Big Picture of the Bible – Lesson 6

The Belief and Practice of the Early Church

The early church universally believed, taught, and practiced that baptism was when our sins are removed. Many of the first century writers took their training directly at the feet of the apostles. For example, Barnabas wrote in 70 AD, Blessed are they who, placing their trust in the cross, have gone down in the water…We indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement. However, we come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear of God and the trust of Jesus in our spirit.

Barnabas in 70 AD reflected a common understanding that baptism was that  point where their faith cleansed them from sin. This type of quotation can be replicated over and over from the writings of the early church leaders. Who could better understand the gospel taught by the apostles, those that studied and worked with them or theologians thousands of years later?

What Jesus Commanded

How important are the actual words and actual commands of our Lord? Let us now revisit Jesus’ command in the great commission: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believes AND is baptized will be saved, he that does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16, also Matthew 28:19).

Understanding God’s plan of redemption, we can see why Christ commanded baptism for those that believed the gospel and why belief in the gospel is a prerequisite to baptism and salvation. Also notice that it was the power of the spoken gospel message that generated faith (Romans 10:17; 1:16) People were to hear the good news about Jesus and respond by being baptized, but only if they believed the message. Such is faith-obedience from the heart.

BELIEF ALONE? What about passages such as John 3:16 that seemingly indicate that Jesus was teaching that everyone who believes (mental assent only) will be saved. – Believe in this and other passages is using a figure of speech – synecdoche – where a part represents the whole, e.g. “head” for cow. In these passages, belief is used as synecdoche, where the part (belief) is used to represent all that is involved in salvation, e.g. confession, repentance, baptism. For example, in 1 Peter 3:21, Peter flatly states “baptism now saves you.” If similarly taken out of context then 1 Peter 3:21 would teach that a person doesn’t even need to believe! This is also synecdoche where baptism represents all that a person does  to accept God’s gift of salvation – believe, repent, and confess. Belief is often used in the New Testament as synecdoche, to represent the entire process of acceptance of the gift of salvation, just like baptism in 1 Peter 3:21.

WATER AND SPIRIT. Jesus further commanded in John 3:5, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” This is one of the strongest baptismal commands in the New Testament. In a parallel passage in Titus 3:5 this is referred to as, “He saved us…according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” Here we see the role of the Holy Spirit in the actual removal of our sins, elsewhere referred to as “the sanctifying work of the Spirit” (1 Peter 1:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). This occurs when we are baptized by our faith in the working of God (Colossians 2:1-12). The early Christians used John 3:3-5 as their baptismal proof text.

NOT BY WORKS. When we are baptized into Christ and into His death we are merely accepting the gift of God’s mercy by faith, not performing a righteous work. We accept God’s gift of grace and mercy when we respond by faith to what Christ did for us (Romans 6:23, Titus 3:5). Baptism is not a righteous work that earns anything! It is merely the act of faith where we accept the work of Christ and God’s promise to remove our sins and restore our relationship to Him (1 Peter 3:21, Romans 6:23, Titus 3:5-7). We could never have our sins removed on the ba- sis of something we performed or accomplished! (Ephesians 2:8-9).

SUMMARY. In baptism we accept, by faith, the promise of salvation by our Holy God, our sins are removed, we are made holy, and He adds us to His kingdom, His church. In His kingdom we accept the headship of Christ and commit to a life of loving faithfulness to His authority and commands (Matthew 28:19; John 14:15) as delivered by His apostles once for all (Jude 1:3).

Take the quiz based on the passages you just read.