Baptism in Context - The New Testament Witness
God’s Action – Baptism – Faith
I am concerned in this paper to emphasise the importance of understanding baptism in its context within the New Testament. Cut off from the context of faith and the faith community it becomes a piece of magic offering a false basis of security. Cut off from the context of God’s saving work in the Christ event and the faith community it becomes a symbolic demonstration of human resolve, a way of illustrating an individual’s faith.
I find it increasingly difficult to separate baptism from human response and baptism from divine action. I have become convinced that distortion occurs when we tear apart faith and baptism, on the one hand, and baptism and God’s saving action, on the other. They belong to a total event, a single complex.
We modern western people enumerate individual steps: people come to faith; after some weeks or months they are baptized. These are two distinguishable acts. But it appears that the people of the New Testament world, like people of many cultures even today, did not make such clear-cut distinctions. Response to the gospel included faith and submission to baptism. That one was separated from the other in time or space was not perceived as a problem.
This is why Paul, for instance, can sometimes speak of response to the gospel of God’s saving act by focusing on one aspect of the whole event and at another time do so by focusing upon a different aspect. By saying we were baptized into Christ, Paul is not for one moment suggesting the act of baptism operated in some way independently of either the saving event of Christ or the human submission in faith. Similarly when Paul speaks of our incorporation into Christ through faith it is wrong to think that he would be ignoring baptism at that point or treating it as an appendage.
In the current debate what I am saying cuts both ways. Statements which speak only of baptism as the act in which God incorporates us into Christ have biblical warrant, but, isolated from the biblical context and transferred into a modern western setting, they are bound to be misunderstood and to mislead. Similarly statements which speak of faith as the response on the basis of which we are incorporated into Christ have clear biblical warrant, but, isolated from the biblical context and transferred into a modern western setting, they are bound to be misunderstood and to lead to an isolation and downgrading of biblical baptism.
I believe that there is at least one other area in which we must reverence the difference between our own age and the biblical age, if we are not to produce further distortion in the discussion of baptism. It is another one which cuts both ways. What is salvation? The way we define it will have implications for the way we understand faith and baptism.
Salvation is primarily being reconciled to God and the life of faith is living in Christ, in the Spirit, and in fellowship with other believers. It has a future hope and it has a present experience. Baptism into Christ is baptism into this salvation. However, frequently salvation has been truncated and this has had a distorting effect on understandings both of faith and of baptism. This has happened where salvation has been one-sidedly portrayed as future, frequently as a thing or place and no longer primarily as a relation ship with God in Christ. The focus then moves from how to get right with God and stay right with God to how to qualify for the future reward. The effect on faith is that the moment of decision becomes isolated as the point when one becomes qualified for entry. And baptism undergoes a similar fate, it is the event that guarantees heaven and not hell. And so people hurry off to the hospital to baptise the dying infant.
Neither of these understandings has biblical warrant. Baptism represents the guarantee of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ, but in itself guarantees nothing when we abandon the grace God offers. God grace continues. The relationship continues to be offered. Beside this there is nothing else. There is no automatic listing among the eternally elect achieved by baptism. Paul makes that abundantly clear when he warns the Corinthians in 1 Cor 10 that their beginning, including their baptism, no more saves them than crossing the Red Sea guaranteed the people who left Egypt that they would cross the Jordan. They perished in the wilderness.
Faith has been similarly distorted when it has been reduced to a moment of decision. Once saved always saved is simply untrue. Paul makes that very clear in the same epistle. Apostasy is a reality. Paul knows no faith in Christ that does not continue to be faith in Christ in an ongoing relation ship of trust and commitment. Moments of decision are starting points of a relationship, a relationship of salvation in Christ that is expansive in space and time.
Statements about predestination do not really contradict this. For, like his contemporaries, Paul makes both kinds of statement. One-sided emphasis of predestination will contribute to the very problem I am identifying. Paul consistently warns against false security. Abandoning the relationship once entered is abandoning the relationship, the salvation I It is the choice not to be in Christ. The Christian is called to remain in the relationship amid sins and failings and to grow in it. Apostasy is to abandon the relationship altogether and the salvation it offers. Neither a baptism nor a moment of decision is guarantee against this. Our view of salvation does affect our view of faith and of baptism. It can lead to magical notions of baptism and magical notions of days of decision. Neither is biblical. This kind of view of salvation is strongly related to the tendency to fragment Christian experience. It fragments salvation. It fragments faith. And it fragments baptism from faith and baptism from God’s saving action in Christ. Baptism becomes, at one extreme, a magical rite as at Corinth. At the other extreme it becomes an announcement of someone’s moment of decision. I am sure that much of the energy on all sides of the present debate flows quite genuinely from a deep sensitivity to these abuses and a fear that the positions represented by others will lead to such abuses.
Faith is faith unto salvation. Baptism is baptism unto salvation. Salvation is first and foremost an ongoing right relationship with God in Christ in the Spirit in community, blessing us past, present and future. It is the offer of this salvation set forth in baptism which faith celebrates in submission to baptism.
B. BAPTISM ECHOES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
In the second part of this paper I want to look briefly at the New Testament witness in the light of these presuppositions.
1. John and his Background
Various washings were a common feature of religious rites in the New Testament world and before. They occur in the Old Testament. Water was an obvious symbolic medium; it cleansed, brought relief and life, was powerful in flood and torrent. To understand the role of water in the religion of the cultus and of tally life would take us into a fascinating exploration of demonology and of the conscious and unconscious appropriation of existing practices by Israel.Old Testament and Jewish washings of the time were self administered. Instructions to priests, for instance, allow them to defile themselves on certain occasions, but then prescribe the appropriate washing. We must not think of these as mere empty performances. Qumran, for instance, warns its members of the need for outward and inward attitudes to correspond.
John is called John the Baptizer (or in Luke and Matthew, Baptist) because the washing he offered was not self administered. While, in some sense, all washings were related to God’s cleansing, this was especially the case with John, hence his radical departure from established practice. John proclaimed imminent judgement. People should repent and submit to baptism. John announces one who will come bringing a baptism of Spirit and fire. Within the context of John’s message and the traditional expectations of the day, this was another reference to the final day of God’s reckoning.
The baptism he offered and the baptism to come must have been related. The relationship seems to have been that submission now to John’s baptism meant escape from the judgemental consequences of the baptism to come. We have no reason to believe that this submission to baptism worked in an automatic kind of way independent of people’s attitude nor that it merely signified what had already taken place, the decision to repent. It was a total event: inward and outward submission to what God offered.
There was also a sense of belonging associated with the act as well as the awareness of individual responsibility. John’s preaching attacks claims to be Abraham’s children on false premises. Here individual repentance and submission to baptism incorporates people or identifies them as belonging to God’s Israel. The sense of belonging also lies behind Jesus’ baptism. God’s action represented in the baptism, human repentance and submission in faith to baptism, a resultant incorporation into the true people of God - these all belong together.
2. Jesus and the Earliest Church
In baptism Jesus received the Spirit and the acclamation of his sonship and servanthood. The baptism of Jesus by John links Jesus to John in a special way, so that he can later argue his own authority as closely associated with John’s. There is both continuity and discontinuity.
There is a sense of continuity when Jesus also speaks of a future baptism which he faces. “I came to cast fire upon earth and would that it were already kindled. I have a baptism to be baptized with and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12: 49-50) “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?” (Mark 10:38-39).
These two apparently independent witnesses may be reflecting a metaphorical use and mean: “I look to a crisis.” I think it more likely that we have a continuance of John’s imagery (note: baptism and fire in Luke). Jesus hopes for and looks forward to a coming event which will bring judgement and involve him in the process. The Markan version relates it to the crisis of the cross. In both there is a possibility that Jesus interprets his baptismal call in terms of the major task confronting him at the climax of his life. Perhaps origin ally it belonged within the complex of thought surrounding the hope of the kingdom. For Jesus, too, baptism represents an event outside of itself.
Another element of continuity consists in the baptising which took place within the Jesus movement during his ministry. The fourth gospel says that at least Jesus’ disciples, if not Jesus, baptised during the final days of John’s ministry. Unfortunately we are not told how this baptism was understood. A major difference in content such as would require comment by the evangelist does not seem implied, unless we take the dispute over purification to relate in some way to Jesus’ activity.
After Easter and the receiving of the Spirit one might expect some major changes, at least in the way baptism is understood. If the Spirit baptism, promised by John, has now been perceived as given through the coming of the Spirit and Jesus’ baptism has been accomplished (in his death and resurrection), then we might perhaps expect that baptism would cease. What it foreshadowed has come to fulfilment. What happens in fact is that baptism continues to be offered. The fulfilment to which it looks forward has still to be fully realised; yet, and here is the difference, some of what John promised has come. We still have a baptism with a future orientation; but it is also a baptism with which is associated the coming of the Spirit and through which we are joined to Jesus now. It also remains a baptism to which we submit our selves in faith and repentance.
The disciples were not rebaptized, it appears. For this baptism was not totally discontinuous with John’s. Apollos was not baptized again either (Acts 18:24-28. The twelve at Ephesus are the exception (Acts 19:1-7). They seemed to have lost contact with the movement and were baptized.
Acts allows us to see that, for Luke, repentance and faith, receiving the Spirit, being baptized, becoming believers, being saved all belonged together. For all its irregularities in the order in which people were baptized and received the Spirit, it was perceived as one event complex: God’s saving action proclaimed, the response of faith, the receiving of the Spirit, submission to baptism, incorporation into the community of faith. The irregular order does not bother Luke, because he saw them as facets of a total event.
In this period too, then, in relation to baptism we have the connection: God’s action represented in baptism, associated now not only with the future event, but also with the present through the giving of the Spirit, and with the past, the death and resurrection of Jesus; and inextricably linked with the representation of God’s action: the human submission of faith and the sense of belonging to the faith community.
What emerges by the time we reach Paul’s letters is that Christian baptism belongs as an integral part of a total event which includes God’s saving action and the human response of faith, submission to baptism. Through this event we are saved, sanctified, justified, reconciled, redeemed, washed. We re thereby made to be in Christ and to participate in or receive the Spirit. We become members of the body of Christ and members of one another. The Spirit we receive is an advance instalment of the fulfilment to come; the sonship and daughterhood is a foretaste of the day when we enter fully into our inheritance. Thus the future aspect, strongly present in John’s baptism, is still retained, but the present aspect is also very strong, our receiving the Spirit and our relationship with Christ and the past aspect comes very strongly to the fore; the event of Christ’s death and resurrection is set forth in baptism.
The Pauline texts will help us explore this further. Over against John’s baptism, the two distinctive features of early Christian baptism were: i) the association between baptism and the receiving of the promised Spirit and ii) baptism “in the name of Jesus”. Some argue that baptism “in the name of Jesus” possibly meant little more than baptism linked with the Jesus’ movement rather than baptism linked with John’s. I doubt that. The formula “in the name of” probably had connotations of ownership and authority of various kinds. By Paul’s time we find “in the name of” or “into the name of” equated with “into” Christ.
The association of meanings is evident in 1 Cor l:13-17. Paul challenges the Corinthians who claim to be “of Paul, of Apollos, of Cephas”. “Is Christ divided? Was I, Paul, crucified for you or were you baptized into the name of Paul?” We come to be “of Christ” because he was crucified for us arid because we were baptized into his name. Here we see a close link between the event of the crucifixion and baptism. In Romans 6 Paul will say quite specifically: we are baptized into his death. We also see the way of belonging to Christ as the way of baptism, and belonging to Christ necessarily means belonging to one another: unity.
It would, of course, be quite wrong to suggest Paul is overlooking the response of faith here. Part of the response of faith is believing Christ died for our sins and submitting to baptism. A similar conjunction of thoughts is to be found in Galatians 3:23-29. Here we have faith mentioned directly: we were i in bondage (23); faith was revealed (23/25); we are no longer in bondage (25) we are sons and daughters of God (26) . “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (27). We are all one in Christ (28). We are “of Christ”, the seed of Abraham and heirs of the promise (29).
Paul simply assumes that to speak of faith is to speak of submission to baptism. He does not say: illustrate your faith by your baptism. Baptism actually is something done to me which incorporates me into Christ. Nor does he mean baptism independent of faith’s response. There is even direct participation, for Paul uses the images of our putting something on ourselves as a garment: we put on Christ in baptism. This cannot be reduced to a confession of faith; nor can it be reduced to something totally passive without human response.
The other thing important to note is the notion of baptism as incorporating us into Christ and so creating the basis of not only belonging to him but also of our belonging to one another, to the seed of Abraham. Baptism “in the name of Christ” becomes here baptism into Christ. There is no direct reference to the Spirit here, but there is to sonship and daughterhood, adoption usually linked with the Spirit.
A similar emphasis on belonging is present in 1 Cor 12:12-13 in association with the image of the body of Christ. “As the body is one and has many members, but all members of the body in being many are one body, so also is Christ. For also in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Being in Christ and drinking of the one Spirit are dynamic equivalents as are being in Christ and being in the Spirit. In this way Paul ties together closely the two distinctive features of early Christian baptism, the giving of the Spirit and baptism in the name of or into Christ.
Here, too, the mention of baptism without the word, “faith’, should not lead us to presuppose Paul ignores faith in this context. Equally the way baptism is said to bring us to be in Christ should not lead us to reduce it to an appendage of faith. It is given too much weight for that. But the weight belongs to the total event.
Because of the integrated way of looking at faith and baptism and God’s action, passages which, on the other hand, speak of only faith and God’s action and make no direct reference to baptism should, in my opinion, not be denied the implication of baptism in instances where water imagery or other baptismal imagery is present. 1 Cor 6:11 comes into this category: ‘You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the one Spirit of our God.” Note: ‘washed”; “in the name of”; “one Spirit”. Similarly a baptismal context is very likely for 2 Cor. 1:21-22: “But he is God who establishes us with you into Christ and has anointed us, who has also sealed us and given us the advance instalment of the Spirit in our hearts.”
In the first part of this paper we have already alluded to 1 Cor 10. Paul plays with the Exodus imagery in allusion to baptism and the eucharist. “All were baptized into Moses.” But it guaranteed them nothing when they abandoned God for idols in the desert.
The most impressive Pauline text is Romans 6. Perhaps Paul’s opponents had heard of Corinth and perhaps Paul had this in mind when he formulates the objection: “Shall we remain in sin that grace may abound?” (1) “Do you not know that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so also we might walk in newness of life. For we have been joined with him in the likeness of his faith, so also we shall be joined with him in the likeness of his resurrection.” (3-5)
There are a number of issues of translation and exegesis in these verses which add little to our discussion. What does emerge however is that for Paul the saving event is the cross and resurrection of Christ. Baptism does not replace it. What baptism does to us is this — it brings us into the event, into the death and resurrection, so that they become our death and resurrection, now and. to come. It is not necessary to weaken the consistent1 strong passive language Paul uses with regard to baptism for fear lest it : that baptism be taken as an event that stands on its own and saves people. By guarding overmuch against that error, we fall to the error of watering down the strength of what is there. Baptism does not stand on its own apart from the saving event of the cross and does not stand on its own apart from the response of the one being baptized.
If Paul had said something about Jesus’ death being his baptism to which our baptism joins us we could construct an interesting background to his theology. On the cross he faced the judgement for us, the baptism. By submitting to baptism we receive the benefits of that act.
But this would stand as only one among many explanations of how it works, including influence from dying and rising myths in Mystery Religions, corporate ancestor ideas, and explanations of vicarious benefits. Jumping too quickly to conclusions about how is hazardous. Some of the explanations would open the door for seeing baptism as a magical rite.
We are on surest ground when we recognise that baptism does represent some thing God does: in simplest terms he washes us! But also baptism represents the pattern of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection and by submitting to this pattern we submit to the benefits of that event. Baptism sets forth the saving event and becomes the medium whereby we respond in faith to that event Shorthand can say: baptism saves us. Shorthand can say: our response of faith saves us. As shorthand both statements are true arid both are short of the full reality.
Paul clearly describes baptism in the passive as something done to us. We are baptized into Christ, into his death. Plainly God does it. I see no indication of the action of baptism itself having a power or potency independent of God. I see no indication of it being merely a confessional response. Even if I thought that there is no way of ever making sensible or safe statements about God doing something to me in baptism, I could not deny that this is one of the ways the scriptures put it and this is not to be explained away. All baptisms action is done to us and it represents primarily God’s event: the death and resurrection story.
Taken together, Paul’s statements illustrate well the inseparability of the action of God, baptism, and the response of faith. Baptism is primarily the representation of God’s saving action to which faith responds in submission. What God does in this total event is incorporate a person into Christ, his body, and that includes the horizontal dimension, into the community of the saved. There is no trace in Paul of any other way of being saved, being of the seed of Abraham, being of the people of God except by this total event. There is no indication of a saved roll beside a baptised members roll. That distinction would be nonsensical. You are in Christ or you are not.
Unfortunately we do not know how Paul would have worked out his theology in practice with regard to children and infants of believers. People who think that the odd comment here or there about houses or children clinch the matter either way are kidding themselves. Of much more importance is the logic of Paul’s position. If to belong to Christ was only possible through the total event: God’s action, baptism, faith, then either he could see no place in Christ for children of believers before the age of discretion or it was possible to be in Christ another way or he would have baptized them.
In depends a lot on what “in Christ’ means. That was why the discussion of salvation in the first part of this paper was important. If salvation is focused primarily on future salvation and the ability to accept consciously the qualification offered, then it makes something of a mockery to give infants a permanent entry ticket when they know nothing about it. This pre supposition and its application has done untold damage to Christianity. People have thought they were saved -just by being baptised. And in reaction others refused all such infant baptism. It is wrong in its understanding of salvation.
But if being “in Christ” is about relationship to God and to one another in the community of faith and is not a permanent guarantee of a future state but leaves open the possibility that exists in any relationship, namely its abandonment, then whether infants belong is quite another issue. Where, and only where the infant is indeed brought into relationship to Christ through the fellowship of believers end will live in the community under the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, then it is consistent to celebrate the impact of that event on that child’s life from the beginning.
This still leaves it open for the child to abandon the faith community with Christ and there are no inerasable claims on heaven’s inheritance for that child any more than there are for the young adult who is baptized on confession of faith at 16 and some years later abandons Christ. On return ‘would be rebaptized and no instance of Christian rebaptism exists biblical perspective, for the event baptism represents is single.
The mention of infant baptism is an aside, but not unrelated to the theme. A glance at deuteron- or later Pauline writings adds nothing substantially new to these findings about baptism in general. Colossians 2:11-15 is reflecting opposition demands for Christians to be circumcised when it contrasts circumcision with the circumcision of Christ. It is a putting off of the body of flesh. As in Romans 6 baptism includes a dying and the active “putting off” here echoes the active “putting on” in Galatians 3, where we put on Christ as a garment. Yet the language is primarily passive: we have been buried with him by baptism and raised through faith in the power of him who raised Jesus from the dead. The submission in faith to baptism is the willingness to die and put on Christ. Baptism offers us the event through we are incorporated into Christ’s dying and resurrection. The passage goes on to speak of the cross through which we receive forgiveness of sins and on which Christ triumphantly “put off” the powers of the flesh. Our putting off the flesh is really our appropriation for ourselves of his putting it off.
A number of passages probably have baptismal overtones. These include Colossians 1:12-13; Ephesians 1:13; 5:25-26; 2 Timothy 2:11-12a; Titus 3:5; Hebrews 6:1-6; 10:22-23; as well as the washing and sealing passages of Revelation. Baptismal language is also strong in I Peter. Sonship and “daughtership” belong to the language of the conversion event with baptism. Birth and rebirth language is not uncommon. John 3:3, 5 “born of water and the Spirit” is most naturally understood in this context. It is as misleading to speak of new birth through baptism alone as it would be to speak of rebirth by a faith exclusive of baptism.
The juxtaposition of the Lord’s action, faith, and baptism, is well represented in the words of Ephesians 4:5 “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” and the preceding verse roots this strongly in the notion of incorporation in one body through the Spirit.
I have chosen to concentrate in my paper on some basic presuppositions which must be understood if the New Testament is to be understood. These relate to differences between our western society and the world of the New Testament that are in part cultural and sociological. When they are ignored, baptism comes to be either larger than life or is demeaned. I also spoke about the understanding of salvation within the New Testament and the way misunderstandings of it are bound to have us weight baptism wrongly.
In the New Testament I have concentrated largely on Paul and pre-Pauline material. The incidental nature of Paul’s references to baptism illustrates the naturally integrated way he treats it. We need to hear that Paul talks frequently about baptism as baptism into Christ, as an act of God to which we submit in faith, and that being in Christ is primarily about being in the community of his Spirit with him and with all who live under his name. Paul does not define baptism as only a way, even a God given way, of making a public confession. He regularly talks of baptism as something done to us by God. We cam find texts that speak only of faith and texts which speak only of baptism as saving us, but a contextual understanding shows Paul never isolated baptism from the saving event of the cross and resurrection which it represents and never isolated baptism from the response of faith. Nor did he envisage faith as exclusive of baptism, but saw them as part of a total event of God’s action and human response and baptism as celebrating God’s action to which we submit in faith. I think it also follows generally from the logic of Paul’s position that baptism not be withheld from infants in the faith community.
Modern statements or restatements about baptism must take seriously the cultural differences between our age and the time of the New Testament. It will not do, in my opinion, to repeat formulations of past confessional material, or even biblical statements, where the way they are most naturally understood leads to a distorted understanding of the faith.
On the other hand it is also necessary within an informed theological context to formulate statements which demonstrate continuity with tradition using precise theological terminology. Statements of faith such as the Basis of Union fail into this category and need exposition. Liturgical formulation also belongs here. Yet great care should be undertaken to avoid ghetto tendencies and to avoid formulations which generally convey a different meaning in today’s context from their original intention. While broad circulation of such statements in the Church is done on the understanding that local interpreters will be able to give them proper understanding and con text, recent events have shown that this assumption is not well found
The New Testament echoes of baptism are enough to warn us to be especially sensitive to the task of translation but also not to press its wording into thought models of vying western Christendom.
In effect I see my paper cutting both ways and doing so under the common theme of baptism in context and not wrenched out of its context in the event— complex to which it belongs. Isolation of baptism to make it a medium of rebirth is a major distortion and error and language should be carefully monitored lest such an impression be given. Similarly isolation of baptism from its clearly active role in God’s saving work is a major distortion and error reducing baptism to only an instrument for the articulation of human faith and so denying the predominance of passive verbs in describing baptism in the New Testament. A more inclusive way of thinking, which I am convinced, is also a more characteristically New Testament way of thinking, is able to hold together what our modern concerns or insensitivities are in danger of tearing apart.
 First published in Trinity Occasional Papers VI,1 (1987) 37-46
More on baptism: The Kiss of Baptism and Conversion and Baptism and Baptism, Water, and our World
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