul makes some clear statements about how a person is saved in places like Romans 10:9 and Ephesians 2:8-9.

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

In neither of these passages is baptism mentioned. Along the same lines, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:2 that we are saved “by this gospel.” In his articulation of the gospel, he doesn’t mention the practice of baptism. Paul was most definitely a strong advocate for water baptism, but it wasn’t one of those things “of first importance” that he passes along to the Corinthian believers (15:3). Water baptism is a wonderful picture of the gospel, but it is not the same thing as the gospel.

So where does this leave us? I remember having a conversation years ago in the earliest days of my ministry with a lovely family who had started attending our small, country church. Their entire family for several generations had attended the Methodist church in town, but because that church was dying, this young family had started attending and serving in our church. They were a huge blessing to this young pastor! I went to their home one evening intending to talk to them about joining the church officially as members. Whatever you think about the importance or appropriateness of congregational membership, it was a good talk that eventually led us to the topic of baptism. They had not been immersed as believers and neither had anyone in their entire extended family who had been faithfully serving and worshipping in their local congregation for decades. I carefully explained to them from scripture our church’s understanding of baptism. They told me that they mostly agreed with my interpretation of the texts, but they were left wondering what I believed about their family who hadn’t been baptized in that way.

What would you tell them?

I told them that I believed that baptism was the appropriate response of obedience among those wishing to follow Jesus. I used the example of Cornelius and his household in Acts 10 receiving the Spirit and getting water baptized after the fact. I also told them that it would be inappropriate for me or anyone else to condemn and treat as lost people those who had served Jesus faithfully and who had clearly demonstrated Holy Spirit fruitfulness in their lives but who had a different understanding of baptism than I did. To whatever extent a mortal can know such things, I firmly believed that their family members who hadn’t been immersed were every bit my brothers and sisters in Christ. I don’t know of anyone who would claim that water baptism alone provides a complete picture of the realities of salvation in a person’s life. I think that those of us who have a particular enthusiasm for the importance of baptism would do well to remember this. Scripture tells us affirmatively to repent and be baptized, but it would be going well beyond scripture to say that God will not save any person who has not been baptized in the same way and with the same understanding as me. Therefore, a particular understanding of baptism may come very close to the bullseye, but I would not place it among those bullseye beliefs.

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