Friday, 11 October 2013

Baptism Matters

How important is baptism in your theology? My guess is that most people, looking at this question, will assess it in terms of either the necessity or the effectiveness of baptism. This, after all, is where the debates of the last few hundred years have tended to focus. ‘Should baptism be administered to children not old enough to confess the faith for themselves?’ for example. And if it is, what does it do?
Yet, as anyone who has entered these debates will know, the answers to these questions are not easy to read from Scripture — certainly not from Scripture read in the light of the Church’s tradition, which from early times practised the baptism of infants.
This the lack of a ‘definitive’ biblical answer is revealing in itself, for it must surely mean that questions about the practice and effectiveness of baptism were not much in dispute — unlike, say, circumcision. Outside the gospels there are only a few sprinkled references to baptism. Indeed, at one stage Paul seems almost to disparage the practice, saying, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor 1:17, NIV).
And yet a closer reading of Paul, especially in Romans, will show not only that he assumed baptism would take place but that it played a fundamental part in his theological system, for it is through baptism that we are united with Christ and it is through union with Christ that we receive the benefits of his death and resurrection:
[...] 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. (Rom 6:3-4, NIV)
Yet even when we have noted this emphasis, it is easy to miss its wider significance, for in Pauline thought ecclesiology is a sub-set of Christology. That is to say, his understanding of the Church is an understanding of Christ, for the two are ultimately inseparable. For us, what ‘matters’ is, so often, the process of baptism. But for Paul what matters is the outcome — into whom you are baptized rather than in or by whom.
A striking example of this thought is found in 1Corinthians 12, where Paul talks about the Church as a body made up of many parts, each with a different function. Yet in applying this principle he says something quite unexpected:
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12)
What we should surely expect him to say is, ‘So it is with the Church.’ After all, this is the point he goes on to make: the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:28, NIV84)
But, as we have seen, what he says is, ‘So it is with Christ.’ And the reason for this is that me means exactly what he says in v 27 ‘Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’ For Paul (unlike for some of us) this is no mere metaphor, but a living reality. Hence in chapter 6 of the same letter, when dealing with the question of resorting to prostitutes, he appeals to the principle of being a part of Christ’s body:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! (1 Corinthians 6:15, NIV84)
Paul’s answer is based on his Christology. But his Christology is also his ecclesiology. To be a Christian is to be part of the Church, and the Church is Christ’s body, therefore what you do with your body, you do with hiM.
The converse of this, however, is that what he does with his body is done with you:
If [through baptism, vv 2-4] we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him ... (Romans 6:5–6, NIV84)
Indeed some of the outcomes of this principle can be quite surprising:
In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12a)
It is not that we have no need of circumcision, but rather that those who are baptized into Christ have also been circumcised, just as they have been crucified and raised with him.
But baptism is often the ‘missing (or misunderstood) ingredient’ in our own understanding. For some it is indeed the mark or means of church membership, but this is conceived institutionally, as belonging to an organization, rather than as being organically joined to Christ. The result, however, is that the institution is sometimes seen as an alter Christus, mediating Christ to the individual and the world. (Talk about other clerical ministry being ‘derived from’ the bishop is, I think, a particular and pernicious example of this error.)
For others, baptism is simply not there at all, or it is just a ‘declaration of my faith’. The problem then is that ‘my faith’ becomes the link — and potentially is the ‘weakest link’ — holding me to God. But baptism is not a declaration of my faith, rather it is a declaration of God’s work and his promises. The baptized person goes through an action of burying, washing and rising, and so experiences symbolically what is true for him or her ‘in Christ’. As Luther put it, “My faith does not make the baptism, but rather receives the baptism” (LW 51:186). And as he says elsewhere,
True, one should add faith to baptism. But we are not to base baptism on faith. There is quite a difference between having faith, on the one hand, and depending on one’s faith and making baptism depend on faith, on the other. Whoever allows himself to be baptized on the strength of his faith, is not only uncertain, but also an idolator who denies Christ. For he trusts in and builds on something of his own, namely, on a gift which he has from God, and not on God’s Word alone. (LW 40:252).
Furthermore, our baptism is not just something done with human hands, for there is one who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, and that baptism does more than symbolize the truth. When I ‘receive’ my baptism through my faith in Christ — whether at the time or later — I am truly ‘baptized into’ him. He and I become one, and I become one with all those who are similarly ‘in him’, which is to say I become a member of the Church, which is Christ’s own body: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body” (1 Cor 12:13).
Our baptism therefore doesn’t just declare what God has done for us. It declares what God has done with us. We have died, we have been raised because Christ has died and Christ has been raised and we are united with him.
The Church is the company of the baptized. But the baptized are baptized into Christ. And so the church is Christ’s body, of which he is the head and we are the limbs and organs. And that is also why Paul’s theology of marriage is so important to our understanding of baptism. But that will have to wait until later.
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  1. Interesting thoughts.
    I guess my own are that whilst, on the one hand, baptism is not hugely important, and yet, on the other hand, is hugely important.
    It is, in my view, completely unimportant in our salvation, as this comes through faith, by grace. You are, therefore, able to say that you are saved without baptism.
    However, as you point out, baptism is our way of outwardly showing our belonging to the Bride of Christ. We do it because we are commanded to do so, and so we follow the commands of our Beloved, and we do it to show with and to whom we belong. If we don't get baptised then we are not showing this and thus we are not acting on the faith we have, through His grace to us.
    So I would say not important in the act of salvation, but hugely important to living our lives for Jesus.

  2. John, I am confused, but that's probably the reason why my baptismal theology is pretty thin. Is baptism, as you put it, "a declaration of God's work and his promises" potentially at work or actually at work in the life of the person being baptised? If it is the former, then how is it effectual as a sign of grace (Article XXV)? If it is the latter, does it not then assume that the person has already been incorporated in Christ and his finished work for us, in other words has the very faith that you call the "weakest link"?

  3. only a few sprinkled references to baptism


    1. Oops. The pun was entirely unintentional!

  4. "The Church is the company of the baptized. But the baptized are baptized into Christ."

    In the context of the practice of the C of E, baptism includes infant baptism, or christening. I assume therefore that your premise above does not apply to infants. Perhaps you need to clarify what baptism is a little more in the light of this largely inexplicable practice.

    Even the great Bishop Ryle found this matter one of the "knots" he could not untie!