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Baptism, Baptismal Regeneration
by Rubel Shelly
Published in LoveLines (Apr. 27, 1994)
On two different public occasions recently, I have had people from different religious backgrounds than my own ask the same question: "Do Church of Christ people believe in baptismal regeneration?"
How would you answer the question? Do you know what "baptismal regeneration" is? Do you believe in it? Do you know why people would wonder about our belief in such a thing?
Baptismal regeneration is a doctrine to the effect that baptism really and actually forgives sins. It holds that immersion is a sacramental action that secures pardon. It is the notion of "water salvation" taught in the name of the gospel.
My response in both cases was to say that I know of no theologian within our fellowship who believes or teaches such a view of baptism. I explained my understanding that it is the blood of Jesus Christ alone that really and actually forgives sins; baptism is a symbolic act whose true significance is found in the death, burial, and resurrection of the Son of God (Rom. 6:1-4).
Baptism is a necessary, though not sufficient, evidence of saving faith; it is therefore a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of salvation. Baptism's significance is that it confesses and claims the cross. It does not save except as it points a believer to Christ's death on his or her behalf.
I entertain no fear of damnation, for example, for that soul my questioning friends press me about who "dies on his way to the baptistery." I do have deep concern, however, for the one who professes faith but whose faith does not show itself in such commanded actions as baptism (cf. Jas. 2:24).
As to why anyone ever thought we held such a doctrine, I suspect it traces to one of two things: (1) our poor articulation of biblical teaching about baptism or (2) the fact that we have taught the false doctrine of baptismal regeneration in some instances. When someone says, for example, that the blood of Jesus is "God's part" in salvation and baptism is "our part," he has taught something that is dreadfully false.
The blood of Jesus is the sum total of what is required for human redemption. We contribute nothing to our salvation. We can only trust what God has done at the cross and indicate our willingness to accept it as a free gift in our submissive, obedient faith.
For our historic insistence on the importance of baptism, I don't want anyone to think we trust baptism for our salvation. Our faith must be in Christ alone.