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A Pharisee on Baptism

There is a common criticism against members of the churches of Christ regarding the practice of baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  The criticism is that by teaching and practicing this doctrine, we make baptism a work of merit, that is, a work by which a person earns his salvation.  Such critics say that this amounts to legalism, which is the pursuit of righteousness through a system of law rather than through a system of grace and faith.  They compare us to the Pharisees of Christ’s time who were the embodiment of faithless legalism (Matt. 15:1-20; 23:1-39).

Let us answer this criticism by first considering whether the doctrine of baptism for the forgiveness of sins is Scriptural.  Notice that Jesus commanded His apostles to preach this clear message to all creation – “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16).  Shortly after Jesus ascended to heaven, Peter told the Jews on Pentecost to “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38).  Those who received the word of God through Peter were baptized (Acts 2:41) and were counted as saved (Acts 2:47).  Later, when Saul of Tarsus was told what he must do, he was instructed, “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16).  Further, Peter wrote in plain words, “Baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1Pet. 3:21).  There are many other passages to consider, but for the brevity of the present study, these are sufficient to demonstrate that the practice of baptism for the forgiveness of sins is Scriptural.

Now let us understand that the Scriptural practice of baptism for the forgiveness of sins is not legalism.  The Scripture does not teach that baptism (immersion) in water has any merit or value to earn one’s salvation.  Rather, the Scripture demonstrates that baptism is a condition set by the Lord for believers to obey in order to receive the blessings that Christ has died to give us, including forgiveness and salvation.  Baptism is a prerequisite condition for salvation just the same as hearing the word of God (Rom. 10:17), having faith in Christ (John 8:24), making confession of Christ (Rom. 10:10), and repenting from sins (Luke 13:3).  Teaching that baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins is no more legalism than teaching that faith is necessary for forgiveness of sins.  Therefore, baptism is a work of faith, not a work of merit or of legalism.

Finally, let us determine whether the comparison of members of the church of Christ to the Pharisees is fair by considering what the true character of the Pharisees was.  Notice that many of the Pharisees went to John the baptist for baptism, but he refused them (Matt. 3:7-12).  John preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4), and he instructed the Pharisees to “bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8).  However, they were unwilling to repent, so the Pharisees were not baptized by John.  Luke wrote that they had “rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John” (Luke 7:30).  Therefore, the Pharisees who went to John for baptism did not seek baptism for the purpose that God had determined.  This was the typical character of the Pharisees, for they observed the Law of Moses, but not for the proper spiritual purposes that God had intended.

Now let us ask: Who is being a Pharisee on the subject of baptism?  Is it the person who teaches and practices baptism for the forgiveness of sins according to the Scriptures, or is it the person who teaches and practices baptism for reasons other than those revealed in the Scriptures?  The answer is obvious, and the criticism against members of the church of Christ is not only answered, but it is reversed onto the critics.

Stacey E. Durham




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