Why did Jesus say it would “fulfill all righteousness” if he were baptized?

This question was originally asked in a comment on my post, “Why did John the Baptist later question whether Jesus was the Messiah?” I thought the discussion would make for an interesting post of its own.

Q. What was the real reason why Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist? “To fulfill all righteousness.” If unrighteousness is sin, then righteousness is no sin. John the Baptist twice called Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The Old Testament tabernacle was a mirror image of how Jesus would save us. The high priest would lay his hands on a goat and transfer all the sins of Israel onto it, and then the goat was led into the desert. Now John the Baptist being in the line of Aaron and being the greatest person to have arisen before the coming of the kingdom, what if John the Baptist laid his hands on Jesus and transferred all the sins of the world onto him, and then Jesus was also led into the desert?

The goat did not become a sinner, it only carried the sins; likewise Jesus  carried the sins, but he did not become a sinner. Scripture says that Jesus “came by water and blood” and that “the Spirit, the water, and the blood” testify to who he is. So at Jesus’ water baptism, the Holy Spirit came upon him, and later he shed his blood when he died on the cross.

No death on the cross—no salvation. No resurrection—no salvation. Jesus without being baptized—righteousness not fulfilled—no Holy Spirit descending on Jesus. Does this mean that if Jesus had not been baptized by John the Baptist, there would have been no salvation?

I think you have an interesting idea here and I have reproduced your  comment at length in this post so that readers can consider it. However, I understand the meaning of Jesus’ statement about fulfilling all righteousness a bit differently.

When Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized, John asked, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” John agreed and baptized Jesus.

I think Jesus was saying, “You’re out here in the wilderness saying that God is breaking into our world to do a new thing and that anybody who wants to be part of it should be baptized to show how they want to join in what God is doing rather than follow sin. Well, I’m ‘all in’ with what God is doing, so I’m here to show that by being baptized.”

This doesn’t mean that Jesus had any sin that needed to be washed away. But our duty to God is not just negative (don’t sin), it’s also positive (obey God and take our part in what God is doing). I think Jesus was saying that even if he didn’t need to be baptized for the negative reasons (to wash away sin), he still wanted and needed to be baptized for the positive reasons.

In other words, Jesus would “fulfill all righteousness” by doing positively what God was asking people to do at that point in redemptive history. John agreed to let Jesus demonstrate his commitment to God’s purposes in that way. And in response, God revealed, through the voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit, that Jesus was the Messiah (the Anointed One) through whom his purposes would be accomplished. This opened up for Jesus a whole series of positive duties to fulfill in obedience to God as he fulfilled his vocation as the Messiah.

David Zelenka, painting, “The Baptism of Christ,” used by permission, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Have the majority of Christians gotten it wrong that it doesn’t matter how they live?

Q. Just recently stumbled upon your blog, and I’m definitely enjoying reading through everything and even the comments. I was raised in the Christian faith but now, as a young adult, for the first time in my life I’m really taking my faith to the next level by asking ‘why’ I believe what it is I believe.

One of the things I’ve been wrestling with recently is the idea of being saved by grace. I know historically, the Christian faith has led people to believe that once they accept Jesus as the Son of God, believe He died on the cross and rose again, and we accept the gift of the Holy Spirit, we’re saved, no matter how we choose to live our lives. I know our faith will show by the fruit we bear, but I can’t help but wonder if the majority of Christians got it wrong.

So much of Scripture and the NT is that after Christ we’re a new creation. Paul wrote in Romans, for example, “Therefore, do we go on sinning so grace may abound? By no means! We’re dead to sin, why should we live in it longer?” But, despite texts like that, I see so many Christians claiming the label of Christianity but choosing to live a life contrary to their faith. Makes me wonder if they’ll be saved by grace alone or if their blatant disregard for structure and living the Christian life will set them apart from God in the end.

With that, and I could be misinterpreting the parable, but the Parable of the Talents: I view it as a parable of salvation. In the end, the master doesn’t let the servant who buries his talents into his house. That’s all the more reason I wonder if there’s more to just grace for salvation.

My structured thought is this:

1) It was grace that made God send His son to die on the cross for mankind.
2) We are saved, if we chose to accept his grace.
3) Like in the parable, if we live a life contrary to our faith, then will that restrict our entrance into heaven?

There’s other Scriptures as well, like in Matthew when Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven being a narrow road not many will take. Not sure if I’m taking that out of context, but regardless, I’d really appreciate any insight you might have on this topic.

First of all, welcome to the blog, thanks for your encouraging words, and good for you for “taking it to the next level” and inquiring diligently into why you believe what you believe. Those who are raised as Christians (myself included) begin with a second-hand faith: We believe things because people we trust (parents, pastors, teachers) believe them and have taught them to us. It’s crucial, however, for this to become a first-hand faith at some point. We need to understand and believe these things on our own, as a matter of direct experience with the Lord.

I see you pursuing that course and I encourage you to continue it until you have satisfactory answers to all of your questions and you feel well grounded in a first-hand faith of your own. I call this blog Good Question because I firmly believe that there’s no such thing as a bad question, as long as it’s asked in a sincere desire to know and understand. You’re asking good questions that will lead good places, so keep at it!

In terms of your specific question, I have earlier shared some reflections on this blog in response to two very similar questions, and I invite you to read and consider those posts:

Don’t Our Works Actually Matter to God?

Are We Saved Simply by Believing, or Are There Works We Need to Demonstrate?

As you will see, you’re not alone in being uncomfortable with the idea that “once we accept Jesus, . . . we’re saved no matter how we choose to live our lives.” This is a serious misunderstanding of the gospel that is apparently being communicated, whether intentionally or unintentionally, quite widely today, so it’s good to “call it out” and question it.

One source of the misunderstanding is likely the conception that we are saved from something, rather than that we are saved for something. If we’re asking whether we can get into heaven just by trusting Jesus no matter how we live afterwards, we’ve misunderstood the point of the gospel, which is that God has “rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.” So yes, we are saved from something, the dominion of darkness, but this is specifically done to save us for something—to allow us to participate in the ongoing work and expansion of God’s kingdom, which begins right here and now; it’s not just in heaven. If we are still doing the works of darkness, we’re not living out the life of the kingdom of the Son he loves. And that’s a problem that needs to be addressed now, not just as a matter of deathbed assurance.

I would actually disagree with the statement that “historically, the Christian faith has led people to believe that once they accept Jesus . . . we’re saved no matter how we choose to live our lives.” That’s actually a false teaching that Paul and the other New Testament writers go to great lengths to oppose.  In your question, you quoted some of Paul’s remarks in Romans about this; in fact much of that epistle, and of Galatians as well, is devoted to countering this idea that the implications of salvation by grace are that it doesn’t really matter how we live in this world. Much of what Paul writes to the Corinthians in his first letter to them is also designed to counter that idea.

John addresses this same misunderstanding in his first epistle. I’ve also written a post about his teaching on the matter, which I think will speak further to your concern:

Does anyone has been born of God really not sin?

I think you will be encouraged to see that the question I’m answering in that post comes from a person who’s wondering whether their life as a follower of Jesus is pure and holy enough for them to be confident that they have truly been born of God. Clearly not all Christians have become convinced that it doesn’t matter how we live after we accept Jesus!

What makes Jesus’ sacrifice different from human sacrifices?

Q. When we read though the Old Testament, we learn that God was against human sacrifice, which was practiced  by the Canaanites. We see God’s anger at Manasseh, one of the kings of Judah, who “sacrificed his own son in the fire.” But our faith as Christians is based on the sacrifice of Jesus for the atonement of our sins. My question is, “What makes Jesus’ sacrifice different?” Isn’t human sacrifice still human sacrifice, regardless of the  fact that Jesus was willing to die in submission to the will of the Father? (If he wasn’t willing, he would have defended himself when he was brought before the leaders of the day. We see the submitted condition of His heart when He was in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane just before He was betrayed.) It would seem to me that his death was an act of human sacrifice.

I’d put it this way: Our faith as Christians is actually based on the death of Jesus for our atonement. That term literally means at-one-ment, that is, humans becoming united with God again. But how the death of Jesus restores us to God is such a complex question that throughout the ages Christians have offered many different explanations for it. I personally believe that the death of Jesus for us on the cross is so profound and meaningful that we need to look at it from multiple perspectives even to begin to understand it. In other words, there’s no one right answer; each perspective contributes something valuable. And so while, as I’ve just explained, “atonement”  refers initially to reconciliation (a restored relationship), the term also covers all of the different accounts of how Jesus’ death saves us.

One of those accounts holds that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice on our behalf. This is said against the background of sacrifices in the Old Testament, which had their counterparts in other cultures, as you’ve noted. But while those sacrifices provide the background that makes the statement about Jesus’s death meaningful, there’s an important difference.

The idea behind a religious sacrifice is that those who offer it are giving up something valuable as an expression of their devotion. For example, in the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were used to show that an individual or the community was sorry before God for committing sin. They were also used in other ways, such as to provide a feast that was understood to be shared by the worshipers, the priests, and God. (God’s portion was burned up on the altar and it ascended to heaven as “a pleasing aroma.”) Since meat was scarce and expensive in this culture, it was only eaten on rare occasions, and so hosting such a fellowship meal was a significant investment in devotion.

There was also a notion that the sacrifice would be pleasing to the deity, so that it had value for propitiation (changing the deity’s disposition from hostile to favorable). This is another account of how Jesus’ death saves us, but it’s not the primary idea behind sacrifice. Also, in most cases sacrifices were animals or inanimate objects, meaning that there was no issue of their consenting to being sacrificed. Even in those cultures that practiced human sacrifice, the focus was on the king or the society giving up something valuable to demonstrate devotion, not on the attitude of the person who was being sacrificed.

But Jesus’ death is not understood as a sacrifice along those lines. The human race did not offer him to God as a precious expression of its devotion. As the Bible makes clear, humans were estranged from God and Jesus needed to restore the relationship. And so he actually sacrificed himself. As Paul writes in Ephesians, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

How the self-sacrifice of Jesus came to be accepted on our behalf by God is a matter of further perspectives on the atonement. For example, we may understand it by analogy to the people who have sacrificed their lives in military service to protect our freedoms; this would be the perspective of rescue or ransom from oppression and bondage. Another analogy would be a person giving up their place in a lifeboat so that another could survive a sinking ship; this would be the perspective of substitution. And so forth.

So how, then, do the Old Testament sacrifices provide background to help us understand Jesus’ death? I find it interesting that the New Testament writers concentrate on the effects of Jesus’ sacrifice, explaining it by analogy to the effects of certain Old Testament sacrifices, rather than drawing an equivalence between the nature of those sacrifices and his. Jesus’ sacrifice is compared, for example, with the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement, which opened up the way into the Most Holy Place (the direct presence of God). His sacrifice is also compared frequently to the sacrifice of the original Passover lambs, whose blood spared the Israelites from God’s punishment. The book of Hebrews sees Jesus’ sacrifice as something that qualifies him to become a high priest forever. But these are all the effects of him sacrificing himself, understood against the Old Testament background. The New Testament does not portray Jesus’ death as similar in nature to the earlier sacrifices; as I’ve said, it was not something valuable that we offered to God to express our devotion.

I’d like to note in conclusion that as Christians we are called not only to trust in the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf, but also to sacrifice ourselves for him, as he did for us. Paul writes in Romans, for example, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” And the wider context of the Scripture I quoted above about Jesus sacrificing himself is this: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

We may never fully understand in this life exactly how Jesus’ death saved us. But God can help us understand each day how to “walk in the way of love.”

“Paschal Lamb” stained glass window, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, Carrollton, Georgia. Christian art has long depicted the association between the blood of the Passover lambs and the blood Jesus shed on the cross, memorialized in the communion cup.

Am I still considered a Christian if I haven’t been baptized?

Q. I grew up in a country that is not predominantly Christian, but I decided as a young adult that I wanted to be a Christian and I prayed a “salvation prayer.” I feel blessed that many fellow Christians came into my life to offer support and spiritual guidance after that. I identify my religion as Christianity. But I do not go to church regularly, because for many reasons I haven’t found the right church yet, and I have not been baptized. Most churches require you to be member before you can be baptized. Some allow baptism if you pay a fee and take a course for a month, but that doesn’t feel right to me. I would love to study the Bible and know more in depth about it, and I would like to find a church and attend services regularly. Most of all, I would like to be baptized. But what if I never find the right church where that can happen? Am I still considered a Christian if I haven’t been baptized? This issue concerns me quite a bit and I would like to hear your advice. Thank you!

A stained glass window in St. John the Evangelist Church of Carmichael, California depicting Jesus being baptized.

A person becomes a Christian by choosing to follow Jesus as their Lord and Savior, trusting in His death on the cross as completely sufficient for their forgiveness and reconciliation to God. Nothing needs to be added to the “finished work of Christ” (as it’s called) for a person’s salvation, and indeed nothing can be added to it. So the simple answer to your question is that a person does not need to be baptized, in addition to trusting in Christ, in order to be a genuine Christian.

Why, then, did Peter tell the crowds who gathered to hear the gospel on the day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins”? Doesn’t this suggest that repentance (confessing wrong and asking forgiveness) isn’t enough, and that a person really does need to be baptized in order to become a Christian? No, such an interpretation is not consistent with the New Testament teaching that salvation is by God’s grace alone, received through faith, and not dependent on anything we might do in addition. So I think we should understand instead that while baptism is not necessary for salvation, it is necessary for repentance. That’s what “repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins” actually signifies.

Specifically, when we are baptized, we are demonstrating our repentance (our sorrow over the things we have done that have separated us from God) in the way that Jesus has asked us to do this. Put another way, we are coming to God on His terms, not on our own. This is consistent with the idea that our salvation is completely the work of God, not our own work.

(I think that the similar statement in the Gospel of Mark, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” should be understood in this same way. “Believing” in this context means having saving faith and demonstrating that faith in the way that Jesus has specified. This shows that we are truly trusting Him and depending on him.)

So I think that if you want to honor and obey Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you should be baptized as He has asked, as a sign to Him, to yourself, and to others that, as you say, you identify yourself as a Christian. But this means that you will need to find a church community that can baptize you. Believers can’t baptize themselves; rather, churches are given the solemn responsibility before God of ensuring that, at least so far as they can determine, the people they baptize have genuinely trusted in Jesus and understand the meaning and significance of baptism. That’s why churches generally want you to be a “member” (that is, a regular attendee whom they’ve gotten to know) or at least take a course about baptism before they will baptize you.

(However, I’ve never before heard of a church charging non-members a fee to participate in a baptism course. Perhaps they consider this a way of recovering course costs that non-members are not paying for through regular contributions. But like you, I’m uncomfortable with this approach and I understand why you wouldn’t want to follow it. As a pastor, I always felt that the sacraments of the church, which include baptism, should be made available free of cost to anyone who wanted to receive them.)

I would encourage you to believe that precisely because God has asked you to express your identification as a Christian through baptism, God will help you obey His command by enabling you to find a church where you can be baptized. The process may actually begin with you meeting a pastor who will recognize your faith and agree to baptize you on the basis of that faith, with the understanding that you want to grow as a follower of Jesus and become a regular part of a community of His other followers. I believe you can pray confidently and boldly for God to lead you to such a church and to such a pastor. God will help you do what He has asked you to do! This is one more way in which our salvation is entirely the work of God on our behalf.

Best wishes and God’s blessings to you.

Does everyone have God’s moral laws innately stamped on their hearts?

Q. Does everyone have God’s moral laws innately stamped on their hearts regardless of whether they know Scripture or have access to it? Paul wrote to the Romans that “since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” But he also wrote that “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they . . . show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.” Does that mean we are not only cognizant of the existence of God, but also without excuse concerning obeying His laws?

Does nature speak not just of a Creator, but of that Creator’s intentions for human life? (Photo courtesy Wikipedia.)

God did say through Jeremiah, in a passage later quoted in the letter to the Hebrews, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.” But this promise was made specifically to those who would become part of the new covenant by trusting in Jesus. And in context, it refers to people not just knowing God’s laws, but obeying them willingly and eagerly, because they are being transformed within by the Holy Spirit.

The comment you quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans about the Gentiles keeping the law is actually talking about something different. It says literally in Greek that the work of the law is written on their hearts—not the specific requirements of the law, but what it looks like to “do” (live by) the law. Paul talks immediately afterwards about the conscience bearing witness along with the heart, i.e. at the same time—not “also” or “in addition,” as many translations have it. I therefore think these two versions capture his meaning pretty well:

“The conscience is like a law written in the human heart.” (CEV)

“In their hearts they know what is right and wrong, the same as the law commands, and their consciences agree.” (ERV)

Similarly, when Paul writes just before this that at times Gentiles “do by nature what the law requires,” he’s using a phrase that’s synonymous with “conscience.”

The whole point of Paul’s argument here is to respond to the claim of the  church in Rome, to which he’s writing, that the Jews have a greater right to the gospel. (“To the Jew first” seems to have been their motto.) Paul is working to transform this claim into a recognition that Jews and Gentiles have an equal need for the gospel. (“To the Jew first, but also to the Gentile.”)

And so, he argues, the Jews have the law, but they haven’t kept it; the Gentiles have conscience, but they haven’t followed that, either. (Most of the time, that is; they are capable of following it). Both groups have failed to follow the means of moral guidance that God has given them, and as a result, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but all can and must be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

So in this statement about the Gentiles, Paul is basically saying that everybody has a conscience that enables them generally to know right from wrong in their hearts. If they don’t follow their conscience, they can’t plead that they didn’t know any better. They need to admit that they’ve done wrong and come to God for forgiveness and justification by grace.

In short, while everybody may not have God’s actual moral laws innately stamped on their hearts, the Bible does say here that everybody has a conscience. However, we should recognize that a given person’s conscience, and thus their sense of right and wrong, will be influenced by their own family, society, and culture. Nobody starts out with a “blank slate,” the conscience they would have simply by understanding about God through the creation.

In addition, unfortunately, it’s possible to disregard or resist our conscience to the point where it becomes hardened and is no longer a reliable source of moral guidance. As Paul puts it in a vivid phrase in his first letter to Timothy, the conscience then becomes “seared as with a hot iron.” This frightening possibility should make us all eager to maintain a tender conscience before God!

Is it too late for my loved one who has passed away?

Q. If God’s will is for us all to be in heaven and to have the full assurance of our salvation, why did He not tell me how to tell my loved one before she died how to have that? I could not tell her because I myself do not have that. The Bible says, “If it’s God’s will,” and if I know nothing else, I know that is His will. But it’s too late now because my loved one died and the Bible says a person must accept Jesus Christ as their Savior while ALIVE.

First, please accept my heartfelt condolences on the loss of your loved one. And I feel that I can add, in all sincerity, “may she rest in peace,” because as I explain in this post and in this post, as a biblical scholar, I believe there are some Scriptural grounds to believe that people may have some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death. For example, Paul included “death” as one the things that cannot separate us from the love of God as he described those things in Romans. It’s hard for me to imagine God shutting the door of heaven to people anywhere who truly want to come in.

I recognize that people of genuine faith, who are equally committed to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, disagree about this matter. But I’d encourage you to think, precisely because there are these different understandings, that maybe things are not as hopeless for your loved one as they appear to you right now. And I hope that you will meet Jesus as your own Savior, Lord, and friend on this earth, and find assurance of salvation for yourself. I truly hope that there’s someone in your life who radiates the love of Christ. If you can recognize a person like that, please ask them to explain more about this to you. God bless you.

Is there a second chance for salvation after death?

Q. A loved one passed on recently who was not a Christian. A relative who was very close to him was desperately trying to find some information on how, maybe, there could be a chance that he would not go to hell. We stumbled onto this concept of Hades as an “interim destination” for the dead, distinct from hell as a final destination, where people might have a second chance. We’d like to know your thoughts on this.

On this blog I’ve expressed some thoughts very similar to those in the post you found, which I read and in which I found much to agree with. For example, in my post entitled, “Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?” I summarize my position this way: “I guess you could say I believe in some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death.” I’d invite you to read that post and I hope it will offer you some further encouragement. As I also say there, “based on what I understand God to be like, I can’t imagine God leaving sincerely repentant people in hell [or Hades]—that is, people who wish they had repented, based on what they now realize.”