Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Explaining the Gospel? Baptism Should Help

It has long intrigued me that when Philip explained the gospel to the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40, the conversation ended with a request for baptism.

The eunuch (you may remember) was in his chariot, returning from Jerusalem and reading from a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Philip had been prompted by the Holy Spirit to go and meet this chariot, and when he heard the eunuch reading, he took the opportunity to get up alongside him.
We’re told that when the eunuch asked whether the passage from which he was reading (Isaiah 53:7-8) was about Isaiah or someone else, Philip ‘began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus’ (8:35).
And then, when Philip was done telling, the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?’
The question that intrigues me is this: how did Philip tell the gospel so that it led to that question? Most gospel explanations I’ve heard lead to the need for faith, but not the request for baptism. Yet in Acts, baptism seems closely connected with coming to faith in the gospel.
Is there something we can learn from this, and from the example of Philip specifically?
These days there is a renewed emphasis in the Church of England on evangelism — the proclamation of the gospel. This is much to be welcomed, but the question that often gets asked is, ‘Just what is the gospel?’ The answers given tend to vary, but starting from baptism may help.
In baptism, we act out the essential core of the Christian faith. The regulations in the order for ‘The Public Baptism of Infants’ in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer state that,
... the Priest shall take the Child into his hands, and shall say to the Godfathers and Godmothers, Name this Child. And then naming it after them (if they shall certify him that the Child may well endure it) he shall dip it in the Water discreetly and warily ...
Sprinkling was only for the ailing child or for adults who wouldn’t fit in the font. And dipping, as with the full immersion of adults, has a special significance, standing for death and burial.
But this is not primarily about the future death of the individual being baptized. When we baptize, we are not symbolically anticipating someone’s death still to come, but holding out to them the prospect of a death that has already happened.
Isaiah 53:9, the passage being studied by the eunuch and Philip, says, ‘He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death ...’ No wonder the eunuch was confused. This was about someone who had died, so how could it be about Isaiah, if he wrote it?
When you apply it to Jesus, however, it begins to make sense, because (as the Creeds say), he ‘died and was buried’. So when we baptize someone, we symbolically do with them what happened to Jesus — as they are dipped under the water, they go through death and burial.
The important thing we need to explain is why. And the answer is simple but striking: there needs to be a death to sin and there needs to be a death for sin.
Paul describes the need for death to sin this way in a passage which talks about our baptism:
10 The death he [Christ] died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:10–11, NIV84)
Those who believe in Jesus are to count themselves ‘dead to sin’, and baptism spells that out for them.
But there also needs to be a death for sin. After all, Christ was without sin that needed to be forgiven by God. As the passage quoted above from Isaiah goes on to say, ‘He was assigned a grave with the wicked ... though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.’ Christ was innocent, yet he died a sinner’s death — not for his sins, but for ours: ‘he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed’ (Isa 53:5).
Since Adam was warned that sin would lead to death (Gen 2:17), this has been the ultimate consequence of sin. And if God is to be true to his word (which, of course, he is!), then there is a need for a death for sin. Even our good works cannot save us from this punishment:
But if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked man does, will he live? None of the righteous things he has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness he is guilty of and because of the sins he has committed, he will die. (Ezekiel 18:24, NIV84)
And this applies to us all. As Paul puts it, ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23, NIV 84).
So what is to be done? We all stand before God condemned as sinners. And as Paul famously says, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom 6:23).
But it is this necessary death for our sins that is also symbolized in baptism:
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. (Romans 6:6–7, NIV84)
Notice, however, our death is a death ‘with Christ’. It is a real death, but not a ‘literal’ death, because what is symbolized in baptism is true for us in union with Christ. Talking about baptism and sin, Paul writes,
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. 5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (Romans 6:3–5, NIV84)
Paul uses the language of ‘union with Christ’. Baptism is ‘baptism into Christ’. Thus what is true of him is true of those who are baptized into him. He was crucified, their old self was crucified with him. He was raised, we are raised to new life with him. Both things were necessary and both things are real. There had to be a death for our sins, and there has to be a death on our part to sin. Equally, there has to be a resurrection from death (or else we just stay dead) and that is effective now in our new life in Christ through the Spirit as well as being a promise for the future.
Perhaps, given that we all agree on baptizing, baptism will also give us a gospel on which we can all agree.
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  1. Perhaps this hymn needs to feature more in Anglican hymnals:

    Comment at the bottom is worthwhile reading as well !

    Perhaps also, Anglicanism would need to proceed to total immersion for the metaphor to carry full weight !

    Beryl Polden, Wirral.


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  2. John. I find your header and content muddled and confusing.
    Do we really need to explain the Gospel via the lens of baptism? Surely it is the gospel itself which is abundantly clear and self interpreting, and quite independently of baptism.
    Indeed, baptism is meaningless without a grasp of the gospel, and becomes a mere rite.
    And why conflate the gospel by introducing so bizarrely the irrelevance of infant baptism once again?

  3. Is the elephant in this room not the fact that the CofE 'baptise' those who do not believe in Jesus and far less count themselves ‘dead to sin,' namely infants?

    John, Edinburgh

  4. John,
    No it wouldn't. Don't get me wrong, I've got lost of time/sympathy for a Baptist point of view. I used to be one, our Church (not Anglican) is probably 50% of them. So I do get where you're coming from. But, the Reformed view of the promise (& sign of) being for believers AND their children in both OT & NT is pretty strong... even if you think at the end of the day it's floored. It's what all the Reformers thought (apart from Anna-Baptists, but they were pretty whacky in other ways & kept on being re-baptised), it's what all the early church thought.

    The C of E problem (& far less of a problem for Anglicans around the world), is when NOBODY in the family comes with any faith, but maybe a bit of superstition, sometimes not even that. Coupled with that, is that there is no consistent view found among Anglicans. You could say that the Prayer books is consistent, but I mean the people administering. So some have a very Reformed view, so happy to baptise some infants, but not others, some have basically a Baptist view... but baptise kids anyway, others are salvationists who think it's totally meaningless and then those who think it's "magic", not to mention a few who just say, "it's a mystery", so as not really real with the issue. A firm policy across the board of not baptising on demand would be good for everyone.

    Darren Moore

  5. John,

    I think that you may be making something more complicated out of Philip's use of the passage from Isaiah as an opening to share the gospel with the eunuch--at least your reflections on baptism create that impression. Elsewhere in Acts we read how Peter called upon those to whom he was preaching to believe and be baptized. This suggestions that the earliest Christians' presentation of the gospel included a similar call. In churches that practice infant baptism, our gospel presentations omit the "be baptized" part of this call because those to we are presenting the gospel are already baptized. While the early church may have baptized families, infant baptism apart from the baptism of parents was a later development.

    Robin G. Jordan,
    Murray, Kentucky

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