(This post was requested by a close friend. It is polemical and therefore goes over the usual word limit. Enjoy!)
1. Growing up in the Church of Christ
I grew up in the “Church of Christ” and although I left for a variety of biblical and theological reasons, I remain interested in their theology and practice. A friend asked me to write about how the Churches of Christ understand the role of baptism in salvation, so here we go. I have Church of Christ friends and family members, all of whom I love dearly. This post, then, is not directed at them personally but at the theology of the group as a whole.
The Church of Christ is widely known for three key doctrines: the necessity of baptism for salvation, the exclusivity of the New Testament Church, and a strict policy against using musical instruments in corporate worship. When I was first converted I was a member of the church my family attended. I knew the doctrinal distinctives they held, and I embraced them over against what I considered to be false teachings. But as I became more interested in the things of God, and as I read my Bible, I came across things my Church of Christ theology could not answer.
For example, if baptism is necessary for salvation, what about Ephesians 2:8-9 which says, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”? This text clearly teaches that salvation comes by grace through faith, and faith is a gift from God. There’s no mention of baptism anywhere in sight. Thus, Scripture taught differently than what I believed at this point, and eventually I was compelled to side with Scripture. I had to make the difficult decision, accompanied by tears, to leave the Church of Christ.
2. “Salvation by Education”
Why, then, do Churches of Christ teach that baptism is necessary for salvation? I think there are two reasons they do this. First, there are several texts which on the face of it seem to indicate that baptism is the means by which God grants salvation to us. In Acts 2:38, Peter commands people to “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Romans 6:3-4 says, “do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death.” And Mark writes in Mark 16:16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” Thus, anyone who says that baptism is not necessary for salvation will have to wrestle with the meaning of these texts.
But there is a second, more theological reason the Churches of Christ teach that baptism is necessary for our salvation. This second reason will be the focus of this post, and perhaps I will return to address the first reason in another post.
All of salvation, for the Churches of Christ, is conceived in terms of what Edward Wharton calls “salvation by education.” Wharton, a popular Church of Christ preacher, teaches that under the New Covenant sins are forgiven and all the New Covenant people shall know the Lord. For this idea he draws from Jeremiah 31:34: “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
For Wharton, this means that “those under the New Covenant all know the Lord because they have been educated to Christ and the laws of the New Covenant. Laws are placed on men’s minds by education. When men are taught the gospel, believe on Christ as Lord, and are educated to the laws of the New Covenant for salvation and obey those laws, they become covenant-related children of God and know it.” The emphasis in the previous quote is my own, and it highlights how Wharton understands salvation: becoming a child of God is contingent upon faith in Christ and obedience to the laws of the New Covenant. In order to be saved, you must believe in Christ and obey the laws Christ has given under the New Covenant. Wharton says it this way: “When one learns about Christ and the laws of the New Covenant for forgiveness of sins and obeys those laws from the heart, he becomes a covenant-related child of God.”
3. Obedience to the Laws of the New Covenant
The laws of the New Covenant, for the Churches of Christ, consist of two things for the remission of sins: faith and baptism. Wharton says, “we are saved by faith in Christ (Romans 5:1; Galatians 2:16; 3:26). But we are saved at the point of obedience of the laws of the New Covenant.” In other words, it is not faith alone which is the means of entering into right standing with God, but faith plus obedience to the laws of the New Covenant, which also includes baptism. Wharton argues that Peter says as much in Acts 2:38. And since “the laws of the New Covenant are for remission of sins, and baptism is for remission of sin,” therefore, “baptism is a law of the New Covenant for remission of sins.”
The idea that obedience to the laws of the New Covenant is necessary for salvation is taken from Jeremiah 31:31-34. For Wharton, and for the Churches of Christ generally, that God no longer remembers our sin is contingent upon our obedience to the law which God has put within our hearts, for this is what salvation by education means. Simply put, if we obey the law which God has put in our hearts, God will forget our sins. If we do not obey the law, God will not forget our sins.
The problem with drawing on Jeremiah 31:31-34 to say that obedience to the New Covenant laws is necessary for the remission of sin is the fact that Jeremiah 31:31-34 simply does not make this connection. Here’s the text in full:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
How exactly is the New Covenant “new” and different from the Old Covenant? One of the ways, according to Jeremiah, is that the New Covenant cannot be ultimately broken. The Old Covenant that God made with Israel was broken by them, but the implication in this text is that the New Covenant is not like the Old in that the New cannot be broken.
Moreover, the entire focus of the text is on what God will do for His people: make a new covenant; put His law within them; write it on their hearts; be their God; forgive their iniquities; remember their sin no more. Even the small parts of the text which mention the people (“they shall be my people” and “no longer shall each one teach his neighbor…”) have their focus on God. They will be God’s people, and they will know Him.
But most importantly, there simply is no connection between obedience to the laws of the New Covenant leading to the forgiveness of sins in the text. If anything, the order is reversed! God makes for Himself a people, putting His law within them. He does not wait for the people to then respond to Him in order to become His people! God says, “I will be their God and they shall be my people” (v. 33) without any view whatsoever to their obedience to the law which He has put within them. God simply makes them His. Therefore, to say that obedience to the laws of the New Covenant is required in order to become the covenant-related children of God, as Wharton and the Churches of Christ do, is precisely backwards from what the text actually says.
I love the way the prophet Ezekiel prophesies of the New Covenant:
I (i.e., God) will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (36:23-27)
Notice, first, the utterly God-centered nature of this text. God does all the work. But second, notice the order. God will sprinkle clean water on us, make us clean, cleanse us of our filthiness and from our idols, give us new hearts and new spirits, take out our dead hearts of stone and give us living hearts of flesh, and put His Spirit within us. And only after all of these things have happened, God will cause us to walk in His statutes and be careful to obey His rules. Salvation does not come about as a result of good works; rather, good works come about as a result of salvation (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10)! To say that salvation is contingent upon our obedience to the laws of the New Covenant is to entirely misunderstand both the New Covenant and the nature of God’s work in salvation.
4. The Heart of the Error: Salvation Contingent upon Human Obedience
The reason that Churches of Christ teach that baptism is necessary for salvation is because of a prior theological commitment. This commitment, that obedience to the laws of the New Covenant is necessary for salvation, as we have seen, is profoundly misguided. Not only can this commitment not be substantiated from the biblical text, it is exactly backwards from what the biblical text actually says. The heart of the error is this: the Churches of Christ conceive of salvation as being ultimately contingent upon human obedience. God has done His part, and now it is up to us to do the rest.
But this is not good news. If God left us on our own to complete the work of salvation, no one would be saved. For how can those whose “every intention…is only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5) do anything good toward their salvation? How can those who are “brought forth in iniquity” (Psalm 51:5) and therefore “go astray from birth, speaking lies” (Psalm 58:3) make themselves right with the one true God who cannot lie (cf. Titus 1:2)? How can people do things which are pleasing to God, like believe on Christ and be baptized, when Paul says, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8)?
If people are “dead in their trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), “hostile to God,” being unable to submit to Him (Romans 8:7), and blinded “from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4), how on earth can anyone say it’s good news that God has left salvation ultimately up to them? The biblical picture of the sinner apart from Christ is not that he simply flaps around in the ocean waiting for the first lifeboat to come along and save him. The biblical picture is that the sinner is dead in his sin at the bottom of the sea. Therefore it is not good news to tell him that the lifeboat is waiting to save him, if only he would swim to the surface to be saved. It is not good news because dead sinners can do no such thing.
5. The Gospel for My Church of Christ Friends and Family
Thus, the Church of Christ gospel is no gospel after all. So let me close by offering the true word of peace to my Church of Christ friends and family members. Ephesians 2:4-5 says, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved.” There is good news for dead sinners, but it is not found in them or in their ability to be obedient to the laws of the New Covenant. The good news is found in God alone because He alone has the power to make dead people alive.
Moreover, God does not leave salvation ultimately up to us. He is not merely the author of our salvation; He is also its finisher (cf. Hebrews 12:2). God both “began a good work” in us and “will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). It is “because of Him” that we “are in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:30), and therefore “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:38).
But how do we know whether we’re in Christ? Paul says, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2). It is by faith and faith alone that we enter into a relationship of peace with God (cf. John 3:16; 6:29; 8:24; Acts 16:30-31; Romans 3:28; 4:2-5; 10:4; Galatians 2:15-16; Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 11; 1 Peter 1:3-5).
Finally, obedience to the laws of the New Covenant cannot be a condition of our salvation because Christ did not die for the godly but the ungodly. As Paul says, “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die–but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). Far be it from our mouths to say that God waits for us to be obedient to His law before He makes provision to save us. On the contrary, let us always praise our God because He sent Christ to die on the cross before we even had a chance to be obedient to the law. God is not in the business of waiting to see what we will do and then responding accordingly. Rather, before we had done anything at all, “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
 Edward C. Wharton, The Church of Christ: The Distinctive Nature of the New Testament Church (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1997), 29.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 33.
Thanks for reading. Have any additional thoughts? Leave a comment below.