Baptism: A Response of Faith


But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. (Acts 8:12)

The purpose of this chapter is to consider some conclusions concerning baptism accepted by Restoration leaders – in particular, Alexander Campbell, because some of those after him agreed with his thinking. Their practice and application sometimes differed from their studied conclusions and from their commentary on biblical passages relative to baptism.


Alexander Campbell, a leader in the Restoration Movement in the nineteenth century, may not have associated baptism with forgiveness of sins at the time of his baptism. Some have assumed that he did not make the association at that time; but they believe (even though without evidence) that later he was secretly baptized in order to be forgiven of his sins. Robert Richardson, Alexander Campbell’s son-in-law and biographer, reported that when Thomas and Alexander Campbell were baptized – along with five others – on June 12, 1812, they gave a seven-hour defense of their being immersed. After his father spoke, Alexander made his defense of their being baptized.

In his remarks, he had quoted, among other Scriptures, the command of Peter to the believers on the day of Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit;” and had dwelt at length upon the gracious promises of God to all who should obey him. Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, Vol. I (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Pub. Co., 1897), 397.

Richardson wrote concerning what Campbell said in a speech eight years later:

“Baptism” said he, “is connected with the promise of remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This utterance is worthy of notice as his first definite and public recognition of the peculiar office of baptism. While however, he thus, in 1820, distinctly perceived and asserted a scriptural connection between baptism and remission of sins, he seems at this time to have viewed it only in the light of an argument, and to have had but a faint appreciation of its great practical importance. Ibid., Vol. II, 20.

John Mark Hicks, a professor at Harding University Graduate School of Religion, wrote concerning Campbell,

He no longer sought a subjective religious experience to confirm his regeneration and assure him of the remission of his sins. On the contrary, he now regarded immersion as that objective moment which assured him of God’s forgiveness… Clearly, Campbell believed at the time of his immersion that is obedience involved God’s testimony to him, God’s promise, that all his sins had been remitted. John Mark Hicks, “God’s Sensible Pledge, The Witness of the Holy Spirit in the Early Baptismal Theology of Alexander Campbell,” Stone-Campbell Journal, Vol. I, No. 1, Spring 1998, 12, 13.

Seemingly, Campbell, at the time of his baptism, believed that his sins were forgiven in a symbolic way. Later, he came to conclude that sins are actually forgiven those who come to baptism with the right understanding.

Campbell was correct in stating, “To be baptized for the remission of sins exclusively, is not what is meant by putting on Christ, or by being immersed into Christ.” Alexander Campbell, Millennial Harbinger, Vol. II, No. X November 7, (Bethany, Va.: October 3, 1831. Reprint. Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1987), 482.
Baptism is not exclusively for the remission of sins, for it must include also entering into a spiritual relationship with Christ. This new relationship involves a removal of past sins in order to begin service to Jesus as a member of His kingdom. Although not consistent in his application of his viewpoint, Campbell wrote that those recorded in the Bible realized they were being baptized for the purpose of having their sins removed.

In a debate on baptism, Campbell affirmed, “Baptism for the remission of sins, is the only baptism of which the New Testament knows anything. There never was any other ordained by God, John’s baptism or Christ’s baptism -THERE IS NO OTHER.” Alexander Campbell, A Debate Between A. Campbell and N.L. Rice, Christian Baptism, (Lexington, Ken.: A.T. Skillman and Sons, 1844), 495.

Later in life he rote in Christian Baptism: With Its Antecedents and Consequents:

In the first place, then no one is commanded to be baptized for any thing else; and no one is ever said to have been baptized for any thing else that for the remission of sins. This is a very important fact, and worthy of much reflection. Alexander Campbell,: Christian Baptism, With Its Antecedents and Consequents (Bethany, Va.: Published by Alexander Campbell, 1853. Reprint. Nashville, Tenn.: McGuiddy Printing Co., 1913), 1853 printing, 252; reprint 1913, 202.

He wrote further,

If any one be baptized for the Lord, for his death, or for his body, as a design, as an end, it is for the sake of the rights, privileges, and honours of his body, or for the sake of the rights, privileges, and honours accruing from his death, his church r himself. Of all of these, remission of sins is the church, or himself. Of all these, remission of sins is the leading and the introductory blessing – from which follow, as consequences, all spiritual privileges, honours and immunities. Ibid., 1853, 253; reprint, 202.

Evident, then it is, that there is not specific design on account of which any one can constitutionally be baptized, except it be for the remission of sins previously committed. We are not commanded to be baptized for faith, for repentance, for justification, for regeneration, for sanctification, for adoption, for the Holy Spirit, for eternal life. We are commanded to be baptized “for the remission of sins” not for remission of “original sin” – not for remission of sins yet to be committed or in advance; but for the remission of sins that are past, that have been committed, “through the forbearance of God.” Loc. cit.

Still through faith and repentance we are commanded to be baptized for one specific purpose, just as much as we celebrate the Lord’s day and the Lord’s supper for a specific purpose. Every Christians institution has, indeed, tis own peculiar and specific object, which can be neither secured nor enjoyed so well any other way. Ibid., 1853, 253; reprint, 203.

This statement is interesting in that Campbell considered baptism and the Lord’s Supper comparable institutions, each with its own spiritual purpose. From this we can concluded that he though that those being baptized needed to observe baptism with the same degree of understanding and purpose as those observing the Lord’s Supper. The stated purpose, he wrote, was forgiveness of sins.

As we have, then but one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, and that baptism is “for the remission of sins” – to give us, through faith and repentance, a solemn pledge and assurance of pardon, andy other baptism is a human invention and of no value; wanting, as it does, the sanction of the Lord Jesus, who ordained it. Ibid., 1853, 257; reprint 205.

In an article entitled “Christian Experience, No. 4,” Campbell wrote concerning the “comforts of forgiveness enjoyed by the first converts, contrasted with those now converted to the ancient gospel” Alexander Campbell, “Christian Experience, No. IV,” Millennial Harbinger, Vol. I, No. XI, Monday, Nov. 1 1830, 498.

The first Christians had just the same assurance of the remission of their previous sins as they had that Jesus was the Messiah. Their assurance that Jesus was the Messiah, was the same testimony confirmed and made accessible to them in immersion. Ask one of those concerts if his sins were pardoned, he answered, Yes. Ask him how he knows, he replied, I was immersed in obedience to a divine command for the remission of my sins. And he that said, “This is my beloved Son,” said also, “Believe and be immersed for remission.” I believed and was immersed for that purpose upon the same testimony, and, therefor, as certain as I am that Jesus is the Messiah, so certain am I that all my former sins were remitted in immersion. Ibid., 500.

In a later issue of the Millennial Harbinger, he wrote,

Therefore, those who have imagined that baptism is nothing more than a mark or a sign by which we profess our religion before men, as soldiers wear the insignia of their sovereign, as a mark of their profession, have not considered that which was the principal thing in baptism – which is, that we ought to receive it with this promise, “He that believeth and baptized shall be saved.” Alexander Campbell, “Calvin on Baptism,” Millennial Harbinger, Vol. IV, No. XI, Nov. 1833, 544.

Notice that he said baptism ought to be received with this promise: that the believer who is baptized shall be saved.

Earlier, Campbell had presented in different issues of his paper, The Christian Baptist, nine numbered essays signed “Editor” and entitled “Ancient Gospel.” The last article, number ten, signed with the pen name “Biblicus,” was entitled “Ancient Gospel, No. 10.” The appearance of this article as the last in the series, even though not signed “Editor” indicates that Campbell believed it presented the biblical truth. Whether or not he wrote it is uncertain. Along with the title of No. 10, he wrote, “I substitute the following Narrative for an Essay.” The narrative was presented as a short autobiography.

The details of the baptism of the writer “Biblicus” differ from those of Campbell’s. The beginning statement (“My father was a Scotch Presbyterian preacher …” Alexander Campbell, “Ancient Gospel, No. X,” The Christian Baptist, Vol. VI, No. 4 Monday, Nov. 3, 1828, (Bethany, Va.: published by Alexander Campbell. Reprint. Nashville, Tenn.: Gospel Advocate 1955) p. 97.
) could apply to Campbell, but the rest could not. The writer stated that his mother was a Baptist; this was not true concerning Campbell’s mother, who was a Presbyterian. Also, he stated that he went to hear a J.S. preach in order to gratify his curiosity, and to be able to oppose a new heresy, but was convinced and baptized that very day, giving the impression that he was alone when he responded. Before his baptism, Campbell had studied the question of baptism for some time and then made arrangements for Mr. Luce, a Baptist preacher to baptize him. Seven in all, including his father and mother, were baptized when he was baptized.

The narrative under the pen-name “Biblicus” included the following statements:

I went to the river edge believing the promise of God, and that he could do this thing, even wash away my sins in the very act of immersion. Down ito the water I went and was immersed into the name of the Lord Jesus for the remission of my sins – and you may rest assured, for that it is a fact, that I declare to you, I felt myself as fully relieved from the burden of my former transgressions, as ever did a man to whom the Lord said, thy sins are forgiven thee: go and sin no more. Ibid., 98.

But in all probability I would not have derived so much happiness from being buried with Christ by immersion into his name, had I not previously understood from the many declarations found in the sacred testimonies that God’s philanthropy embraced all those who were pleased to come to him in the appointed way, and had I not also been assured of two things, first that the scriptures mean just what hey say and secondly, that hey say, Be immersed for the remission of your sins – I went down to the very water just for that purpose (emphasis mine), in honesty and simplicity of my heart, believing that it would be as God said, and according to my faith so has it been to me. Ibid., 99.

The writer stated that his purpose for going down into the water was “for the remission of” sins. The description of conversion given in this narrative is consistent with what Campbell had written in the earlier essays in The Christian Baptist entitled “Ancient Gospel.” In the essay “Ancient Gospel, No. II,” he wrote:

In the third place, I proceed to prove that we have the most explicit proof that God forgives for the name’s sake of his Son, or when the name of Jesus Christ is named upon us in immersion – that in, and by, the act of immersion, so soon as our bodies are put under water, at that very instant our former, or “old sins,” are all washed away, provided only that we are true believers. This was the view and expectation (emphasis mine) of every one who was immersed in the apostolic age; and it was a consciousness (emphasis mine) of having this blessing that caused them to rejoice in the Lord, and, like the eunuch, to “go on their way rejoicing.” … Thus we find that when the gospel was announced on Pentecost, and when Peter opened the kingdom of heaven to the Jews, he commanded them to be immersed FOR THE REMISSION OF SINS. This is quite sufficient, if we had not another word on the subject, I say, it is quite sufficient to show that forgiveness of sins and Christian immersion were, in the first proclamations by the holy Apostles, inseparably connected together. Peter, to whom was committed the keys, opened the kingdom of heaven in manner and make repentance, or reformation, and immersion, equally necessary to forgiveness. In the common version it reads thus, “ Repent and be baptized everyone of you fro the remission of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” When any thing is done for any purpose, it is always understood that there is a necessary connection betwixt that which is done, and the object in view. When a person is immersed for the remission of sins, it is just the same as if expressed, in order to obtain the remission of sins. Alexander Campbell, “Ancient Gospel, No. II, IMMERSION,” The Christian Baptist, Vol. V, No. 7, Feb. 5, 1828, p. 167.

Commenting on Acts 2:38, Campbell wrote:

… had not Christian immersion been designed primarily for the remission of sins, the apostles committed a most injurious error in giving birth to the idea, and in raising the expectation of an inquisitive audience to look for (emphasis mine) the remission of sins b y or through immersion into the name of the Lord Jesus. Suppose, for example, when these three thousand were afterwards dispersed through he community, as many of them were to ta great distance from Jerusalem, and that one or or all of them had been asked for what they had been immersed on the day of Pentecost, what answer could they have given, but “For the remission of their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.” “Ancient Gospel, No. III, IMMERSION,” The Christian Baptist, Vol. V, No. 8, Mar. 3, 1828, p. 180.

… when Paul was immersed, it was declared and understood (emphasis mine) by the parties that all his previous sins were washed away in the act of immersion. The person sent to immerse him was sent expressly by heaven. Ananias said unto him, “Arise and be immersed, and wash away thy sin, calling upon the Lord.” He obeyed and was immersed, and his sins were washed away. Had any person met Paul and Ananias when on their way to the water, and asked Paul for what was he going to be immersed, what answer could he have given, if he believed the words of Ananias, other than “I am going to be immersed for the purpose (emphasis mine) of having my sins washed away?” Or had he been accosted on his return from the water, and requested to tell what benefit he received through or by immersion, what answer could he have given other than, “I have had all my sins washed away?” Loc. cit.

Concerning the Ethiopian (Acts 8:34-39) he wrote as to why he went on his way rejoicing, “He had found, what thousands before him has experienced, peace with God, from a conviction that his sins had been actually forgiven in the act of immersion.” Ibid., 181.

He that goeth down into the water to put on Christ, in the faith that the blood of Jesus cleanses from all sins, and that he has appointed baptism as the medium, and the act of ours, through and in which he actually and formally remits our sins, has, when immersed, the actual remission of his sins. “Ancient Gospel, No. IV, IMMERSION,” The Christian Baptist, Vol. V, No. 9, Apr. 7, 1928, p. 122.

A careful reading of the above quotations indicate that Campbell felt that believers were to understand and did understand the purpose – forgiveness of sins – when they were being baptized. His son-in-law and biographer, Robert Richardson, recorded a different attitude on the part of Campbell when considering rebaptism, for he wrote that Campbell believed a baptism was “…in all cases valid where there was a sincere belief in Christ, however uninformed the baptized person might be at the time with regard to the nature or design of the institution.” Richardson, 443-444.

Also another indication that Campbell was not consistent was his response to the letter from a woman from Lunenburg, Virginia, July 5, 1837.

I cannot, therefore, make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, n ot even immersion into the name of the Father, of the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and in my heart regard all that have been sprinkled in infancy without their own knowledge and consent, as alien from Christ and the well-grounded hope of heaven. Alexander Campbell, “Any Christians among the Protestant Parties,” Millennial Harbinger, New Series, Vol. I, No. IX, 412.

There is no occasion, then for making immersion, on a profession of faith, absolutely essential to a Christian – though it may be greatly essential to his sanctification and comfort. Ibid., 414.

In two later issues of the Millennial Harbinger, Campbell, in seeking to answer critics who pointed out that these statements were inconsistent with is former writings, did not deny the view expressed in the two above quotations. His opinions as to the application of biblical teaching seem to differ at times from his studied conclusion as to the meaning of various texts.

Even if Campbell was not consistent in his teaching concerning baptism, our salvation does not depend on his understanding but on our responding in faith to Jesus’ teaching by being baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of our sins (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38) in order to take on a new life of service to King Jesus. Seemingly Campbell’s thinking concerning the issue of rebaptism influenced later writers and teachers, even those of our day.


A highly respected second generation Restoration scholar who was educated in Bethany College where Campbell taught, J.W. McGarvey wrote concerning Acts 2:38:

The people were told to be baptized “ for the remission of sins.” This only stating more specifically what would have been understood (emphasis mine) from connecting the question with the answer, as we have just stated. It makes it doubly certain remission of sins follows baptism, and is therefore to be expected (emphasis mine) by the baptized. J.W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, (Delight, Ark.: Gospel Light. Reprint 1892), 38.

Notice McGarvey wrote that Peter’s audience would have “understood” and “expected” remission of sins when they were baptized. He taught the same by stating that those not forgiven would have been burdened by a consciousness of sins. Their rejoicing after baptism would be evidence that they were forgiven of their sins. Ibid., 251.

McGarvey does not state the obvious conclusion – those first converts who are a pattern for all following generations understood the purpose of their baptism which caused them to believe their sins were being forgiven when they were baptized. Based on this realization they rejoiced.

In application McGarvey differed from his comments on the Bible text. He stated concerning the person who was immersed not knowing his sins would be forgiven:

… it would be most unreasonable to suppose that he (God) would withhold the blessing simply because I did not know that I am entitled to it. J.W. McGarvey, Gospel Advocate, January 16, 1941, pp. 52, 53. (Reprint. American Christian Quarterly Review, 1862).


A controversy arose because Austin McGary disputed David Lipscomb’s contention that the person being baptized does not need to know his sins were being forgiven. He illustrated this in the following:

I believe that God would bestow the blessings of the state into which he had entered, just as a man who crossed the line from Kentucky into Tennessee would be entitled to the protection of the laws of Tennessee, even though he might be mistaken as to when he crossed the line. David Lipscomb, Salvation from Sin, (Nashville, Tenn.: McQuiddy Printing Co., 1913), 233.

This seems inconsistent with statements Lipscomb quoted from scholars concerning the meaning of the phrase, “for the remission of sins,” in Acts 2:38.

He quoted:

Hacket, “This clause states the motive, or object, which should induce them to repent and be baptized.”

Harness, “for the purpose of receiving.”

Harman, “Remission of sins’ is to be the end to be aimed at in the actions expressed by the predicates ‘repent’ and ‘be baptized.’”

Meyers, “to be baptized for remission of sins means to be baptized with the view to receive this.” David Lipscomb, A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, (Nashville, Tenn.: Gospel Advocate Pub. Co., 1896), 44, 45.


Regardless of what these men believed and taught, the truth of God concerning baptism can be found only in the teaching of the New Testament. If the practice of scholars is not consistent with their explanation of the Bible texts, we should follow only their sound exegesis and not their opinions. Inconsistencies that we find in others should not prevent us from seeking to follow what we conclude is the clear teaching of God’s word.

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