In much of the nineteenth century conversion for many American Evangelicals came at “the altar call.” This was so much a part of the conversion process that when asked when they were saved many would respond in terms such as, “I walked the aisle in 1966.” At least in the best of these, they would not actually think that walking the aisle after a sermon is what made them a Christian. Rather, it was simply the way in which they first expressed their faith in Christ. “Walking the aisle” was a very real part of the conversion process. And since the reality (faith) was so tightly bound to its form of expression (walking the aisle in a church), the one could simply be spoken of in terms of the other. The terms became almost interchangeable.
The altar call was unknown in New Testament times. For the earliest Christians it was in baptism that believers first gave expression to their faith in Christ. And in this way baptism was part of the conversion process. A simple glance through the book of Acts will bear this out. When someone came to faith in Christ that faith was immediately expressed in submission to the waters of baptism. There the new believer expressed his faith (Col. 2:12), “calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16) and making “appeal to God for a good conscience” (1Pet. 3:21).
The apostles were very clear in teaching that salvation was by faith alone, apart from works of any kind — whether works of personal merit or works of ceremony, such as circumcision. See for example Rom. 4:1-13. Justification is by faith alone. And the apostles were not contradicting themselves when they spoke in terms of being “buried with Christ in baptism” (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12) or as baptism “saving” (1Pet. 3:21). If baptism is the expression of saving faith, then “faith” and “baptism” in certain contexts can be spoken of almost interchangeably. “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16) is equivalent to “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved (Acts 16:31). The apostles were not teaching baptismal regeneration. They were speaking of faith in terms of its form of expression. The symbol and the reality are so tightly related that one can be spoken of in terms of the other.
1) This understanding strengthens the doctrine of believer’s baptism. New Testament baptism is a calling on Christ, a pledge of a good conscience to God. Baptism is the prescribed expression of faith, and as such it was necessarily intended for believers only.
2) This understanding unravels the challenge of baptismal regeneration. These passages simply will not bear that much weight. Baptism “saves” only in that it is an expression of faith through which alone we are saved.
3) Finally, this understanding stresses the importance of baptism in the New Testament and should serve to reaffirm and reemphasize its role in the church today. In the minds and the practice of the apostles baptism was part of the conversion process, for in baptism saving faith in Christ was given proper expression. It was not a matter of delayed indifference. To be sure, in their context baptism was more readily understood in these terms, while in our context some time of instruction may be necessary in order to attain such understanding. But according to the New Testament model, baptism is not a matter of indifference as it seems to be in so much of the evangelical world today.