Saturday, 2 November 2013

Baptism, ritual and actual

The other day I was having a talk with a couple from our congregation about baptism. As readers of this blog may realize, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this subject recently, and as a consequence of this, it seemed helpful to suggest to them a distinction between ‘ritual’ and ‘actual’ baptism. Others may find this helpful too.
The reason for this is partly that the gospel itself distinguishes two kinds of baptism — in water and in (or by) the Spirit. John the Baptist was, of course, the archetypal ‘baptizer with water’, but the disciples practised water baptism too. When the Ethiopian eunuch was persuaded of the truth of the gospel, he asked, ‘Here is water, what is to prevent me being baptized?’ (Acts 8:36).
This we may call ‘ritual’ baptism, not to disparage it, but to clarify what is taking place. Going through the ritual of baptism means a person is physically baptized. There is thus no doubt it has taken place. It may be appropriate or inappropriate, but as a ritual it is real — it has actually happened.
There is, however, another baptism — the baptism in (or ‘by’ since the dative may be ‘instrumental’) the Spirit. This is first described on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, but other examples follow, eg Acts 10:44-45).
This I intend to call ‘actual’ baptism, for unfortunately, just as the debate about ‘ritual’ baptism has been hijacked by discussions concerning outward forms and appropriate timings, so the topic of ‘Spirit’ baptism has been hijacked by the Charismatic movement and I don’t want to get bogged down in that, any more than in the debate about baptismal policy (please note!).
Unlike ritual baptism, it is harder to say whether Spirit baptism has taken place. Yet there is no doubt that it does, according to the New Testament, and there is no doubt as to its key effect. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:13, ‘We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body.’
Baptism ‘in the Spirit’, is first and foremost not a personal experience of ‘more of the Spirit’, but a joining with the body of Christ. This  is the ‘actual’ baptism which is signified by ‘ritual’ baptism, not least because ritual baptism enacts the truths of actual baptism.
When we read the New Testament, and especially the Pauline epistles, joining with Christ is the key ‘outcome’ of baptism, for ‘all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death’ (Rom 6:4, NIV 84). Hence,
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 6:4, NIV 84)
Hence also,
If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with (Romans 6:5–6a, NIV84)
Baptism in water symbolizes in actions what Spirit baptism actualizes through union with Christ — our death and resurrection.
Baptism is therefore not simply an ‘entry ritual’ into the Christian life. Much less is it a ‘declaration of our faith’ (insofar as it declares anything, it declares the gospel — see Acts 8:35-36). Baptism, rather, is the Christian life when it is actualized by the work of the Holy Spirit through our faith in the gospel (Col 2:12). ‘Being baptized’ is the ongoing condition of the Christian, who is baptized ‘into’ Jesus.
But ‘being baptized’ is also our ecclesiology, for the actually baptized person becomes thereby a member (a limb or organ) of the Body of Christ, which is both ‘Christ’s body of which he is the Head’ and ‘the Church’. 
To be ritually baptized, again, signifies and symbolizes this, but it does not guarantee it, any more than feeding on Christ’s body is guaranteed by eating the Lord’s Supper. Hence Paul draws the attention of the Corinthians to Israel at the Exodus:
They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert. (1 Corinthians 10:2–5, NIV84)
Actual baptism is only guaranteed to those who persevere in faith. Nevertheless, actual baptism is not a matter of a one-off ‘coming to faith’. It is an ongoing state: ‘I am baptized’. And the baptized is dead, and daily dying, to sin, having put on Christ.
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  1. John - what do you make of the idea that baptism in/by the Spirit is water baptism? See Peter Leithart (and, he say, Calvin) here.

    Anthony Smith
    Bebington, Wirral


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  2. Anthony. Interpreting what occurred on the Day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter referred to the Holy Spirit being poured out (Acts 2:33).
    When Cornelius' household was given the gift of the Spirit, the Jewish believers with Peter were astounded that "the Holy Spirit was also poured out on the Gentiles" (Acts 10:45)
    Peter then reasoned "can anyone keep these people from being baptised with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have".
    Whilst the two baptisms are not identical, there is then a direct connection between Spirit baptism and water baptism illustrated here.

  3. Interesting comparing NIV with ESV on 10:47. NIV gives the impression that the people have been baptised with the Spirit, so therefore they should be baptised with water. ESV has "Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" which isn't so conclusive.

    But 11:16 is probably the relevant verse, Peter speaking about Cornelius et al receiving the Spirit, prior to being baptised: "And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’"

    This does seem to suggest that Cornelius et al. were baptised with the Holy Spirit before they were baptised with water, as there was no water involved on the Day of Pentecost when the original disciples were "baptised with the Holy Spirit" (1:5). I suppose Leithart's comments on that verse are relevant (see link in my previous comment), though I'm not finding that part of his case fully persuasive.

  4. "(Acts 10:45)
    Peter then reasoned "can anyone keep these people from being baptised with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have". - Graham Wood -

    Precisely, Graham. Although the neophyte Christians had already 'tasted' of the Holy Spirit; they were still required, by Peter, to submit to Water Baptism. Thids should give John Richardson a clearer indication of the importance of Water Baptism, which is a ritualised adoption by God in Christ - a basic Christening.

  5. John - I'm still wrestling with this. Is there any sense in which baptism with water actually admits someone to the church?

    It seems that the answer you would give is that there are two churches and two baptisms. There is the visible "church" of the water-baptised, and there is the invisible "church" of the Spirit-baptised. Ritual baptism admits you to the institutional church, and actual (Spirit) baptism admits you to the actual (invisible/true) church.

    I'm reluctant to separate what God seems to have joined together. In the incarnation he seems to have joined together the invisible and the visible in a way that will not be fully experienced by the whole created order until the resurrection. But we live in the already-and-not-yet, and it seems that the visible church on earth - at least partially, and at least in some sense - actually partakes in this joining together of the invisible and the visible, as the body of the still-incarnate Christ. We can try to make a sharp distinction between the visible church and the invisible church, or between water baptism and Spirit baptism, but the New Testament seems to blur that distinction, in ways that are hard to grasp. So Paul writes to a visible congregation of water-baptised people, and speaks to them as though they are actually a part of the invisible, Spirit-baptised church - without any hint that he considers the visible church and water baptism to be nothing more than visual aids, pointing toward the invisible reality.


  6. Anthony "I'm still wrestling with this. Is there any sense in which baptism with water actually admits someone to the church?"

    A good question and one that I would also ask. It seems to me that John is complicating the relatively simple doctrine of Christian baptism by his references to "actual baptism" and "ritual baptism".
    I ask: why not stick to the two biblical elements, namely - firstly, Spirit baptism which is the gift given to every believer upon a true faith in Christ, and secondly, its symbolic counterpart of water baptism? The second (which I think John calls "ritual) merely illustrates the reality of the first - that is the 'new birth'.

    Others in a previous thread have made the same claim that baptism somehow has a primary meaning of "admittance to the church", but nowhere in scripture AFAIK is this emphasis found. (it begs also the question as to what is "church", but we won't go down there at the moment!). If as John rightly affirms he means that the believer is incorporated into the body of Christ, then that simple definition is IMO sufficient.
    Perhaps this terminology - i.e. "the church", is used by those who believe that infant baptism is the mechanism by which this becomes a reality ? (we are back to the error of infant baptism once again - ground already covered ).

    John seems to further confuse the simple symbol of baptism by his statement:

    "Actual baptism is only guaranteed to those who persevere in faith"
    I don't know what he means by that!. Surely perseverance in the faith is the outcome of God's continuing grace, obedience, and the exercise of faith in Christ and nothing to do with baptism, or its being "guarenteed" in this way?. (cf. Paul in Gal 2:20).
    It seemed that the writer to the Hebrews considered that believers do not profit from attempting to lay again foundational truths, such as "the doctrine of baptisms" laying on of hands, & etc. and that there are far greater priorities in the Christian life ! (Hebrews 6:1,2).

  7. Graham - I'm hearing you and John saying the same kind of thing: that there are two elements: "Spirit baptism" or "actual baptism" on the one hand, and "water baptism" or "ritual baptism" on the other hand, the latter being merely illustrative of the former.

    Questions of baptism and the church are very closely related. On the Day of Pentecost, about 3000 were "added", and presumably that means they were baptised (Acts 2:41; see 2:47; 5:14; 11:24). When Paul writes to a church and mentions baptism, he seems to assume that all of the recipients have been baptised, almost as if baptism marked someone out as having been admitted to membership of the church. Baptism has implications for church order; it's not just an opportunity for someone to profess their personal faith.

  8. John,
    As the scripture texts you've quoted indicate, baptism in the NT is what I would call "realistic"; i.e. it is regarded as promising and even conveying what is attributed to it. Therefore, I think your conjectural distinction between ritual and actual baptism is not a helpful way to go. Better to allow baptism as a means of grace to stand and attribute the personal failure to persevere in baptismal grace to falling away from faith and rejecting that grace - hence Paul's warning, which does not imply a defect in baptism but in personal faith. I do like your conclusion, though, which I suspect is not emphasised enough outside of Lutheran circles, that baptism means a daily dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ (cf. Luther's Small Catechism). Thanks for your reflection and the opportunity to react to them.

  9. John

    "Actual baptism is only guaranteed to those who persevere in faith"

    If this is true then we can facilitate our own salvation. Are we saved because we chose to believe? Or are we saved because we are chosen by God?

    The Bible repeatedly states the latter. Why else would we chose to believe? Baptism of whatever kind is not necessary therefore for salvation.


  10. Basically how would you ever know that you have persevered enough?

    And if you have persevered .. say.. a lot!. Does this mean God owes you faith/salvation/whatever, for what you have done?


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  12. This is very problematic. If you are asserting a difference between the ritual and the reality of baptism, you are saying that many, if not most, of those "ritually" baptised in infancy have not really been baptised at all. You are at least shedding and spreading doubt in people about their own salvation and the efficacy of their baptisms. The obvious corollary of your idea is that one might be ritually re-baptised, a teaching which every mainstream church except the Baptists has rejected, for reasons which I am sure are well-enough known not to need repeating here.
    Your idea also denies the efficacy of the sacraments instituted by Christ and defined by the Church of England, in common with the wider Catholic Church, as the visible and effective signs of an invisible grace. According to classical Anglican teaching, the sacrament of Baptism is effective in regenerating the recipient regardless of his or her ability to profess the Christian faith: it is by God's grace alone, given to the Church and her ministers to impart. We must not divorce the outward sign from the inner grace.
    Forgive my temerity, but it does seem problematic to me that an Anglican priest should be teaching Baptist doctrine. If nothing else, it will cause great confusion to any of your flock who ever go to another Anglican church and find that you have taught them something contrary to the Church's teachings. I don't mean to be nasty or offensive in saying this, mind!

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