A deeper dive into baptism
What is Baptism? Well if you were in church this past Sunday you will have heard my first salvo on that topic. But in a 30 minute sermon one can only say so much, and so as a way to dive deeper into this foundational topic for the Christian faith, I present this week an explanation of Baptism a it has been understood biblically, theologically, historically, and locally within the tradition of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, of which The Bridge is a part.
Biblically – Baptism is a rite of repentance. John practiced Baptism in the Judean wilderness for the express purpose of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). It has an inextricable link with the ideas of cleansing and purification. The naturally understood function of water is for washing – cleansing us from our past sin (we sometimes refer to this as justification) and purifying us for holy living (we often refer to this as sanctification). John’s Baptisms emphasize the first aspect primarily – but he prophesies of one who will come and perform the second part of the cleansing (Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16) baptizing not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus’ own baptism (among other things) sets a pattern for our own need for baptism as he received the Holy Spirit poured out upon him to empower him for the task and ministry set before him – and the great baptism of Pentecost (Acts 2) fulfills the second part of John’s prophecy when the infant Church is baptized by Christ with the Holy Spirit and (tongues of) fire.
Throughout Christ’s earthly ministry Baptism is an assumed an essential part of discipleship (John 3:22-26, 4:1-2), in his post resurrection teaching it is at the core of his instructions to the church (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16), and after the birth of the church at Pentecost is becomes the standard practice of initiation into the community of faith for all who profess Christ as saviour (Acts 2:41, 8:16,36-38, 9:18, 10:47-48, 16:13-15,31-34, 18:8, 19:4-7, 22:14-16). You simply can’t speak of a New Testament believer who given the opportunity to be baptized – was not. The paradigm of an unbaptized Christian simply doesn’t exist in the canonical chronicles of the early Church.
Theologically – When we look to the Scriptures to construct a theological framework for our understanding of baptism (speaking in contrast to simply an observation of practice which we just dealt with) we see that baptism is indicative of a larger movement of God in the life of the believer.
First and foremost, when speaking about baptism in the theological sense we must first acknowledge that baptism is primarily a work of God and not the work of the believer (Colossians 2:11-12), and it is in this work of God that we find ourselves connected to Christ (Romans 6:3-7) and by extension with his Body, the Church (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). In doing so we must also acknowledge that in Baptism the fullness of the Godhead participates in the model of what we see at Christ’s own baptism. In that account, we see that the Son obeys, the Spirit empowers and the Father declares (Mark 1:10-11) and in a similar way all three are involved in the believer’s baptism too. The Son initiates and invites us into union with himself, the Holy Spirit empowers the believer through the mysterious rite and the Father declares us to be children of God (Galatians 3:26-28) – in right standing before the Father by the appropriated work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Theologically we must also speak of what baptism accomplishes and what role it plays in the grand drama of salvation. It must be acknowledged at the outset of any such discussion that on such matters the church has been in disagreement for quite some time (and strong disagreement since the reformation of the sixteenth century). For some traditions baptism is itself a means of grace, that is to say that it confers what it signifies. In these traditions, the model of John’s baptism “for the forgiveness of sins” in emphasized and it is believed that the act of washing that is symbolized in the rite, by the power of God, actually washes away our sins. For others baptism is a promise of grace to be fully realized in a future understanding and confession by the believer (we will explore this a little further in the Historical section below) and still for other traditions (of which the Christian and Missionary Alliance is one) baptism is not a means or a promise of grace but rather the evidence of grace in the life of the believer. For this third group, it is the fruit that is produced by the work of God in salvation, and the evidence therefore of a life transformed by, and submitted to the will of Christ (Luke 6:43-45, James 2:14,17). Baptism therefore neither accomplishes something ex opera operato (from the work having worked) nor is merely an empty symbol or ritual without vital importance to the salvation of the believer.
As for the specific role baptism plays in the grand drama of salvation – baptism is associated with God’s work of justification as a symbol for the cleansing of our sins; with the work of regeneration (new birth) as an evidence of being “born again” (John 3:5-6) and living a new life in Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5, 2 Corinthians 5:17); and with the work of sanctification whereby the Holy Spirit fills and empowers us for holy living and ever-increasing Christlikeness. Baptism therefore is important to all aspects of our salvation as Christians.
Historically – To be honest and true – most Christians throughout history have been Paedobaptists – that is to say that they have practiced the baptism of the Children of Christian parents as a guarantee of salvation that will be confirmed in a future confession (usually after a rigorous season of catechism or teaching of the doctrines of the church) and as an initiatory rite into the fellowship of the Church (which for many of these traditions are the same thing). Some paedobaptists will understand the rite in an extreme sense as a means of grace, whereas many others (including virtually all protestant paedobaptists) will hold onto it only as a guarantee of salvation to be personally actualized when the believer can fully understand and articulate their own faith in Jesus Christ. In the fallout of the protestant reformation however, many groups started to emerge that advocated for a “believers” (or more accurately, “confessional”) baptism whereby a person is only baptized after a real and personal understanding of what Jesus Christ has done for them, and out of personal desire to obey him and show evidence of their decision by participation in the baptism rite. These groups (of which we are one) will argue from Scripture that there is no explicit reference anywhere in the New Testament to children being baptized and that a person’s decision to follow Jesus must be grounded in a personal faith and not works done on one’s behalf (their opponents will counter though with the largely unanswered issue of the whole household baptisms in Acts 11:13-14, 16:14-16, 32-34 and 18:7-8).
As a denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance has always practiced a confessional baptism, going so far as to hold it out as a requirement for membership in our family of churches. At the same time is has always been recognized and affirmed that the baptism practiced in C&MA churches is a baptism into the larger Body of Christ – and not a baptism into the C&MA or its particular flavour of Christianity. Sometimes this can be confusing because of its strong connection with church membership – but baptism and church membership are not the same thing, nor does being baptized affirm your allegiance to or affiliation with the Christian and Missionary Alliance or with The Bridge Church.
Locally – At The Bridge Church we have mostly erred on the side of baptism being a largely (if not completely) symbolic rite, whereby the believer is celebrating a coming out party of sorts – revealing with a ritual what should have already been evident by their verbal confession and life of piety – namely, that they are a Christ-follower and desire to be obedient even in this water ordinance that they (and often the church) don’t fully understand. For expediency, we’ve leaned on the idea that Christ said it, so we do it, and don’t confuse us with any of the reasons why. This pragmatic approach to baptism (which echoes some of the historic values of the C&MA in approach) has at times served us well as it has allowed us to sound the call and reap the harvest of many souls through this rite of obedience to Christ – however I wonder if by painting baptism in overwhelmingly symbolic colours that we have diminished some of the very real spiritual benefits for the obedient believer? Have we de-emphasized the functionality of baptism to such a degree that we have cast it in the light of an optional endeavour of faith? Have we created a culture where baptism is something nice for the “really committed” people to go through, but by no means necessary for authentic Christian discipleship?
In light of what I’ve already discussed about the biblical, theological and historical nature of baptism is it appropriate in the local sense to actually speak of baptism as being separate from the work of salvation? Or more appropriately is it proper to speak of salvation apart from baptism?
Now before anyone rushes to brand me a heretic of any sort, I’ll unpack what I mean by that question: While we do understand that salvation is appropriated by faith in Jesus Christ and his freely given gift of grace to us, and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9) and that certainly we have evidence of salvation apart from baptism with the account of the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43) we have no record anywhere in the New Testament of a Christian rejecting the call to baptism, or even of delaying (indefinitely or otherwise) the call to be baptized into Christ or into the Christian community. Baptism is joined at the hip to making disciples in the great commissions of both Matthew and Mark, it always follows conversion in the book of Acts and serves as the initiatory rite into the community of faith for most of recorded church history. If these things are indicative of normative Christian practice then why do we treat baptism as an optional upgrade on our Christianity rather than the crucial evidence of salvation that the Bible and Church history make it out to be?
If James is right and faith without accompanying works is indeed dead (James 2:17) then we need to ask the tough question about baptism that James asks, “Can such faith save?” (James 2:14). This is a difficult, but crucial question that we need to wrestle with as a church when we consider baptism in light of what God ordained it to be. For this reason, we need to treat baptism with a renewed seriousness in our church family and understand it to be as central to the Christian faith as Scripture attests it to be.
I hope that this past Sunday’s sermon helped you understand the seriousness of baptism to the Christian faith. And to understand the deep theological and historical underpinnings of what I talked about. Remember what I said on Sunday, if you have heard the sermon, and read this blog, then I, and the elders consider you understand all you need to know to respond. The next step is to contact me, or your flock elder to set up a face to face meeting to prepare you for the details of the rite, and to schedule a Sunday when you walk through the waters of baptism in obedience to Christ. Are you in?
I hope so.