Digression 31: The Level Of Knowledge
Required Before Baptism
Many readers will have been confronted by those in 'Evangelical' churches who reason that doctrine is unimportant for salvation, and that a mere verbal confession that 'I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God' is the basic pre-requisite for salvation. Superficially this sounds plausible because of the way conversions are recorded in the Acts, whilst also appealing to the ideas of 'love' and 'tolerance' which are the spirit of our age. This study makes a more detailed analysis of the importance of doctrine.
Why So Quick?
There can be no doubt that a quick reading of Acts gives the impression that many baptisms were carried out with precious little instruction in the basics of the Gospel, and with only a brief confession of belief in Christ as God's son. Just saying the four words 'I believe in Christ' is obviously meaningless as a way to salvation - and the majority of 'Evangelicals' will concede that there must be some other knowledge or appreciation in the mind of the person saying those words for them to be meaningful. This point should not be hard to establish. It is difficult,then, to argue that the passages which record confessions of faith in Christ as the son of God prove that saying those words is all that is needed. It is almost common sense that just saying a brief sentence, regardless of one's other feelings and beliefs, cannot put a man on the road to salvation. The following points may be helpful in explaining these apparently quick conversions:
- The record in Acts - as in much of Scripture - is necessarily highly condensed. It makes an interesting exercise to read out loud some of the speeches recorded in Acts and note the time it takes to do so; it is fairly certain that they would have taken much longer in reality, including much that is not recorded. A few examples:
Paul's defence in Jerusalem takes four minutes to read (Acts 22); that before Felix one minute; before Agrippa four minutes; Peter's Pentecost address takes only four minutes; that to Cornelius three minutes; the Lord's speech after feeding the 5,000 (John 6) six minutes; the sermon on the mount 18 minutes. Peter's preaching in Acts 3:12-26 takes about two minutes to read out loud; but in reality it was long enough for news about the content of his preaching to be taken to "the priests, the captain of the temple and the Sadducees" and for them to come on the scene (Acts 4:1).
Thus the fact that more lengthy 'instruction' of baptism candidates is not mentioned is no proof that it did not happen. An argument from silence is very dubious in this case.
- The possession of "the (miraculous) gift of knowledge...of discerning of spirits (minds)" enabled the early preachers to accurately read the minds of those they preached to, thus making a full doctrinal interview, as we need, unnecessary.
- There is reason to believe that the mass baptism of Jews in Jerusalem at the beginning of Christianity was a special case. There is no evidence that such methods and volume of baptisms were performed later in the first century. If conversions had continued at that scale then the whole of Jerusalem would have been Christian within a few years. These people being Jews it would have meant they had a fair knowledge of the Old Testament and the ways of God. The depth of Paul's letter to the Hebrews and Peter's (also to Jews) show that their readership were capable of grasping the many Old Testament allusions they make. It is staggering that Paul describes what he says about Melchizedek as the milk of the word, lamenting that he could not go into more detail about him because of their spiritual immaturity (Heb.5:11,12). That indicates their level of knowledge at the time of their conversion, as Paul charges them with not having grown much since that time. It seems that those letters were primarily written to the Jerusalem ecclesia, most of whom would have been baptized in the early days recorded at the beginning of Acts.
- We hope to show that preaching the name of Christ and confessing that as described in Acts was equivalent to understanding quite a detailed body of doctrine.
- It would appear from 1 Cor.1:17 that Paul (and other apostles?) operated in harness with an effective team of follow-up instructors and baptizers, so that he only spent a relatively short time in each place where he preached.
The Name of Jesus
The Name of God includes much teaching about Him and His ways - God's Names and titles express His character and purpose. The Name of Jesus Christ is also not just an appellation but a deeper statement of doctrine.
Belief in the name of Jesus is paralleled with being baptized (Jn. 3:5,18,23). Gal. 3:26,27 makes faith in Christ inextricably linked with baptism into him: "Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. FOR as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Further examples of this link between belief and baptism will be found in Acts 19:4; 10:42 cp. 48; 2:37,38; Lk. 24:47. Apollos "knew" John's baptism (Acts 18:25), showing that baptism is not just an act, but involves knowing certain teaching.
"Philip...preached Christ unto them" (Acts 8:5) sounds as if he just said 'Believe on Jesus'; but "Christ" is defined in Acts 8:12: "When they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized". Note that "things" is in the plural; not just a brief statement about Christ; and to 'preach Christ' also included the doctrine of baptism. John 6:40 tells us that it is the will of God "that every one which seeth (understands) the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life"; while later Jesus says that "If any man will do (God's) will, he shall know of the doctrine" (John 7:17). Thus knowing the doctrine is the same as 'seeing' the Son. Christ's words "Thou hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name" (Rev.3:8) also show that the word of Christ is parallel to His Name. Christ under inspiration quotes Is.42:4, "The isles shall wait for his (Christ's) law" as "In his name shall the Gentiles trust" (Matt.12:21), again equating His name with the Gospel about him. The second and third letters of John contain reference to the itinerant preachers "Whom if thou bring forward on their journey after a godly sort, thou shalt do well, because that for his name's sake they went forth" (3 John 6,7). This seems to be alluding back to the commission of Mark 16:15,16, to go forth worldwide and preach the Gospel; thus the name of Christ and His Gospel are equated. To 'believe in Christ' Biblically therefore includes being baptized: "Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For (i.e. because) as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal.3:26,27). Paul speaks as if their having faith in Christ naturally included their expression of that faith in baptism. Thus believing on Christ is a process of understanding followed by obedience, rather than a quick verbal confession 'I believe in Christ'. This is borne out by John 6:35: "He that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst", which equates believing on Christ with COMING to him - showing that belief is a process.
Preaching "Christ" therefore involved a series of doctrines. Thus Luke 9:11 describes Christ preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God (cp. Matthew 4:23), whilst the parallel account in Mark 6:34 refers to Him teaching them "many things". The Gospel includes "many things" - not just a brief statement about Christ which can be made in a minute. Thus we read phrases like, "When they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many" (Acts 14:21), equating preaching and teaching. Such language would be unnecessary if the Gospel was just a few simple statements. Paul's preaching at Berea resulted in the people searching the Scriptures daily (with the synagogue copies of the Old Testament?) to check what Paul had taught them (Acts 17:11). The Gospel taught by Paul was therefore based throughout on the Old Testament, and it was because of the people's process of Bible study after hearing him that they believed- "Therefore many of them believed" (Acts 17:12). When we are dealing with people who have little knowledge of the Bible and do not often search it daily after a discussion, it is not surprising that times of instruction are far longer than in the first century. "Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God" (1 Jn.5:1) clearly corresponds with verses like "Of His own will begat He us with the word of truth" (James 1:18), "Being born again...by the word of God...the word which by the gospel is preached unto you" (1 Pet.1:23,25). This shows that to believe that Christ is the Son of God is an epitome of the fact that one has understood the Gospel contained in the word of God.
The King of the Kingdom
The emphasis on 'believing in Christ' becomes more meaningful once it is appreciated that the title 'Christ' can be read as synonymous with the Kingdom of Christ in some passages. Thus our Lord told the Pharisees that they need not go round looking for Messiah to come, because he was already standing in their midst. He expresses this in the words "...the Kingdom of God is among (A.V. mg.) you" (Lk.17:21), showing that "The Kingdom" is to be equated with the king of the Kingdom. John's preaching that the Kingdom of God was near therefore refers to his heralding of the manifestation of Christ. The stone hitting Nebuchadnezzar's image represents God's Kingdom (Dan.2:44); it is the stone/Kingdom which "shall break in pieces and destroy all these (other) kingdoms", showing that the stone is the Kingdom when it smites the image, as well as after its destruction. In similar vein Ezekiel's parable of the vine describes a "tender one" of its twigs being cropped off and planted, so that it became a great tree, "and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing" (Ez.17:22,23). This must refer to Christ, the "tender plant" of Is.53:2; yet there are obvious connections with His parable of the mustard seed, in which the Kingdom of God is likened to a small seed which grew into a great tree, under which all types of bird came to live. This connection between the word of the Kingdom and Jesus Himself personally shows that He saw Himself as the living word of the Kingdom. In the light of this it is understandable that 'believing in Christ' and believing in the full Gospel of the Kingdom of God are identical.
What is the Gospel?
We now come to discuss in more detail what was considered essential doctrine amongst first century believers. It must be recognized that there was a body of doctrine in New Testament times which was roughly equivalent to our "Statement of Faith". Another important factor to bear in mind was the existence of brethren with the gift of prophecy - 'forth-telling' of direct revelation from God under inspiration. There is reason to believe that with time some of these inspired utterances were added to this body of doctrine.
A Body of Doctrine
Paul could say that those at Rome ecclesia at least had "obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you" (Rom.6:17) before their baptism. The Greek for "form" is the same translated "example" and "pattern" - as if it referred to a body of teaching that was copied elsewhere. Paul's reference to this indicates the importance of a defined body of teaching to be understood before baptism, and also that it was not just a few brief statements that were mentioned before baptism. Some within the ecclesia would have "a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof" (2 Tim.3:5), perhaps suggesting that they might hold the basic doctrines of the faith but not recognize the real power of the Truth in their daily lives. Paul could remind the Galatians that "Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you" (Gal.3:1). The Greek for "set forth" means literally 'depicted in written words', as if the initial instruction of the Galatians had been through some written form of instruction manual.
When defining the doctrine of the resurrection, Paul could say "I delivered unto you...that which I also received, how that Christ died..." (1 Cor.15:3), showing how he had received a revelation about these things, and had delivered it to them as doctrine to be accepted as fundamental. 2 Peter 2:21,22 falls neatly into place here: "It had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than...to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But...the sow that was washed (in baptism) (has returned) to her wallowing in the mire". Here "the way" and "the holy commandment" which were "delivered" to them are associated with the washing of baptism, as if the way and commandment were known before baptism. We have shown that there was not just one command to be understood before baptism; therefore the "commandment" in the singular may suggest that there was a body of teaching very clearly defined that had to be understood before baptism. There are several passages which speak of 'receiving' teaching about doctrine and "the Gospel": Gal.1:9,12; Phil. 4:9; Col.2:6; 1 Thess.1:6; 2:13; 4:1. This confirms that 'the Gospel' was comprised of a specific body of teachings that had been 'received' firstly by the apostles and then by those to whom they preached.
Jude also speaks of "the faith which was once (for all) delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3). "The faith" is thus parallel to the "form of doctrine" that was delivered to them before baptism, and it would have been another phrase in the first century vocabulary which referred to this body of doctrine. Paul's exhortation to "hold fast the profession of our faith" (Heb.10:23) may be alluding back to their public profession of belief in "the faith" before their baptism. Preserving "the faithful word" (Titus 1:9) would have primarily referred to upholding this 'Statement of the faith' which they had originally been taught. "The common faith" (Titus 1:4) shows how this body of doctrine was shared by all believers; there was only "one faith" (Eph.4:5). "The faith" and the name of Christ are connected in Acts 3:16. We have seen that the name of Christ is another name for the same teaching contained in "the faith". Both in matters of practice (1 Tim.6:10) and doctrine (1 Tim.4:1) Paul warned that some would "depart from the faith". The first stage in that apostasy would be to say that "the faith" was impossible to define.
Matters of Practice
Matters of practice were also part of this body of doctrine. "The faith in Christ" included reasoning about "righteousness, temperance and judgment to come" (Acts 24:24,25). Paul talks of the instructions about the breaking of bread as he does of the teaching concerning the resurrection: "I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you" (1 Cor.11:23). There seem to have been a group of these practical things, which Paul later extended to include teaching about the place of sisters in the ecclesia: "Ye...keep the ordinances as I delivered them to you. But I would have you know that...the head of the woman is the man...." (1 Cor.11:2,3). This indicates that the explanation of these things should be before baptism, and were part of the body of doctrine that was insisted on in the first century. The Greek for "ordinances" is also translated "tradition" in 2 Thess.3:6 and 2:15: "Withdraw...from every brother that walketh..not after the tradition which he received of us...stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by (inspired, prophetic) word, or our epistle". These show the vital importance of holding on to this body of teaching, and the need to separate from those who do not obey it: "Holding fast the faithful word (another description of this same corpus of doctrine) as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers" (Tit.1:9).
We know there were "false prophets" in the early ecclesias, claiming to have had revelations from God about doctrine which should be added to the accepted body of teaching. Thus Paul stresses what are "faithful words" of inspired revelation of doctrine (Titus 1:9; 3:8; 2 Tim.2:11; 1 Tim.4:9), which are "worthy of all acceptation" (1 Tim.1:15; 4:9) - i.e. into the body of doctrine comprising "the faith". This is why John warned not to "Believe...every spirit" who claimed inspiration (1 John 4:1).
The following are some clear examples of where doctrines other than a simple 'belief in Christ' were taught as part of the basic Gospel which was to be understood before baptism:
- "God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my Gospel" (i.e. the one Paul preached; Rom.2:16). The doctrine of the judgment seat and responsibility is therefore considered to be a 'first principle'- see also Acts 24:25; Heb.6:1,2.
- The idea that circumcision was necessary for salvation was described by Paul as "another Gospel" (Gal.1:6). Thus knowing that we should not keep the Law of Moses, e.g. the Sabbath, is part of understanding the true Gospel.
- "The Gospel of the Kingdom" is not only about Christ but also about his coming Kingdom; Is.52:7 (cp. Rom.10:15) describes the preacher of the Gospel speaking of the time when it can be said to Zion "Thy God reigneth"- i.e. in the Kingdom.
- The correct understanding of the 'finer points' of Christ's nature was a matter of fellowship (2 John 7-10); because of this the Gospel involved the "things", plural, about Christ (Acts 8:12). Again, just saying we believe in Christ is not enough.
- The importance of the promises about the Kingdom is a vital part of the Gospel; it was through the promises that the Gospel was preached to Abraham (Gal.3:8) and Israel (Heb.4:2). Thus Paul spoke of his preaching about the promises made to David as "the word of this salvation" (Acts 13:23,26). They were therefore a vital part of the message of salvation. Thus he says "We declare (same word translated 'preach' elsewhere) unto you good tidings (the Gospel) of the promise made unto the fathers" (Acts 13:32 R.V.). Similarly Rom.1:1-4: "The Gospel of God...concerning His Son Jesus Christ, which was made of the seed of David".
- To understand the promises requires a certain knowledge of the history of Israel. A study of Paul's preaching at Antioch in Acts 13 shows him outlining the history of Israel with special emphasis on the promises, stressing how they were fulfilled in Jesus. His preaching was thus based on the history of Israel, and was what we might call 'expositional', concluding with a warning of the consequences at the judgment of not responding to the word he was preaching (Acts 13:40,41). The content of our preaching should be similar.
The importance of all this cannot be over-emphasized. "Take heed unto thyself and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee" (1 Tim.4:13-16). Lists of important doctrines like those given in Appendix 1 of this book are obviously not inspired, but in the writer's opinion it does seem a fair summary of many of the specific items mentioned in the Bible passages which speak of things which are part of "the faith", "the traditions" etc. This study hopefully has shown that there is a definite need for a body of doctrine which we all accept and are not slow to affirm our allegiance to. The contents of this body of doctrine should comprise our instruction of candidates for baptism, and it is only fair to them to check by way of discussion before their immersion that they fully understand what they have been taught. Frequently the believers were encouraged to cling to "the faith" in times of trouble. "The foundation of God standeth sure". Our familiarity with the first principles, with the marvellous way the full purpose of God holds together, should be an encouragement to us in itself. Only by our regular preaching or re-studying of these things will this benefit and deep sense of assurance be ours, so that like Paul in his hour of darkness and loneliness we can say "I have finished my course, I have kept the faith...I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him (our life, our all) against that day" (2 Tim.4:7; 1:12).
FOOTNOTE: Confessing the Lord Jesus
"If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved" (Rom.10:9).
The following points need to be made:
- We have shown that 'The Lord Jesus' is probably a synonym for a whole body of doctrine comprising the "things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ", including baptism (Acts 8:5 cp.v.12). The 'confession' of which Paul speaks may well have been at baptism. He would in this case be alluding to Mark 16:16 "He that believeth (cp. confessing with the mouth) and is baptized (cp. rising with Christ from the dead) shall be saved".
- To understand the resurrection of Christ involves a knowledge of Bible teaching about hell and the nature of man.
- Rom.10:8,9 appear to be parallel with v.13: "For whosoever shall call upon (himself, Greek) the name of the Lord shall be saved". Paul is described as being baptized and thus calling upon himself the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16); only baptism gives us entrance into the name of the Lord (Matt.28:19).
- Having stressed the importance of baptism a few chapters earlier in Romans 6, it is impossible that Paul would now teach that it was unnecessary for salvation in chapter 10.
- Rom.10:9 is preceded by v.6-8: "Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into Heaven...Who shall descend into the deep?...But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach". "The word of (the) faith" was therefore what had to be confessed, and is parallel to "the Lord Jesus" in v.9. We have seen that "the faith" describes the whole body of doctrine which comprised the Gospel. Paul is quoting from Deut.30:11-14: "This commandment which I command thee this day,,,it is not in Heaven...neither is it beyond the sea ('the deep')...but the word is very nigh unto thee". He seems to interpret "the word...this commandment" as referring to Christ. In the same way that if Israel kept the word they would be blessed (Deut.30:16), so if the new Israel believed in the word about Christ they would be saved. Confessing Christ with the mouth therefore corresponds to assenting to this teaching about Christ. "If thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord" (Deut.30:10) is matched in Rom.10:9: "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus". This parallel again shows that "the Lord Jesus" is a title summarizing the basic teaching of the word of God.