Baptism: Theological Reflections

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In a previous post, I tried to show that baptism in the NT followed faith in Christ. That is, baptism was of believers. Here, I hope to help us think a bit more deeply about the theological picture that baptism paints.

A Brief Theology of Baptism

First, baptism is the means by which those who believe in Jesus identify with God. In Matthew 28:19–20, Jesus commands his disciples to baptize believers “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” John Hammett writes, “’into the name’ was a technical term indicating a transference of ownership. Thus, in baptism one openly confessed that he belonged to Jesus; that is, he was henceforth to be identified with Jesus.”[3] Writing from a Presbyterian tradition, Louis Berkhof notes, “They who accepted Christ by faith were to be baptized in the name of the triune God, as a sign and seal of the fact that they had entered into a new relation to God…”[4] Thus, both credo- and paedobaptist theologians understand the phrase into the name” to mean that a disciple identifies himself/herself with the triune God through the act of baptism.

Second, in baptism we specifically identify with the second person of the Godhead, Jesus Christ. As Paul says, “having been buried with [Jesus] in baptism, in which you were also raised with [Jesus] through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised [Jesus] from the dead” (Col 2:12). As Jesus died and was raised from the dead, so Christians have died and have been raised from the dead (cf. Eph 2:5). Believer’s baptism paints this picture in bright colors. Going down into the water testifies to our death with Christ (Rom 6:8). Coming out of the water proclaims that we are new creations in Jesus and are thus to walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4). Therefore, it is only appropriate to apply this ordinance to those of whom it can be said, “You have died with Christ and are now raised with Christ as a new creation, able to walk in newness of life.”

Two other points deserve mention. In addition to identifying with the triune God, particularly with Jesus, and signifying death to sin and resurrection to a new life in Christ (Rom 6:3–4; Col 2:11–12), baptism also testifies to the cleansing power of Jesus. By faith in Jesus, believers are cleansed from their sin. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11; cf. Isa 1:18). Schreiner states succinctly, “Baptism…reminds Christians that their sins have been washed away.”[5]

Another important theological reality is how the ordinance of baptism serves as a line in the sand between the unbelieving world and the believing church. To put my cards on the table, as a Baptist, I assume the church is composed of only those who profess faith in Jesus. But how does the church, composed of believers, become identifiable and distinct from the world? Baptism is the proverbial and initial line in the sand.

Baptism draws the boundaries of the local church by communicating who has been transferred from the headship of Adam to the headship of King Jesus. Indeed, Paul writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27).[6] Those who are united to Christ by faith (i.e. believers) are distinct from those who are not (i.e. the unbelieving world). And it is baptism that outwardly draws the line between the church and the world.

In summary, baptism identifies a person with the triune God of Scripture and, particularly with Jesus, the second person of the Godhead. In identifying with Christ via baptism, we paint a picture that says we have died with Christ and have been raised to newness of life. Furthermore, baptism points to the power of the blood of Jesus to wash away our sins. Just as physical water is used to cleanse the outward body, so the blood of Jesus washes away the stains of our sins. Lastly, baptism is the proverbial line in the sand that marks out the new covenant people of God from the world.

So What?

So what do you do in light of this theological picture? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. If you’ve never painted this theological picture by being baptized as a believer, talk to your pastor(s) and begin to pursue baptism.
  2. Look to your baptism as a God-ordained means to strengthen your faith. Reflecting on the theological meaning of baptism is one way to remind yourself of precious gospel truths.
  3. When your church baptizes new believers, show up and shout for joy. We should celebrate the new life a person has in Christ and sing for joy over their public profession of faith that comes through the baptismal waters.
  4. Encourage those who have never been baptized to obey the command of Jesus. If you’re making disciples, whether at home or work or in the midst of your hobbies, make sure baptism is part of what characterizes your disciple-making. When someone comes to faith, point them to the local church baptismal as an important step of discipleship.
  5. Finally, do not elevate baptism above the gospel. Baptism is important, but it is not the gospel. Make sure you help your church hold the line when it comes to salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. Following Jesus in baptism is a step of obedience, but it is not an act that makes us Christians.

 

 

[1] It should be noted that not every denomination would frame the issue this way. The Evangelical Free Church, for instance, would state that baptism is not necessary for church membership. This seems to be a minority position in church history and warrants a separate discussion outside my scope here.

[2] Gavin Ortlund argues that infant baptism is irregular but valid. He does so by arguing that infant baptism is erroneous, but distinguishes between “accidental error” and “essential error.” To illustrate the view, he uses the analogy of baseball where a “baseball manifesto” dictates 9 innings per game. Yet, if you play a 7-inning baseball game, though you are playing baseball wrongly (according to the manifesto), you are still playing baseball. Thus, with baptism, though you are doing it wrongly (i.e. baptizing infants), you are still practicing baptism (Gavin Ortlund, “Can We Reject Paedobaptism and Still Receive Paedobaptists?” Mere Orthodoxy, Jan 3, 2019 https://mereorthodoxy.com/baptism-church-membership/). However, as Jonathan Leeman has written in response, “cricket is not baseball, whether with seven innings or nine” (Jonathan Leeman, “Church Membership and the Definitions of Baptism,” Mere Orthodoxy, Jan 4, 2019 https://mereorthodoxy.com/church-membership-definition-baptism/). In short, infant baptism is not merely an erroneous practice of valid baptism, it is no baptism at all.

[3] John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005), 263. Hans Kung writes, “The central feature of baptism is ‘his name,’ into which men are immersed,” in which men are baptized. “In Jesus the reign of God has already begun, in him has been given the call to a radical decision of faith in God and his reign, in him man is challenged, in opposition to the law, to fulfill his will in love of God and his neighbor. In him, God’s reign, God’s challenge, God’s will, God’s word and hence God himself has been revealed. This is the significance of the trinitarian baptismal formula; baptism is given in the name of him, in whom God himself through the Spirit has his dwelling among us” (Hans Küng, The Church (London: Burns & Oates, 1967), 207.)

[4] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, New ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1996), 624. Also, Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998), 925.

[5] Schreiner, “Baptism in the Bible,” in Dever, Leeman, and Garrett, Baptist Foundations, 103.

[6] John Stott notes, “The apostle clearly makes faith the means of our union with Christ. He mentions faith five times in this paragraph, but baptism only once. Faith secures the union; baptism signifies it outwardly and visibly (John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians: Only One Way, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986), 99).

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