I heard something really appalling the other day in a sermon by a Christian brother of mine. Now you’ve got to understand, this guy hasn’t had any formal training in the Word, but he’s walked with the Lord for a long time, and he has a gift for being doctrinally spot-on. I really expected better of him. I’m not going to name the guy — I don’t want to embarrass him — but it so perfectly highlights a common problem that I’m going to quote you the offending portion of what he said:
Remember how God waited patiently back in Noah’s time, while they made the ark? Remember how in the ark God saved eight people by water, the water of the flood? This is a pattern for us, and it corresponds to our salvation. In the same way, what saves us is baptism. Now I’m not talking about just washing off dirt; I’m talking about baptism as a response to God from a good conscience. And we can have that good conscience because Christ rose from the dead and has ascended into heaven to sit at God’s right hand, and all the powers are under Him.
Now, no matter what this sounds like, I know this guy, and I assure you that he soundly believes in justification by faith. That’s why I’m so stunned that he would talk this way. I mean, you expect it from a Roman Catholic, or a Church of Christ guy, but him? No way. In his defense, he does get the qualifiers in, right? He’s very careful to say that it’s not just about the physical act of baptism; it’s about baptism as an expression of a heart that’s right toward God — so presumably the faith would be there. But still, what a confusing way to say it!
When he’s discussing the use of tongues in the church service, Paul says this:
Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle? So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.
Let me be clear: Paul is speaking about interpretation of tongues. That’s the primary context. But the principle surely applies: If we speak unclearly, then people will won’t understand, and we’re just — at best — talking into the air. If we’re lucky, they’ll just walk away scratching their heads and thinking, “I wonder what that was about?” More likely, they’ll misunderstand, and in a case like this that can cause real spiritual trouble.
It’s obvious — or at least it ought to be. If you say “what saves us is baptism,” you’ll have people starting to think that getting dunked in the water (or sprinkled) somehow has something to do with your salvation. You’ll have people who haven’t been baptized beginning to wonder if maybe they’re not really saved yet. You’re going to have all kinds of salvation-by-works trouble.
Back before I heard him say this, I would have thought it would be great to go out and evangelize with this guy, but now I’m starting to wonder. Maybe I’m better off staying away from him, if he’s going to be that careless.
Okay, so for those of you who haven’t tumbled to it yet, the “offending” quote is a paraphrase of 1 Peter 3:20b-22.
But I’m right, aren’t I? If somebody got up and said “Water baptism saves you” out loud, across the pulpit, in one of our churches, he’d hear all the things I said, wouldn’t he? Of course, he could defend himself by saying, “Hey, it’s right there in 1 Peter!”
Do you think that would work?
If your answer is yes, then I want you to put your reputation on the line by trying it.
A little reluctant? A little nervous about it? Tell you what, I’ll let you qualify the statement however you want, just so the words “baptism saves us” come out your mouth — and you make it clear that you’re talking about water baptism.
I was too. And that’s sin. Let me ask you, is it righteous to speak in the way that Peter and the Holy Spirit are speaking? Of course. Should we speak about things in the way that God teaches us to speak about them in the Bible? Yes. And should we be hungry to learn how to do this? Yes again.
But we aren’t. We’re scared. We don’t want to learn to speak like God speaks about things. We don’t want to make waves, or rather, we want to make only the waves that are pre-approved by our communities. We want to speak the language of our doctrinal statements, and if that means there are certain plainly biblical things that we just can’t say, then so much the worse for the Bible. God should have been a little more clear if He wanted us to follow His example.
Oh, yeah. This is sin.
Jesus had a different take on things: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” If this is a righteous way of speaking — and it is — then we should be hungry for it. And Jesus tells us that if we hunger for it, that hunger will be satisfied. We will be able to see our way clear to speaking that way, if only we want to.
But we don’t want to. Doesn’t Jesus know how people will talk about us, if we do this?
Jesus thought of that. “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets before you.”
So there it is: Water baptism saves us, just like the waters of the flood saved Noah and his family.
You’ll note I haven’t tried to explain away the passage or rescue my theological credentials. I just said what the passage says, and left it there.
Does that bother you?