Part 3: Examining Each Step in Focus
We last looked at the history of how the “5-step plan of salvation” developed, shaped Church of Christ teaching, and was challenged over the last hundred years.
Now let’s look at each step and examine it for its own merit as a “step to” salvation as an event:
We can understand why this makes sense. How can you believe anything you haven’t heard, or confess what you don’t know? How can you repent of sin if you don’t know what it is? How can you seek treatment for a disease you didn’t know you had? Since we’re commanded to preach and teach, it follows that we want people to hear. The book of Deuteronomy—”Hear O Israel”—centered around God’s call to Listen and Love. People must hear the Good News.
Question: How much do we have to hear?
Are we just supposed to hear enough to do the five steps? Do we have to read through the whole Gospel? Do we have to hear enough to fill out a questionnaire showing we are ready to become a Christian? Or do we just need to hear that Jesus died for us? Does not the entire book of Deuteronomy—notably the Shema (“Hear O Israel”)— demonstrate that God’s people must hear time and time again, even after entering into a covenant with God?
Question: Isn’t hearing obvious if we believe?
Honestly, for the sake of simplicity, why does hearing have to be listed as an actual step? Once we tell anyone anything about the Gospel, we just made it clear we think they have to hear it to believe it.
What I’ve learned:
I think part of the reason Walter Scott developed this first step as a listed necessity was to combat post-deceased baptism, as believers in some denominations, like Mormonites, will try to be baptized on behalf of relatives who have not believed. But that can be refuted from scripture anyway, with or without the listed step. Hearing implies belief, and if we want a simplified list, hearing seems as unnecessary to isolate as being a human being (Gen. 9:3) or finding water with which to be immersed (Acs 8:36).
Question: What about babies? [see next step below]
As with the above, how can I repent of sin if I do not believe I am guilty? How can I confess something I do not believe? Non-belief is antithetical to belief, to faith. What we believe sets us apart from the world, defines our identity. We must believe.
Question: Is belief a single step?
If you ask most people in the Church of Christ, they will tell you that not only must you believe, but keep on believing. They are correct. However, listing belief as a step can lead us to assume that as long as you believe at the time you follow the other steps, you are fine. But belief continues the rest of our lives, and our belief also deepens. Calling it a “step” limits and misrepresents our conception of our belief.
Question: What things to believe does the step of belief entail?
If you’ve been baptized, when was the one moment you began to believe? And what exactly was it you began to believe right at that moment? Did you believe you were a sinner at the same time you came to believe that Jesus is the son of God? Did you believe that God exists at the same time you believed that the Bible is his word? Do you have to believe all the right things about worship, church governance, and what is and is not a sin in order to be saved? What if you do not know all those things yet?
Question: What about babies, (and the mentally disabled)?
In Churches of Christ, we teach as the Bible teaches that innocent babies and small children have not yet become acquainted with sin, and are not culpable for what they do not yet know (Isaiah 7:16). Infant baptism is not found in scripture. It is consistent with teaching across Churches of Christ that babies do not need to be immersed to be saved. Yet this “5-step plan” does not include humans who cannot be accountable for their sin or even understand concepts like repentance and salvation, either due to their age or mental disability. The “5-step plan” can lead some to believe that Churches of Christ teach that unbaptized children will not go to Heaven.
What I’ve learned:
God rewards us for believing in him and for sincerely seeking him (Heb. 11:6), not just with a one-time gift of salvation to be opened later but blessings of eternal life and kingdom living here and now. Those who believe and receive God have the right to be called his children (John 1:12). This is more than one-time salvation. This is identity with God by adoption, an action he performs. If we believe, we “will not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). This is life that goes on and on forever. “Believers” is the word most used to describe us in the New Testament writings. Our belief isn’t just a step to being saved; Believing is what we are.
It is understood that if I am not sorry of wrongs I have done, I am still tied to them. If I do not let go of the thing I want to be rescued from, how can I be rescued from it? If I do not believe I have sinned, or that I cannot be righteous with my sin, how can I ask forgiveness? We must turn from our sin.
Question: Is repentance me-centered?
Is repentance solely a task on my part? When Peter preached to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, convincing them that Gentiles could be saved too, they praised God, saying, “So even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). That should stand out to us. What we might normally view as an action Luke says the converted Jews saw as a gift from God. Writing to Timothy, Paul phrased it the same way (2 Tim. 2:25).
Question: Is repentance a single step?
In Acts 2 when Peter preaches “the first Gospel sermon,” he tells the crowd to “repent and be immersed.” (Notice that confession is not listed as a step between the two and his message is still regarded as legitimate). Repentance is a change in direction, not a pit-stop. It means we walk way from sin, toward righteousness. It starts with being sorry for our sin, but it continues with not walking in sin any more. Itemizing repentance can lead us to believe that it is a thing done once before getting wet, not a daily plea to God accompanied by a heart turning back toward him.
What I’ve learned:
John combined repentance and immersion as one concept, preaching an “immersion of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). When asked what came next, he said “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” John preached repentance as a lifestyle of salvation. This is important because some are led to believe that once they are saved they do not need to bother to ask God for forgiveness of sins. We need to learn of the “godly sorrow” that convicts us daily and keeps us from backsliding. We must remain vigilant of our temptations and sorrowful the sins we give in to.
Specifically, we mean confessing Christ, declaring that he is Lord, that he is sent from God, and that we need him. This is central, is it not? Even so many of those who leave out the step of baptism retain this step.
Question: Is confession a single step?
We are to confess Christ, but what passages tell us that this is a one-time, ceremonial requirement approaching baptism? Rather, the passages that speak of confession (not just the word, but verbally acknowledging Christ in any form) represent it as either a continual and/or frequent action, or an action in general with no reference to time frame in relation to baptism (Matt. 10:33; Matt. 10:33; 1 John 4:15). Why does it have to occur right before you “go in the water” as if it is a ritual sequence verifying you are saved in the next sequence (as is common tradition in many Churches of Christ)? The New Testment presents them more as aspects of being Christian in general. The confession could come right after baptism and still be valid. It could come before repentance and still be valid. It could happen at the same time as belief and still be valid.
Jimmy Allen, in his Survey of Romans, writes,
“The Bible nowhere teaches that a formal confession of faith before baptism is essential to salvation. If it does, why is it left out as a condition in the great commission? Why is it not found in any of the conversions recorded in Acts? […] One must acknowledge Jesus as Lord prior to baptism and during the whole of his Christian life, but, as far as formal confession is concerned, God’s word does not command such.”
Generally, teachers and preachers in Churches of Christ will acknowledge that confessing Christ as the Son of God who forgives sins is not just a one-time act. However, listing it as a step to salvation can leave such a notion open to new converts, limiting a lifetime of confession to a box to be checked to “get saved.”
What I’ve learned:
Remember Deut. 30:14. “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” This foreshadows the new Testament, under the covenant of which a New Law is written on our hearts and is spoken on our tongues. Confessing Christ begins with receiving salvation and carries on all our lives.
5. BE BAPTIZED
We need some moment in which we feel we are saved. We want to follow the steps of those who came before us. We crave something symbolic. Immersion (I avoid the word baptism) is given to us as this moment, this gesture of receiving Faith.
Question: Is immersion just a moment?
It is obvious that going down and coming up from the water is a one-time event for Christians. The New Testament testifies this. But is immersion just the thing that happens? Peter told converted Christians that “immersion now saves” them (1 Peter 3:21). When we contact the blood of Christ, we don’t un-contact it when we dry off. We are washed daily. We don’t enter the kingdom and walk out with a token of salvation. We are dwelling in Christ and we don’t plan to exit. Let not the physical act of immersion limit our understanding of what has taken place. What’s final about it is the old person. What’s eternal about it is the new.
Question: Is the physical act of dunking the mechanism of being saved?
Meaning, am I saved because I went under the water, and was it the water? I’ve heard salvation talked about before as if this is the point.
As Roy Key lays it out, “Baptism is a part of the method by which [we are] reckoned righteous, the process as a whole being called repentance[…] The entire process of constituting men righteous is here designated as repentance, which in its broadest and deepest sense cannot be entirely separated from faith. Nor can baptism be so separated. It is no “work” of faith or expression of the faith that is already complete. It is faith actually reaching out and appropriating the atonement, relying upon Jesus in his way.”
Although it’s implied that “being baptized” is a passive verb phrase, it is not emphasized enough that immersion is not an act we perform (as we are not saved by works), but a response to the work of God. It is a gesture. Key elaborates, “Baptism is also faith in visual form, setting forth man’s trust in the Savior, rather than in himself, showing implicit trust in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, which are symbolized by it […] Paul told Titus, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done (man’s righteousness) but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 3:5).”
I have no fear of describing the physical act of immersion as a symbol. I’d rather it be called a symbol than a work. This does not mean I do not find it necessary, nor does it mean that immersion is not the place/time we contact salvation and are added to the body.
What I learned:
In the Churches of Christ we have a passion for explanation salvation, but too often we traditionally fail to grasp it. We often critique those who offer an unbiblical model of salvation—”just say the sinner’s prayer” or “raise up your hand and just accept Jesus into your heart.” But we must be careful that we do not let baptism be a ceremonial equivalent with any of these other false salvation tokens. Immersing ourselves in Christ begins in this moment as our response to the Gospel, a response that should carry forward, always. We don’t step in to Christ and then walk out. We step into death to walk out. Christ is with us, always.
In this post we asked questions about the steps. In the next post I examine the list as a whole and how its presentation can be abused.
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One thing that is implied in the 5 Steps is the order. Of course, the order makes logical sense and is a great pattern. I have experienced conversations with people in the CofC who require converts to follow that exact order. I disagree. When it comes to the order, I agree with this lesson from Francis Chan.
I appreciate you diving into this Caleb (7 years ago now 😅)
One thought concerning immersion: I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of baptism/immersion and one thing that I think is clear, that we often miss, is that the “act” of immersion is also representative of the life of immersion in Christ. We come up out of the water but, as you intimate above, we must continue immersing ourselves into Christ and becoming more like Him daily. It’s the only way. That is the primary role of preachers… immerse their listeners in Christ. We don’t need a sprinkling of Him, we need to drown ourselves in Him!