Salvation is certainly the most important doctrine in the Bible. Unfortunately, there are many confusing messages on what should be the most fundamental of all God’s teachings. This makes it difficult to work with others and really challenges the motto, “We are not the only Christians, but Christians only.” Growing up in the denominational world, I believe I have insight in how to explain the proper roles of confession and baptism to those who seek to keep them as far apart as possible.
We must first understand how your denominational friend thinks. He separates baptism from salvation, because in his view, including baptism would imply salvation is by works. So instead of including baptism, he relegates it to a secondary or optional status. Confession and baptism are seen as opposing forces, with one saving and the other testifying. Our task is to show that the New Testament church did not have this dichotomy, and instead saw both as complimentary.
Most today love to quote Romans 10:9-10: “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation” (NAS95).
Yet strangely, the Roman Road (a denominational method to present the gospel) bypasses Romans 6 on its way to Romans 10.
“Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection,” (Romans 6:3–5 NAS95).
For many today, these verses are understood as having absolutely nothing to do with each other. The Romans 6 passage is taught as what happens after salvation or is spiritualized to not be a water baptism. This is because they have been taught their doctrine first, and the scriptures made subservient to their church's creedal statement. This is why proof texting is so unsuccessful and ultimately breaks down. When you quote verses your friend will just hear “your interpretation” and won’t catch what the scriptures are actually saying.
So we must first take what seems to him like two totally separate concepts and show him that the New Testament church did confession and baptism at the same time! When it is put like this, it should finally get his attention as this is a bold claim that he has not heard before. So now when you look at the Bible, it will be to show what was done, not to interpret the theology of verses.
To clarify how confession and baptism were used together, we need them demonstrated together by the early church. Conveniently, the Bible gives us two clear examples how this was done.
"36 As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 37And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” 38And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him." (Acts 8:36–38 NAS95).
“Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16 NAS95).
These verses also shed light on Romans 10:9-10 as the confession was done during the baptism. The context of Romans 10 supports this assertion as one reads further: “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13 NAS95).
There wasn’t a “sinner’s prayer” in the NT, but converts were made to understand they were sinners. To be baptized with Christ is to die with Christ, killing the old man as Romans 6 teaches, crucifying it with its sinful nature. If only the pro-baptism side would emphasize this aspect more it would help alleviate many of the misunderstandings of the denominational world.
On the other side, many baptism proponents argue so much for baptism that it sounds like baptism is the gospel and not the response to the gospel as it really is (1 Corinthians 1:17). We have many baptized people in our churches today who think they are going to heaven because they have performed a ritual of the organized church. This thinking is just as faulty as saying a prayer will suffice.
We are all ultimately saved by God’s grace, made possible by the blood of Jesus. If we hear the gospel and believe, we will repent of our sins, confess Jesus as Lord, and be baptized. This is the biblical pattern that we should follow, baptism just being the time and the place that we receive what we have believed on in faith. Baptism doesn’t negate the cross, rather it fulfills it (Galatians 3:27).
Yes, we could dream up possible exceptions “What if I was in the desert and there was no water to baptize?” or “What if a mute was on a plane about to crash and could not confess!” Because we are ultimately saved by grace, God will deal fairly with people in exceptional circumstances, but as evangelists we have been called to preach what was laid down by the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20).
It is not our right to allow hypothetical situations dreamed up today to change what was the normal practice of the New Testament church. "Asking Jesus into our hearts" is a recent invention unknown to the early church and is based upon the false notion that faith is just mental assent (or just agreeing with God).
It is true that Romans 3 teaches us that "Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness", but I don't believe that Abraham would have received his promise if he had not got on his camel and headed for The Promised Land. Real faith will promote real change: true repentance, boldness in confession, and hopefully the easiest of the three, baptism.
Almost everyone we will ever meet will be able to hear the gospel, confess Jesus as Lord, and be baptized. When we start to reason that a prayer will suffice, or sprinkling instead of immersion, or any of the other countless variations we have added over the last 2000 years, it is no wonder that many are asking, “How do I know I am really saved?” With each denomination giving its opinion and not what was demonstrated by the New Testament Church, it is no wonder people are confused.
I close with this final verse given from the Apostle Paul to a young preacher looking for advice in building his church:
“Retain the standard . . . ” (2 Timothy 1:13 NAS95).
Known as an expert in all he surveys, he freely shares his opinions on politics, science & theology using diatribes based upon careless research from tertiary sources that presupposed what he thought in the first place.