Does Baptism Save You?

The deacons of Richmond’s First Baptist Church spent a little more than two hours talking about baptism and membership on Sunday, and whether or not we should continue our practice of requiring Christians from other denominations to be re-baptized when they join our church.  We had good discussion but we didn’t come to any conclusions on Sunday, and at our regular meeting on Tuesday night we decided to take another month to pray over the matter before we put it to a vote.  In the meantime let me share one of the insights I have gained in this process.  It’s about baptism, and whether or not it saves you.

When I ask Baptists that question they say, “Of course it doesn’t save you; Baptism is just a symbol!”  It is a symbol, but it’s not “just” a symbol.  It stands alongside the Lord’s Supper as one of the most meaningful things we do in worship.  What does it symbolize?  Lots of things, but in the broadest sense it symbolizes our response in faith to the gift of God’s grace.

In Ephesians 2:8 Paul says, “For it is by grace that you were saved, through faith.”  I sometimes think of this as the “salvation equation”: God’s grace + our faith = salvation.  Believer’s baptism is a symbol of the second half of that equation: our faith.  Infant baptism, on the other hand, is a symbol of the first half of that equation: God’s grace.  It’s a way of saying, “Before this child has done one thing right or wrong, God loves this child and wants to save her.”  Believer’s baptism is a way of saying, “…and this child wants to be saved; she wants to accept God’s gift of grace.”

In the Baptist tradition we point the spotlight at the second half of that equation—our faith.  In other traditions they point the spotlight at the first half—God’s grace.  Which half of the equation saves you?  Neither.  Not God’s grace or our faith, but only God’s grace plus our faith. 

We have a way of recognizing that at First Baptist Church.  We do something called baby dedication which—except for the water—is very similar to infant baptism.  We receive those children born into the church family as gifts from God.  We say publicly, “Before this child has done one thing right or wrong, God loves this child and wants to  save her.”  And then we charge the parents to bring her up in the Christian faith, to sing the songs and tell her the stories of Jesus, and we ask the church to help, to do everything they can to set an example of Christ’s love before this little girl so that when she gets old enough to make up her own mind about Jesus she will want to choose him for herself.  Baby dedication is a celebration of God’s grace.  That little girl’s baptism—when she’s ready—will be a celebration of her faith.  We will fill up the baptistry and immerse her in water as a beautiful symbol of purification, identification, and incorporation. 

In other traditions the process is similar.  At the Presbyterian church down the street, for example, infants are baptized in a celebration of God’s grace.  Parents are charged to bring their children up in the faith, the congregation is asked to help, and then—yes—some water is sprinkled or poured over the child’s head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But that’s only the beginning.  From that point the child enters into a process of Christian formation that will take years.  He goes to Sunday school and Bible school.  He sings the songs and learns the stories of Jesus.  And then, when he is old enough to make up his own mind, he goes through an experience of confirmation that includes writing a personal statement of faith, presenting it to the elders of the church, answering a number of theological questions, and making a public profession of faith.  All of these are ways of recognizing the child’s faith-full response to the gift of God’s grace celebrated at his baptism. 

Both of these ways of making disciples recognize the importance of that salvation equation, that it’s not God’s grace or our faith that saves us, but God’s grace plus our faith.  Both of these ways are capable of producing “real” Christians.  And that’s why we’re talking about changing our membership requirement at First Baptist Church.  Because those who have been through the process of discipleship in another denomination shouldn’t have to go through it all over again in ours.  If God’s grace plus their faith has saved them then they are saved.  They are our brothers and sisters in Christ and members of the family of faith.  We will see them in heaven, and sit down at the same banquet table.  And if God is going to let them in there…

…we ought to let them in here.

10 thoughts on “Does Baptism Save You?

  1. When I came forth in Fall 2009 to be baptized, I had been a regular part of FBC for more than 20 years. You see, my wife, Hilary, had been a member since before we were married. So there I was. I liked FBC and the people, but I’d been riding on Hilary’s coattails, thinking I didn’t want to go through the whole baptism thing because I had been baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church through a process similar to what you describe in your blog.

    But, about a year ago, something in me changed as a result of going through a period of soul-searching brought on by some personal problems. During the soul-searching, I’d looked back to my confirmation as an Episcopalian and had realized my heart had not truly been in it. I had gone through the confirmation process as a 14 year old because that was what had been expected of me. Since then, I felt I had grown in faith and was truly a Christian — I considered Jesus my Lord. But I realized that even though I had been baptized and confirmed, I had not truly made a public profession of this because the first time had been for show. So I came forth to be baptized, and as you know, this took place in October 2009.

    Here is the point I would like to make: I made the decision to be Baptized based on a genuine desire to make a public profession of my faith in Jesus. If I’d felt I had already done that at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church at age 14, I would probably have had difficulty doing so again at FBC just to make those happy who thought I should go through their particular initiation ceremony.

    So I’m with you, Faster Pastor. If someone has already made that public profession, and feels no need or urge to do so again, why should we require them to do it?

  2. Steve, I really like the way you articulated your baptismal journey.

    I too was baptized as an infant in the Lutheran faith. Luckily for me, my parents and grandparents raised me in a Christian home where we prayed at every meal, attended worship twice a week, Christian summer camps, catechism and confirmation. As my mother explains, they “planted a seed” the day of my baptism. A seed that they would care for until I was 18 at which point, I was on my own. Somewhere in there, I became comfortable in my own “roots” and my faith blossomed into a intimate relationship with Jesus. Jesus says in the Bible to “let the children come to him”…..and I believe that if a baby is lead to Jesus in infancy by a sponsor it should be recognized as part of their faith journey. It’s amazing what God puts on our hearts, even at birth.

    I respect that a church must have rules and structure in order for it to run efficiently. But, initiation for membership? With that, I don’t agree. I know that I’m a Christian and I profess it everyday in my personal walk with God and to my neighbors when we talk about faith, as I sing “Jesus Loves Me” to a cranky baby, and in worship on Sunday when my husband and I in all our tone deaf splendor belt out songs of praise to our Lord.

    The church is not a hotel for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners. It’s not our job to handpick the followers of Jesus as the members of our church, if they come to us…we should embrace them and welcome them and walk beside them in their journey. Not check off a short list of requirements for entry.

    To the decision makers of FBC: Haven’t you been praying for “people like me” to find your church, to hear your message and to want to follow Jesus within your congregation? I’m here. Let me in.

  3. Jim, a very thoughtful and theological piece. Truly, we cannot exclude our brothers and sisters in Christ who did not receive baptism via immersion. Asking them to be rebaptized is telling them their Christian experience, conversion, and baptism means nothing. Such baptistic legalism puts us baptists outside the millions of Christians who truly believe and live life in Christ. Sometimes, Baptists have selective amnesia of the 1500 years before the reformation.

  4. In the Lutheran tradition, we believe salvation is entirely a gift from God, even faith, which flows from the Holy Spirit into our lives. Baptism, then, becomes solely an act of God’s grace regardless of the age of the baptized. The process of living out that baptism is sanctification, within which fall any good works that flow from faith.

    But this is a theological quibble which, though important, should not ultimately separate us as children of God. I found real grace in your final paragraph, Jim, and I’ll be happy to sit next to you at the banquet table in this life or the next. Blessings to you all.

  5. Hello, Pastor Jim. Your words come right from your heart. I am glad that you wrote from your heart the other day regarding baptism at First Baptist Church. Rev. Phil Mitchell liked it so much that he re-printed it for the choir to read Wednesday night, April fourteenth.

    The heart is the center of the human being. Real meaning, essence comes from the heart. Heart plus experience lead the way to leadership, and you lead by example. Heart is core, source of emotion, promotes personality, love, devotion.

    When I read what Steve Martin wrote about his interest in First Baptist, his experience about being in another denomination, he shows understanding and focus when he decided to be immersed at First Baptist, a decision he made from his heart. It is revealing and important to read it with an open heart. I also read the other comment about what would Jesus do—and when we know what that answer is, it brings a Christ-like conclusion.

    So it is, that an open heart leads to an open door policy about accepting others who have had a believer’s baptism. That is, they were at the age of accountability and understanding about immersion: to absorb deeply, engrossed, dedicated, converted.

    Stuart Grizzard, my father, talked about immersion as he baptized people–“A death to sin and a birth to redemption and believing in Jesus as your personal Savior.’ I heard that about a thousand times, and it made sense to me, even as a first-grader, and then, three years later, it was my turn, and I gave my heart to Jesus. It opened a new world for me, and the experience was a symbol of “coming clean’ in our souls and spirits.


    I reckon my heart would break if someone who really wanted to be a part of First Baptist was discouraged because of the requirement of another baptism, negating whatever experience his or her particular denomination had offered. If he or she walked away, turning their backs on the healing, nurturing work and fellowship of First Baptist, it would be sad and the opposite of what joining the Church is all about.

    We can lead the way in Richmond, be a good neighbor to the Fan District and central Virginians and accept believers’ baptisms of those who come forward to help First Baptist bring Heaven right here on earth.

    Heaven on earth-one day at a time, what a lovely concept. And I mean it from the bottom of —-my heart.

  6. Thanks, Jim.

    I’m a baptist minister who was baptized as an infant. I had the very good fortune as a young adult (another post on that term another day?) to discover a Baptist church in Chicago that had already made this turn. I was baptized at St. James the Less in Ashland, VA in 1970 and received into membership at North Shore Baptist Church of Chicago, IL in 2000. Their grace and insistence on “one faith, one baptism” was a great gift to me.

    Grace is a gift and not a commodity. Thank you.

    And, Ms Grizzard, my (step) grandfather, Dr. Paul Watlington, was a great fan of your dad’s. I’ve heard nothing but glowing things from Old Paul and his children most of my life. It’s nice to find you here on-line.

  7. Hello Jim,
    I’m an Episcopal priest in the Chicago suburbs and my friend, Tripp Hudgins put me on to this piece and it inspired my sermon yesterday. We had an infant baptism, which is the more common but not only practice in our tradition, and I wanted to talk to people about what that means. Especially because so often, infants who we’ve never met before are brought to our churches for baptism – what is it that we’re promising? Your reflections on grace and faith were just what we all needed! I footnoted you, with gratitude.

    Godspeed in your ministry.

  8. Thank you for this. I am a pastor who baptized my son as an infant. He is now at college and his church wants him to get rebaptized as an adult. He has affirmed his vows, shared his testimony, owned his faith. God’s grace was and is present, and I feel rebaptism unnecessary. I am impressed you have rethought your stand on this and I sent him the link to this page.

  9. Dear Baptist/evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ,
    I ask you to consider these points:

    1. When God said that he would preserve his Word, what did he mean?
    Did he mean that he would preserve the original papyrus and parchment upon which his Word was written? If so, then his Word has disappeared as none of the original manuscripts remain.

    Did he mean that he would preserve his word in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek only? He would not preserve his Word when it was translated into all the other languages of the world?

    Or did God mean that he would preserve his Word…the message/the words…the Gospel: the free gift of salvation, and the true doctrines of the Christian Faith? Would God allow his Word/his message to mankind to be so polluted by translation errors that no translation, into any other language from the three original languages, continues to convey his true words?

    2. There IS no translation of the Bible, from the original ancient languages, into any language, anywhere on earth, that translates the Bible as the Baptists/evangelicals believe it should be translated.

    No Bible translation on earth translates Acts 2:38 as, “Repent and believe in Jesus Christ every one of you and you will receive the Holy Ghost. Then be baptized as a public profession of your faith.”

    There is no translation that translates, into any language, Acts 22:16 as, “ And now why tarriest thou? arise, believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord. Then be baptized.” Not a single translation in the entire world translates that verse in any way remotely resembling the manner in which Baptists believe it should be translated.

    Isn’t that a problem?

    And this verse, I Peter 3:21 as, “Asking Christ into your heart in a spiritual baptism, which water Baptism symbolizes, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,”

    And Mark 16:16 as, “He that believes will be saved, and then baptized, but he that does not believe will be condemned.”

    Why would God allow EVERY English translation of the Bible throughout history to be mistranslated or use such confusing language as to suggest that God forgives sins in Baptism? And not only all English translations, ALL translations of the Bible have retained these “mistranslations or confusing wording”.

    Do you honestly believe that God would allow his Word to be so polluted with translation errors that EVERY Bible in the world, if read in its simple, plain interpretation, would tell all the people of the world that God forgives sins in water baptism??

    3. Why is there not one single piece of evidence from the early Christians that indicates that ANYONE in the 800-1,000 years after Christ believed that: Water baptism is ONLY a public profession of faith/act of obedience; sins are NOT forgiven in water baptism? Yes, you will find statements by these early Christians that salvation is by faith, but do Baptists and evangelicals really understand how a sinner obtains saving faith? THAT IS THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION, MY FRIENDS! Does the sinner produce faith by his own free will or does God provide faith and belief as a gift, and if God does provide faith and belief as a free gift, with no strings attached, when exactly does God give it?

    4. Is it possible that: Baptist-like believers, at some point near or after 1,000 AD, were reading the Bible and came across verses that read “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” and “Call upon the name of the Lord and you will be saved” and established their doctrine of Salvation/Justification first, based on these and similar verses alone, and then, looked at the issue of water baptism, and since the idea that God forgives sins in water baptism doesn’t seem to fit with the verses just mentioned, re-interpreted these verses to fit with their already established doctrine, instead of believing the “baptism verses” literally?

    Is it possible that BOTH groups of verses are literally correct?? If we believe God’s Word literally, he says that he saves/forgives sins when sinners believe/call AND when they are baptized? Why not believe that God can give the free gift of salvation in both situations: when a sinner hears the Gospel and believes and when a sinner is baptized?

    Should we re-interpret God’s plain, simple words just because they don’t seem to make sense to us?

    Dear Baptist/evangelical brothers and sisters, your doctrine is very well thought out and very reasonable…but it is wrong. Do you really believe that God would require an education in ancient Greek or a Greek lexicon to understand what he really wants to say to you? And do you really believe that Baptist “Greek” scholars understand Greek better than the Greeks themselves? If the Greek language, correctly translated, states in the Bible that Baptism is only a public profession of faith as Baptists say, then why do the Greek Orthodox believe that the Greek Bible plainly says, in Greek, that God forgives sins in water baptism? Somebody doesn’t know their Greek!

    Please investigate this critical doctrine further. Do you really want to appear before our Lord in heaven one day and find out that you have been following a false doctrine invented in the sixteenth century by Swiss Ana-baptists?

    God bless you!


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