The basic principle of all obedience is understanding. "He that heareth the word and understandeth it" (Matthew 13:23). "Go preach the gospel — he that believeth (the gospel) and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:15-16). Believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is not all that must be understood in rendering obedience in baptism — there are other essential principles of gospel faith.
Institutions with design carry the necessity of understanding the design. Example: The Lord's Supper — "Do this in memory of me." No man can observe the Lord's Supper "in memory" of Christ without knowing it. The proposition "for" in Acts 2:38 is "eis" in the original, and the proposition "in" of I Corinthians 11:23 is the same "eis" in the original. No man can take the Lord's Supper in order to, unto or into, the memory of Christ if he does not know it, and for the same reason, no man can be baptized in order to, unto or into the remission of sins or salvation, if he does not know it. One cannot accidentally obey God.
If it is not necessary to understand the purpose of baptism, why is it in every case emphasized from the preaching of John to the last verse on the subject in the New Testament? If it is not to be understood, then, that part of the subject is non-essential and when we preach the design of baptism we are preaching something not necessary to be believed, therefore, preaching a non-essential. Why debate with a Baptist preacher on the design of baptism if its design does not have to be believed or understood? Why debate on a non-essential?
Is there a single case in all the New Testament where the person baptized did not understand the purpose of the act?
It is sometimes said that the purpose is not a part of the command. Let us see:
"Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins" (Acts 22:16). The subject understood is you — with the triple predicate — and fully rendered with each part supplied it reads: You arise and be baptized and you wash away your sins. Arise is part of the command; being baptized is a part of the command; washing away your sins is part of the command. No man can do that who believes his sins have already been washed away.
It is said that "to obey God" is the main purpose of baptism. Then why is that purpose never stated? Is it not singular that the New Testament failed to mention the main purpose in connection with the command, but on the other hand emphasized the non-essential purpose, or the purpose not necessary to be believed? "Remission of sins", "into Christ", "shall be saved," "newness of life," and all other expressions are just one design stated in different ways. Baptism has only one design. Alexander Campbell established this premise, and lays it down in that very proposition, in his book on "Baptism." I mention this because so many refer to Campbell on the subject.
We are sometimes asked: If it is necessary to believe that baptism is for the remission of sins then should we not make it a part of the confession and ask everyone "Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and do you also believe that baptism is for the remission of sins?" This is dodging the issue. Try it on the other contention. If the main purpose is "to obey God," then, the argument would require that it also be made a part of the confession: "Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and are you being baptized to obey God?" It's a poor rule that will not work both ways. As a matter of fact, all sincere people in religion perform every act of religious service with the general motive to obey God. Baptism has a very specific purpose—just as does the Lord's Supper — and the general idea that it is a command, but not essential to salvation or that it is a duty but the duty of one already saved is a perversion of Bible teaching. If one can be scripturally baptized with such a belief then all our preaching on the subject is inconsistent.
To say that a man can believe that he is saved before he is baptized, and then be baptized to be saved, is to argue that what a man believes has nothing to do with what he does.
It is frequently said that if one is satisfied, we have no right to question them. Why should we hold an inquest? Paul evidently "held an inquest" over the twelve in Acts 19. True, the same thing may not be wrong in the case before us — but something was wrong there and something else just as vital may be wrong now. Satisfaction is not salvation. Apply the argument to other things people believe and do in religion and where would it lead to? If it can be applied to baptism, why not to everything else?
It takes more than the right act to constitute valid baptism. The right action based on the right belief: Error preached, error heard, error believed, is error obeyed. Truth preached, truth heard, truth believed, is truth obeyed.
Jesus said, "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." This cannot be made to mean "You may believe error but if in your error your aim is to obey God, then your error will make you free, anyway." Such apologizing for denominational errors cannot advance the truth. It is much easier to teach people to obey the gospel than to defend them in their error.