The scriptural teaching on the purpose of baptism finds little support among today's evangelicals and none among Calvinists, most of whom operate under a flawed view of man's depravity and a faith-at-the-exclusion-of-anything-else view of salvation.
Reformed theologian and apologist James White is no exception. In his article "A Brief Rebuttal of Baptismal Regeneration" Dr. White seeks to "point out a basic, foundational error" of "such groups like the Church of Christ" who "have some doctrine of baptismal regeneration" and to "briefly respond to a couple of the more often used proof texts provided by proponents of baptismal regeneration".
This article caught my eye because Dr. White more than suggests that the Churches of Christ ( a capella or more mainline, instrumental he does not specify) believe that the water in baptism somehow conveys of channels grace in some form or another, a la baptismal regeneration.
This of course is a gross misrepresentation of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (SCRM) view of salvation.
The purpose of this article expose some foundational errors in Dr. White's understanding of salvation and then lay out a more accurate view of baptism and its connection to salvation taken by SCRM people.
Dr. White's full article may be found here: http://vintage.aomin.org/bapreg.html
Part 1: Dead Men Can't Be Baptized
Dr. White writes:
"Man in sin must be freed from slavery to sin. He cannot free Himself, but must be freed by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This is an offensive truth to the unregenerate man, as the response from these would-be self-made disciples indicates (8:41, 48). Men do not like to hear that they are, in fact, totally dependent upon God's grace for salvation--they do not want to know that they are incapable of saving themselves, or even of coming unto Christ for salvation, outside of God's gracious drawing (John 6:44). But as the Lord Himself said, we are slaves to sin. Slaves must be freed."
I really love this passage because it so accurately expresses man's complete hopelessness apart from God and his grace. Man's deadness in sin only serves to highlight the mercy and grace in God's universal drawing (John 12:32; John 6:44-45). Dr. White also writes:
Paul describes the lost man's condition with the graphic language of death. "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins" he tells the Ephesians (2:1). How can a dead man be made alive? Only by the work of God, just as he told the Colossians, "When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ" (Colossians 2:13).
This statement is more than humorous considering the fact that Dr. White completely ignores the time at which one is made alive, stated one verse prior to the Colossian's passage. Colossians 2:9-12 reads:
For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
Church of Christ theologian Dr. Jack Cottrell writes about this verse:
Here two things are said to happen in baptism. First, we are "buried with Him", i.e, with Christ. According to Romans 6:3-4 this means we are buried into the death of Christ. To be buried with Christ into his death means to receive all the saving benefits of his atoning death; it means to come into contact with his justifying blood and thus to receive the forgiveness of sins.
The second thing that happens in baptism is that we are "raised up with Him". This refers to the initial act of indwelling Holy Spirit. As soon as God gives us his Spirit (as promised in Acts 2:38), the spirit infuses life into our dead souls. Our spirits our raised from the dead by the same life-giving Spirit that raised Jesus' body from the tomb (Romans 8:10-11; see Col 2:13). (The Faith Once for All; pg. 363)
Wow! It is no wonder Dr White skips right past this verse. He then appeals to the "total incapability " of man, trying to show that unregenerate man cannot even want to be want to be baptized.
He quotes Romans 8:5-8 and then writes:
Those who hold to baptismal regeneration would have us to believe that one passes from being a "natural man" to a "spiritual man" through baptism; yet, from whence does this desire to be baptized come? Is God not pleased when we are baptized? Of course. Yet, Paul said that the one who is still fleshly cannot please God. If such a person is the enemy of God, enslaved to sin, how is it that he is able to do such a spiritual and pleasing thing as to desire to be baptized? Obviously, this is impossible.
First of all, SCRM people believe that baptism is the occasion of salvation not the means; but what about the desire to be baptized? Where does it come from? The answer is our faith, which comes as a result of contact with the word of God ( Romans 10:17).
But the Bible says the " those who are in the flesh cannot please God".
How then can those in the flesh have faith and be baptized? We must understand the context of Romans 8 is speaking about the law not the gospel.
Dr. Cottrell writes in his Romans commentary:
What is the nature of this inability? Calvinists see in this text the concept of total inability, which is the idea that sinners are so totally depraved that they cannot respond to the gospel without God's selective irresistible grace. However, Paul's point here has nothing to do with whether a person controlled by his flesh can respond gospel. Rather his inability is related to the law. Such a person is unable to obey any command of the law as God wants it done an as the law requires.
The key words are "as long as." A person cannot be pleasing to God in obedience to his law as long as his mind remains set on the flesh. But there is no indication whatsoever in this text that a sinner is unable to respond to the gospel, or unable through the power of the gospel to redirect the set of his mind from flesh to Spirit. The context shows that "cannot please God" refers only to an inability to be subject to the law, and does not imply an inability to respond to the gospel. The failure to make this distinction is the main error of the Calvinists' interpretation of these verses. In other passages it is clear that sinners are able and expected to respond in faith and repentance (John 3:16; Rom 1:17; Rev.22:17; Matt. 23:37).
But Dr. White isn't through:
Baptism signifies our death to the old way of life and our resurrection to new life in Christ, as Paul uses it in Romans 6:1-4. Unless we have died to sin, and been raised with Christ in reality prior to our baptism, the symbol becomes meaningless. So we see that the position that posits baptism as the means of regeneration and forgiveness ignores the most basic teachings of Scripture regarding man's inability.
The Churches of Christ see baptism as the literal occasion not means of our death burial, and resurrection in Christ. In this view the symbolism makes perfect sense. We die and our buried with Christ in the watery grave of baptism (we our saved and justified) and our raised to new life by our faith (receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the affects thereof) at that event. Baptism as a "salvation-event" is not man saving himself but man being saved after obeying the gospel. (1 Peter 4:17; 2 Thessalonians 5:8; 1 Peter 2:6-8, 4:7;)
In taking the position they do, the baptismal regenerationists not only make man capable of things he is not, but they reduce God's grace to a mere aid, and make the death of Christ a theory that is dependent upon man's act of obedience, rather than the finished and effective work that the Bible teaches it to be (Hebrews 10:10-14).
Dr. White has defined spiritual "deadness" a priori to mean incapable of obeying the gospel. We have already shown this to be false. It is a fact of Scripture that without God's grace there is no salvation- period.
Again, in the SCRM view, baptism is the event at which we are saved by God's grace, thus baptism is a salvation-event and not a procuring cause.
The last part of his statement is rich considering that even on Dr. White's Calvinism, the elect are not saved until God unilaterally regenerates them enabling them to have faith. It Christ' death still a theory until that moment? Dr. White does not tell us. In fact saved through faith (Eph. 2:8) presupposes we are not saved until we do something, namely have faith.
In summation, we have seen that Romans 8:5-8 in no way precludes obedience to the gospel but to the law and that man is able and expected to believe the gospel (John 3:16; Rom 1:17; Rev.22:17; Matt. 23:37). In addition, the biblical "salvation-event" view of baptism in no way minimize man's sinfulness of spiritual depravity but underscore it, making man truly responsible for forsaking the gospel, since he can indeed do otherwise. We have also shown that said baptism does not makes man a "little helper" in his salvation but an obedient recipient of God's grace.
When the veil of "total depravity" is removed we can begin to see more clearly God's purposes in baptism and the grave responsibility man bears for rejecting the gospel. Parts 2 and 3 hopefully coming soon!