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 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? 4 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; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 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.