A Question on Baptism in the Nicene Creed

I recently received a question from a sweet lady about our church’s use of the Nicene Creed in one of our worship services. About once per quarter, we recite this old confession. But a line in the creed was bothering her, as it could sound like the creed supports the idea of baptismal regeneration. Here is my response slightly edited for this format.

I really appreciate your question about baptism as mentioned in the Nicene Creed.

The Nicene creed says, “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” That phrase, “for the remission of sins,” is what sounds like a sticking point. Is the creed suggesting to us that the act of water baptism brings to us the remission of sins? Does it suggest that baptism is required for salvation? Does it say to us that baptism regenerates a person? I certainly understand how the questions could be raised.

We know that Scripture does not teach that baptism regenerates a person. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9). Nor does Scripture indicate that water baptism is required for a person to be saved. So, if the creed is suggesting such things, we must do away with at least that part.

Let’s ask where might the language that is used in the creed have come from? We read in Acts 2:37-38, “37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ 38 And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” Here we see what I would guess is the source of the language that was used in the Nicene Creed.

First, is language that indicates that there is one baptism “for the remission of sins” biblical? We have to say that it is since we can see it right there in Acts 2:28. Therefore, if we understand the language correctly, if we have a proper understanding of salvation and baptism, we do not have to avoid using it.

Next, does such language require us to believe that the point being made is baptismal regeneration? I would argue not. Peter was certainly not suggesting in Acts 2 that being immersed in water brings about forgiveness. Peter instead ties together as a unit repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We must also note that the very same Peter who used that phrase in Acts 2 was also clear in his first epistle to say that physical baptism has nothing to do with our salvation. Peter wrote, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21). Clearly Peter is connecting the physical act of baptism unbreakably to a person’s initial cry of repentance and faith. Baptism is not physical washing. Baptism is the act of one who has cried out to God to appeal to him for forgiveness. Peter says baptism saves, but then immediately points out that baptism has nothing to do with saving you but simply points to the faith through which you are saved.

How then should we think about the phrase, “baptism for the remission of sins.” To the early church, there was no concept of separation between saving faith and baptism. This is not to say that the church, if pushed, would suggest that faith alone does not save. Nor is there a belief that baptism has anything to do with causing one’s salvation. Instead, it is to say that there is a clear assumption in the minds of the church that those who repent and believe will quite naturally be baptized. It was simply unthinkable to a first century Christian that anybody could be genuinely saved and refuse to follow the Lord in baptism. Thus, to call a person to be baptized in the first century would be akin to calling them to repent and believe for salvation and to follow that belief with baptism.

To show that this concept is not me reading into the text, let me add that there are other places in Scripture where one word is used to point to a concept that is broader. For example, we are happy to say that whoever believes is saved (John 3:16). But we also know that repentance is part of saving faith (Matt. 4:17). There is nothing wrong with suggesting that faith saves. At the same time, there would be nothing wrong with an even clearer call to repent and believe. After all, one cannot genuinely believe in a saving way without repenting. Thus, a call to faith necessarily includes the call to repentance.

Another example in Scripture is Paul’s statement in Romans 10:9, “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” One could argue that all that Paul is saying we must believe is that Jesus rose from the dead. But included in Paul’s words are the understanding that the resurrection includes the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins and the doctrine contained in its understanding.

The point I think we should see is that, sometimes in Scripture, a single term is used to hold a larger concept. And I believe that when Peter says that we should repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins in Acts 2:38, he is using the word baptism to include all that baptism represents. Baptism represents a repentant faith in the Lord Jesus and his saving grace. That repentant faith in the Lord Jesus is our only hope for the remission of sins. That faith is symbolized in the one, true baptism.

If we understand that what I am suggesting is the meaning of Acts 2:38 is sound, and if that is the source of the language in the creed, I do not think we will need to worry that the statement in the creed is promoting anything unsound. We must actually agree that there is only one baptism for the remission of sins. That baptism is the baptism which symbolizes the saving faith and repentance of the believer. That baptism is what peter was calling for in Acts 2:38. And that baptism necessarily contains the faith that saves and must not be separated from it.

As I said a moment ago, I really am grateful for your question, as it forced me to think more clearly about the statement in the creed. I agree that, if not explained, that statement can be confusing to people in our culture, because baptism has been wrongly understood in many denominations. I believe that your question will cause me to take some time to help our folks guard against the misunderstanding that could arise here. Similarly, I often take time to remind our folks that the word catholic in the creed is not intended to mean the Roman Catholic Church, but is merely a word that means the universal church, the body of all who have ever been saved by Jesus.

You might also ask me why we would use the Nicene Creed, or any creed, if people have the potential of being confused by the language? I think that the use of such statements, even with the potential for confusion, is helpful. I believe that there is something good in, from time to time, helping our church acknowledge basic doctrines that have been proclaimed for centuries. It is nice to see that what we preach at our church is not a doctrine that we have come up with recently, but that it is compatible with the words of the believers who declared these things to be true back in 381, even if we might say things in a clearer way for our generation.

I hope this answer is helpful. And I will be sure to do what I can to help our folks know that this line is not about baptismal regeneration in any form.

John Piper, Baptism, and Church Membership

I love John Piper. His ministry is one that truly encourages me, challenges me, and calls me to a greater love of God and his glory. Piper is older than me, wiser than me, brighter than me, and better than me at just about anything I can think of related to ministry (I may have him beat on knowledge of sports).

Because I have such a deep love and respect for Piper, I find it difficult to write a post in which I voice my disagreement with something that he teaches. Let me say that this disagreement is not something that comes from an arrogant heart or out of a lack of love for Piper and his ministry. However, since I do recommend John Piper and his resources at www.desiringgod.org to people regularly, it is also important for me to make clear when I find something I consider to be inappropriate in the teaching to be found there.

In his July 13, 2008 message (http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/TopicIndex/70_Baptism_and_Church_Membership/), John Piper began a series explaining his position on the issue of church membership and believer’s baptism. As many of you may or may not know, Piper was the center of a blogosphere storm when he made public his belief that it may not be necessary for a person to be baptized as a believer in order for them to be accepted as a member at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. You can search the site to find all of his statements regarding this issue, including his July 13 sermon entitled “How Important Is Church Membership.” And, let me also say that much of that sermon is very helpful, especially Piper’s 5 strands of biblical evidence for church membership.

My concern is that Piper is about to again make an argument that goes something like this:

All who are believers in Christ are part of the church universal.

Baptism as a believer is not required to be a member of the church universal.

Membership in a local church should not be more restrictive than membership in the church universal.

Therefore, believer’s Baptism ought not necessarily be required for membership in a local church.

Let me also add that Piper’s goal here is not to do away with the teaching of believer’s baptism. He believes, biblically so, that the only valid baptism that the church should recognize is the immersion in water of a believer in Jesus Christ as an act of obedience to the commands of Jesus Christ to declare one’s commitment to Jesus Christ. Or, as Piper said himself:

“We believe that baptism is an ordinance of the Lord by which those who have repented and come to faith express their union with Christ in His death and resurrection, by being immersed in water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is a sign of belonging to the new people of God, the true Israel, and an emblem of burial and cleansing, signifying death to the old life of unbelief, and purification from the pollution of sin.. . That is what we believe the Bible teaches. That is the main reason we are called Baptists. We only baptize professing believers.”

So, my struggle with Piper’s argument is not a belief that he is rejecting believer’s baptism. My struggle is with his logic when it is applied to those who have not been baptized as believers. Piper believes that, to exclude from membership a believing person who has not been biblically baptized but who thinks he or she has been biblically baptized is inappropriate, more serious an offense than the person’s lack of biblical baptism.

Perhaps you are wondering why this matters. It is because the issues at stake are real ones. In many instances, a local Baptist church may have a person come to them desiring membership. We believe that membership is a very good thing, and affirm their desire to unite with us. However, this person was “baptized” as an infant (perhaps in a Methodist or Presbyterian context). And, though the leadership of the church attempts to convince this believer in Christ that they have not truly been baptized since they were not baptized as a believer, the person is still unconvinced. Should the church then not allow him or her to join since they are not attempting to be rebellious but honestly believe that they are following Jesus? Piper is arguing that such a person be accepted into membership. I disagree.

Why would I disagree with Piper’s logic?

I’ll do my best, in brief, to list a few reasons why I disagree with what Piper is presenting to his congregation:

Piper’s sermon asked the question, “How Important is Church Membership?” This is a fine question; but let me ask a similar few: How important is baptism? How important is obedience? And, is unintentionally failing to obey not disobedience?

As a Baptist, I believe baptism to be of high importance (not to save you, but as an act of obedience). Men in times past have been persecuted, tortured, put to death struggling for the doctrine of a believer’s only baptism. This was to preserve the biblical concept of a regenerate church membership. Our forefathers understood that baptism had a direct connection to acceptance into the local body. They also understood that, to fail to require believer’s baptism was to fail to uphold biblical standards of church membership.

Is baptism really that important? It is, without question, a church ordinance. This means that it was ordained, commanded, by Jesus. It was set apart as something special he called his followers to do (MT. 28:18-20). Jesus’ command and his language was crystal clear. He was calling for us to make disciples, and part of that disciple-making included baptizing those who profess faith in Christ. Baptism is, simply by placement in the Great Commission, as important as teaching obedience. And, the fact is, there is no concept in the New Testament of a person being welcomed into the church who had not already submitted himself or herself to the command of Jesus to be baptized.

Under no circumstances would we, if we are doing our jobs as pastors, allow a Christian to continue in disobedience to Christ while under our pastoral care. Galatians 6:1 enjoins us to restore a brother or sister in sin. Christ himself calls us to progressively and systematically confront disobedient fellow believers in Matthew 18:15-ff. And, yes, the final step of Christ’s command in Matthew 18 is to remove from fellowship any believer who refuses to turn from his disobedience.

Whether you realize it or not, we’ve answered my first two questions. Baptism is important. Disobedience is serious. Now, is unintentional disobedience still disobedience? Certainly. It may not be disobedience out of evil intent; but still to fail to obey is to fail to obey. And even if I am not convinced by a brother or sister in Christ that I ought to obey a command, if it is a legitimate command of the scriptures that I refuse to obey, I am in sin. My intent may help my sin to be less presumptuous, but my failure to obey is still a failure to honor God.

So, is believer’s baptism a command? I believe it is. Therefore, as a pastor, I am convinced at present that it would be improper for me to admit a non-baptized believer to church membership. It would certainly be a shame to admit them to membership, and then immediately begin the process of confronting them with their need to obey this command. What must follow if they refuse to obey the command to be baptized but church discipline which could end in their removal from the fellowship?

Piper argues that to forbid church membership to a person is tantamount to calling them a non-Christian. I completely disagree. There are many people who I understand to be believers, but I could not comfortably be a member of their local churches. This is not to say that I do not love them or think them in Christ. However, there are issues of doctrine that must separate us until they are resolved. I will not, for the sake of political correctness or a falsely constructed ecumenical unity pretend that doctrinal issues cannot (or even should not) divide well-meaning and thoroughly-convinced Christians. I would here recommend Albert Mohler’s article on issues of theological triage at http://www.albertmohler.com/commentary_read.php?cdate=2004-05-20. Unless we believe baptism to be a question of conscience instead of a command of Christ, we must make it an issue of church membership.

Let me make one other simple observation. Local Churches have always had requirements for membership, and those are often more narrow than simply being part of the church universal. We require membership classes. We sometimes require a person to publicly share their testimony, agree to abide by a code of conduct, or to teach in accord with our statement of faith. None of those are required for salvation, but is a church out of line to set such entrance requirements? I think not.

A Final Disclaimer

I recognize that this post could be read by someone who is not Baptist by persuasion or doctrine. I pray that you will grant me grace in what you have read, as I understand that it may sound quite harsh. I wrote here to address a particular issue from a Baptist perspective; and part of a Baptist perspective is a belief that the only true baptism is that of someone who has professed genuine faith in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation. I am not attempting to sound in any way superior to any other individual or group. However, I believe this doctrine to be taught by God in scripture, and thus must believe that the Baptist view here is correct. In believing my position to be correct, by default I must also believe a contrary position to be incorrect. This is not to say that I do not love and respect those with whom I disagree; but, in order to have integrity, I must disagree.