This time around, our Roundtable Question is very Protestant: “Is baptism required for salvation in heaven, or can repentance be enough?”
It’s a Protestant question because until the 16th century, it never occurred to anyone that baptism and repentance and salvation were somehow separate. The Church has always taught that, through the water of baptism, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit forgive our sins and promise to love us forever. And, in the Church, our response to that forgiveness and that promise is repentance: we move closer to the Most Holy Trinity by moving further and further away from our sins. So baptism and repentance together produce what the Church calls salvation: Our on-going union with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
That’s what all Christians believed up until the Protestant Reformation, and that unified perspective is still taught in Holy Orthodoxy. But groups like the Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists and the Bible Church Folks separate baptism and repentance, and that leads to all sorts of problems.
For example, many Protestants not only separate baptism from repentance, they actually teach that baptism is pretty much optional. Because the way they look at it, baptism is just a visual aid; it is a ceremony that illustrates what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are doing in our lives. So, according to this perspective, the water of baptism doesn’t actually do anything; in fact, a lot of Protestants claim that what the Church teaches—that the Most Holy Trinity actually works through the baptismal water—turns the ceremony into some kind of magic ritual.
But that perspective also undercuts one of Protestantism’s most fundamental beliefs—that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit speak to us through the words of the Bible. Because if the Most Holy Trinity can’t or won’t work through the water of baptism, what’s so different about the words of Scripture? Both water and words are part of the material creation that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit brought into existence, so why is it wrong to believe that the Most Holy Trinity can work through the water of baptism, but it is necessary to believe that every one of the words of Holy Scripture are inspired?
Clearly, that’s a contradiction. But when baptism is just an optional object lesson, repentance also becomes a lot more difficult.
Look at it this way: In the Church, repentance is based on the fact that, through baptism, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have forgiven our sins and promised to love us forever. So, when we repent, we’re not trying to convince the Most Holy Trinity to forgive us; we’re not trying to earn the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We don’t have to, because all of that is given to us in and through the baptismal waters.
But if baptism is no more than a ceremony, repentance becomes an exercise in frustration and fear. After all, how can you be sure that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have actually forgiven your sins? Is it because you feel really, really bad for what you did? Is it because you’re determined to never, ever again commit those particular sins? And what happens if you do?
How can you be sure that the Most Holy Trinity loves you? Is it because you read the Bible a lot or because you pray every day? What happens if you forget and miss a day? What happens if you don’t feel very lovable—what happens if you get to the point where you can no longer believe what you’re supposed to believe?
When our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not based on the objective reality of baptism, we are left to wonder if our sins really are forgiven and if the Most Holy Trinity truly loves us. If that’s where you are right now, just send me a note or give me a call. I’ll be happy to talk to you about what the Church has always believed about baptism and repentance and salvation.