By George Alvarado
In this series, it is vitally important to take the time and refute the now resurging doctrine of baptismal regeneration. This category of soteriology is varied depending on the denomination, and the contemporary or historical figure teaching it. It is fundamentally important that we understand what causes our regeneration, and what is/are the agent(s) of it. So in embarking on this very thorough refutation, it is my prayer that the reader will not only learn something new, but realize and understand something old and enduring – the truth about regeneration from the gospel.
I have spoken with several different proponents of Baptismal Regeneration. International Church of Christ is the bigger one that seems to be gaining evangelistic force. But there are Roman Catholics, Apostolics, Oneness Pentecostals, and some Anglican that believe this doctrine. Although their material may be varied, and their conclusions may have some nuances, the end of their logic remains the same. That is, unless someone is baptized they are not regenerated, don’t experience regeneration, or regeneration is not complete without it.
Arguments Not to Use
Before diving in my first argument which I have labeled, “Theo-logic,” I would like to admonish you, reader, about some arguments that I would advise not using when discussion this subject of baptismal regeneration. Here is the list:
1. The thief on the cross. This argument concerning the thief on the cross is too predictable. Although we may find some strength in it, it will not prick the average believer of baptismal regeneration (BR). Their response that he was a “special case” or that was “Old Testament” is equally predictable. If we want to have a meaningful discussion with those that hold to this teaching, don’t bring this up.
2. Paul was not sent to baptize. Although very true, that doesn’t mean that nullifies the command to be baptized. Simply because Paul understood his individual calling, that doesn’t mean his hearers were exempt from being baptized. Don’t use this.
3. None of the disciples were baptized in Christ. This is a very interesting point that can be brought up, and it should shake an average BR believer to wonder why the 12 apostles or all those in the upper room where never recorded as being baptized in the name of Jesus, but it won’t. This doesn’t mean it cannot be a helpful point, like all the previous points, but I will show you a better way.
4. The book of Acts is a transition period in church history. I have heard this statement when folks try to explain away some of the anomalies or unexplainable portions of the Book of Acts. I have heard this used not only against a person who believes in BR, but also amongst Christian brothers who are discussing amongst themselves certain portions of their theology. This argument does not do your position justice, I think, when trying to reveal why baptismal regeneration is in error. The book of Acts is rich in theology. Don’t be afraid to use it!
5. Mark 16:16 “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” This Scripture is used even by some of my favorite Baptist preachers. However, a typical rebuttal will be, “Of course he that believes not is condemned because there is no reason for him to be baptized if he doesn’t believe.” Advocates of BR will say this or something like this. And, for the most part, I agree. I just don’t agree that just because someone is baptized they are regenerated, or that unless they are baptized they are not regenerated.
6. Faith plus argument or salvation by works. Many will typically accuse the baptismal regenerationist of believing in faith plus works or salvation by works simply because they believe that baptism is necessary for salvation. However, in the mind of an average believer, this is a command that must be fulfilled, and as far as they are concerned, they are just being obedient. And I believe that every professing Christian should have this kind of mindset. But, what I don’t think we understand is that the average believer in BR is subliminally relying on baptism as means for regeneration. So what we must do is not accuse them of salvation by works, because they won’t buy it. What we can do is tell them where the emphasis of salvation is placed, and challenge them to reveal where in the Scriptures Peter, Paul, or anyone else emphasized baptism as the make-it-or-break-it deal of salvation.
But, what I don’t think we understand is that the average believer in BR is subliminally relying on baptism as means for regeneration. So what we must do is not accuse them of salvation by works, because they won’t buy it. What we can do is tell them where the emphasis of salvation is placed, and challenge them to reveal where in the Scriptures Peter, Paul, or anyone else emphasized baptism as the make-it-or-break-it deal of salvation
This reason why I am encouraging you not to bring up all the previous points is because they are too “cookie-cutter.” They are a copy and paste response which doesn’t require rich, meaningful thought or discussion in order to confront the mind in a way that will compel the opponent to examine their views. A lot of these arguments are worn out and, in my opinion, moot in comparison to the crux of what we should be focusing on when defending against this doctrine of baptismal regeneration. This is not to say you cannot absolutely use them (if they have a place in the argument), but any baptismal regenerationist is ready for them, and I think they will pinch you in a corner against a versed opponent. Also, because they are already going to be attentive for these arguments, you want to give them something they are not ready for, which I will reveal.
Argument from Theo-logic
Since the main question in this debate is whether or not BR is “necessary” for salvation, it would be necessary to ask, first, what they mean by “necessary?” If by necessary they mean that baptism plays a role in our salvation process by which we are sanctified and edified in obedience to the ordinance at hand, then that is not necessarily an unacceptable response. If by necessary they mean that a person is regenerated only when a new convert participates in the act of being baptized, and that even if the person possesses genuine faith, if they are not baptized, they will perish in hell, then that is another discussion by which I will work hard to refute.
Note: there can be variations to the argument concerning what a person means by “necessary” for salvation. It is important to realize this for theological reasons and consistency that there is a degree of “necessity” of baptism to our faith. But it is only contingent upon possession faith that we will desire obedience. In this case, a willful neglect, despising, or obstinate refusal to be baptized should be a sign that something is wrong internally. It could be bad theological understanding, it could be phobia or traumatic experience, or it is quite possible that the person is not saved. Either way, some thorough investigation is in order to gain a better understanding of why someone would resist baptism.
Here is the MEATIER question once you have established what a person means by “necessary.” The question is not, and should not be, whether or not baptism is necessary for salvation, but whether or not faith and repentance are necessary for baptism? In other words, is faith and repentance the qualifier or prerequisite for partaking in the ordinance of baptism in the first place? To put it differently again, can someone get baptized without having repented of their sin and putting their faith in Jesus Christ (regeneration doesn’t have to be discussed at this point, but it can)? If they can, then we definitely have another huge issue on our hands, but if they can’t, then what does baptismal water accomplish for regeneration that faith and repentance cannot?
Some would think at this point that those who hold to BR do not reject the idea that faith and repentance must precede baptism, which is true. But the reason why this question must be asked is because if faith and repentance MUST precede baptism (even if someone asserted that unless you are baptized you won’t be regenerated), then without faith, baptism is still nothing! In other words, even if a proponent of BR tries to make baptism the central focus of regeneration in Christ, unless faith and repentance are present or has been exercised by the baptizee before, during, or even after baptism, the simple act of dunking, sprinkling, or even pouring of water has no meaning, significance, or reason to be administered, let alone have the power to regenerate. In essence, what I am trying to convey is since baptism DEPENDS on faith in order to be administered, and faith in Christ is the fundamental reason why baptism has meaning, it therefore follows that salvation cannot be dependent upon baptism in order for regeneration to occur since baptism finds its logical significance in faith.
In hearing this, some baptismal regenerationists may not disagree and would think that at this point I have proven their case. Not really. You see, even faith, in and of itself, is deficient if the object of it is not in Christ. Although baptism is deficient and dependent upon faith in order to gain its significance and meaning, faith (in and of itself) is also deficient if does not abide and look to Christ. In other words, we can say we have faith, but unless that faith is genuinely looking and pointing to Christ and all that He has accomplished on our behalf for salvation, that faith remains deficient, and thus will further exacerbate that deficiency in baptism. But if that faith does look to Christ and is from the Father, who is all-sufficient, and who justifies us by His blood, death, and resurrection through His grace and mercy, then faith gains its sufficiency from Christ in order to save. Then, and only then, can baptism receive meaning, reason, and significance. But even so, it will remain powerless to regenerate because of the fact that it is only a consequence of one’s faith, not a fundamental requirement for salvation.
Maybe some at this point would think that a straw man is being developed here that supposes those that believe in BR don’t believe in faith being a prerequisite for salvation. That is not what is happening here. What I am trying to reveal is that by making baptism a necessary requirement for salvation, one would be essentially be saying that baptism is sufficient while faith is deficient. In other words, faith is not enough; baptism must complete it. This is flawed seeing that baptism is dependent on faith and points back to faith. Baptism cannot be sufficient if it is dependent upon something else in order to be administered. By saying baptism is the cause of regeneration means that faith points to baptism and needs baptism in order for regeneration to occur. That is not Scriptural. Baptism points back to faith, and faith points to Christ. And it is there, in Christ, where we find all that we need to be saved, and faith in Him is what the Holy Spirit acknowledges (as we will see in Acts 15) in order for regeneration to occur. Baptism is the necessary consequence of faith and salvation, not the agent or means of it.
By asking the question, whether or not faith is necessary for baptism (we’ll assume from now on that repentance is implied in faith for flow of writing), we essentially direct the discussion to the biblical and theological position that the Bible teaches, and shine the spotlight where it needs to be. We don’t need to use the predictable arguments mentioned prior in order to make the truth plain that regeneration can only occur through faith. All we need is the book of Acts, supporting Scriptures, and systematic observation. Because proponents of BR use the book of Acts, I think we should too.
Note: Before going to the book of Acts, it is important to note that God is sovereign in salvation and that He can save anyone before, during, or after their baptism (a point we will see later on). The book of Acts will reveal this. It is also important to note that when going through the Scriptures in the book of Acts, that the style of the book is historical-narration. This means that the author, Luke, will highlight certain events a certain way, and will simply record the events as they have been handed to him or as he witnessed them. This, nevertheless, does not take away from the rich theology that can be found in the book of Acts and any emphasis that the author wishes to place at any given time throughout the book. This note helps us to understand that the prominent themes of Acts is to record 1. The spreading of the gospel, 2. The authentication of the message of the gospel through the preaching, signs, and miracles, and 3. The sovereignty of God in saving both Jews and Gentiles.
Let’s go through the book of Acts starting with Peter (See Part 2)