by Greg Koukl
NOTE: This has been edited for brevity.
Sometimes when I talk with people about Christ, I run into a very frustrating situation. The person I'm sharing with nods in agreement to everything I'm saying yet, even though I'm getting all this positive assent, something inside is telling me something's wrong.
I might be talking to someone who's living in a way that's completely inconsistent with obedience to Christ. Or it may be somebody I've known for a long time who is nodding in assent to my statements, but has never shown any spiritual vitality at all. His attitude often is, "Yes, I believe that. So what?"
When you encounter people like this, you probably wonder, "What do I do with this person? They say they believe, but something vital is missing here."
This is the case for many of you who were raised in a Christian home and have sat through many church services. Yet at the same time, you look around at other Christians you know and you see a vibrancy, an energy, a palpable love for Jesus Christ that influences their life, that has completely eluded your own.
For many people, they have simply made an intellectual assent to the truthfulness of the doctrines of Christianity--"Yes, I believe in my head those things we've said about Jesus are true. He is God. He is the Savior. He's the Lord. He rose from the dead." And that's where it stops for many people. These truths have no effect on their lives. They say, "Sure I believe in all that. So what?" That's because they haven't progressed from noticia - knowledge--and assent-- to fiducia--active trust, what the Bible calls "belief." But how do you really know the difference when you're talking with people. This is where baptism plays a valuable role.
In the New Testament there were no "altar calls." Instead, baptism was the public focal point of conversion in the early church (though I don't believe Scripture teaches that baptism actually saves you). It served to protect against substituting mere intellectual assent for genuine faith, and it can serve the same function today.
Many Evangelicals have reacted against inaccurate biblical teaching on baptismal regeneration by ignoring baptism altogether. This is a mistake. In addition to the theological problems with ignoring Jesus' command to be baptized, there is a practical issue.
If people tell you they already believe in Christianity, but you suspect something's amiss, ask, "Are you willing to be baptized? Are you willing to stand up as an adult in public and confess your faith and trust in Jesus Christ, and to publicly identify yourself with Christ's Church?" If they're not willing, I suspect their so-called faith is just intellectual assent, not saving faith.
Guess what, friends? If they're not willing to do that, I suspect that their so-called faith is just intellectual assent. It's not saving faith, because there's no willingness to identify oneself publicly with Christ. Then I know what I'm dealing with, and I can proceed properly.
Willingness to be baptized separates the sheep from the goats, spiritually speaking. It separates those who have a genuine faith in Jesus Christ from those who are merely giving intellectual assent to the doctrines of Christianity. If a person is willing to be baptized, I'm much more confident he probably has a genuine faith in Jesus Christ. If he's not willing to be baptized, however, then I suspect he is not a true Christian and instead is merely giving intellectual assent to the doctrines of Christianity.
If you're listening and thinking to yourself, "I believe those things, but something is really missing," then maybe your belief is just intellectual assent, and you haven't really put your active trust in Jesus. Maybe you haven't surrendered to Him. If you've fallen back into Jesus' arms and put your trust in Him, then you ought to be willing to stand up publicly and say, "I am His, and I'm being baptized to publicly testify to that fact, and also to publicly identify with His people-- the Church."
I think this is one of the very important things about Christian baptism. It allows you to virtually eliminate the question of whether one genuinely believes in Jesus Christ or has merely given intellectual assent to His claims. True biblical faith entails action and identification. If one acts to publicly identify himself with Jesus Christ and with His people in baptism, then he's probably moved beyond mere intellectual assent.