In the hard line Churches of Christ I was taught repeatedly that if a person did not know that their baptism was for the remission of sins (in order to separate them from their lost state into a saved state) then they were not saved, their baptism was not valid (and they needed to be re-baptized). The real motivation for this baptism ideal was to separate the Churches of Christ from all other groups and to require that everyone who wanted to be a part of the exclusive club had to be baptized in one of our baptistries. But they couldn’t admit that, so they came up with a condition of baptism that excluded everyone but us.
The Churches of Christ do have some biblical stories and passages of scripture to back up their belief that baptism is for the remission of sins. In fact almost all denominations will agree with the Churches of Christ that baptism is for the remission of sins. Most will say that baptism is only a symbol of the remission of sins, not the actual moment in time when the sins were forgiven, which is where they depart from what the Churches of Christ teach, but almost all affirm the symbolic nature of baptism as the washing away of sins. (The Churches of Christ are the only Christian group that affirms the literal nature of baptism, but only the symbolic nature of the Lord’s Supper. Most Christian groups say they are both symbolic only, or both sacramental, but the Churches of Christ are the only group that says baptism is literally for the remission of sins, but the Lord’s Supper is only a symbol of the grace we receive in Christ.)
My question in today’s blog is: Who needs to know that your baptism is for the remission of sins? Take the Ethiopian eunuch’s story in Acts 8. He was reading from the book of Isaiah. Philip explained to him that Isaiah was speaking of the Messiah, who was Jesus, and eventually the eunuch wanted to be baptized. So let’s say someone today was reading the book of Matthew, and came across the story of John baptizing people, and Jesus getting baptized, and then Jesus’ disciples baptizing. So the person decided, “Hey! I want to be a follower of this person, Jesus. I want to start my life over. I’m going to get baptized.” So they go out to a river and get baptized (because everyone in the book of Matthew was baptized in the Jordan River). But let’s say this person didn’t really connect that the moment of their salvation was when their sins were being washed away in the baptism in the river. Was their baptism recognized by God as a valid baptism? The hard line Churches of Christ would say, “No. That person must be re-baptized in our baptistry.”
However, that person was baptized in response to reading the gospel story in the book of Matthew. That person was baptized because she wanted to respond to Jesus’ teaching about baptism and repentance.
Who really needs to know that the baptism is for the remission of sins, and who needs to know when the moment of salvation occurs? I say God is the only person that needs to know exactly when and how. God knows what baptism is for, and God can apply the requisite forgiveness according to His wisdom, and regardless of the imperfect understanding of the baptizee.
When I started to question the hard line Churches of Christ I had a meeting with two ministers, close friends and co-workers of mine. I asked them a series of questions: what does someone who is being baptized need to know and understand when they are baptized for their baptism to be valid? Does the person have to understand that we are not part of denominationalism before their baptism in order for their baptism to be valid? One minister said yes, the other said no. What about instrumental music? They both said no. What about pentecostalism? One said yes, the other said no. I continued to ask a series of questions, and they continued to disagree about what a person had to know before baptism in order for their baptism to be valid.
The real issue is whether someone wants to be a follower of Jesus. Do they need to understand the nature of Christ? No. Do they need to understand that Jesus is God? No. Do they need to understand that they cannot participate in any other world religion? No. They only need to understand that Jesus taught good news, that he died and rose from the dead. God knows all the rest.