Not the Only Christians?

February 26, 2009

The Christian Standard currently is running a fascinating article (reprinted from 1985) titled Not the Only Christians. The author, Robert O. Fife, wrestles with the paradox faced by those of us (myself included) who believe the biblical purpose of baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. The paradox we face is that we see powerful evidence of the working of God in the lives of unbaptized believers — people who profoundly love God and give their lives (sometimes even literally) to His cause.

Fife makes an interesting distinction between what is essential to man and what is essential to God. He writes:

In the sense that the purpose of baptism is to bring us to the Savior, baptism is essential to man. It is a divinely given condition of the everlasting covenant mediated through the blood of Jesus and enunciated on Pentecost. We are not the initiators, but the recipients of that covenant. Therefore, we are subject to it, and bound by it. For this reason we may say that baptism is essential to man.

But does this mean that a believer’s baptism is essential to God? Can we correctly assume that because baptism is an essential covenant command to which we are subject, it is an essential covenant limitation to which God is subject?

What does Scripture say is essential to God? One quality of the being of God is God’s faithfulness. “Great is thy faithfulness,” declares the prophet (Lamentations 3:23). “God is faithful,” says the apostle (1 Corinthians 1:9). The ancient Christian hymn sang, “If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). God will keep his covenant promise, for he is faithful. And it is his covenant commands and promises we are charged to proclaim.

Another attribute of the divine essence is gracious sovereignty. Hear the Word of God: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15). God is not limited to the covenant conditions (as are we), for God is the gracious Lord of the covenant. Indeed, Jesus had to remind the Nazarenes that God’s mercy had extended beyond the commands and promises of his covenant with Israel. Profoundly offended, the Nazarenes attempted to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:25-30).

But this does not permit us who are subjects of the covenant to neglect the commands and promises we are commissioned to proclaim. Nor does it permit us to say to unimmersed believers that they need not be immersed. Thankfully, it is for us to confess that God “will have mercy” on whom he has mercy. God has even had mercy on us.

That pretty much sums up my view on the subject. We have no standing to make promises on God’s behalf that go beyond what He has said. And we have no standing to tell God whom he can and cannot forgive. He will keep every one of his promises. But in those promises, God has left himself plenty of room to forgive others if he so chooses. It is highly presumptuous of man to insist that God will not forgive the penitent unimmersed. The truth is that we just don’t know for sure. Our task is to present the promises God has made — and not to try to limit God.


  1. I think I stand about the same way. This is a good way of putting it.

  2. Why take the risk, just obey the lord’s commandments. I don’t believe anyone is that scared of water.

  3. Good insight.Maybe we’d do better to teach The Gift of Baptism, rather than the command.

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