One doctrine of the church that causes confusion across denominational lines is baptism. Specifically, the role baptism plays in salvation. On one side of the argument are those who claim that baptism is an act of obedience to be performed by a believer after having come to faith, often referred to as believers baptism. On the other side of the argument are those who believe that baptism is the point of salvation and that baptism is a necessary part of the faith formula that brings us to new life, often referred to as baptismal regeneration. It would be impossible to reconcile these two viewpoints on baptism as they are diametrically opposed to one another, so, the only logical conclusion we can make is that either one is right and one is wrong or both are wrong. Since we are making an argument from the Bible, and there are passages that both sides use to make their argument, the Bible has to be the final authority, and since the Bible teaches baptism, as a matter of practice, we can safely declare that one side has to be right.
The camp that believes in baptismal regeneration believes that baptism is a sacrament that infers grace to the recipient. This camp is divided into two groups, one that practices infant baptism and one that only baptizes professing believers. Not all who practice infant baptism hold to the traditional idea of baptismal regeneration. The Roman Catholic Church does practice infant baptism for spiritual regeneration. Augustine, arguably the father of much RCC doctrine stated, "It is this one Spirit who makes it possible for an infant to be regenerated . . . when that infant is brought to baptism..." Pope John Paul II spoke on infant baptism and salvation, leaving open the question of whether or not babies who die without baptism go to heaven. In contrast is the Methodist church, which, who also practices infant baptism, recognizes that the baptized infant must also make a profession of faith as an adult, in order to be saved, while also believing that grace is inferred to the baptized infant, removing the stain of original sin and affecting a regeneration of sorts, but not sufficient unto salvation. The account of the salvation of the Philippian jailer and his family is often cited as a defense for infant baptism: Acts 15:33 -
Among those who practice baptismal regeneration, are Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ(DOC), Christian Church and Oneness Pentecostal. These churches do not teach that baptism alone affects regeneration, but that baptism is a necessary component to the salvation process. All profess faith in Christ as the main factor of salvation, but all require baptism and deem it a necessary and efficacious act of obedience. In other words, according to those holding to this practice, grace is given through the sacrament of baptism, and without that grace, one cannot be saved.
The main verse used to defend this position is Acts 2:38 - And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Also, Mathew 28:19 - Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And the verse above, Acts 15:33 is also cited.
The camp that holds to believer's baptism believes that baptism is an ordinance of the church to be practiced by believers who have been born again and already regenerated by the blood of Christ through faith. This group believes adding baptism to the formula of salvation is a heresy that adds a works component to the salvation experience.
The verses that are used to defend this position are numerous, such as, Ephesians 2:8 - For it is by graced you are saved through faith, and this, not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast. Also, John 3:16 - For God so loved the world He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. And also, Romans 10:9 -because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. There are numerous other passages that call for salvation by belief and faith, and none of these verses mention baptism.
BOTH SIDES CANNOT BE RIGHT
Each side of the argument rebuts the other and there seems to be no definitive answer. The baptismal regeneration group claim that that baptism is inferred in the passages that do not mention it because Acts 2:38 so clearly adds baptism to the formula of salvation and because Jesus commanded it in Mathew 28:19.
The believer's baptism group rebut Acts 2:38 by noting that the vast majority of passages dealing with salvation omit any mention of baptism, therefore, baptism cannot be a component of salvation. They also rebut Acts 15:33 by noting that there is no mention of anyone in the household being too young to make a profession of faith, and to suggest that infant baptism is defended by this passage is a misnomer, inferring something that cannot be conveyed with the information given.
Both sides have convincing arguments and obviously are able to win new converts to their points of view, but both sides cannot be right. Either baptism is essential to salvation or it is a work to be done after salvation. Arguing semantics and parsing verses obviously cannot settle the argument so further investigation must be done to determine the truth. God would not have us ignorant to the truth and He takes no pleasure in His children dividing over an issue such as this.
THE ANSWER IS FOUND IN PRACTICE
I believe the Apostle Paul settles this argument once and for all, almost inadvertently, in I Corinthians. The church in Corinth was experiencing problems of division, some claiming to be followers of Paul, some claiming to be followers of Apollos, and so on. Basically, denominationalism had crept into the church, and Paul needed to deal with it. In dealing with it, Paul mentions baptism and his role of baptizing others. I Corinthians 1:10-17 10I appeal to you, brothers,a by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Paul is not dealing with the doctrine of Baptism or salvation in this passage, but he tells us a great deal about the role of baptism when it comes to salvation, we just have to follow the logic. Paul was an evangelist, his primary role was to establish churches by sharing the Gospel and seeing people come to Christ in faith, yet he was not sent to baptize. So we have to ask ourselves, did Paul lead people to salvation or did he just tell them about Christ without actually bringing them to saving faith? I Corinthians 3:4-5 says that he was a servant through whom some of the people of Corinth believed - For when one says, "I follow Paul" and another, "I follow Apollos", are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What then is Paul? Servants through whom you believed as the Lord assigned to each. If Paul is a servant through whom these believed, how can he have accomplished this without baptizing if baptism is an essential component? Some may argue that Paul did baptize some, whom he, himself, mentioned, and this passage could refer to these. Is there more evidence that Paul does not consider baptism essential to salvation?
In I Corinthian 4:17 - Paul mentions Timothy - That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. Two notable things stand out in this passage. First, we see that Paul's ways are the same in every church everywhere, thus he can see that he is not in the habit of baptizing, though he claims to be leading people to salvation. Secondly, and most important, Timothy is there among the people of Corinth and Paul names the very few people who are there that he baptized and Timothy is not named, yet, Paul specifically names Timothy as his child in the Lord. If Timothy is, indeed Paul's child in the Lord, that means that Paul must have led Timothy to Christ, yet he did not baptize him. If Baptism is a necessary part of salvation and Paul did not baptize Timothy, then Timothy could not possibly be Paul's child in the Lord.
Paul was not teaching a lesson on baptism or the process of salvation. In stating facts, Paul reveals that he does not equate baptism with the process of salvation, because if he did, he would have placed baptism on equal ground to preaching the Gospel, which he most obviously did not: 7For Christ did not send me to baptize.
Part of discipleship is learning from the lives of others. As we get a glimpse into the life of the Apostle Paul, we cannot deny that he was a church planter who led many to Christ. What we also learn by watching him is that he did not consider baptism essential to salvation, nullifying the idea of baptismal regeneration. Paul was actually rejoicing that he had only baptized a few people. We are saved by placing our faith in Christ and in that alone. Baptism is a work that does not save. Believers who have been regenerated are commanded to be baptized. Paul led Timothy to Christ, yet he did not baptize him. By handling scripture properly, we can learn a great deal about topics that divide the church. We can see what God's intent is and we can lay arguments to rest. It is up to us to come to the Word as a blank slate, not looking to find things that agree with our theology, but crafting our theology by learning what God's word is saying in context.