BAPTISM AND JUSTIFICATION IN THE CHURCHES OF CHRIST
I planted a church in Fort Worth, Texas for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and lived in Texas for eight years. In evangelical circles, the Dallas-Fort Worth area is known as the buckle of the Bible Belt. Among evangelical churches in Texas, two denominations, the Baptists and The Churches of Christ, dominate the Protestant landscape. While there are a variety of beliefs among Baptist denominations, the denomination, or group of churches known as The Churches of Christ has been more distinctive in its beliefs.
The Churches of Christ are generally known for two distinctives that separate them from most other Protestant denominations. The first distinctive is that the Churches do not believe that musical instruments can be used in worship, so they sing their hymns in church a capella. The second distinctive is that The Churches of Christ hold that a sinner must be baptized by immersion to receive forgiveness of sins. As result of this second distinctive concerning baptism’s relationship to forgiveness, a common criticism of the Church of Christ from other Protestant is that the Churches of Christ hold to a form of works salvation, a charge that the Churches of Christ of course deny. This paper will seek to offer a brief overview of The Churches of Christ’s view of baptism’s relationship to justification, and then to discern if The Churches of Christ truly do hold to a form of works salvation.
The Churches of Christ was born out of the Second Great Awakening in early 19th century America. Four men; Elias Smith in New England, James O’Kelly in Virginia, Barton Stone in Kentucky, and Alexander Campbell in Pennsylvania, led a popular movement called the “Restoration Movement.” These four men and their enthusiastic followers rejected the theological creeds of the past, as well as the structures of ecclesiastical authority common among the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, and sought to restore the church to what they considered was its true New Testament form. The followers of these men especially despised any distinction between clergy and laity.
The Churches of Christ looks to Alexander Campbell more than the others as its original founder. Campbell was a Scottish Presbyterian immigrant who, when arriving in the States, rejected his Presbyterian heritage. In 1812, Campbell’s first child was born, so Campbell decided to restudy baptism in the Bible to see if he should present his son for baptism. From his own study of the New Testament, Campbell determined that he himself had not been scripturally baptized because he had been baptized as an infant, so he requested a local Baptist minister to immerse him and his adult family members in “true” baptism, and also determined not to have his baby baptized.
Campbell began to question all he had learned from his Presbyterian heritage. In 1815 Campbell wrote to his uncle, “During this period of years my mind and circumstances have undergone many revolutions…I have…renounced much of the traditions and errors of my early education. ” 1 Campbell also rejected the Calvinism of his upbringing, as the idea of predestination in his mind impugned upon human freedom so important to vital religion. Campbell attempted to bring American Christians back to what he called “primitive Christianity,” which in his mind would free Christians from the rigidity of theological creeds and authoritative ministers that had enslaved believers for generations. Eventually Campbell’s followers departed from their existing denominations and simply called themselves “Christians” and met as local groups, with no paid clergy to lead them.
These Christians became more organized as the movement grew, and soon they called themselves the “Disciples of Christ” which then formed into somewhat of a denomination, but with each church autonomous as to its governing. But what began as a movement against abusive ministers developed into a movement against all church authority. Campbell sarcastically wrote in a newspaper he mockingly called “Third Epistle of Peter” that ministers were to adorn themselves and fleece the people. As church historian Nathan Hatch writes, “Evangelicals in the past had often questioned the spiritual state of individual clergymen; the Christians now took the liberty of slandering the entire profession as money-grubbing tyrants.” 2
In 1840 Campbell founded Bethany College in Virginia. He determined there would be no professor of theology in his school because he believed the Bible was so plain to all that no one needed to teach others the plain truth. Campbell believed that the clergy had held a monopoly on interpretation for too long, and he was freeing all Christians to see the plain truth of the Bible for themselves. The irony of Campbell’s accusations against the “sectarianism” of American Protestantism is that his own movement was filled with strife and divisions almost from the start. Though Campbell believed that the New Testament was so plain regarding Christianity’s beliefs and practices that one does not need a creed or paid minster to read them and live by them, everyone agreeing on what they read in the Bible is easier said than done.
For example, a split arose among the Disciples of Christ concerning music in worship. Some of the Disciples did not see the New Testament allowing for musical instruments in worship, and these felt so strongly about it that they formed their own splinter group, soon to be called The Churches of Christ. Others thought this conclusion was a wrong reading of the New Testament and refused to follow them. Though The Churches of Christ were not officially recognized until 1906, the actual separation between The Churches of Christ and the other Disciples had been slowly occurring for many years.
Baptism in Campbell’s Writings
In the early 1820’s, Campbell began debating Presbyterian ministers on the issue of baptism. His first debate was with Presbyterian minister John Walker in 1820. In this debate, Campbell did not veer far from his Baptist brethren on the issue of baptism’s relationship to justification. Churches of Christ historian Douglas Foster writes: “In the debate with Walker, Campbell clearly states that baptism is emblematic of the salvation already received by those who believe. The renewing of the Holy Spirit preceded and led the believer to baptism as a representation of that completed work of God. Campbell’s understanding was essentially that held by most Baptists at the time.” 3
Campbell also wrote at this time; “Behold the goodness of God in giving us a formal proof and token of [forgiveness], by ordaining a baptism expressly `for the remission of sins!’ The water of baptism, then, formally washes away our sins. Paul’s sins were really pardoned when he believed, yet he had no solemn pledge of that fact, no formal acquittal, no formal purgation of his sins until he washed them away in the water of baptism. To every believer, therefore, baptism is a formal and personal remission, or purgation of sins.” 4 Here Campbell regarded baptism as a solemn pledge from God that sins had already been washed away. Though Baptists had not normally used the terminology of baptism being a solemn pledge from God of forgiven sins, nothing in these words above would have separated Campbell from other Baptists regarding baptism’s connection to justification.
But in just a few years Campbell’s views began to change, and he granted to baptism a more prominent role in salvation than any Baptist in America had ever done in the past. In 1828, Campbell argued in the Christian Baptist newspaper that, “the moment a believer is immersed into the name of Christ, he obtains the forgiveness of his sins as actually and as formally as he puts him on in immersion.” 5 In his book, “Christian Baptism With Its Antecedents and Consequents,” Campbell was even clearer on the importance of baptism for forgiveness as he stated, “no one could, for a moment, doubt that the design of baptism was ‘for the remission of sins… In the first place then, no one is commanded to be baptized for anything else; and no one is ever said to have been baptized for anything else, than for the remission of sins. This is a very important fact, and worthy of much reflection.” 6
Though it -appears from the words above that Campbell had moved to a position of baptismal regeneration, the historical record at this point is somewhat confusing. In 1837 Campbell received a letter from a woman asking if there were Christians among all the Protestant sects, and he responded, “But who is a Christian? I answer, every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will. I cannot, therefore, make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion into the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” 7
Though Campbell seemed to want to hold to a high view of baptism with enough humility to allow others to disagree, Campbell’s reply to the woman’s question resulted in a great amount of disappointment and criticism from his followers who were greatly concerned that Campbell had given in to the Protestant “sectarians” on this important issue. So did Campbell believe that through baptism our sins are forgiven? In November 1837, Campbell’s second article appeared, and he clarified is earlier remarks with the following: “Can a person who simply, not perversely, mistakes the outward baptism, have the inward? We all agree that he who willfully or negligently perverts the outward, cannot have the inward. But can he who, through a simple mistake, involving no perversity of mind, has misapprehended the outward baptism, yet submitting to it according to his view of it, have the inward baptism which changes his state and has praise of God, though not of all men, is the precise question. To which I answer, that, in my opinion, it is possible. Farther than this, I do not affirm.” 8 Campbell was again careful not to discount the salvation of all Presbyterians baptized in infancy, yet he leaves room for baptism normally being a prerequisite for salvation. He wanted to clarify his comments again because in a later article he admitted to giving “some pain to our brethren, and some pleasure to our sectarian friends,” with his words above that seem to allow for disagreement among Protestants on this question. Apparently Campbell’s followers were even more adamant on baptism that he was.
From Campbell to the Present Day
The majority of pastors in The Churches of Christ have held to Campbell’s view of the necessity of baptism for salvation, with the caveat that those who do not agree with their view may be justified, but excused by God for their ignorance of the subject. Ironically, a movement that began with debates against Presbyterians over baptism developed into a movement debating Baptists over baptism. In 1889, The Churches of Christ pastor James A. Harding debated J. B. Moody for sixteen nights in Nashville, TN. During this debate Harding affirmed: “Baptism to the penitent believer is for the pardon of his past sins. 9
On July 2, 1893, The Churches of Christ preacher J. W. McGarvey preached a sermon on baptism at the Broadway church in Louisville, Kentucky. McGarvey said: “We learn then, that baptism is an act in which a man is buried in water and raised again in imitation of the burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is done by the command of the Lord Jesus Christ himself; the blessing which follows the act is the remission of our sins; the act brings us into Christ, into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; and it is followed by the gift of the Holy Spirit.” 10
In 1938, N. B. Hardeman and Ben M. Bogard debated at Little Rock, Arkansas, where Hardeman affirmed: “The Bible teaches that baptism, as taught in the commission of our Lord, is for, in order to, the remission of sins, to the penitent believer.” 11 In 1943, Church of Christ pastor Gus Nichols debated C. J. Weaver of the Church of God (Holiness) at Huntsville, Alabama, and said: “The scriptures teach that water baptism to a penitent believer of the gospel is unto the remission of alien sins, or is a condition of salvation from past sins.” 11
Turning to the present day, it is difficult to find a precise present-day theological statement on The Church of Christ’s view of baptism in relation to justification for a number of reasons. For one, in my research I rarely if ever found the word “justification” used by Churches of Christ ministers. The Churches of Christ do not usually use the Reformed theological language coming from the 15th and 16th century reformed confessions. Also, since the Churches propose that they have no creed but the New Testament, they have been reticent to publish any official declaration of their teaching. One needs to read individual Churches of Christ’s advertisements to find out their views. On the Churches of Christ website, http://church-of-christ.org/, there is no summary of beliefs or doctrines, only references to teachings and sermons. The is only a brief description of what entails salvation and its relationship to baptism:
You should know that baptism requires:
- Going down into the water (Acts 8:36-38)
- A burial in water (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12)
- A resurrection (Acts 8:39; Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12)
- A birth (John 3:3-5; Romans 6:3-6)
- A washing (Acts 22:16; Hebrews 10:22)
You should know that by baptism:
- You are saved from sins (Mark 16:16 1 Peter 3:21)
- You have remission of sins (Acts 2:38)
- Sins are washed away by the blood of Christ (Acts 22:16; Hebrews 9:22; Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 3:21)
- You enter into the church (1 Corinthians 12:13; Acts 2:41,47)
- You enter into Christ (Galatians 3:26-27; Romans 6:3-4)
- You put on Christ and become a child of God (Galatians 3:26-27)
- You are born again, a new creature (Romans 6:3-4; 2 Corinthians 5:17)
- You walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-6)
- You obey Christ (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 10:48; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9)
Now it is important to understand that The Churches of Christ do not believe in baptismal regeneration in the same way Roman Catholics do. Roman Catholics believe that when an infant is baptized, the infant’s original sin is washed clean. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2.7. 1266 “The Most Holy Trinity gives the baptized sanctifying grace, the grace of justification: – enabling them to believe in God, to hope in him, and to love him through the theological virtues; – giving them the power to live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit through the gifts of the Holy Spirit; allowing them to grow in goodness through the moral virtues. Thus the whole organism of the Christian’s supernatural life has its roots in Baptism.” When one critiques The Churches of Christ’s teaching on baptism, one must not confuse their view with the Roman Catholic view. The Churches of Christ do not believe baptism saves you in the sense that when an infant is baptized he receives the grace of justification. In Church of Christ theology, a person must personally believe in Jesus Christ’s death for their sin in order to be saved. The Churches of Christ believe that baptism is the instrument, or means by which God washes away the sins of a penitent sinner.
Now both the Roman Catholic Church and Churches of Christ have this in common; that if you do not follow through on your baptism with holy living you will lose what grace you received through baptism. Here is what a modern Churches of Christ pastor writes about baptism’s relationship to salvation, referenced at the Churches of Christ website cited above. “Critics often accuse us of thinking there’s some power in the water that saves us. Of course there isn’t. Peter set that issue to rest when he said that it is …`not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.’ Baptism is the divinely appointed avenue through which we place our complete confidence in Christ. I once talked with a man who had never been immersed. He said, `My wife has been immersed, but I can’t tell that she’s a better person than I am.’ Another man told me, `I went into the water a dry sinner and came out a wet sinner.’ They missed the point. Baptism does not change one’s character. The word of God teaches us how to live and the Holy Spirit enables us to live God honoring lives. Baptism is a response to the word of God and it marks the time when we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
So do the Churches of Christ hold to a works salvation? The Churches of Christ assume that their belief in the necessity of sincere repentance and faith in order for baptism to be effectual as an instrument by which remission of sins is granted excuses them from the charge of works salvation. But when the Apostle Paul in Romans 4 explains how a man is justified, forgiven and declared righteous before God, he offers Abraham as an example of all who believe. The Apostle clearly states that Abraham was granted forgiveness and righteousness before he was circumcised; before he received the sign of that covenant. (Rom 4:7-12). In all my reading from Churches of Christ pastors, I did not see any of them deal with this passage, nor with all the occasions in the gospels when people were saved apart from a sacrament, such as when Jesus says to the woman who washed his feet, “your faith has saved you, go in peace (Luke 7:50), or to the paralytic, “your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:20).
If one needs to undergo a ritual to receive forgiveness, even a ritual approved of in the Bible such as baptism, then forgiveness does come through works, for baptism is something that I do. And since baptism is a sacrament or ordinance that the clergy performs, forgiveness becomes a gift procured through the work of another man. So in essence The Churches of Christ do hold to a form of works salvation. This is not to deny that there are sincere believers in the Churches of Christ, as there are sincere believers among Roman Catholics, but to take The Churches of Christ’s position on baptism to its logical conclusion, one is left with works salvation; that God does not grant remission of sins to a sinner until a sinner obeys him first by being baptized.
As one evaluates the Churches of Christ, their history and theology, maybe the lesson above all is that we as believers have no right to reject the Holy’ Spirit’s work in the saints of the past, whether in their theological confessions or view of the church. We should never assume that God only began leading us to truth in our lifetime. That is not to say those older saints and their writings cannot be questioned or approved upon, but the Campbellites were like teenagers who say to their parents, “the day I turn 18 and leave home, I am determined to forget or ignore all you have taught me on life and truth, and 1will determine only for myself these matters.” While one hopes children to not simply mimic all their parents’ views without thinking for themselves, it would be the height of arrogance, ungratefulness, and dare I say stupidity to simply dismiss all that has come before. The Churches of Christ from the onset started with this harmful and dangerous desire to separate from Christians in the past, and as a result they have steered into a form of works of salvation, which ironically, was a view they criticized the Protestant “sects” as propagating in the second great awakening.
Hatch writes, “like many of his generation, that stripping away the accretions of theology and tradition would restore peace, harmony and vitality to the Christian church. Only slightly tempered by a sense of their own limitations, these reformers espoused private judgment as the sure route to coherence and harmony. Unfortunately, the more confidently they attacked the traditional order and espoused individual autonomy, the more confusing their limitless world became.” 12 With Campbell’s unfortunate distrust of the saints of the past, as well as clergy that God has gifted to teach, it was only a matter of time, without any sure foundation or guidance from the past, that Campbell’s spiritual children would venture away from the pure gospel to a form of works salvation. May we all take heed from his mistakes and tread carefully when we ignore the contributions of history and theological interpretation of those who have gone before us.
1. Nathan Hatch, The Democratization Of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 71.
2. (Hatch, 1989, 163)
3. Douglass A. Foster, “Churches of Christ and Baptism:
An Historical and Theological Overview,” Restoration Quarterly 43, No. 2, (2001).
4. Foster (2001)
5. Foster (2001)
6. Foster (2001)
7. Alan E. Highers, “Baptism And The Restoration,” Restoration website http://www.therestorationmovement.com/ (accessed September 1, 2011).
8. Highers (2011)
9. Highers (2011)
10. Highers (2011)
11. Highers (2011)
12. (Hatch, 1989, 163)