Sunday, December 20, 2009

Baptismal Justification

I've been having a discussion with Bryan Cross on the subject of justification. Below is a portion of my latest response, relevant to the subject of attaining justification through baptism. For those who want to read the full discussion, keep in mind that what I'm about to quote is only a portion of what I wrote in my latest post. You'll have to look over the entire post to read the portions I left out here:

Bryan wrote:

"Of course it wasn’t accompanied by baptism under the Old Covenant, since Christ established Christian baptism only in the New Covenant."

Christian baptism was established later, but Paul, James, and other New Testament authors suggest continuity between justification through faith in the Old Testament era and justification through faith in the New Testament era. You could argue for a diminished continuity by adding baptism for those living in the New Testament period, but that would be, as I said in my last post, a diminished continuity. The higher level of continuity that I'm suggesting makes more sense of the New Testament theme of continuity in the means of justification.

You write:

"And it seems clear that Abraham’s faith was accompanied by works, as James points out."

It was eventually accompanied by works. But works of faith come later than faith. Genesis 15:6 is about a faith that would result in works, but the works come after the faith. When somebody trusts God in response to a promise God makes, as in Genesis 15, that's faith in the heart (as in Acts 15:7-11 and Romans 10:10), not faith accompanied by an outer manifestation like baptism.

You write:

"A person can be justified even prior to baptism, but the grace by which he is justified nevertheless has come to his through that sacrament."

Jesus and the apostles neither said nor implied that. And I was addressing the normative means of justification. I'm aware that Catholicism allows exceptions. But baptismal justification is the norm in Catholicism.

Are the Biblical examples of justification apart from baptism exceptional? They could be in some cases, such as the thief on the cross. But it wouldn't make sense to dismiss all of them, or even most of them, in that manner. There isn't a single individual who's described as coming to faith, but having to wait until baptism to be justified. Nor is there any individual who's described as only having a lesser, unjustifying faith prior to baptism or not having faith at all until baptism. Rather, we repeatedly see people justified as soon as they believe, prior to or without baptism. That includes people who could easily have been baptized. It's not as though people like Cornelius and the Galatians didn't have access to baptism, nor is there any reason to think that God couldn't have waited until their baptism to give them the Holy Spirit and the confirming evidence of their justification. It would make no sense to dismiss a passage like Luke 18:10-14, Acts 19:2, or Romans 10:10 as an exception to the rule. Justification upon believing response to the gospel, prior to baptism, is the rule, not the exception.

You write:

"A mere suggestion is not sufficient to warrant schism from the Church, or the public charge that the Catholic Church teaches a false gospel."

The comment you're responding to is just one argument among many I made. I did say that my argument "suggests" my conclusion, but it wasn't my only argument. And I, of course, don't hold the view that Roman Catholicism is "the Church".

You write:

"It is St. John who tells us at the beginning of his gospel (written later in his life, according to tradition) that Jesus said to Nicodemus, 'unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.' (John 3:5) Jesus is the one who 'added' baptism, just as He did in Mark 16:16, and just as Peter did on Pentecost: 'repent, and let each of you be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.' (Acts 2:38) It is baptism that now [in the New Covenant] saves us. (1 Pet 3:21)"

Mark 16:16 is an extra-Biblical source. It has some significance as an early text, but the readers should keep in mind that it's an extra-Biblical text. The authentic gospel of Mark says nothing of baptismal justification. (Similarly, the authentic letters of Ignatius of Antioch say nothing of it. The inauthentic longer versions of his letters, on the other hand, include reference to the concept.)

You've made no attempt to explain the large number of Biblical examples of justification apart from baptism that I cited earlier. As I said, such passages have moved many advocates of baptismal justification to argue that baptism didn't become a requirement (in normative cases) until after Jesus' public ministry. Do you hold that view? If so, then citing John 3:5 makes little sense. We know that Jesus frequently forgave people, pronounced peace to them, and healed them (often with justificatory implications) during His earthly ministry. See the examples cited here. In John's gospel, the reasoning that Ronald Fung applied to Galatians (in my quote above) is applicable again. John refers to justification through faith many times (1:12, 3:15-16, 3:18, 3:36, 5:24, 6:35, 6:40, 6:47, 7:38-39, 11:25-26, etc.), and baptismal justification is alleged to be referred to only once, in 3:5. Three of those references to justification through faith come later in Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus (3:15-16, 3:18). Using one reference to "water" to argue for the inclusion of baptism in such a large number of other passages that neither state nor imply its inclusion is dubious.

What does 3:5 mean, then? Jesus is speaking with a teacher within first-century Judaism and rebukes him, in that capacity, for not understanding what He was saying (3:10). Do the Old Testament scriptures or other sources a teacher in Judaism should have been familiar with teach baptismal justification? No. But the Old Testament does associate the Holy Spirit with water without having physical water in view (Isaiah 44:3), and John associates the Spirit with non-physical water elsewhere (John 7:37-39). Spiritual washing is a common theme in scripture (Psalm 51:2). Jesus probably is referring to Ezekiel 36:25-27, and it should be noted that He possibly alludes to the wind of resurrection from Ezekiel 37:9-14 in John 3:8. Jesus goes on to clarify what He's saying by referring to justification through faith three times, without any mention of baptism (3:15-16, 3:18).

Some of the same points I've made about other passages can be made regarding Acts 2:38. I've cited other passages in Luke's writings in which people are justified apart from baptism, including passages portrayed as normative and in which the people involved could easily have been baptized. Most likely, Acts 2:38 has a meaning similar to Matthew 3:11. The people in Matthew 3 weren't being baptized to attain repentance. Rather, they were repenting, then being baptized on the basis of that repentance. Not only would it be irrational to think that unrepentant people would be baptized in order to attain repentance, but Josephus specifically tells us that John's baptism was for people who had already repented (Antiquities Of The Jews, 18:5:2). Given the availability of such a reasonable understanding of Acts 2:38 (one similar to how we all read Matthew 3:11), it wouldn't make sense to adopt some other view of the passage that would be so inconsistent with what Luke says elsewhere and what other Biblical authors say (documented above).

1 Peter 3:21 is a passage addressed to Christians in the context of discussing sanctification. Baptism saves in that sense, not in the sense of justification. Like the baptism of John the Baptist, Christian baptism doesn't remove the filth of sin (1 Peter 3:21). Instead, it's a public pledge made to God that commits Christians, like those to whom Peter is writing, to faithfulness to God in their present experience of persecution. As J. Ramsey Michaels observes:

"It is unlikely that the present passage [1 Peter 3:21] intends to say something so banal as that baptism's purpose is not to wash dirt off the body. What early Christian would have thought that it was? More probably Peter, like James, has moral defilement in view, i.e., the 'impulses' that governed the lives of his readers before they believed in Christ...The 'removal of the filth of the flesh' is not a physical but a spiritual cleansing, and Peter's point is not that such cleansing is an unimportant or unnecessary thing, only that baptism is not it. The analogy of the passage in Josephus (18.117) suggests that Peter may simply be insisting that the inward moral cleansing to which he refers is presupposed by the act of water baptism. This interpretation is confirmed by the positive definition of baptism with which the argument now continues." (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 49, 1 Peter [Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988], p. 216)

In other words, Peter is contradicting your position rather than supporting it.

You write:

"Faith comes by hearing, of course. But if it comes to a person in its fullness (as a virtue), it has come to them through the sacrament of baptism, even if they have not yet been baptized. The Spirit ordinarily works through the sacrament, but the Spirit is capable of outrunning the sacrament, as John outran Peter at the tomb."

If you want people to accept your assertion, you should offer more than an analogy to John's outrunning Peter. As I said above, there are no Biblical examples of what you consider the normative role of baptism. But there are many Biblical examples of people being justified apart from baptism, in a wide variety of contexts, including contexts in which people could easily have been baptized.

You write:

"When Paul says 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?', he is asking them if they were confirmed when they were baptized."

You're not giving us any reason to agree with your conclusion. How are you getting baptism and confirmation from a reference to believing in Acts 19:2? You go on to cite 1 Timothy 6:12, but the fact that Timothy made a confession wouldn't lead us to your conclusion about how baptism and Roman Catholic confirmation allegedly relate to the reception of the Holy Spirit. Acts 19:2 only mentions faith. Your additions to the passage are unreasonable.

You write:

"Correct, but this believing includes baptism"

If you want us to believe that Galatians 3:2, Ephesians 1:13-14, and other passages are including baptism when they refer to faith, you need to argue for that position rather than just asserting it. There were Greek terms available for conveying the concept of baptism. A different term is sometimes used for baptism just after belief has been mentioned (Acts 8:12-13, 18:8). We don't begin with a default assumption that references to belief include baptism. If you want baptism included, you carry the burden of proof.

You write:

"In neither the Cornelius situation nor the Acts 19 situation is faith truly separated from baptism. Faith precedes it, but the Apostles do not take this as nullifying the need for baptism."

It's not just a matter of faith coming before baptism. Rather, justification does as well. Cornelius' example and Paul's assumed soteriology in Acts 19:2 involve the reception of the Spirit, the seal of adoption and justification, at the time of faith and prior to baptism. That's why the Christians in Jerusalem, after hearing Peter mention Cornelius' reception of the Spirit without any mention of his baptism, respond by saying that Cornelius had been given eternal life (Acts 11:18). Peter goes on to use Cornelius as an example of a person whose heart had been cleansed through faith, demonstrated by his reception of the Spirit (Acts 15:7-11). Peter says nothing of baptism in that context, and the reception of the Spirit that confirmed Cornelius' justification occurred prior to his baptism. Besides, reception of the Spirit is normally associated with the beginning of the Christian life, so the description of what happened in Acts 10:44-46 would be sufficient to support my conclusion even if we didn't have the further confirmation in Acts 11 and Acts 15.

You write:

"If a person believes, he will, like the Ethiopian eunuch, respond by seeking baptism, in which he is united to Christ, what St. Paul refers to as coming to 'belong to Christ' (Gal 5:24)"

As I documented earlier, many things in the Christian life unite us to Christ in many ways (Romans 8:17, 13:14, 2 Corinthians 4:10-11, Philippians 3:10-12). Something can unite us to Jesus without being a means of attaining justification, as the examples cited above illustrate.

You write:

"You’re thinking of the faith in an entirely subjective, inward and individualistic way. But faith is public. It involves a public ‘yes’ to the gospel, and that public yes means the reception of baptism and incorporation into His Body, the Church."

Faith begins inwardly, then is manifested outwardly. That's why scripture refers to justifying faith as something that happens in the heart (Acts 15:7-11, Romans 10:10).

And it's not as though including baptism in faith is the normal meaning of the Greek language in question. Rather, you're reading your Catholic theology into terms that normally don't include baptism. Faith and baptism are different things. The relevant Greek terms have objective meaning, and that meaning isn't determined by Catholic theology. As I said above, there were other Greek terms available if the authors wanted to communicate the concept of baptism, and they do often use such terms. The problem, for you, is that they don't use those terms in places where you want us to believe that baptism is involved....

You write:

"You don’t seem to realize Who is doing the baptizing. Does the believer exercise his free will in stepping into the font? Of course. But that’s not baptism. Who does the baptizing? Christ. Christ is the Baptizer."

You're singling out the elements of the ceremony (and the arranging of it) that you attribute to Christ alone. But terms like "baptism" and "getting baptized" are often used in the sense of all of the activities combined. If a person is "stepping into the font" and taking other actions in order to be baptized by Christ, then more than faith is involved.


  1. May God bless you and your associates for the great knowledge you all share on this blog.

  2. On the whole, Jason, I agree with you.

    One observation I have regards your explanation of John 3. Given the context of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, the meaning that logically fits what Christ is trying to explain to Nicodemus he restates in his next statement in verse 6. "Born of water" equates to "born of the flesh". Physical birth was often equated with the breaking of the "water" of the womb (which we now recognize to be amniotic fluid, which is mostly water anyway) which is the initiation of the birth process. And everything that comes out after that is wet, not with blood, but with water.

    So Jesus is saying that only those born of the flesh (fallen humanity) and born of the Spirit (as a child of God) to have the extraordinary relationship of redemption, reconciliation and exaltation with God that he doesn't even give to the angels. That special relationship, I believe, is what defines the Kingdom of God. Then he goes on to link this to the teaching of faith by virtue of metaphor or parable in verse 12 and surrounding verses. Jesus was pointing out that Nicodemus and the rest of the Pharisees could recognize that he was a teacher sent from God in heaven and still not accept his teaching because they were not born of the Spirit. They couldn't believe. They had no faith because they relied on their own authority and not on the authority of God.

    John the Baptist, in contrast, in verse 30 demonstrates his utter reliance on the authority of God in that he said of Jesus that "He must increase, but I must decrease."

    Anyway, although we read later in verse 22 and following that Jesus and John were both baptizing, the context of verse 3 has nothing that points to baptism as the meaning of "born of water".

    Actually, I think the baptism of John the Baptist was taken from the ancient requirements for a gentile to become a Jew. They must do three things:

    1. become circumcised;
    2. offer a sacrifice;
    3. be baptized.

    Jews were Jews by birth. They were circumcised according to the law and offered sacrifices according to the law. Jews having been born Jews didn't need to be baptized. I believe that the requirement of baptism for Gentiles was a symbolic alignment with birth as a Jew. So you could say that Jesus could have been referring to baptism on this account. However, the Covenentalists link baptism in the New Covenant with circumcision in the Old covenant. If John's baptism was taken from the requirements for a Gentile's inclusion in the Jewish community, this could be argued to be a separate act. So mention of being "born of water" in a dual role with being "born of the Spirit" would be something other than a covenental act.

    So John's baptism was a call for Jews to recognize that they had not bee faithful Jews. And as such they had been no better than Gentiles. Baptism was therefore logically a matter of repentance to change and return to the faith that was commanded of their forefathers. We as gentiles submit to the baptism that Jesus commanded his followers to perform out of obedience as an act of faith in Christ according to the prompting of our spiritual birth. Therefore, baptism is not representative of our physical birth: it is representative of our spiritual birth.

    Jesus, in verse 3, referred to physical birth in a dual role but as something separate from spiritual birth. Therefore, this is why I don't think Jesus was directly talking about baptism in verse 3.

  3. The orthodox interpretation of John 3 is unanimous in the church fathers. Unanimous.

  4. “In this matter of baptism — if I may be pardoned for saying it — I can only conclude that all the doctors have been in error from the time of the apostles. . . . All the doctors have ascribed to the water a power which it does not have and the holy apostles did not teach.” - Huldrych Zwingli

  5. Blogahon,

    You keep contradicting what you said earlier about posting here. And you haven't interacted with what I documented earlier regarding your erroneous claims about the history of justification through faith alone. See here, including the documentation regarding pre-Reformation views of baptism. I reject your characterization of the church fathers, and the fathers aren't the only relevant pre-Reformation sources or the only relevant sources during the patristic era. You keep repeating the same errors that I corrected previously.

  6. Blogahon writes:

    The orthodox interpretation of John 3 is unanimous in the church fathers. Unanimous.

    The orthodox interpretation of Matthew 16:18 is unanimous in the church fathers. Unanimous.