By Jack W. Cottrell
My thesis is that the understanding of the doctrine of salvation in most Protestant groups is captive to the Zwinglian version of the sola fidei paradigm. In the previous article (last week) I showed how this is the case in the way faith is treated as the sole condition for justification, and not just its sole means. It is also seen in the way repentance either is excluded as a condition altogether, or is diminished by being made simply an aspect of faith—which according to the paradigm must be the sole condition.
In this article I will show how the tyranny of the paradigm forces sola fidei adherents to do violence to biblical teaching concerning confession and baptism.
Confusion About Confession
First (and fourth overall), being a slave to the sola fidei paradigm leads to serious confusion regarding how confession is related to salvation, especially as taught in Romans 10:9, 10. A literal rendering of these verses shows that Paul makes confession and faith equivalent conditions for salvation. In verse 9 he says, “If you confess and believe, then you will be saved.” In the Greek there is only one if, and it applies equally to both confession and faith. In verse 10 Paul also says that (a) with the heart one believes UNTO (eis) righteousness, and (b) with the mouth one confesses UNTO (eis) salvation.
In verse 10 the use of the same verbal formula, including the parallel use of the word eis, shows that both faith and confession precede salvation, and that salvation is conditioned on both.
But how is this text treated under the pressure of the sola fidei paradigm? Douglas Moo (in The Epistle to the Romans [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], 57) says we should be “cautious about finding great significance in the reference to confession here, as if Paul were making oral confession a second requirement for salvation.” Faith is the crucial requirement. “Confession is the outward manifestation of this critical inner response.” (We should note that in this text Paul is silent about any sort of connection between faith and confession. The only thing he connects with confession is salvation.)
Norman Geisler discusses my treatment of Romans 10:9, 10, and acknowledges that “the Bible speaks of confession unto salvation”; yet he declares in his next breath that the Bible “nowhere lists this as a separate and necessary step to being saved” (Systematic Theology, Vol. 3: Sin/Salvation [Grand Rapids: Bethany House, 2004], 494). If faith is indeed the means of salvation, “why should confession be seen as a condition rather than a result of salvation?” (ibid., 495). “Confession is a natural outward concomitant of saving faith, but . . . saving faith alone saves” (495). While open, oral confession is a natural result of salvation, it is nowhere given as a necessary condition of everlasting life” (495).
The tyranny of the paradigm is obvious: “The New Testament lists faith and faith alone as the means of being saved. Accordingly any other conditions (such as confession and baptism) cannot actually be salvific conditions” (494).
Please note: In spite of Paul’s explicit and specific way of relating confession to salvation in Romans 10:9, 10—“confession UNTO salvation”—Geisler ignores this and reverses the order: salvation UNTO confession (i.e., confession is the RESULT of salvation). He is a slave to the paradigm.
Distorting the Purpose of Baptism
Finally, an absolute, a priori commitment to the sola fidei paradigm leads to an irrational distortion of New Testament texts that relate baptism to salvation. Examples are many, but I will cite only two. The first is a rather common twisting of Acts 2:38 under the pressure of the sola fidei paradigm. It is an argument that attempts to separate baptism from forgiveness through a blatantly faulty analysis of the Greek forms in this verse.
For example, Cal Beisner, in a little booklet titled Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?, gives this interlinear translation of the Greek:
Metanoēsate kai baptisthētō hekastos humōn epi to onomati IēsouChristou
You (plural) repent and be baptized each one of you in the name of Jesus Christ
eis aphesin tōn hamartiōn humōn.
for (the) remission (of the) sins of you (plural).
The argument begins with Beisner noting that the verb “repent” is plural, and that the “your” in “for the remission of your sins” is also plural. (Beisner inserts “plural” at these points.) But, he says, the verb “be baptized” is singular: “Let each one [hekastos] be baptized.” Beisner concludes, “This makes it clear that ‘remission of your (plural) sins’ is the result of ‘you (plural) repenting,’ not of ‘each one (singular) being baptized.’”
John MacArthur agrees that this is a proper interpretation. “Support for that interpretation comes from the fact that ‘repent’ and ‘your’ are plural, while ‘be baptized’ is singular, thus setting it off from the rest of the sentence [as parenthetical]. If that interpretation is correct, the verse would read ‘Repent (and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ) for the forgiveness of your sins.’ Forgiveness is thus connected with repentance, not baptism” (in a letter from MacArthur shared with me by Don Wallace, spring 2001).
Those who use this argument seem to deliberately ignore the fact that the singular verb “be baptized” is emphatically pluralized by the immediately following words, hekastos humōn, “each one OF YOU” (plural). True, the verb “be baptized” is grammatically singular because its immediate subject is “each one” (hekastos), but the addition of the plural “of you” (humōn) clearly shows that the application of this verb is intended to be plural. It is the exact same plural word used in the phrase “remission of your (plural) sins.” Beisner, of course, chooses not to insert “(plural)” after the first humōn, because this would just call attention to the weakness of this argument. (See John 7:53 for a similar combination of a plural verb with a singular hekastos.) The only reason for ignoring the obvious is the tyranny of the sola fidei paradigm.
Another example of irrational treatment of baptismal texts as dictated by the sola fidei paradigm is Ephesians 4:5, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” What do sola fidei defenders do with this verse? Uncharacteristically, Geisler (ibid., 502) says the one baptism is water baptism, which is rather strange in view of his conviction that baptism as an outward act is no more than a work and thus cannot be a condition for salvation (497). This raises a serious question: Why should such a relatively insignificant act as one of the works of the Christian life (water baptism) be included in the same list with one body (the church), one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one hope, and one God and Father?
Most sola fidei folks take the other view, that the “one baptism” is Holy Spirit baptism, which at least is seen as a divine salvific act and is more compatible (in significance) with the other six items listed here. (Examples are numerous; see Cottrell, Power from on High [Joplin: College Press, 2007], 328.)
The problem here is that most Protestants (except Quakers and radical dispensationalists) still continue to distinguish TWO baptisms in Christian experience: Spirit baptism and water baptism as two separate and distinct events. This allows them to grant that some New Testament texts connect baptism with salvation, but these are automatically interpreted as referring to Spirit baptism since water baptism is excluded by the sola fidei paradigm. (My Westminster Seminary professor, Jay Adams, avowed in class, “There’s not a drop of water in Romans 6!”)
But this leaves Ephesians 4:5 just “hanging in the wind,” so to speak (cf. Ephesians 4:14). How can Paul say there is just ONE baptism, if indeed there are TWO? If Paul says emphatically that there is indeed just one baptism, what drives our faith-only friends to contradict Paul by distinguishing two separate baptisms? The tyranny of the sola fidei paradigm, of course. But when we allow ourselves to be set free from the power of this paradigm, we can affirm that there is indeed ONE baptism, which combines immersion in water AND immersion in the Holy Spirit in a single event.
My prayer is that we can all agree with Paul and with Martin Luther in understanding sola fidei as an affirmation that faith is the only means by which justification is received. To say that it refers to faith as the only condition for justification requires us to do violence to both Scripture and reason.
Jack Cottrell is professor of theology at Cincinnati (Ohio) Bible Seminary. His 20th book, Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace, was published in 2009 by College Press.