I now need to answer some objections to the view that God normatively forgives new Christians in baptism.
Salvation by faith
One main reason why many evangelicals reject the view that God normatively grants forgiveness in baptism is because baptismal forgiveness is thought to conflict with the doctrine of salvation by faith. We are saved by faith alone, it is argued, which must mean that we are not saved by faith plus baptism, which would have to be the case if God grants forgiveness in baptism.
I believe this argument is mistaken.
To begin with, it is worth noting that many evangelicals don’t believe that the doctrine of salvation by faith conflicts with normative baptismal forgiveness. In fact, even Martin Luther, the evangelical who is most famous for holding the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, believed that God grants forgiveness in baptism. Another hugely influential figure in evangelicalism who believed this was John Wesley. Furthermore, the writings of many church leaders of the early centuries of the Christian era survive, and all or almost all of them believed in normative baptismal forgiveness.
It is also important to recognize that although all evangelicals agree that salvation is by faith and not by doing good deeds, we agree too that without repentance no one will be saved. So, the fact that salvation is by faith doesn’t mean that nothing else is necessary for salvation. It’s more complicated than that.
It is true that within evangelicalism there are different views on the relationship between the faith and repentance of a new believer. Some see faith as logically prior to and in a sense causing the repentance. In this case, admittedly, there would be no real tension between salvation being by faith and the necessity of repentance.
Many evangelicals, however – I think the majority – believe that repentance is logically prior to faith or parallel to it. And, for these evangelicals, there is a tension between salvation being by faith yet repentance being necessary for salvation. It would therefore make sense for those who accept the compatibility of salvation by faith and necessary repentance, despite acknowledging that there is a tension, to agree that it could at least potentially be possible to accept the compatibility of salvation by faith and normative baptismal forgiveness.
For many evangelicals, then, the fact that the necessity of repentance doesn’t conflict with the doctrine of salvation by faith counts against the view that baptismal forgiveness must conflict with this doctrine.
This brings us to a key point. When we talk about salvation being by faith alone, this shouldn’t be understood to mean that there is necessarily no other activity of any kind on our part that is involved in our salvation. It should just be understood to mean that no meritorious activity is involved. There is nothing we do that earns salvation. It is entirely an unmerited gift from God.
Crucially, baptism should not be seen as a meritorious act. We could perhaps compare God granting forgiveness in baptism to a graduation ceremony:
Suppose that a man (signifying Jesus) has worked hard to earn a college qualification. Suppose too that the head of the college (signifying God the Father), who is also the man’s father, on the basis of his son’s hard work, has given his permission that anyone who chooses to can receive the qualification earned by his son. Those who believe that this offer is genuine and accept it (signifying those who have faith) are then told to go to the graduation ceremony (signifying baptism) to receive the qualification.
Here there is nothing meritorious about the graduation ceremony. There is nothing that recipients of the qualification can boast about. The ceremony is simply the occasion on which people come into possession of the gift that was promised them.
If we think of baptism in this way, there is nothing about it that need be seen as conflicting with the doctrine of salvation by faith.
We must be wary of misguided zeal here. There are many Calvinists who say that if people even had genuine ability to choose whether or not to accept the gospel, even this would conflict with salvation being fully unmerited. Most Christians, however, rightly regard this view as mistaken and in a sense overzealous. I would suggest that seeing baptismal forgiveness as conflicting with salvation by faith is similarly overzealous. Rather, baptism can be seen as an act of God, in which He normatively grants the forgiveness to a new believer that has been claimed by faith alone.
Acts 10:34-48 is a passage that is often used to argue that God doesn’t forgive sins in the act of baptism.
This passage tells us about the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family and friends. While Peter is still speaking to them, they receive the Holy Spirit (verses 44-46), it being implied that they have believed his gospel message. And then Peter gives instructions that they should be baptized (v. 48).
The New Testament teaches that if someone has the Holy Spirit, that is a guarantee that they have been forgiven (e.g., Ephesians 1:13-14). It is therefore surely true that Cornelius and the others were forgiven before being baptized.
Importantly, however, the fact that Cornelius and company were forgiven before baptism doesn’t contradict my thesis in this article, since I am not arguing that God never forgives before baptism. My thesis is simply that He normatively forgives in baptism, i.e., that this is His standard way of doing things.
Yet I do need to try to explain why Peter gave instructions that Cornelius and the others should be baptized. If, in the early church, forgiveness was normatively granted in baptism, and Peter saw that Cornelius and the others had already been forgiven since they had the Spirit, why did he not waive the requirement for them to be baptized?
I am not certain of the answer to this, but I can make a couple of suggestions.
Firstly, although I have been arguing in this article that God normatively forgives sins in baptism, I have not said that that is all that happens in baptism. Most naturally, the passages on baptism portray it as a deep, spiritual event that usually includes, but is not confined to, the forgiveness of sins. Although God seems, unusually, to have granted forgiveness to Cornelius and the others before baptism, maybe there were other elements of baptism that they had not yet received. If so, it makes sense that they would be baptized.
Secondly, even if Cornelius and the others had already received everything that new believers normally receive in baptism, it might have set a dangerous precedent if Peter had waived the requirement for them to be baptized. It might have encouraged other Christians sometimes not to baptize new converts, and some of these cases could have involved situations when God did want the new converts to be baptized. So, it is quite understandable if Peter wanted Cornelius and company to be baptized even if in their case the baptism was, unusually, no more than a symbol.
I don’t want to deny that the Cornelius episode is rather awkward for my thesis in this article. But, if we take the view that God does not normatively grant forgiveness in the act of baptism, numerous passages become awkward. And, when forming our theology, our conclusions should fit best with all the available evidence.
Another reason why many evangelicals reject the idea that God normatively grants forgiveness in baptism is that it seems to run counter to so much Christian experience.
What about those Christians today, it is asked, who seem clearly to have received forgiveness before being baptized? We can’t reasonably say that so many who come to faith and rejoice in salvation before they are baptized are all mistaken, can we? Surely many new believers today receive forgiveness before being baptized.
I agree. In fact, I myself wasn’t baptized until four months after I became a believer, and, looking back, I am sure that I had my sins forgiven at the time I first believed. God is certainly not bound to grant forgiveness when a new believer is baptized. He has the right to forgive before baptism, just as He seems to have done with Cornelius and his family and friends. As I have said, in this article I am not arguing that God never grants forgiveness before a believer is baptized, just that he normatively forgives in baptism.
But what about the sheer numbers of Christians today who rejoice in salvation before being baptized? Doesn’t this show that it is not even normative for God to forgive in baptism?
I think there is a good answer to this objection.
In the Bible, as I have already noted, people are baptized immediately upon becoming believers. The evidence most naturally even suggests that Christians in the early church were routinely baptized on the day that they became believers. (On this, see my article, New Christians Should Be Baptized Immediately.)
Therefore, if forgiveness was usually granted to them in baptism, as I think it was, people would typically have had their sins forgiven almost immediately after coming to Christian faith. (And if, very rarely, a new believer died before being able to be baptized, I am very confident that God would not have allowed that person to be eternally lost.)
Today the church should do exactly what the early church did. It should baptize new believers immediately. But it doesn’t do this, or at least hardly ever does. Instead, there is often a delay of weeks or months between a person coming to faith and being baptized.
If we accept that new believers should be baptized immediately, suppose for a moment that my contention in this article is right that God normatively grants forgiveness in baptism. What should God then do about the huge numbers of new believers who remain unbaptized for weeks or months after He wants them to be baptized? He could delay granting forgiveness until they are baptized. Or, in His great mercy, He could overlook the fact that so many churches wrongly delay baptism, and grant forgiveness to new believers despite the fact that they have not yet been baptized.
I believe God does the latter, since the alternative would be for Him to allow people with genuine faith to remain unforgiven and without the Holy Spirit for weeks or months. And we can easily imagine that He, in His love, would find that intolerable.
Importantly, however, the fact that He forgives many before baptism today in no way has to mean that He wouldn’t prefer people to be baptized as soon as they become believers and receive forgiveness in baptism.
To sum up this point, then, the fact that many Christians today experience forgiveness of sins before baptism doesn’t count as strong evidence against the view that God normatively grants forgiveness in baptism. It is easy to think that God often acts outside His standard pattern today because of the exceptional situation caused by wrongly delayed baptisms.
In the light of the discussion in this article, I would therefore encourage those Christians, who don’t believe that God’s standard pattern is to grant forgiveness in the act of Christian water baptism, to reconsider their view.
In so much of the modern church, when someone comes to faith in Christ, they are asked to pray a prayer for Jesus to come into their heart and forgive their sins. This, however, is something that we never find in the Bible. Instead, the standard biblical pattern is for the new believer immediately to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.