Posted on October 4, 2008 by John Oakes at his website, Evidence for Christianity. Used with permission.
I was just reading an excerpt out of the book Who is My Brother, by F. LaGard Smith. I believe you are familiar with this book. He states that those who are baptised even without the knowledge that they are baptized for the forgiveness of their sins are still saved in God’s eyes. So what if a person fully repents but believes he is saved by grace and he gets baptized as symbol of his commitment biblically, is he saved? Here is the quote from Smith’s book:
"What it suggests is the possibility that–despite their misunderstanding of baptism’s purpose–believers who are immersed in order to obey the command to be baptized might nevertheless be regarded in God’s eyes as saved believers. If so, of course, they would not have been saved at the point of faith (as they, themselves, think) but only at the point of their baptism–an odd situation, to say the least."
I am inclined to agree with LaGard Smith on this. I am fully cognizant that this has not been the stand of the churches of Christ in recent times. What is interesting is that the founder of the Restoration Movement–the group which led to the Church of Christ–took the same position that LaGard Smith does. In fact, when a preacher back then took the position that those who did not have "baptismal cognizance" (a very fancy term for just what you describe) must be "rebaptized," Alexander Campbell disfellowshipped this person for being divisive. The group known today as the Christadelphians resulted from this split. It is ironic that the Church of Christ now takes the view which Alexander Campbell once viewed as divisive.
My response is that I am not absolutely sure on this teaching. I am inclined to think that if a person believes in Jesus, makes a decision to sell out for Jesus, becoming a disciple, repents of his or her sins and is baptized, that person is saved. If a person is not completely correct in their understanding of exactly when we are saved, that person is clearly very confused, but I find it hard to believe that a person goes to hell who did exactly what God said to do in full sincerity and faith, but who was confused at that time about the teaching of when one is saved goes to hell. Our intellectual understanding is not the key to salvation, but our faith and obedience is the key.
Some (including myself!) have used Colossians 2:12 as a proof-text that one has to understand at the time of baptism that baptism is when one is saved. I believe this is a possible interpretation of this passage, which is one reason I say I am not absolutely certain on this issue, but I am inclined to believe that this is not what Colossians 2:12 is talking about. I believe that this is pushing the passage in a direction Paul did not intend.
Might Smith and I be wrong? Yes, possibly. I already said I am not absolutely sure about this. Some see this as the beginning of a slippery slope toward belief that baptism is not essential. The problem with this is that the slippery slope argument is not helpful in determining what is true. I believe we should take the conservative road here. I, for one, would never even consider baptizing a person who was confused about when one becomes a Christian. If I were the leader of a church, I would not let anyone place membership with the church who is not clear on the teaching that one is saved when one is baptized. There is no way we can compromise on what the Bible teaches. However, I am not sure I can declare that people who have an imperfect intellectual understanding on this issue at the time of baptism are lost. If I met someone like this (actually, I have!!!), I would suggest that this person give very careful consideration. I would suggest they consider being baptized with full cognizance of the meaning and significance of baptism. Having done this, I would leave the decision in the individual’s hand and in the hand of God, but would not assume he or she is lost.