For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. -- Ephesians 2: 8-9 (ESV)
Leave it to man to so muddy up what is often times so simple to understand. God truly uses the commonplace to confound the wise. There is a reason why the Bible instructs us to cast off human wisdom and to not lean upon our own understanding beloved. For the ways of God are so far above ours. His thoughts are so far above our thoughts. Yet for all of our wisdom often times we are so unwise. We over complicate things that should be plain in the text. We create whole doctrine out of thin air while avoiding sound hermeneutical principles along the way. What is worse is once we have arrived at our core beliefs we turn them into dogma. We become unteachable to even the possibility that maybe we got it wrong. From dogma we turn them into ritual. The answer of, "that is how we have always believed" becomes more acceptable than thus sayeth the Lord. I realized a few years ago when I first got into discernment ministries that most of us do not want the truth anymore. We just want confirmation that our personal worldview is accurate. Even if it is not. Even if the Bible actually contradicts it.
But the Bible is the final revealed will of an infinite God as it pertains to His creation here on earth. The idea that anyone can read the Bible a few times, cross reference some commentaries and think they have completely figured out this infinite God is patently absurd and infinitely arrogant. The truth is that our faith must leave room for evolving (yes I am stealing that word back) based upon new revelation from the Word. You can read a verse twenty times and then on the 21st time, ten years into your salvation, the Spirit leads you into a truth you had been missing all along. That is why we are charged with doing the work of a Berean. That is why we work out our salvation with fear and trembling instead of complacency and haughtiness. God is always teaching but we often times have trouble realizing that we have not arrived. I understand it is difficult. Perhaps few things are as humbling as realizing that you have believed in an error or in a false teaching. Beloved, I can assure you however there are few things as liberating as coming out of them and into the truth. A perfect example of muddying the waters on an issue is when it comes to baptism. Consider the following two verse sets:
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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always, to the end of the age. -- Matthew 28: 19-20 (ESV)
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. Acts 2: 38 (ESV)
At first blush this may seem contradictory. The Matthew verses state clearly that we are to baptize people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost yet the Acts verse states only in the name of Jesus. What is a Christian to do? Well the first thing we must do is acknowledge the sufficiency and sovereignty of God. He is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. He spoke the entire universe into existence with a single spoken word. Why is it important to start here? Because there is no way that this all powerful and all-knowing God would make a mistake or provide such a contradiction. Once you realize that you understand first of all that these two verses do not contradict themselves at all. That means it is only human traditions and wisdom that is causing the disconnect.
So let us go deeper than that. Whenever we start to examine Scripture we start with context and end with context. Only context matters. Not our opinions. Not our predispositions. Not our rituals and history. The overall context behind the Book of Matthew is that it was written to a Jewish audience. Matthew was communicating to Jewish people about their Messiah, who they just happened to have killed. The Book of Acts however was written by Luke, who was the doctor for Paul. The Apostle Paul was of course given to the Gentiles so it is no wonder that the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts is primarily written to a Gentile audience. Thus it is no surprise that when Matthew addresses baptism he refers to the triune God. The Jewish people would be more easily persuaded by the inclusion of the Father -- a term that came from their own rich history of God. The Gentiles however were grafted in because of the Jewish rejection of Christ so it is of little wonder that Luke references the Christ as opposed to the trinity. It is not that Luke was denying the trinity or that Matthew was denying that Jesus is the only way. The overall point and today's deep theology is this -- it doesn't matter. They are saying the same thing. God is the Father. He is the Son. He is the Holy Spirit. Matthew was saying "tom-ay-to" and Luke was saying "to-mah-to." Leave it to man to miss the big picture by focusing on what is relatively unimportant. This is what Jesus referred to as straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel; which not ironically was a charge He leveled against the Pharisees and their religious traditions. Jesus was even more to the point here in the Gospel of Mark:
Thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do. -- Mark 7: 13 (ESV)
We can actually make void the actual Word of God by insisting on our own traditions and dogmas over true biblical interpretation. One such group that has indeed made void the Word of God is the Jesus Only group, which are also called Oneness Pentecostals. As you can imagine, a Jesus Only Christian believes that the verse from Acts is a literal instruction from God regarding how we are to be baptized. Thus anyone who was baptized following the Matthew verses is considered unsaved to them. I kid you not. Just to make sure we are on the same page please understand that they believe if when you were getting baptized the person said, "In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit" then you are going to hell. That only those who were baptized in Jesus name only are heaven bound. How absolutely ridiculous. That someone would get to stand before Christ and He would consign them to hell because the wrong words were said when they were baptized -- and that is assuming the words were wrong! This is the poster child for missing the forest for the trees. This is making void the Word for the traditions of man. I wish that was it but this group takes it further. They believe that baptism is actually necessary for salvation. That the act of being water baptized results in salvation. For proof texts, they use the following:
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. -- Mark 16: 16 (ESV)
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, - 1Peter 3: 21 (ESV)
Let us start with the verse from Mark. If you are using a good Bible you will notice a footnote regarding Mark 16: 9-20. That footnote indicates that these verses were not part of the two oldest and most respected manuscripts. As one might imagine, the older manuscripts are generally regarded as more accurate because there is less time between the actual writing of the Gospel and the recording of the manuscript. Additionally, experts have agreed that the writing style and vocabulary used in these verses does not match the rest of the Gospel. There are in fact 18 words in these 11 verses that appear nowhere else in this gospel account. This has led many theologians to rightly conclude that they were probably added later by a scribe. So what does this mean for us as believers? Since the verses do not contradict the veracity of other Scriptures we inherently accept them but we do not use them to create doctrine without parallel support from other places in the Bible. To do so is dangerous and very likely inaccurate. Perhaps you have read about those strange churches that handle live snakes during service. In fact, one of those pastors was killed by a snakebite last year. Guess where they base their theology on? Mark 16:18.
That said, even if you accept this verse for doctrinal purposes it still does not teach that baptism is required to be saved. That is a gross misunderstanding and twisting of the verse. First of all there is a logical fallacy in assuming that because it says that those who believe and baptized are saved that the inverse must also be true. Namely, that those who are not do not share in salvation. It is absolutely true that those who believe and are baptized will be saved. It is not true, nor stated however that those who do not are not saved. More importantly, the end of the verse qualifies what the writer is saying. It is the belief that results in salvation, not the baptism. How can we be sure? Because he who does not believe is condemned. Not he who does not believe and is not baptized. We also must understand the local context. In these days there was no delay between believing and baptism as we see today in the church. Time and time again we see immediate baptism following conversion. So to the writer, baptism went along with belief but to infer that means it is required for salvation is simply not supported in this text.
That same fact, that baptism accompanied conversion appears to drive what Peter was getting at in the next verse the oneness folks like to leverage. But within the very context of the verse their argument falls apart. Peter explicitly says it is not the act of baptism, removal of dirt from the body, but rather as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection that leads to salvation. Once again, it is faith in Christ, not the mere act of baptism that saves someone. Baptism only removes the dirt beloved, but faith in the resurrection is what saves. Now to Peter these things went hand in hand. Everyone who was saved was baptized; or were they?
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared,"Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" -- Acts 10: 44-47 (ESV)