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06.24.12 Baptism and Salvation, Acts 8:26-40 Sermon Summary

by on June 25, 2012

Is baptism necessary to salvation? That depends on which church doctrine you consult. Or you can just embrace a biblical perspective on baptism and salvation and know.

Summary Points

  • Three preliminary considerations: pride, salvation, and the New Testament
  • Luther and Calvin on this question
  • Four lessons from the Ethiopian Eunuch and Philip
  • The relationship between baptism and salvation

Last week we noticed the distinction between John’s baptism and that of Jesus. The differences are highlighted in Peter’s concluding exhortation to the crowds at Pentecost: Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins (John’s) and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Jesus’). And then Peter urges them all to “save yourselves.”

Whether baptism is necessary for salvation is a question that has divided churches and families since the New Testament times. To understand the relationship between baptism and salvation, we have to take into consideration a number of related issues.

First, the nature of the question itself offends our pride. “Must we do anything?” It sounds like a question of legalism, and doesn’t Christianity teach that Jesus came to justify us apart from the Law? There is nothing left to do after Jesus’ death and resurrection, except believe. But how is requiring belief essentially different than requiring something else, for example baptism?  It’s curious to me that usually the people who require anything—whether belief or baptism—are the ones who have already satisfied the requirement. Again, the issue of requirements has, I think, something to do with human pride.

Second, what is the nature of salvation? What exactly are we saved from? Is there anything we’re saved for? Is it simply that we’re saved from hell and saved for heaven? Are these states of an afterlife only? (These are some questions we’ll be addressing on July 15 and August 19.) And what does baptism have to contribute, if anything, to our understanding of salvation?

Third, we have to realize that the New Testament places a huge emphasis on baptism. Not only are John’s and Jesus’ baptisms definitive for the practice of baptism, but we have Jesus’ final commandments having to do with baptism (see Matthew 28:18-20, for example). Every new believer was baptized as soon as possible whenever possible in the New Testament. When there were irregularities in baptismal thought or practice, they were corrected. And baptism is a major, if not fundamental, theme throughout Paul’s writings (see Romans 6, for example).

Among mainline Reformation theologians, Luther was the one who champions the necessary relationship between baptism and salvation. He basis his perspective on the “Great Commission” accounts first in Matthew and then in Mark. The Great Commission, of course, obligates the church to “make disciples (by) baptizing them and teaching them to obey.” Mark’s version expands the original to say, “those who believe and are baptized will be saved; those who do not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). (One should note that the Markan version is an addition to the Gospel and is not original. However, the way Mark rephrases the commission is important to Luther’s overall argument.)

Thus Luther concludes (in his Larger Catechism) that, “It is solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we shall not be saved, so that we are not to regard it as an indifferent matter, like putting on a red coat.” “Putting on a red coat” is a reference to dressing up, and I imagine Luther is criticizing his congregation for dressing up for worship but not putting on Christ, which is a metaphor and allusion to baptism.

While I think Luther overstates the relationship, Calvin’s comments on M ark 16:16 are instructive: “They who regard baptism as nothing but a token and mark by which we confess our religion before others, as soldiers bear the insignia of their commander, have not weighed what was the chief point of baptism. It is to receive baptism with this promise: ‘He who believes and is baptized will be saved.’ (Mark 16:16).” Institutes, 4.15.1

First, Calvin rejects that baptism is simply a public act professing faith. This was the major competing thought at the time of the Reformation (and still today) among Protestants. Instead, Calvin says baptism is the reception of a promise, and the promise is of salvation. I will return to this perspective below.

The story of The Ethiopian Eunuch and Philip gives us an example of the biblical perspective of baptism. Philip is not the original disciple, but “one of the Seven” who were commissioned with Stephen in Acts 6. He is known as “the Evangelist,” and is a precursor to the most famous evangelist, Paul.

The Eunuch is a high-ranking finance minister from Ethiopia. He is what the Bible calls a “God-fearing” non-Jew, that is, someone who worships the God of the Jews without being Jewish. And he is a committed scripture reader, having taken (or perhaps purchased during worship in Jerusalem?) a scroll of the prophet Isaiah with him on his journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem.

Four observations; then four lessons. First, God provided Philip before Eunuch knew he needed him. God sent Philip ahead of the Eunuch to ensure the two of them would cross paths. Second, the Eunuch welcomes Philip. He invites Philip into his own carriage. Third, Philip is able to begin with the “very scripture” the Eunuch is reading and share the good news of Jesus Christ with him. And fourth, the Eunuch is baptized as soon as possible.

What can we learn from this story? First, that God positioned Philip in the Eunuch’s path proves our inter-dependence. We cannot “do” Christianity, whether reading the Bible or following in the way of Christ, by ourselves. We need others (and they need us), and God provides for this need.

For us to accept this help, however, requires humility, and this is what the Eunuch’s hospitality depicts for us. Contradicting our “I can do it myself and don’t need anyone or anything else” pride, this story calls us to be hospitable to the perspectives of others.

Third, the Bible renders it’s message best in community. Whatever profit the Eunuch might have had reading Isaiah alone, it isn’t until he learns from Philip that Christ is revealed.

And finally, baptism somehow symbolizes all this as the climax of the story. The five main New Testament teachings on baptism are that through baptism we receive forgiveness of sins, we are joined with Christ, we are incorporated into the church, we receive the Holy Spirit, and we experience rebirth and new life. This story concludes with a baptism that sends the Eunuch on his way rejoicing. Why?

The answer is because baptism is itself, just like the scripture (the Eunuch’s scroll) and its interpretation (Philip’s teaching), a proclamation of the Word of God. It is sacramental rather than cerebral. It provides a concrete, historical, unquestionable experience, something like an anchor in our personal lives to which we can return when we are confused or full of doubt. In other words, baptism invites, activates, and assures faith. And it is this active, ongoing, and participatory faith that saves us.

Luther recognized what later Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich would call “the dynamics of faith,” namely that: “Faith must have something to believe—something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand. Thus faith clings to the water and believes it to be baptism, in which there is sheer salvation and life, not through the water, but through its incorporation with God’s Word and ordinance and the joining of his name to it. When I believe this, what else is it but believing in God as the one who has bestowed and implanted his Word in baptism and has offered us this external thing within which we can grasp this treasure?” (Larger Catechism)

This is precisely what Calvin recognized as the “chief point of baptism,” namely to receive the promise. Luther said, “In baptism, therefore, every Christian has enough to study and practice all his or her life. Christians always have enough to do to believe firmly what baptism promises and brings—victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts.”

So as Peter urged his hearers during his Pentecost sermon, let us receive baptism, receive the promise, and so receive salvation–our entire lives long, and for eternity beyond that.

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