Category Archives: Baptism

Baptism as a Prayer

Last week we examined the New Testament’s teaching about baptism “before controversies, speculations, and hypotheticals.” I endeavored to compile the texts that speak about baptism and examine them in their context without detail theological analysis and application. Today I want to present a rather modest theology of baptism in view of the questions and concerns that have arisen in the history of the church. Before I do this, let’s summarize the NT statements on baptism:

  • Jesus was baptized (Mark 1:9-11).
  • Jesus commanded his apostles to baptize (Matthew 28:18-20.
  • Baptism was the universal practice of the church (Ephesians 4:5; 1 Cor 12:13).
  • Baptism is associated with the working of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 12:13).
  • We are baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27).
  • Baptism brings “forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38).
  • Baptism (with the Spirit) brings new birth (John 3:5-6).
  • Baptism is a washing that removes sin and makes holy (Ephesians 4:25-27; Acts 22:16).
  • Baptism is a burial and resurrection with Christ (Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3-4).
  • Baptism “saves us” (1 Peter 3:21).

 

Baptism in the Creeds and Confessions of Faith

Given the NT teaching and practice summarized above, it should not be surprising that nearly all the creeds and confessions of faith mention baptism. Below I list representative creedal statements on baptism:

The Niceneo-Constantinopolitan Creed (Ecumenical, 381)

“…and I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.”

The Council of Trent (Roman Catholic, 1563)

“If any one saith, that baptism is free, that is, not necessary unto salvation: let him be anathema”

Longer Catechism of the Eastern Church (Moscow, 1839)

Baptism is a Sacrament, in which…[the baptized person] dies to the carnal life of sin, and is born again of the Holy Ghost to a life spiritual and holy.”

The Augsburg Confession of Faith (Lutheran, 1530)

“Of Baptism they [Lutherans] teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that by Baptism the grace of God is offered….”

The Heidelberg Catechism (Reformed, 1563)

Question 69: “How is it signified and sealed unto thee in holy Baptism that thou hast part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?

Thus: that Christ has appointed this outward washing with water and has joined therewith this promise, that I am washed with his blood and Spirit from… [sin].”

The Scotch Confession of faith (Church of Scotland, [Presbyterian], 1560)

The sacraments are “Baptisme and the Supper or the Table of the Lord Jesus, called the Communion of his Body and Blude….And this we utterlie damne the vanitie of thay that affirme Sacramentes to be nathing ellis bot naked and baire signes. No, wee assuredlie beleeve that be Baptisme we ar ingrafted in Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his justice, be quhilk our sinnes ar covered and remitted.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (English Puritan, 1647)

Baptism is “a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his engrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God….Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect the ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated….The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance the grace promised is not only offered, but really conferred by the Holy Ghost….”

The Baptist Confession of 1688; also known as the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (Calvinist Baptists)

”Baptism is an ordinance…to be unto the party baptized a sign of his fellowship with Christ…of being engrafted into him; of the remission of sins….”

Confession of Free Will-Baptists (1834, 1868)

“This is the immersion of believers in water…in which are represented the burial and resurrection of Christ, the death of Christian to the world, the washing of their souls from the pollution of sin…”

A Modest Theology of Baptism

I might as well acknowledge that there have been debates and disagreement among believers in Christ about the mode of baptism, its purpose or effect, its proper candidates, who is qualified to administer it, and other aspects of baptismal practice. Today, I shall ignore all of these debates except one: does baptism, properly performed—whatever that means—really effect the gifts and promises to which the New Testament connects it? In answering this question, we need first to be reminded of how strong and realistic the New Testament language about the effect of baptism is. On the face of it, it asserts that God, the Spirit and Christ really act in and through baptism to bestow the gifts associated with it. The Nicene Creed and all Roman Catholic and Orthodox creeds maintain this same realism of divine action through baptism. Among Protestants, Lutherans also continue the realism. But the Reformed side of the Protestant Reformation weakened and eventually dropped the realistic language and began to use the language of metaphor, symbol, sign, representation, and seal to describe the connection between the “external” rite of baptism and the “spiritual” promises associated with it.

The reasons why Reformed Protestants and those churches that derive from this tradition shifted from realism to symbolism in their understanding of baptism are more complicated than I can explain in this post. But two reasons stand out as relevant to today. (1) The Roman Catholic Church seemed to Protestants of that era to claim in its view of the sacraments to control where and when God acted for human salvation. And this idea is an offense to the freedom and sovereignty of God. (2) To some Reformed theologians—Zwingli, for example—the realistic view of divine action in the sacraments seemed superstitious and magical. The Reformed solution to these two problems was to shift from a realistic to a symbolic understanding of baptism and the other sacraments. God cannot be manipulated to act simply by our performance of a rite such as baptism. So, the human act of performing and receiving the rite of baptism is dissociated from God’s act of forgiving, giving the Spirit, the new birth, union with Christ, washing away sins, saving, etc. And this view is very popular among contemporary evangelical Christians.

Must we simply choose one side or the other, the purely symbolic or the manipulative and magical view of baptism? I don’t think so. The realistic tone of the New Testament drives me to seek another way to preserve the freedom and sovereignty of God and the realistic connection between the human performance of the rite and God’s action of grace.

Baptism as a Prayer

What if we considered baptism a prayer? Protestants usually believe that Jesus’ commanded us to pray and gave us a model prayer, that we are to pray always, that we are to petition the Father in Jesus’ name, that we are to pray according to the will of God, and that prayer is effective. Perhaps some people treat prayer as manipulative and magical. But most Protestants understand that God invites us to pray and sometimes wishes to give his gifts in response to prayer. I don’t know of a theology of prayer that completely dissociates our prayers from God’s hearing and acting to answer our prayers the way some theologies of baptism dissociate the human act of baptism from God’s action. Not many people refuse to pray for fear of offending divine sovereignty. Few view the connection between a sincere prayer and God’s act in answer to that prayer as “metaphor, symbol, sign, representation, or seal.” Instead, we view prayer as a precious gift God gives to his children that enables us to partner with God in this world.

Why not view baptism in the same way? The church, in performing the rite of baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the candidate for baptism, by asking for baptism and submitting to it, offer this act to God as a prayer to God requesting the gifts he has promised to give when we ask. Sincere prayer is not manipulative or magical. It is not a work meriting anything from God. It is an obedient act that appeals to the gracious God for blessings that he has promised to give those who love him. In the same way, baptism is a beautiful prayer embodied in a physical action in response to a divine command and invitation. It seeks the blessings God has promised to those who trust in Jesus Christ. And we know that the prayer of baptism will receive a positive answer because God is faithful to his promises!

 

 

 

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Christian Baptism Before Controversies, Speculations, and Hypotheticals

In continuation of the theme of our appropriation of the salvation Jesus brings, today we address the question of how baptism is related to the Spirit’s act of uniting us to Christ and the act of faith? I want to acknowledge at the beginning that the subject of the “sacraments” in general and in particular baptism has occasioned much controversy in Christian history. I am aware that it is not possible for me to state the meaning of baptism in a way that escapes this history completely. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to urge believers of all backgrounds to read the New Testament in as unbiased way as possible. After all, theology is the church’s self-examination in light of the Word of God that we receive through the apostolic teaching. It should be motivated by the desire to be faithful to the original teaching of Jesus and his apostles. No theologian should treat a denominational confession or a private theological opinion as the ultimate norm of Christian truth. So, the first thing to do is to document the NT statements about baptism. Next, we will document what some influential creeds and confessions of faith say about it. Finally, I will attempt to state a modest theology of baptism, a theology that leaves many interesting but speculative and “what if” questions unanswered.

Jesus’ Baptism and Ministry

Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and he commanded his disciples to baptize those who accepted their message. The first three Gospels record Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist (Mt. 3:13-17; Mk. 1:9-11; Luke 3: 21, 22). The Gospel of John records the Baptist’s testimony about the Spirit falling on Jesus on the occasion of his baptism (John 1:32-34). Jesus’ earthly ministry included calling on people to repent and be baptized (John 4:1-2) And Jesus said to Nicodemus, “…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit”(John 3:5). In the Great Commission, Mt. 28:18-20 (cf. Mk. 16:16), Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize believers and then begin the process of further teaching:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.…”

Acts of Apostles

Acts of Apostles tells the story of the origin of the church and the spread of the Christian gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. At the conclusion of Peter’s Pentecost sermon in response to the audience’s question about what they should do, Peter said,

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

In response to Phillip’s powerful preaching, the Samaritan believers were baptized (8:12,13). Phillip preached “Jesus” to the Ethiopian official who then requested baptism. After Phillip baptized him, the official “went on his way rejoicing.”(8:36-39). Acts 9:17-19 and 22:12-16 tell the story of Saul’s conversion and baptism. The centurion Cornelius, the first gentile convert, and everyone in his household were baptized after Peter preached the gospel to them and the Holy Spirit had filled them:

“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:47,48).

Lydia and her household (16:14-15), the Philippian Jailer (16:33), Crispus, the synagogue ruler (18:8), and those disciples who had received only John’s baptism were also baptized (19:2-6).

Paul

Paul never makes an argument that believers ought to be baptized. He assumes it and uses the universal practice to make further theological points. In Romans 6:1-10, Paul assumes without question that all the Roman Christians, whom he had not met, had been baptized. In these verses Paul refutes the ridiculous slander that accused him of teaching that we should sin all the more because the more we sin the more grace we get. He asks the Roman believers to call to mind their baptism as the demarcation between the old life of sin and the new life of righteousness. Their baptism should teach them the absurdity of sinning to get grace:

“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4).

In Galatians 3:23-29, Paul uses the universal practice of baptism to make another point. We are not under the obligation to obey the law to attain right standing with God. We have a right relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ. Notice the seamless and natural relationship between faith and baptism in this text:

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27).

In 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, Paul makes a very interesting connection between baptism and the Spirit. He reminds the Corinthians that the basis for the harmony of the unity and diversity of the body of Christ is that “we were all baptized by[or “in”] one Spirit” (12:13). Apparently, some early Christians were even having themselves baptized again “for the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:29). In Ephesians, Paul lists baptism among the seven ones that all Christians share. Again we find baptism assumed as a universal practice.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

In another very interesting text in Ephesians, Paul speaks of baptism as something Christ does for us, a washing that purifies and makes holy:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (5:25-27).

In Colossians, Paul argues for the supremacy of Christ over all other powers and supposed saviors. Christ embodies and makes available to us the fullness of the divine nature and all wisdom. And we have been joined with him through baptism:

“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:9-12).

In these words, Baptism is compared to the Jewish covenant practice of circumcision. Christ is the one who cuts away the old, sinful flesh. Hence God in Christ is the true actor in baptism. If we also consider the other texts quoted above, we can say that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are the true actors in baptism, though it is a practice to which we submit and the church administers through its duly appointed representatives.

These texts and others (e.g., 1 Peter 3:21) were written before the controversies, speculations, and hypothetical cases that arose in the two millennia since that time. When you listen to them without these distractions, you hear resounding joy and hope. They speak of the promises of God and work of Jesus Christ for our salvation. They draw for us a clear line between the dead past and the living hope of the present and future. They speak of assurance and confidence and certainty. I hope that we will not let any controversy, speculation, or hypothetical case rob us of the mood in which these texts are written. Whatever our speculations, we can receive baptism as a gift administered by the church’s human hands but performed by the Spirit acting in union with the Father and Son. What a wonderful gift! Don’t reject it, delay it, or demean it. Enjoy it.

Next Week: creeds, denominational confessions and a modest theology of baptism.