At the recent ICOC Delegates meeting in Denver, Gordon Ferguson delivered a short paper on consideration of what a person needed to know at the time of baptism.

Question #1 – What Is It?

Baptismal cognizance simply means what is understood or needs to be understood at the point of baptism to experience a valid baptism. In one sense, it is a more narrow way to define who is a Christian and who is not; who is saved and who is not – based on having experienced a biblically valid new birth.

Question #2 – Why Are We Discussing It?

There are at last three related answers to this question. One, in our leadership apology letters of 2003, we apologized for being too judgmental toward people in other churches, but we did not define what we meant by being too judgmental. That failure proved to be a serious one, allowing many of our members to assume that almost any sincere believer in Christ was likely acceptable to God, regardless of conversion experience or church affiliation. We went from one extreme to another. The old extreme was to teach or leave the impression that no person outside our ICOC boundaries of fellowship could have been converted correctly. The new extreme is to assume almost the opposite. Both are extremes and both are wrong.

What I think we meant by saying that we had been too judgmental was that we had stepped outside our responsibility to teach exactly what the Bible says about conversion and had stepped into the Judgment Day role that belongs to God alone. In other words, we were teaching in a way that didn’t leave room for God to be God in determining who would ultimately be saved and lost. While we must avoid that posture in the future, we cannot go to the other extreme and pronounce final judgment in favor of sincere religious people whose conversion doesn’t square with what the Bible teaches about entering a saved relationship with Christ. Extremism, however popular, is dangerous territory for all of us.

Two, several brothers (not many, and most are not currently in our fellowship) have written papers on the subject, and tended toward the extreme of a broader acceptance of conversion experiences. The impact of such writing has exerted influence on some people, but probably not that many. These papers have led to more discussions among leaders, but the average member is likely unaware of most of these discussions or the source of them.

Three, because of the undefined leadership apologies and the unsettled state of churches, particularly in the few years immediately after 2003, singles started dating or wanting to date outside our fellowship. We as leaders should accept our responsibility of having helped cause this reaction, but we must now also accept our responsibility of clarifying what the issues in this realm are – both biblically and practically.

Question #3 – What Are the Bottom Line Practical Issues?

First of all, there can be no apology for preaching what the Bible says about the place of baptism in a faith response to Christ – by which we enter the death of Christ, are initially cleansed by his death and are raised from the waters of baptism to the new life of a Christian. We cannot soften or alter the message of passages like Acts 2:38; 3:19; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:26-27; Titus 3:4-7 and 1 Peter 3:21. Baptism is inseparably connected to the forgiveness of sins as we come out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, and no man has the right to disconnect it. Period.

The real issue that is worth discussing comes with the possible distinction between having an erroneous understanding of the purpose of baptism and having an incomplete understanding of its purpose. Having a wrong understanding would include the very common evangelical teaching that one is saved at the point of believing in Jesus and “accepting him as Savior.” Whether we call this type of conversion a response to the so-called “Four Spiritual Laws” or the “Sinner’s Prayer,” it is not biblical. In essence, evangelicals teach that a person is saved first and baptized later – and that is a false doctrine according to the Bible.

Regarding a baptism experienced with an incomplete understanding of the purposes of baptism, this question may be asked: “Does a lack of understanding that baptism is the precise point that sins are forgiven invalidate the baptism?” If someone is baptized to obey Jesus, knowing that baptism is a part of the plan of accepting him, just what specifics beyond that does he have to understand? Our focus as a movement came from the Mainline Church of Christ focus, which arose in the debating days with the Baptists. Baptists insist that a person is saved before baptism, which explains their view that baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace. In reaction to that, the Church of Christ folks historically have said that one could not get baptized correctly with a false doctrine in mind regarding what he was doing.

Those who would raise questions about our past rigidity on that subject make a distinction between having an incomplete understanding of the purposes of baptism and an incorrect understanding of same. According to this reasoning, a person who was baptized simply to obey Jesus but was perhaps unclear about when his sins were actually forgiven might be acceptable to God, but the one who was taught and who accepted the wrong doctrine about the purposes (saved before baptism, maybe months before − given denominational practices) would not be acceptable to God. A further question that could logically be raised is why is it so important to understand that baptism is “for the forgiveness of sins,” and not as important to understand that it is when we receive the indwelling Holy Spirit? Both are joined together in passages like John 3:3-5; Acts 2:38 and Titus 3:4-7. Actually, the NT teaches that over 20 results follow our baptism into Christ.

It is important to note that this discussion is becoming less theoretical than in the past. More churches and leaders in various churches are coming very close to the same teaching that we have historically espoused regarding the purpose of baptism. In the past, it was extremely rare to find a person whose conversion experience sounded as if it could possibly be valid. In the future, we are more likely to find those whose baptisms may in fact be biblical (whether their church is biblically sound or not). In that case, we will have to be wiser in how we study with them, and decide each situation on an individual basis (which we should always do anyway). As we help decide these matters, especially with those having a Restoration background (Mainline Church of Christ and Christian Church), the bigger issue will be whether the person had really repented by making Jesus the Lord of his life and embracing Christ’s mission. Saying that someone has been baptized “for the forgiveness of sins” is not nearly all of the issue in the first place. Did they biblically repent and are they open to biblical discipleship – vertically (with Christ) and horizontally (with fellow Christians)? The lordship issue and the discipling issue are more significant than the baptism issue for those with a Restoration background.

The surrender of our hearts and lives to the will of Jesus is the bottom line of a saving faith. Certainly our mistakes as a movement in the past included our strong tendency to judge for God who was going to heaven and who was not. As one old Church of Christ preacher put it, “We are not the judges; we are the policemen − we can say if someone broke the law or not, but we cannot say what the judge is going to do with the case.” The illustration goes only so far, of course, but the fact that the judge (Judge) will make the final decision is correct. As for me, I intend to always teach what I believe to be correct, but will also always leave the final decision about one’s final salvation up to God. In that way, I believe I can still teach decisively without being judgmental. Obviously, however, that will always be a fine line to walk, but my teaching about conversion is exactly what it has been for decades and I have no inclinations to change it.

Gordon Ferguson