Baptism and Belief

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/12/2013

While baptism doesn’t save you, it does serve an important function, Greg says. Publicly identifying oneself with Christ helps distinguish true, saving faith from mere intellectual assent.

Sometimes when I talk with people about Christ, I run into a very frustrating situation. The person I’m sharing with nods in agreement to everything I’m saying yet, even though I’m getting all this positive assent, something inside is telling me something’s wrong.

I might be talking to someone who’s living in a way that’s completely inconsistent with obedience to Christ. Or it may be somebody I’ve known for a long time who is nodding in assent to my statements, but has never shown any spiritual vitality at all. His attitude often is, “Yes, I believe that. So what?”

When you encounter people like this, you probably wonder, “What do I do with this person? They say they believe, but something vital is missing here.”

This is the case for many of you who were raised in a Christian home and have sat through many church services. Yet at the same time, you look around at other Christians you know and you see a vibrancy, an energy, a palpable love for Jesus Christ that influences their life, that has completely eluded your own.

I remember a dinner I shared with friends more than twenty years ago at the home of a Christian sister. There were 12 to 15 of us, all college students. Half of the group was Christian; the other half was not, though some of the non-believers had been involved in church for years.

One of the gals—her name was Julie—said, “You know, I’m Christian, but I’m not Christian like you guys are Christian.”

I said, “Julie, let’s go into the other room and talk.”

We sat down away from the rest of the crowd and had a conversation. I asked her if she believed that Jesus was the Messiah, that He died for her sins, that He was God, etc.—the basics of Christianity. To each of these things she nodded yes. Yet I knew something was missing, and I knew she knew it, too (as evidenced by her remark).

It seemed to me that Julie had been giving intellectual assent to these truths all her life, but the personal element was missing. There wasn’t the personal commitment that makes all the difference in the world.

I then asked her a very important question: “Julie, have you ever told God that?”

“Told Him what?” she asked.

“Have you ever told God directly that you believe the things you’ve just told me, the things that you might have affirmed dozens of times in Sunday school class or catechism. Have you ever told Him that?”

“No, I guess I haven’t.”

“Well, why don’t we bow our heads right now and you tell Him what you just told me.”

She agreed and we bowed our heads, but then she paused. She looked up and said, “Greg, this is a little difficult. I’m having a hard time doing this.” I said, “If you’re having a hard time, don’t tell me, tell the Lord.”

She bowed her head again, waited a bit, then said, “Greg, this is really hard. I’m having a hard time starting.”

I said, “Julie, if you’re having a hard time starting, just tell the Lord you’re having a hard time and that will help get you rolling.”

She tried again and finally she said, “You know what’s difficult about this, Greg? I always said I believed these things, and now I really have to own it. I really have to tell God that this is genuine and real.”

I said, “Julie, don’t tell me. Tell the Lord.”

She bowed her head and then prayed one of the most beautiful prayers of acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Savior that I’d ever heard. In fact, that was the day Julie became born again.

Up until that night Julie had simply made an intellectual assent to the truthfulness of the doctrines of Christianity—“Yes, I believe in my head those things we’ve said about Jesus are true. He is God. He is the Savior. He’s the Lord. He rose from the dead.” And that’s where it stops for many people. These truths have no effect on their lives. They say, “Sure I believe in all that. So what?” That’s because they haven’t progressed from noticia—knowledge—and assent—to fiducia—active trust, what the Bible calls “belief.”

But how do you really know the difference when you’re talking with people. This is where baptism plays a valuable role.

First, I’m a bit wary of what is commonly referred to as “the sinner’s prayer.” I’ve come to call it “the magic prayer.” You know the prayer I’m talking about. You’ll often find a short rendition of it at the end of gospel tracts where it says, “Pray this prayer...”

I have nothing against the prayer itself. I’ve used some version of it many times to lead people to Christ. I prayed something like it with my brother Mark one evening back in 1973 when I became a Christian.

I’m concerned not about the prayer itself, but about the way many Christians view the sinner’s prayer. They treat the prayer as if it were something magical, as if the prayer itself makes the difference, and if we can just get the person to pray the prayer—to say these magic words—then they’re in. What happens after that is somewhat incidental. The important thing is to get them to “pray the prayer.”

Sometimes when I ask someone if someone else is a Christian they’ll say, “Well, they prayed the prayer.” They said the magic words, in other words. They’re in because the recited the incantation.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t care much whether anyone “prays the prayer” or not. In the New Testament, people didn’t pray prayers like that to become Christian. There wasn’t the same emphasis then on “receiving Jesus” that we have in Evangelical circles today. People were simply enjoined to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation.

In the New Testament there were no “altar calls.” Instead, baptism was the public focal point of conversion in the early church (though I don’t believe Scripture teaches that baptism actually saves you). It served to protect against substituting mere intellectual assent for genuine faith, and it can serve the same function today.

Many Evangelicals have reacted against inaccurate biblical teaching on baptismal regeneration by ignoring baptism altogether. This is a mistake. In addition to the theological problems with ignoring Jesus’ command to be baptized, there is a practical issue.

If people tell you they already believe in Christianity, but you suspect something’s amiss, ask, “Are you willing to be baptized? Are you willing to stand up as an adult in public and confess your faith and trust in Jesus Christ, and to publicly identify yourself with Christ’s Church?” If they’re not willing, I suspect their so-called faith is just intellectual assent, not saving faith.

Guess what, friends? If they’re not willing to do that, I suspect that their so-called faith is just intellectual assent. It’s not saving faith, because there’s no willingness to identify oneself publicly with Christ. Then I know what I’m dealing with, and I can proceed properly.

Willingness to be baptized separates the sheep from the goats, spiritually speaking. It separates those who have a genuine faith in Jesus Christ from those who are merely giving intellectual assent to the doctrines of Christianity. If a person is willing to be baptized, I’m much more confident he probably has a genuine faith in Jesus Christ. If he’s not willing to be baptized, however, then I suspect he is not a true Christian and instead is merely giving intellectual assent to the doctrines of Christianity.

If you’re listening and thinking to yourself, “I believe those things, but something is really missing,” then maybe your belief is just intellectual assent, and you haven’t really put your active trust in Jesus. Maybe you haven’t surrendered to Him.

If you’ve fallen back into Jesus’ arms and put your trust in Him, then you ought to be willing to stand up publicly and say, “I am His, and I’m being baptized to publicly testify to that fact, and also to publicly identify with His people—the Church.”

I think this is one of the very important things about Christian baptism. It allows you to virtually eliminate the question of whether one genuinely believes in Jesus Christ or has merely given intellectual assent to His claims. True biblical faith entails action and identification. If one acts to publicly identify himself with Jesus Christ and with His people in baptism, then he’s probably moved beyond mere intellectual assent.