Baptism. Part I.

I’d like to change gears and, rather than consider a passage in scripture, consider the topic of baptism in Scripture.   The Easter cycle got me thinking about the difference between “baptism in spirit” and common baptism, by water.  I then found that before I even entertained the matter of baptism in spirit, I needed to clarify to the reader what common baptism is in Scripture.  And even then, easier said than done, as Christians don’t agree amongst themselves as to the meaning of baptism (by water) as a sign of initiation into the church.

If you read contemporary scholarship on the question of baptism, there are misunderstandings about what the various confessions believe.  For instance, contrary to popular opinion, most confessions believe that baptism conveys a sanctifying grace. Catholics assume that Protestants don’t envision a sacrament as conveying a sanctifying grace, and Protestants assume that sanctifying grace is only properly understood in the context of Reformed or Lutheran theology.

Yet there is also a diversity of views, even among a single confession.  While the evangelical side of the Reformed faith is growing rapidly, it does not, lamentably, have a consensus view on the theology of baptism.  That is because Calvin and his successors in the Reformed church are not always in agreement on certain aspects of the nature and purpose of baptism.  To further complicate matters, the theological vocabulary used to explain the theology of baptism is often unique to the denomination, so that Catholics, the Orthodox, Lutherans and Reformed Christians use different terminology to explain roughly the same thing.  And while Protestants often complain that Catholics speak of a puportedly non-biblical “original sin,” Calvinists speak of “presumptive regeneration,” which is far more abstract and non biblical than “original sin.”


Common Beliefs about Baptism by Water

And yet, an overwhelming majority of Christians agree on a lot about baptism and the theology of baptism.   First, the vast majority of Christians baptize with water, and in name of “the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (c.f. Mt 3:16; Mt 28:19).  While Scripture says that some are baptized “in the name of Jesus,” from the perspective of praxis, contemporary Christians use the Trinitarian formula.

Second, Christians believe that baptism is a work of the Trinity (c.f. Mt 3:16; Mt 28:19).   Third, Christians agree that the candidate receives a grace when she is baptized.  Fourth, Christians agree that baptism incorporates the baptized into the church – the Body of Christ.  And fifth, Christians believe that baptism removes the stain of sin (c.f. Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16).  Admittedly, some of these common assumptions about baptism are open to broad and divergent interpretation, as we shall see.

The Frequent References to Baptism in New Testament Literature.  

The greatest irony concerning the diversity of views on the matter of Christian baptism is that the theme of baptism is so common in Scripture.  John the Baptist baptized, Jesus was baptized, the disciples of Jesus baptized during the Galilean ministry of Jesus,  the Christian community (the Church) was baptized at Pentecost, Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize after the resurrection, Peter commanded the disciples to baptize after Pentecost, and Paul baptized others as well.

The frequent references to baptism in the Gospels, in Acts and in Pauline literature are important. What, exactly, is Scripture telling us about baptism, and why is the term used in so many different contexts?

Baptism and the Ministry of Jesus

The ministry of Jesus began with baptism by water (Mark 1:9, Matthew 3:14-16, Luke 3:21,… hinted in John 1:23-33).   And the ministry of Jesus ends with the express order by Jesus to the Apostles to “baptize others” (Mt 28:18-20, Mark 16:14-16).  The position of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and those Protestant churches whose understanding of baptism is sacramental, could be summarized as having its origin in the words of Jesus in Mark 16:

Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.  And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.  He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.

In other words, since Jesus told the apostles of the church to baptize, Christians, as a norm, baptize. To modify an ancient phase, lex operandi, lex credendi.  In other words, what Jesus told us to do is what we believe.   The Catholic and Orthodox churches also see no contradiction between the theology in the Gospels and Paul’s theology.  In fact, as I will demonstrate, Paul both endorses baptism as a rite of initiation, and he tells us that was baptized himself (Rom 6:2-3).

Framing the Question

The pre-Reformation churches, and the Anglican and Lutheran confessions, generally agree that baptism was adopted from the very beginning of the history of the church (Acts 2:38) as a rite of initiation for all Christians.    This assumption had never been challenged until the 18th or 19th century.   By that time, some theologians of the later Reformation initiated a debate over the Orthodox belief that baptism was necessary for salvation.

I could set up a slightly over-simplified straw-man argument, that would play out as follows.  The position of the Orthodox, pre-Reformation churches would be “Jesus tells us to baptize in Scripture, we have been doing it as a matter of praxis more nearly two-thousand years, so we should baptize, because it is a source of grace, it removes the mark of original sin, and it is a sign of initiation into the faith. In short, it is too risky to say baptism is not necessary for salvation.”

The response of the Reformed school would be,  “baptism is a sign of initiation into the faith, and it imparts grace, but since Paul believes that we are justified by faith alone, and because baptism may or may not regenerate the soul, and may or may not contribute to the gift of faith, it cannot be inferred that it is necessary for salvation.”

The question of necessity is predicated on a number of different things, including the questions, Does baptism regenerate? Is baptism a source of the grace of faith?  What about the question of praxis: why reject a long-standing practice of the entire Christian community?

The Reformed school defines the first question in terms of “presumptive generation.”  To express the matter in the language of the ancient churches, does baptism change the person when it removes the stain of sin?  Reformed theologians are not agreed on this question.  Opponents of presumptive generation argue that justification comes through faith alone; therefore regeneration ought not be attributed to baptism.  An astute student of theology might note that the argument is somewhat circular, since the source of the grace of baptism and of faith is the same: the Holy Spirit.

Before we get to the question of praxis and whether baptism is a source of the grace of faith, let’s look at some more fundamental issues.   We’ll consider grace, ecclesiology in the New Testament, and the idea of “death to sin” first.


Let us start with grace, since most Christians are in agreement that baptism is a source of grace. Grace is the reception, by a person, of a free and unmerited gift of the Holy Spirit.  Almost every Christian agrees that baptism is a source of grace, since it is a work of God, not man.   This grace removes the stain of sin: the sin of the disobedience of humankind’s earliest ancestors, who were created in God’s image (Gen 1:26), but, given their free will, disobeyed the Lord nonetheless (Gen 3:16-24).

That baptism is a source of grace is clearly stated in the Gospels, Acts and the Pauline letters.    Jesus, Paul and the author of Acts explicitly tie baptism to a work of the Holy Spirit.   In Romans 6:4-5, Paul associates our own baptism with “a newness of life” so that we “shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  Chapter 6 of Romans also very astutely ties baptism to the cross. In other words, baptism means nothing unless Christ had first undertaken the salvific work on Calvary.

Do the Gospels tie together this idea that baptism is related to a sending of the Spirit and the work of Jesus on the cross?  Yes.  John 7:39 explicitly connects work of the cross and the Holy Spirit.  In this passage, the Sacred author explains that Holy Spirit can only be sent after Christ had been glorified through his death and resurrection. Consider John Paul II’s Trinitarian understanding of John 7:39,

The Spirit will come insofar as Christ will depart through the Cross: he will come not only afterwards, but because of the Redemption accomplished by Christ, through the will and action of the Father.

John Paul II, in the encyclical Dominum et vivificantem, sees an unambiguous and clear relationship between the Last Supper, the Passion, the promise to send the Spirit, and Jesus’ post-Resurrection mandate to baptize and make disciples of all nations.

Baptism is a grace – an unmerited Trinitarian gift communicated to the baptized via the Holy Spirit.  It is also a grace in which Jesus desires that every Christian participate.   To cite Benedict XVI in a message from November of 2010 :

Hence, Baptism is not a rite from the past, but the encounter with Christ, which informs the entire existence of the baptized, imparting divine life and calling for sincere conversion; initiated and supported by Grace, it permits the baptized to reach the adult stature of Christ.

Membership in the Church

Jesus inaugurated his ministry with his own baptism (of water and spirit) in the Jordan.  But Jesus was not baptized because he needed to be baptized; he was baptized to demonstrate outwardly that his ministry was a work of the Trinity. The Church inaugurated its own ministry with a baptism in spirit at Pentecost.

But Jesus further mandated that the disciples baptize others.  In other words, Jesus did not teach that baptism was an action restricted to his own baptism and the baptism of the 120 at Pentecost. Nor is the baptism of which Jesus speaks in Matthew 28 and Mark 16 a commission to selectively baptize others for the purposes of ministry.

Baptism is not merely commanded by Jesus, nor merely a unique Trinitarian event in the life of Jesus and the Church.  It is also, broadly speaking, an ecclesiological event for every Christian.  First, because it establishes the Trinitarian relationship between the baptized individual and God that Jesus prayed for in John 17, and second, because it is the is the primary mode through which a believer is incorporated into the body of Christ.

It is very difficult for an attentive student of scripture to argue that baptism for the individual believer is not an ecclesiological event. Paul explains this ecclesiology rather clearly in I Corinthians 12:

All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit.  For the body does not consist of one member but of many.

Note that while Paul speaks of a differentiating or individual “apportionment” of the Spirit in the first sentence, he reverts back to the common effect of baptism  in the next sentence.  Paul states, without qualification, that we are all “baptized” into one body.  Furthermore, that one body – the church – has many members.  There is no contradiction between Paul’s ecclesiology and the ecclesiology of Matthew 28, Mark 16, and Acts 2.  In the those passages, the eleven apostles are present when a) Christ mandates them to baptize and make disciples of all nations, and b) the 120 are baptized in Spirit.

In fact, Corinthians, the gospels, and Acts mutually reinforce the conclusion that baptism in spirit is either a mission, mandate, or the extension of a unique gift, while common baptism (in water and of spirit) is an initiation into the church – the body of Christ.  One can proof-text and argue until the cows come home, but a holistic interpretation of the Gospels, Luke-Acts, and Pauline scripture suggests that baptism has an ecclesiological dimension.

Death to Sin

The baptismal incorporation into the Christian community (I Cor 12, Romans 6:3) is also an event in the life of the believer.  It signifies a “death to sin” and “a burial with Christ.” Let us begin with Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, verses 2:11-13:

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.

In I Corinthians 15: 29, Paul asks the rhetorical question:

Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

And of course, he had already answered the question a few verses above, in verse 15:22:  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. You may ask, why does Paul speak of being baptized on behalf of the dead? He answers that question in  Romans 6:1-4,

Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Note again, that in this passage, Paul does not speak of baptism in terms of ministry nor of the extension of a unique gift.  Paul is speaking of baptism in the context of sin, grace, and a re-birth in Christ.  Have you also noticed in I Corinthians 12:13 and Romans 6:3, Paul speaks of baptism in the second person plural: “we” and “us.” In other words, Paul implies in both Corinthians and Romans a common expectation that baptism is part of the Christian life.

Would Peter, in Luke-Acts, agree?  Let’s consider the words of Peter in Acts 2:38:

“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Just to make clear, Peter tells others to be baptized after the Pentecost event has occurred.  In other words, baptism is not an event unique to the life of Jesus or the birth of the early church.   Peter understands baptism in this context of “the forgiveness of sin” of the person who aspires to a life in Christ. Because, as Paul said in Romans 6, this life in Christ cannot occur without a death to sin.  The gift of the spirit is, in this case, common baptism: incorporation into the church, repentance from ( or death to) sin, and a life in the Trinity: the Spirit, Christ, and God the Father.

Inscribed with the Law of Jesus on the Heart: or, Circumcision of the Heart

still drafting…

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