A Theology of Baptism

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What is baptism? What does baptism do? Who should be baptized, and why? Below is a short summary that answers these questions.

Starting with the Foundation: Who saves?

Baptism is a great and holy gift from God, and here at Trinity we love to baptize! Nevertheless, it is important to stress first and foremost that it is Christ who saves.

Article XI of the 39 Articles says,

“It is only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings”.

In other words, it is not by the things that we do that we are saved. God saves graciously through Christ’s death and resurrection. Baptism is not something that we do to earn salvation. It is not our action for an ungracious God. Instead, as we shall see, baptism is a gracious work of God on our behalf. Salvation is solely of Christ’s merit. He is the one who has earned it on our behalf.

How does he save?

Having said that, God delivers this salvation purchased by Christ through different appointed means. You might think of it like a delivery system. God has various ways of getting what Christ has done 2,000 years ago into our hands.  The Reformed confessions commonly call this delivery system God’s “means of grace”. Notice what the Westminster Smaller Catechism says about God’s means of grace:

“The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.” (WSC, Q88)

So God “communicates to us the benefits of redemption” through means of grace. One very common means of grace is preaching. Many times, people will say: “I was saved when I heard the gospel on one Sunday morning”. They are not saying that the preacher saved them. Rather, it was God who saved through the preacher’s sermon, mouth, lungs, etc.

The same goes with the sacraments (Baptism and Eucharist). The 39 articles say this about the sacraments:

“Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us” (XXV)

Notice the wording: not only “badges”, but “effectual signs of grace…by which he doth work invisibly in us”. So then, sacraments are actions through which God acts to save. The problem is that very often people understand sacraments to be something that they do for God. It is a badge that we wear. It is some action we perform to profess our faith or please God. Not so, the articles state: they are divine actions whereby God accomplishes salvation.

In fact, Paul says this very thing in several of his letters. In Titus 3:5, Paul says, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”. This “washing of regeneration” is a reference to Christian baptism. Paul also says in Romans 6:4 that we were buried with Christ in baptism. Through baptism, we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, in the fruits of his saving work.

The 39 Articles say that for those who receive baptism rightly, that as “by an instrument, they…are grafted into the Church” (XXVII). So then, baptism delivers the goods of Christ’s salvation.

Baptism does not automatically save

All that being said, it is important to emphasize that baptism is not a “one-and-done” event. It does not automatically save. The Reformers knew this important fact: baptism must make its way into the personal faith and life of the recipient. In fact, if we do not receive our baptism by faith, it has no effect. To put it another way, baptism isn’t a magic ritual. Baptism must be, as the 39 Articles say, “rightly received”. By this, the Articles mean to say that sacraments do not work apart from the faith of the individual. People are not objects to simply be worked on. People are humans with wills and hearts that must receive and believe God’s gracious gift given in baptism.

This is especially relevant for infants admitted to baptism. Infants who are baptized ought afterward to be raised in the church, taught, and nurtured to mature faith. They should be raised within the embrace of God’s people. If a child is baptized in the church, and never sets foot in the church again, there is simply no reason to believe that on the basis of their baptism alone, they are saved.

Here is how Martin Luther explains baptism in his Small Catechism:

“[Baptism] indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever”. Luther borrows this wording from Romans 6: we are drowned in baptism, and raise as new creatures. Therefore, each day we should live as if our old man is dead, and we are new.” (4.3)

Baptism’s effect on our lives should span the entirety of our lives. It should work it’s way into daily repentance and obedience to Christ. If it doesn’t make its way into daily living, the baptism has not had its effect.

This is why Christians throughout history stressed to such a great degree the difference between the outward element of water, and the inward reality of being cleansed by the Holy Spirit. It’s easy for water to be poured on the head. It’s supernatural for the water to make its way to our hearts. Baptism must be believed and received; claimed in faith by the recipient. Otherwise it has no effect.

Consequently this is why many of the Reformation confessions speak of baptism having its effect later in life as the child believes and receives the graces offered in baptism. The Westminster Confession states,

“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 exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.” (WCF 28.6)

Notice the wording: baptism’s efficacy is not “tied to the moment” of its administration, but according to God’s “appointed time”. What the confession means to say is that baptism’s saving efficacy is not bound to the moment the water hits someone’s head. Water doesn’t have that sort of power! Rather, baptism has its effect through God’s Spirit, who confers the graces of baptism when he pleases. Baptism, properly, does not look back (OK, I’ve been baptized) but forward to God’s continued work to establish faith and holiness in the recipient.

Why infants?

After reading this, one might ask: if baptism doesn’t automatically save — if it must be received and believed — why baptize infants? Why not wait for them to make a decision for Christ, and subsequently baptize? A first thing to note is that Anglicans do not exclusively baptize infants. We also baptize adults believers too! Anglicans have always been keen to the reality that the church exists to make disciples, and this includes adults as well as children. Nevertheless, it is important to consider: why baptize infants? If infants cannot make a commitment to Christ, why not just wait until they are of age to do so?

The reality is, God has always embraced the children of believers into his fold. It is not simply a New Testament practice, but also a practice found in the Old Testament! In fact, during every era in history, God has graciously included believers and their children into his saving graces. But where do we find this in the scriptures?

Let’s look briefly at Peter’s sermon the Jewish leaders in Acts 2. Toward the end of his sermon, the Jewish leaders ask what they must do to be saved. Peter responds by saying,

“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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (v. 38-39).

Peter commands the Jewish people to repent and be baptized, and promises that through this baptism, they will receive the Holy Spirit. What is important for us to note, however, is that this promise is not simply for the believing adults. It is, as Peter says, “for you and for your children”. This presumes that the children of these new believers were admitted to baptism, and that the same promises given to their parents were given to them. In other words, children of believers were included along with their parents into God’s gracious embrace.

Another important thing to note in this passage is that when Peter says, “this promise is to you and your children”, he is quoting from the Old Testament. In Genesis 17, God says the exact same thing to Abraham. However, the context is not baptism but circumcision. Circumcision, not baptism, was the initiatory sacrament in the Old Testament. If someone desired to become part of God’s people, they had to be circumcised. However, circumcision wasn’t simply given to adult converts. Rather, as God commanded, it was given to every male adult and his children. In fact, every male child was commanded to be circumcised at the eighth day. What that meant for the Jews was that it was commonplace for children to be included in God’s people.

Peter quotes Genesis 17 in his sermon to signify that now that Christ has come, there is a new initiatory sacrament, baptism; and this sacrament is given to adult believers, and also their children, just as it was in the Old Testament.

What all of this means is that God included the children of believers in the old covenant, and he does the same in the new! Children are graciously received by God and included in Christ’s covenant people.

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The Christian Life is Nothing More than a Daily Baptism

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The Baptism of Jesus Christ (source)

One of my favorite remarks from esteemed Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson comes from his Christian Dogmatics Volume II, in the abstract of chapter 4 on baptism. He says:

We are canonically commanded to initiate into the church those whom the mission proclamation brings to penitence, by washing them in the triune name. To those who have been initiated, baptism promises the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit. (p 315)

This is obvious enough. But then he adds at the end of this abstract this interesting statement:

The task of the church at the present moment is to recover the integrity of baptism. The task of believers is always to use their baptism“. (p 315)

This is curious statement: quite obviously the church is to administer baptism, but what does it mean for the Christian to use their baptism? 

Jenson, as one might expect of a good confessional Lutheran, is borrowing from Luther’s ethic of the daily use of baptism, or, put another way, the daily return to baptism. This is most prominently outlined in Luther’s Large Catechism.

In the section on baptism, Luther first defines what it is: baptism is no normal water. Rather, it is water sanctified by God’s word and made thereby holy. He says it thus:

What is baptism?…It is not simply plain water, but water placed in the setting of God’s Word and commandment and made holy by them. It is nothing else than God’s water, not that the water itself is nobler than other water but that God’s Word and commandment are added to it…

[And again,] Baptism is a very different thing from all other water, not by virtue of the natural substance but because here something nobler is added, for God himself stakes his honor, his power, and his might on it. Therefore it is not simply a natural water, but a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water… (LC, 4.14,17)

Notice that for Luther, a sacrament is something taken up into God’s Word and made holy thereby. So before the sacramental word is spoken, it is natural water; but after the Word is spoken over the elements, it is sanctified.

Next Luther asks: what does baptism give? Luther says simply: “This is the simplest way to put it: the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of baptism is that it saves” (LC 4.23). Wow! How can baptism do such a thing? For Luther, the water, when it is gathered up into the Word of God, is made holy, made to participate in and bestow God’s life. Thus, when baptism is applied, it gives what the Word names: the life of Father, Son and Spirit.

OK then, but still, how do we use this holy baptism? He answers this by asking in the third part of this section: what does baptism signify and why did God ordain it?

This act or ceremony consists of being dipped into the water, which covers us completely, and being drawn out again. These two parts, being dipped under the water and emerging from it, point to the power and effect of baptism, which is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new creature, both of which must continue in us our whole life (LC, 4.65)

This imagery is incredibly important to Luther. Baptism signifies and works the slaying of the old man and raising up of the new. And this work of slaying and resurrection, as Luther says, must continue “our whole life”.

Here we come to the use of baptism. Thus, says Luther,

a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. For we must keep at it without ceasing, always purging whatever pertains to the old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new creature may come forth (ibid)

For Luther, the Christian life is not a metaphysical improvement from being less to more holy. Rather, sanctification is living within the gift bestowed in baptism, never moving from the reality of dying and rising. Every day is a living out of the reality of baptism. There is no ascending to heaven. There is only death and resurrection.

Finally, Luther mentions the sacrament of penance, which for the medieval church was “another chance” at grace, as it were. If, after baptism, you sinned “mortally”, you could always go to the confessional and make penance. But for Luther, penance and baptism are not two different realities.

Rather,

Penance…is really nothing else than baptism. What is repentance but an earnest attack on the old creature and an entering into new life? If you live in repentance, therefore, you are walking in baptism, which not only announces this new life but also produces, begins, and exercises it. (LC 4.75)

Now we may come to what Jenson meant by “using” baptism. He meant: do not progress past it. Always live in it. For in baptism is the very life of God given; the life of Father, Son and Spirit; living out the reality of baptism. And thus, the Christian life, as Luther says, “is nothing else than a return to baptism” (LC 4.77).

Jenson I think gets to the heart of what Luther means with this daily use of baptism in his little treasure of a book, A Large Catechism. He says this:

“Sanctification,” “Christian life” after baptism, is often misunderstood as a progress, kicked off, as it were, by baptism. This has obviously to be false. Baptism initiates into the life which God’s three persons, Father, Son and Spirit, live among themselves; what would we progress to from that? Rather, sanctification is the continual return to baptism, from the errors and forgettings and perhaps plain unbelief or crime into which life after baptism will lead us. Baptism is always there as a fact in my past; I can always, as Luther said, “creep” back to it and begin anew. (p 50)

Jenson continues:

If I do become more sanctified as time goes on, if my life does less fight against communion with Christ in the church, this will be because such fresh starts come closer together and are each time more drastic. (ibid, 51)

This is at the heart of Luther’s “daily use” of baptism. What a treasure!

Calvin on the Sacraments

Portrait of John Calvin

Calvin has a fascinating explanation of the sacraments in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He introduces the sacraments as signs and seals, as the Reformers usually do. But, he goes on to explain the sacraments as external words which affix our faith and deepen our union with Christ by the Spirit.

Calvin explains it this way:

First, we must attend to what a sacrament is. It seems to me, then, a simple and appropriate definition to say, that it is an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us…We may also define more briefly by calling it a testimony of the divine favour toward us, confirmed by an external sign, with a corresponding attestation of our faith towards Him. (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 14.1)

Calvin speaks of a sacrament of an “external sign” of God’s good will toward us in Christ which he inwardly “seals” on our consciences to sustain us the “weakness of our faith”. It is God showing us visibly the promise of good will to us in the gospel. Baptism, properly speaking then, is God sealing upon our consciences his promise of renewal by the Spirit; the Lord’s Supper, that are welcome to his table.

Calvin goes on to say this:

In this way God provides first for our ignorance and sluggishness and, secondly, for our infirmity; and yet, properly speaking, it does not so much confirm his word as establish us in the faith of it. For the truth of God is in itself sufficiently stable and certain, and cannot receive a better confirmation from any other quarter than from itself. But as our faith is slender and weak, so if it be not propped up on every side, and supported by all kinds of means, it is forthwith shaken and tossed to and fro, wavers, and even falls. And here, indeed, our merciful Lord, with boundless condescension, so accommodates himself to our capacity, that seeing how from our animal nature we are always creeping on the ground, and cleaving to the flesh, having no thought of what is spiritual, and not even forming an idea of it, he declines not by means of these earthly elements to lead us to himself, and even in the flesh to exhibit a mirror of spiritual blessings. (14.3).

Calvin says rightly that the “truth of God is in itself sufficient”, but because we are physical beings, God condescends to us by physical means to “prop our faith up on every side”. The sacraments are physical words to us, to accommodate our bodily situation. Sacraments are not properly sacraments without the words or promises contained under the external sign.

In fact, for Calvin, the word and sacrament accomplish the same thing:

Both word and sacraments…confirm our faith, bringing under view the kind intentions of our heavenly Father, in the knowledge of which the whole assurance of our faith depends, and by which its strength is increased; and the Spirit also confirms our faith when by engraving that assurance on our minds, he renders it effectual. (14.11)

So then, sacraments are physical words to us, signs and seals, to bolster our faith, to deepen our union with Christ by the action of the Spirit. They are Spirit wrought instruments to seal to our consciences God’s good promises to us by the gospel.

Purpose of Discipleship

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What is the purpose of discipleship? What is the point behind the disciplines, the virtues, ethical reform, etc? Hans Urs von Balthasar has a decisive answer that I believe sums up the biblical paradigm.

In his Theo Drama IV (in section III, C, 3, c), Balthasar explains that the purpose of discipleship is to be united with Christ’s life, passion, and resurrection; and to, as it were, have it “reproduced” in one’s own life. This unity with Christ is accomplished by the gift of the Holy Spirit, who as Balthasar says, “recapitulates the entire economy of salvation” in the believer, “since he is the Spirit of the whole historical and pneumatic Christ, crucified and risen”.

I find this to be richly biblical, especially in light of Romans 6. Paul says in this chapter, that in baptism, by the Spirit, the believer is immersed “into [Christ’s] death” (v. 3), “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (v. 4). The purpose of salvation then is to become united with the sufferings and death of Christ such that they become one’s own.

Paul picks this motif back up again two chapters later in Romans 8, saying that this union or participation in Christ involves sharing “in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (v. 17). In salvation then, the believer is united to Christ’s passion, that by the Spirit, it might be born in his own life: death, suffering, resurrection, glory. This is the trajectory of the person united to Christ’s passion.

Paul, speaking of his own suffering, says in 2 Corinthians 4:10, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body”. Paul saw suffering as a way of life, uniting this suffering to Christ’s own suffering by the Spirit, that he might rise with and in Christ’s own (eschatological) resurrection.

Balthasar himself explains,

[T]he gift of the Spirit of Christ, whereby the believer is initiated into the sphere of Christ, is portrayed as a dying-with, a suffering-with, a being-crucified-with, a being-buried-with; the believer shares Christ’s weakness so that he may rise with him, enjoy new life with him, reign with him, be glorified with him, ascend to heaven with him

So then, discipleship is unity with Christ’s passion; sharing in his sufferings; rising in his resurrection. Balthasar aptly calls this process the “paradox of Christian discipleship”, because it goes against grain of the normal human experience: it is only when one “dies to self”, “takes up his cross”, that he experiences the life of Christ. It is only when one suffers, and unites that suffering Christ’s, that he partakes more and more in his life by the Spirit.

Balthasar adds:

Thus the “sphere” in which the Christian lives, which is summed up by the term en Christoi (in Christ), embraces both the historical Jesus and equally the Risen Christ, the Christ of faith, who recapitulates in himself everything earthly. In the life of the Christian, naturally, resurrection in the full sense belongs to the world to come, as in the case of Christ himself. So a Christian’s historical path may well lead to the Cross, as did Christ’s…

The life in union with Christ involves suffering and rising with Christ!

What is the Purpose of Baptism?

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What does baptism do for believers? Since salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone (Rom 3:25), what does baptism really accomplish? Jonathan Dodson, in his excellent book, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, explains the purpose well: *

Dodson says that the primary reason for baptism is to express publicly our acceptance and understanding of the gospel. He says that baptism is a means to illustrate and express that by faith, “Jesus’ death and resurrection becomes our death and resurrection…it signifies our identification with Christ in his death as we are lowered into his ‘watery grave’, and identification with his life, where we are raised up into his resurrection life”. In that sense, baptism then is not merely a public ceremony of sorts, but rather a public confession of the gospel. This is in fact what Paul says, that “we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). Baptism then becomes this public declaration that we have died with Christ, and live a new life in Him

Dodson continues with a second purpose found in baptism. He says, “second, we are baptized into two overlapping communities. The first is the divine community of the Trinity: ‘Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). The second community is the church: ‘For in one Spirit we were baptized into one body’ (1 Cor 12:13). Baptism results in our participation in a new, spiritual family–the family of the Trinity”. Baptism then is not only a public confession of the gospel, but also a public identification with the Triune God and his people. It is a joining with the divine community, and becoming one family in Jesus. Peter goes so far as to say that this one corporate body is like a temple, built together as oneand founded on the cornerstone, Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5). In this way, baptism is not merely a private matter, but a corporate celebration and adoption.

Lastly, Dodson says that baptism is about mission. This was something new for me to think on. As a person that has identified themselves with Christ, and with his body, they are missionaries for Jesus (John 20:21, Mt 28:18-20). This becomes part of their identity. Dodson says, “baptism is missional because it is the outcome of obedience to the Great Commission”. This is very true! Jesus sent his disciples out, commanding them to share the message of Jesus and to baptize disciples (Mt 28:19). Dodson gives good insight to this, saying, “in a sense [then], baptism is the end of the Great Commission and, at the same time, it is its beginning. Baptism begins our participation in the wonderful gospel mission. Whenever someone is baptized, another disciple is sent in the power and authority of Jesus to join the mission of making disciples…”. In this sense then, baptism fulfills Matthew 28, and also starts the process over again! As a new believer emerges from the water, they are identifying themselves with the mission of Jesus and his church.

I think this is an excellent summary of the purpose and power found in public baptism. In baptism, the Christian identifies himself with the gospel, the community of the gospel, and the mission of the gospel.

These quotes come from pages 32-33 from chapter 1, “Making Disciples: Evangelism or Discipleship?”