Comment on Rebaptism Articles

In my previous post, I repoduced two responses to a question asked by J. Wesley Smith of Lynchburg, TN, in 1905.  He asked:  “Is it right to make a knowledge of baptism for remission of sins a test of fellowship?”

David Lipscomb, editor of the Gospel Advocate, answered in the negative and George W. Savage, editor of the Firm Foundation, answered affirmatively. Those polar opposite responses represented the real danger of a significant division among Churches of Christ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on that precise question.

But my interest is not so much in the potential division or the explicit answers to the question. Rather, I am interested in the theological method each used to answer the question.

On the one hand, David Lipscomb started with a theocentric principle that Jesus fulfilled. The “desire to obey God is the highest” motive as this “leads to an humble and trusting walk with God” and “to the enjoyment of all the blessings God has in store for those that love” him.

This motive was enacted by Jesus and he thus modeled it for all his disciples. Jesus was baptized to obey God, to “fulfill all righteoueness.” The baptism of Jesus testifies to the authentic and central nature of this motive. Jesus was not baptized for the remission of sins, but to obey God. Jesus loved the Father by obeying him.

Further, when people are motivated by love (the core value in obeying God) rather than by fear (to escape hell through the remission of sins), they imitate Jesus and exhibit the “higher motive.” When one’s baptism is rejected because it was motivated by the “higher” motive rather than the “lower” one, it undercuts the baptism of Jesus himself since this “is the motive that moved Jesus to be baptized.” At the same time, if one is baptized simply for the remission of sins without a sense that this obedience to God–as if one is baptized simply to escape hell or simply to have their sins remitted–this is an improper approach to baptism. It turns baptism into an expiatory rite.

Lipscomb’s argument is rooted in God, Christ and the central value of loving God. It is, essentially, a theological argument.

On the other hand, George Savage is concerned primarily with a single text: Acts 2:38. His argument is radically textual and rooted in understanding “for the remission of sins” as part of the command to be baptized. For Savage the command is not “be baptized,” but “be baptized for the remission of sins.” Obedience, then, entails an understanding that this obedient act involved a movement from lost to saved, from sinner to saint, from guilty to forgiven. If believers do not understand that baptism involves that transistion, then their baptism is invalid because they were not taught correctly.

Construing “for the remission of sins” as part of the command itself, he atomizes this text so that it stands in isolation from the theology of baptism. In essence, by lifting a singular phrase from the text and giving it an absolute meaning indepedent of the context and biblical theology as whole, his argument is a proof-text. His construal of the text, then, becomes a measuring rod for everything else one might possibly say about baptism. Whatever else may be true about baptism, it is fundamentally true for Savage that only those who are “baptized for the remission of sins” are truly baptized.

He does not grasp Lipscomb’s theological argument about love and fear in terms of the motive of obedience. Savage simply flattens everything into obedience and says that the motive must be more than obedience. Thus, he makes room for the atomized text, Acts 2:38, to judge every baptismal response to God. Obedience is a given, but the specific design is something that is equally necessary to true obedience. Obedience is insufficient per se–it must be obedience for the specific design God intended in that ordinance. It must be obedience with understanding–a very specific understanding that Acts 2:38 dictates.

Difference. Part of the faith of baptism for Savage, then, is a faith in the design of baptism, that is, believing what baptism effects. For Lipscomb it is simply trusting in God’s saving work through Christ as we act in obedience. For Savage faith is partly an intellectual affirmation of the true understanding of baptism’s specific design. For Lipscomb faith is personal trust in God as one acts in obedience to the command of God to be baptized.

The nature of baptismal faith has a different meaning for Lipscomb and Savage. Lipscomb’s sense of faith is oriented toward God as trust and follows Jesus’ own baptism; “it is the baptism of Christ.” Jesus’ own baptism is Lipscomb’s model for effectual baptism. Savage’s sense of faith is oriented toward a particular intellectual understanding of baptism; “faith in the design” is “necessary to the validity of the act.” That faith is not a personal trust, but an intellectual assent to a specific teaching about baptism. Lipscomb begins with Jesus whereas Savage ends with a specific intellectual understanding (it is “faith in the design”!).

This exchange illustrates, to some degree, how soteriology (and a theology of grace) differ between the Tennessee Tradition (Lipscomb) and the Texas Tradition (Savage). Lipscomb’s soteriology is grounded in a personal trust in God’s work exhibited through loving obedience while Savage’s soteriology involves a creedal affirmation of a specific design for baptism rather than simple trust in Jesus. Lipscomb follows Jesus but Savage authors a creed to be signed by a baptismal candidate.

Lipscomb is true to the heritage of Alexander Campbell’s restoration agenda on this point. For Campbell the only required faith for baptism was the credo:  “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”  Savage continues McGary’s hijacking of the Restoration Movement to serve a sectarian end so that the credo for baptismal faith is no longer centered on Jesus but on what one believes about the design of baptism.



17 Responses to “Comment on Rebaptism Articles”

  1.   churchesofchrist Says:

    Thanks John for this post and your reply to my email.

    Randy

  2.   Weldon Says:

    Savage places himself in a precarious place doctrinally. His assertion that a valid understanding is a perquisite for a valid baptism leaves open the question: at what point is one’s understanding valid? Is Acts 2 sufficient to impart an understanding of the “design,” or must one also know the balance of New Testament teaching on baptism? It seems that someone of Savage’s disposition could promote any (or all) baptism passages as the lynchpin to a proper understanding.

    The Epistle to the Roman churches – written approximately 30 years after Pentecost – carries a detailed treatise on baptism (chapter 6). The fact that Paul would explain such basic baptismal concepts to Christians indicates to me that our understanding of baptism – like our understanding of all spiritual concepts – is to be a process. Charles Spurgeon put it poignantly:

    “I will go further, and say that I question if any of us yet know the fullness of the meaning of either of the ordinances [that is baptism and the Lord’s Supper] which Christ has instituted. As yet we are, with regard to spiritual things, like children playing on the beach while the ocean rolls before us. At best we wade up to our ankles like our little ones on the sea shore. A few among us are learning to swim; but then we only swim where the bottom is almost within reach. Who among us has yet come to lose sight of shore and to swim in the Atlantic of divine love, where fathomless truth rolls underneath, and the infinite is all around?”

  3.   konastephen Says:

    There appears to be a large gap between the terms ‘must’ and ‘ought’… While the early restorationists seemed to have found a novel argument for what we as Christians ‘ought’ to do, the following generations appear to collapse this into what we ‘must’ do. Where ‘ought’ points to best—’must’ points to only.

    In a movement that initially sought to find a faith and practice cleansed from the mire of historical power-plays, why this turn of face into some sort of post-enlightened quest for ahistorical certainty? How could a plea for unity turn so fast into a demand for uniformity (guided by reason/rationalism)?

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    IMHO, Savage and the Texas Tradition represent a subtle but potentially lethal form of legalism. The heart that seeks to obey God is not what’s important for them, rather what is important is the perfectionism of the rule (a problem the Jewish religious leaders had in the days of Jesus). Thus, for them, rather than baptism being a part of grace and faith, their understanding becomes the grace and faith. Does that make sense?

    I described this Texas view as a “potentially lethal form of legalism” purposely. I will not cast a judgment on McGary and the others who agreed with him two centuries ago, since I was not there, do not know them personally, and have limited reading of what they actually said. However, where this view exist today…in its worst form, it circumscribes the very need for grace and faith. How can we live without grace and faith? While I will not presume to say how God may deal with this toxic legalism, it is lethal to the Christ-life we have been called to live here and now. That is a life that can only be lived by God’s grace through our faith and such grace and faith is impossible so long as we pretend we are God’s people because WE HAVE perfected the rules. I know this from first hand experience of serving in a congregation, who’s main preacher and elders consistently taught that WE ARE God’s people because WE HAVE done what God instructs EXACTLY as God instructs — and at every assembly, it was painfully visible just how toxic this form of legalism is to the way of life God has called us to live in Christ.

    Good post(s)!

    -Rex

  5.   Joe Baggett Says:

    Faith is required for baptism, not a perfect understanding. Nobody has or will ever have perfect understanding. I personally think that rebaptism shows a problem. We should not baptize anyone but for authentic faith. You know there is no specific record of children or adolescents being baptized in the NT. A fear of Hell, peer pressure, coercion and the like are not motives to baptize ever!
    Many people, especially in the churches of Christ are rebaptized as quarter life adults because that is when they come to a faith of their own. Have you ever noticed how we don’t let our kids make any real life choices until late adolescence? They don’t get driver’s license until 16-18 years old, why because their brains are still developing! That is why teens have more wrecks than all other drivers combined. I wish we would do more to bring our children to real faith answering their theological questions then we might not have to worry about rebaptism as much.
    Also I think that re-baptism of a person who truly had faith when they were baptized first is wrong. This is a cheapening of God’s grace. The idea that baptism is only way to forgive sins has led to people getting re-baptized every time they go through a major sin in their life which show baptism as a work through which we are gaining atonement rather than grace and faith.

  6. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks for quoting Spurgeon. I think he offers some words of wisdom.

    I tend toward the Mennonite and Amish practices of baptizing their children between ages 16-20 rather than the seemingly common practice among Churches of Christ of 9-12. At the same time, I do not hinder those from 9-12 who want to come to Christ and obey them according to their knowledge–I was one of those myself! I think Keith offered a good perspective on this point in a comment on my previous post.

    Baptism rooted in understanding the ordinance may lead to repeated rebaptisms as understanding grows, or it may lead to doubt about one’s faith based on its intellecutal capacity rather than on faith’s trust in the one who saves.

    Thanks for the comments….all of you.

  7.   randall Says:

    I appreciate all of your posts so much and am convinced they will be of benefit to the CofC. Many of the comments are also encouraging. This blog is one of the first things I check every time I get on the computer.

    It does seem to me that The Texas tradition took the Tennessee tradition a step (several steps?) further away from the concept of salvation by grace through faith. If I understand correctly, in the TN tradition one still had to be baptized by immersion and observe the supper every first day of the week in order to be in fellowship with the church. In the TX tradition one had to have a “complete” understanding of the supposed nature of baptism at the time they were baptized and observe the supper as well. Of course there have been others who add yet more peculiar items to the list.

    I love the CofC as it it is my heritage and church “family” but I am not sure I’ll ever be able to return to this denomination again. This thought makes me feel sad.

    Please keep on keeping us informed. Although I am not among my family I still benefit from family history.

  8. Avatar of wkeith_brenton  Keith Brenton Says:

    Randall, I’ll pray tonight that you will find a family of God … Or that they will find you.

    Everyone needs a family.

    That’s why God sets the lonely in them.

    Love you, brother.

  9.   randall Says:

    Keith,
    Thanks for your comment and your prayer. Although I am not worshiping with a CofC I am still very much involved with a church. At the moment I live overseas and the fellowship here is multi denominational (we’ve done this in a couple of countries over the years). By my comment I meant that I do not expect to return to a CofC when we return to the USA and plan for retirement.

    But please don’t stop praying for me.

    Grace and peace,
    Randall

  10.   Joe Baggett Says:

    Randall,

    I think I know how you feel and think. We grew up in the traditional churches of Christ and have moved around and traveled the world. Lines of fellowship between formal religious groups are a thing of the past, though there are those still in those religious groups that do not see that and probably never will. We will never return to the traditional church of Christ. It is simply against our character. We have helped start several non-denom churches. Guess what the Baptist are now “Considering what it means to be Baptist”, see Houston Chronicle article. This is a phenomenon that is touching all Christian faith traditions in America. The plug is being pulled on traditional denominational Christianity in America because blind institutional loyalty is being eaten by a real seeking of the truth. Reconsidering ones deeply held religious beliefs is one of the scariest and most difficult things that somebody will ever do. Blessings to you.

  11.   John King Says:

    Years ago I studied with a young lady. She had come to faith in college and put Jesus on in baptism. Later she encountered someone from the International Church of Christ and was force-fed their hyper-baptism creed. She was re-baptized a that point. Later she felt guilt over doubting her original response and was re-baptized. Five dunkings in I am trying to help her pick up the pieces of her faith. She would have been re-baptized in a heart beat if I had recommended such (only to go through her guilt cycle).

    “You have to trust in God, not your knowledge or ability to get it right!” was my counsel. Such is the damage of focusing on the human response over the divine basis for salvation. “We are saved by grace through faith, not of works…”

    John Mark, thank you for reminding us of our history because too much of it live on and we need to recognize it for what it really is if we are to be truly free from it. “It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”

    John King

  12.   rich constant Says:

    randall

    move back to tenn. and go to church with john mark… :-)
    i am sure no matter where you attend you and your family will be in service to give god glory through faithfullness to his son’s words…
    blessings rich

    thanks for that post john mark.
    although.
    with libscomb,i might have a problem a samatical problem i would guess math.28.18
    with you because
    of christ’s baptism by john and christ’s being under Gods law.and Christ acknowledgeing that john was a profet and to fulfill all rightiousness he(john) must baptise the christ and the christ must fulfill and obey the profet’s of god concerning him and the people of isreal…
    thats the way i see that …
    i find ,for me,quite dificult to formulate your transition, of baptism of those two natures…
    seamlessly.
    got any help.
    blessings john mark

  13. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Rich,

    I would suggest that the baptism of Jesus does participate in the new age. It is the first “Christian” baptism and not a matter of “old covenant.” The pouring out of the Spirit on Jesus is the beginning of the new age. The ministry of Jesus, begun at this baptism, is the ministry of the new age. So, I think the example of Jesus’ baptism is exactly what we follow. We follow Jesus into the water in order to follow him in ministry, which leads to the death of self and giving ourselves for the sake of others.

  14.   rich constant Says:

    thanks john mark,
    a very thoughtful elousion of our baptism, as was the ark 1st.pet…God uses water to express a new begining quite frequently in his story,concerning his creation.
    thank you
    rich

  15.   rich constant Says:

    john mark
    P.s.
    ALTHOUGH :-)
    THERE SEEMS TO BE SO MANY FACITS cut by god through the profets and the law that our lord needed to comply with to remain faithful as the servant to his father’s will, of perfect compleation of prophry for a witness as this being GOD’S fortold christ to bring in the new realationship with a fallen creation, the promised blessing of GOD.
    i personally would be hesentent to say “not a matter of old covenent”
    so?
    there.. :-)
    rich

  16.   rich constant Says:

    this one

  17.   rich constant Says:

    1 other thing the baptism of repentance was first…given to the sinful kingdom…as john said to the pharsee’s “who told you vipers you flee”…
    prior to the ramping up of the new age gospel message
    by the now declared SON OF GOD.
    the one to come declaired by john…
    had arrived
    blessings

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