The Question of Baptism
I know there is much dissension over water baptism. We have almost 500 years of controversy raised by the Reformers who made what I call a pendulum effect decision regarding salvation. When Luther contended with Rome, sole fide (faith only) became his mantra. This verbalized a reaction against the institutions of the church, especially as they related to salvation. This was a direct result of the sale of indulgences. As early as the third century, the institutionalization of salvation in the church was becoming evident. This is realized in a slogan penned by Cyprian of Carthage, “Outside the church, there is no salvation" (1). The Protestant reaction was the privatization of salvation, reflected in a personal faith (2). One institution that fell to this paradigm shift was baptism. For over 1,500 years, there was no debate about the purpose and place of baptism. It was the way into Christ. It was the initiation in Kingdom Life. It gave covenant citizenship. Allowing their distrust for the Catholic system to overrule the confirmed, Apostolic teachings, they plead sola scriptura (by Scripture alone). However, don’t be fooled. That did not mean they denied the place of tradition (3). These men came out of the Catholic Church. They could not easily walk away from what had been so dear to them.
Historically, the next major step away from a biblical view of the transfer into Christ is the Sinner’s Prayer. The great revival period in America (Second Great Awakening) proved to be fertile ground “for innovative revivalistic techniques to germinate and spread rapidly” (4). “The key issues became the role of man and the means he might use (or that God used) to effect the regenerations of the soul” (5). Christians have been blinded by a tradition that comes not from the bible, but from the historical development of a people looking for a God easily found in scripture. Consider the following:
The Sinner’s Prayer has become part and parcel of Western evangelistic methodology. Its historical derivation can be traced to American revivalist techniques. The prayer’s application in twenty-first century popular culture has added further obstacles to the process of making genuine disciples as Jesus is presented as a commodity to be consumed in order to achieve self-actualization. In this setting, the calls to count the cost of discipleship have been neglected, which has adversely affected the church. To reverse this course, baptism should replace the prayer’s usage as an indication of one’s commitment to Christ, and disciple formation should incorporate the biblical concept of an obedient faith (6).
As stated above, Romans 6 should be the primary consideration in any conversation about the place of baptism. There are at least two good reasons. First, Romans 6 connects the baptism to the gospel, providing the complete picture of the place, purpose, and connection of baptism with the Gospel. The first few verses make it clear that baptism is how we contract the benefits of the death, burial, and resurrection of God. Remember, this is the Gospel. Look at the phrases,
All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?
We have been buried with Him through baptism into death
As Christ was raised from the dead … we too might walk in newness of life
There is no other explanation other than to take it at face value. It cannot or should not be spiritualized. It is your historical moment of entry into Christ. Faith prepares us for this. Faith came from the message of the Gospel. Faith has arranged the transfer. However, it is not complete without the baptism into Christ Jesus.
Please allow me to bring a verse from Romans 6 that provides a summary statement for the chapter. “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:17-18). The key phrase for this discussion is “obey from the heart the form of the Gospel.” The following picture may help you understand how the baptism is the means of becoming obedient to the form of the Gospel.
Obeying the Form of the Teaching
The word translated form is understood as prefiguration, model; impression, copy; foreshadowing. Further, “If those baptized have been “given over” to this content (and not vice versa, as elsewhere), then the Pauline typos would have to characterize Christ (7).
As emphasized in the previous chapter, the humanity of Jesus is an essential part of Christianity. Maintaining physicality is also vital. Against Augustine and Calvin, there is no invisible church. Where Christ is, there is also the church (8). Thus, the form of the baptism is the physical expression of the Gospel for the believer. Paul’s picture is not a symbol of something that happens inwardly. It was an actual historical event with the same sequence of events (death, burial, resurrection). Except that this time, we are the one dying, being buried and rising to walk a new life. Because of this, the baptism means so much more than just the forgiveness of sins and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). It is the form of the Gospel of Jesus, to which we are committed.
(1) The truth of this is in the modified statement that “Outside of Christ, there is no salvation.” None would disagree with that statement. However, we must understand this from Paul’s perspective needing to be “in Christ” to experience the full salvific ministry of Jesus as Lord and Christ.
(2) Alister E McGrath, Christian Theology: an Introduction, fourth edition, Malden, MA: Blackwell publishing, 2007. 354-355.
(3) Ibid., 58.
(4) Christopher R. Little, “Saving the Church from the Sinner’s Prayer,” Great Commission Research Journal 3, no. 1 (2011): 119.
(5) William McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607–1977, (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 1978). 114.
(6) 1 Christopher R. Little, “Saving the Church from the Sinner’s Prayer,” Great Commission Research Journal 3, no. 1 (2011): 114.
(7) G. Schunack, “typos,” Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider,eds. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–), 372.
(8) Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: an Introduction, 4th Edition, (Malden,MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007). 410.
* This page is an excerpt from is my book Non-Negotiable: Focusing on the Essentials of the Faith. The book goes into more detail on many of these issues.
Last update: 11 September 2015
Gospel as Agency