Can God command things to be done, which things when obeyed, can become the identity of religion? For the sake of clarity, we need to ask this question from another perspective. Are there some things that God has commanded in the past, which if obeyed today, we would be considered religionists?
Certainly! If one has a difficult time answering, or understanding the preceding questions, then the problem may be that one is having difficulty separating the Sinai law that was given to the nation of Israel, from the law of faith and grace under which Christians now live. In fact, if one does not understand this, then he or she could be preaching the “other gospel” about which Paul warned the Christians in Galatia (See Gl 1:6-9).
Therefore, a few examples are in order. If we bind on ourselves and others that which God considers void, even though He initially commanded such to be done, then we are religionists if we practice these things today. In doing such, we have brought into our faith and grace a system of meritorious law-keeping that is contrary to the gospel of grace.
Consider the rite of circumcision. Circumcision was commanded both to Abraham and Israel as a nation (See Gn 17; Ex 12:44,48). Circumcision was a command of the Sinai law, and thus, when one was born of a Jewish family under the Sinai law, he was to be circumcised the eighth day after birth. But the law that required circumcision was nailed to the cross (Rm 7:1-4; Cl 2:14). Christians today are not required to be circumcised in order to conform to the law of circumcision. In their obedience to the gospel, they were made dead to the Sinai law.
Some Jewish Christians in the first century did not understand this. They sought to bind the rite of circumcision on the Gentile disciples in order that the Gentiles be saved. In fact, they taught that “except you [Gentiles] are circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (At 15:1). These Jewish teachers became religionists when they bound on the disciples something that was a part of the Sinai law that was at the time void. They were binding a religious code on those who had been made dead to the law of circumcision through their obedience to the gospel. Therefore, the Holy Spirit stated that those who were preaching the law of circumcision were preaching another gospel (Gl 1:8). Paul comforted the Gentile Christians of Galatia by writing, “If anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Gl 1:9).
These are serious words. In fact, by the time Paul arrived at revelation from the Spirit in Galatians 5, the Spirit directed his hand to write, “You have been severed from Christ, you who seek to be justified by law. You have fallen from grace” (Gl 5:4). In other words, if one would bind on Christians today that which is not bound by God, then that person is severed from Christ.
Religion is defined as a system of rites and ceremonies that are required to be performed by any religious establishment in order to be saved. Even if the rite or ceremony were once a requirement of the law of God, when that law of God was made void, so also were the precepts of that law. Once void, any rite or ceremony of the law becomes a religious ordinance if bound on Christians. To bind such on those who are now under the law of faith and grace would be turning the people into a religious sect. Therefore, those Jewish Christians in the first century who bound circumcision on Gentile Christians as a rite to be saved had fallen back into the bondage of the Jews’ religion from which they had been set free by their obedience to the gospel. They were subsequently changing the gospel of freedom into the bondage of religion (See Gl 5:1).
This brings us to another illustration that should make us cautious about becoming religionists by binding that which may have initially come from God, but was made void when it was supplanted by God’s revelation of the truth of the gospel.
When Paul came through Ephesus on a mission journey, he encountered about twelve disciples who were meeting in someone’s home in the urban area of Ephesus (At 19:1). Upon his initial contact with these disciples, he asked them concerning matters of the Holy Spirit. They replied, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit” (At 19:2). Paul’s obvious reply was, “Into what then were you baptized?” (At 19:3). They responded, “Into John’s baptism” (At 19:3).
The baptism of John was certainly from God. In fact, “John came in the wilderness baptizing and preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mk 1:4). But between the time of John’s ministry to introduce the Son of God into the world, and about twenty-five years later when Paul encountered the disciples in Ephesus, John’s baptism became a religious rite if people were so baptized after the cross. John’s baptism was supplanted by baptism in the name of Jesus Christ on the day of Pentecost in A.D. 30. If it was bound as a religious rite after Pentecost, then it would make those who obeyed it disciples of a religion, but not Christians.
Luke recorded in Acts that there were about twelve disciples whom Paul encountered on the Ephesus visit. We could assume that one or two of the group had initially encountered John years before on a visit to Judea, or possibly were baptized by Apollos who initially knew only the baptism of John. Apollos then possibly left them, and rushed on to Corinth (At 18:27; 19:1.
Apollos had been teaching the baptism of John, but was corrected by two tentmakers in Ephesus (See At 18:24-28). He may have left the disciples that Paul encountered when he went on to Corinth. This may have been a possibility, but we feel that it was not in the nature of Apollos to leave the twelve walking in what had become at the time only a religious rite. Apollos had been preaching a religious rite out of ignorance because the baptism of John had been supplanted by baptism in the name of Jesus on Pentecost about twenty-five years before. Nevertheless, his ignorance of what was required by God after Pentecost was no excuse to change what he believed and preached at the time he arrived in Ephesus.
The twelve Ephesian disciples were sincere when they heard that they must be baptized with John’s baptism in order to receive remission of sins. They were sincere religionists. Whether they heard this message from one or two of their number who had encountered John the Baptist many years before, or from Apollos, John’s baptism had been supplanted with baptism in the name of Jesus.
By the time the twelve disciples heard of John’s baptism, it had become a religious rite, a rite that had originally come from God. But at the time God revealed this baptism to John, it was not a religious rite. It was a commandment of God that had to be obeyed if one wanted to receive remission of sins, and thus, fulfill all righteousness (Mt 3:15). But by the time Paul encouraged the twelve disciples, John’s baptism, as circumcision, were only religious rites. If one obeyed either with the belief that both were necessary for salvation, then he or she obeyed another gospel. (Those who teach tithing according to the Sinai law, as opposed to gospel-inspired giving under Christ, need to seriously consider this point.)
Only baptism in the name of Jesus is valid today. We know of a great number of people who have made their own self-declaration that they were saved, thus supposedly receiving remission of sins upon the basis of their own claim. They then made baptism a religious rite to be obeyed in order to conform meritoriously to a system of the faith that is promoted by a particular religious group into which they were initiated through baptism. Instead of knowingly being baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins (At 2:38), they had declared their own remission of sins, and thus, assumed their salvation before any baptism for the remission of sins in the name (authority) of Jesus. After their self-declaration of remission of sins took place, they were then baptized as a religious rite of the church to which they presently belong.
We must ask ourselves that if we make baptism a religious rite we perform following our own self-declaration that we are saved, then is this baptism for the remission of sins? If we have remission of sins upon the fact of our self-declaration of salvation, then why would we be baptized? If we were baptized, then were we not baptized as a religious work of merit?
Some have been baptized as a meritorious work of law. If we made our own self-declaration of salvation by “receiving Jesus,” “bringing Jesus into our lives,” saying some “sinner’s prayer,” and then were baptized, then we may have made our own baptism a religious rite, or simply a work of law. If we did, then we are religionists who made a self-declaration in reference to our salvation. Our obedience to the gospel in baptism was not in response to the gospel of the incarnate Son of God who declares the remission of our sins upon our response to the gospel in baptism.
We must not forget that baptism is not a meritorious work of law. It is a submissive response of gratitude because of one’s understanding of the incarnate sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross. This is exactly what Paul meant when he wrote, “You are not under law [of baptism], but under [the gospel] of grace” (Rm 6:14). “And if by grace [you are saved], then it is no more by works [of merit or law], otherwise grace is no more grace” (Rm 11:6). “For by grace you are saved through faith [in the gospel of God’s grace]” (Ep 2:8).
We are not saved because we have been legally immersed in water. The action of immersion is not a work of merit by which we can put God in debt to save us. If it were, then no apostate Christian would ever be lost. He would be saved on the merit of his baptism.
Paul rebaptized those in Ephesus who had obeyed John’s baptism, which baptism was relegated to a religious rite when the gospel was first preached twenty-five years before on the day of Pentecost (At 19:5). We would suggest that anyone do the same if they feel that they made baptism a religious rite because they had before their baptism declared their own remission of sins. They were baptized under the authority (name) of the wrong person, and thus, not in response to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They became their own self-declared authority for the remission of their own sins. But it is God who declares our remission of sins, and subsequent salvation when we are baptized into and under the authority of Christ (At 22:16; Rm 6:3-6; Gl 3:26-29).
Each person must be his or her own judge of this matter. It is not our place to judge the hearts of people. We can only read what is stated in the New Testament in reference to the purpose of baptism in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins. If one does have questions concerning his or her motives for being baptized many years ago, then it would certainly be wise to be baptized again for the right motives in order to have a good conscience toward God. You be your own judge. At least when the Ephesians recognized that they did the wrong thing, in their sincerity, they corrected the matter.
When we speak of baby baptism, a whole new set of problems are uncovered. But it is appropriate in the context of the Ephesian situation to remember that the Ephesians individually heard and were baptized as adults into John’s baptism. Then they individually heard and responded to Paul’s teaching that they be baptized in the name of Jesus. No parents made any decisions or declarations for them. No parents baptized them with John’s baptism. No parents immersed their babies in the name of Jesus.
If one cannot get the point on this matter, then certainly one cannot understand that baby baptism is nowhere in the New Testament. But if one was “baptized” as a baby, and gets the point of the Ephesians’ freedom to choose concerning their salvation, then he or she, if baptized as a baby, should find someone, and head to the water in order to be truly baptized in the name of Jesus. Just keep in mind that your parents out of their ignorance were practicing a man-made religious rite and ceremony. When they handed you over as a baby to be sprinkled or immersed, that was not your voluntary decision. It was theirs. It was theirs in order that they conform to the religion of their fathers. Baptism in the name of Jesus must be your decision. We would urge people to be like the Ephesians. When you learn something new, just do it.

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