I recently purchased a book in the Counterpoints series called, Understanding Four Views on Baptism. It presents the Baptist view, the Reformed view, the Lutheran view, and the Church of Christ view. Each apologist presents his case, and the other three get an opportunity to respond to it. It promises to be an interesting read. At this point I have only begun to read chapter 1, “The Baptist View.”
Thomas J. Nettles begins his apology for the Baptist view with an anecdote of personal experience, his and that of a “theology student.” Dr. Nettles teaches historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). His bio on the website of that institution puts his entire career within the context of seminary or divinity school. One must, therefore, assume that this student was studying theology in preparation for the ministry. Perhaps in liberal circles students will sometimes enter seminaries without any penitence or faith in Christ; although, even there, such a circumstance is hardly imaginable. Dr. Nettles does not teach in a liberal seminary. He teaches at the most faithful and conservative seminary in the Southern Baptist Convention. How many people enroll at SBTS without some sense of God’s calling to give their lives in service to Christ and his church? And how does one get such a sense without already having some conviction of one’s own sin and trust in Christ for salvation?
According to Dr. Nettles this student wrote him a personal note. “I was completing an assignment in systematic theology,” the student said, “and came to the conviction that I had not been saved. In the process of reading through the material, I cried out to God for forgiveness, and he saved me.”
Really? This seminary student “had not been saved” prior to his enrollment? That is odd, to say the least! But Dr. Nettles ignores the peculiarity of the situation, and asks only whether this student’s repentance and faith is sufficient to effect his salvation. Well, of course it is, but that misses the point. Here we have a person who thought he was saved, then came to believe that he wasn’t saved, so he “cried out to God for forgiveness,” and came to believe that salvation was his again. What was the means of grace the first time he got saved? Was it something other than this same experience of repentance? If we consider only the sufficiency of his repentance, then the student’s faith has nothing more than it had before to cling to. What will keep this young man from again coming to the conviction that he had not previously been saved?
Dr. Nettles is right to start his apology at this point. The Baptist view of baptism, their “theology of baptism,” as he puts it, begins right here. Ground zero is found in reason and experience. Baptists look at the penitent sinner and say, “If baptism plays any role in the salvation of this person, then he is not yet completely saved. And if he is not yet completely saved, then we must say that salvation is not by faith alone. Salvation is by faith alone, therefore baptism does nothing to effect salvation.” This is the starting point for Baptists, and in every instance the Bible is made to conform to this rational assumption. Everything else that Baptists say about baptism flows from this first principle – rooted not in scripture, but in experience and reason. Baptists are so fanatically committed to their belief that baptism does nothing to effect salvation, that when the Word of God directly contradicts it (1 Peter 3:21), they still cling to the Baptist view.