Within the annals of Christian history there are a number of events and developments so significant that they form a framework into which other events can be placed. A short list of these major milestones would include such things as the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, the split between the Eastern and the Western Church in the eleventh century, Luther’s publication of his ninety-five theses, and so on.
Among these watershed events, though, one must mention the development of the Nicene Creed—both its conception at the First Council of Nicea in AD 325 and its subsequent expansion at the First Council of Constantinople in AD 381. The Nicene Creed would come to be the most widely used statement of faith in all the Christian Church throughout time. And its popularity can still be seen today as it is recited or otherwise affirmed in the midst of worship by Roman Catholics, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and on and on.
But while the Nicene Creed is embraced by millions of Christians of virtually every denominational tradition, some feel a bit uncomfortable with its wording. Some Christians, particularly of a Baptist or otherwise Evangelical stripe, while wholeheartedly supporting the creed’s declaration of the Trinity, flinch at one of the final lines of the text which reads: “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” To some these words just seem… well… off. Isn’t it our faith that justifies us? Doesn’t the heart-felt repentance and commitment we make to the Lord in prayer get the job done? Isn’t baptism supposed to be merely an outward expression of an inward and preexistent reality?
Those who feel this way often point to passages in the Bible that support what may be called a direct and immediate view of salvation, that is, a view which implies that justification can be had independent of any outward ritual. As the Apostle Paul declares, “with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” (Romans 10:10) And as the Apostle Peter proclaims, we are now living in an age in which, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved!” (Acts 2:21) With these passages in mind Evangelicals generally and Baptists specifically sometimes just can’t bring themselves to embrace the creed—after all, the Bible is the prime authority in our lives and creeds (whether they be ancient or modern) are merely human documents liable to error.
But this kind of unease is simply unnecessary. While the Bible does indeed affirm that salvation comes through faith and repentance, it also affirms that baptism is the normal and God-ordained arena in which these sentiments find their appropriate expression. In the book of Acts whenever a man comes to faith in the Lord he is baptized immediately. One might say that his conversion and his baptism are thus so closely linked that they form a single, indistinguishable event. Therefore, while faith and repentance can be expressed simply through prayer, in the New Testament at least, they are always expressed through baptism as an acted prayer.
This understanding can be supported with verses of its own. For while Peter does declare that all who call on the Lord shall be saved, in that very same sermon, when specifically asked how one obtains this salvation, Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:38) And later this same man tells us that “baptism now saves you–not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience.” (1 Peter 3:21) Paul too seems to have a somewhat nuanced view of baptism when he writes, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4) In all this we see that while the Apostles understood that salvation was something communicated to the individual through faith and repentance, those feelings were at least normally expressed to others (God included) through the act of baptism. That is to say, baptism served as the vehicle of repentance.
Of course, in many modern contexts, baptism is often separated from conversion by a lengthy stretch of time–sometimes even a span of years. And thus to the extent that modern Christians distance themselves from the Apostolic practice of baptism they are correct to also distance themselves from the Apostolic interpretation of baptism. A baptism that takes place immediately after one’s conversion can, in a sense, in a Petrine and Pauline sense, be said to save; a baptism that lingers until a decade after the fact cannot. But then again, the inverse is true as well: insofar as we administer baptism as the Apostles did, so too can we speak of it as the Apostles spoke.
Here’s the rub: given all this it would seem that Baptists, more so than any other group, ought to be able to recite the Nicene Creed with a straight face. Among Baptists baptism has retained its position as an act of conversion and dedication which every baptizand ought to approach with both personal faith in and repentance before their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Thus, at least ideally, Baptists may legitimately describe their baptisms, as the Apostles did, as baptisms for the forgiveness of sins. Other groups, specifically those that baptize infants who by virtue of their age are psychologically incapable of repentance and informed faith, cannot. It is these Christians who separate baptism from repentance as a matter of policy who ought to stutter at the last lines of the creed; for to characterize the baptism of an infant as something done “for the forgiveness of sins” is, given the diversity of paedobaptist baptismal theologies, at best, wildly proleptic, or, at worst, flatly erroneous.