Well it has been a little longer than I anticipated in posting a follow up to the introductory post I did on baptism here. Forgive me, I have been extremely busy. In this post I want to explain why I believer baptism is the normative means by which God initiates a confessing believer into the resurrected life of Jesus Christ and his church. In a third and final post on the subject of baptism, I will explain why my view is neither baptismal regeneration (as I understand that term) nor works-based salvation and deal with what I believe is a very important issue, the issue about believers with different understanding and practice of baptism.
In order to have a better understanding of the biblical practice of baptism, I think we need to locate that practice within the bigger picture of what God doing in Jesus Christ and our place within that picture. Very simply put, the biblical story is one of creation, fall, and redemption (or restoration) which results in new creation. Within this story, God calls forth people to be a community belonging to him. Think Israel and then from all nations, which becomes what we call the “church.” In each case, God provides his people with instruction so that they can live as faithful witnesses of God’s creative and redemptive goal (telos)…his end purposes. For Israel, it is the Law of Moses (Torah). As God’s goal is expanded to all nations, this instruction is given in Jesus the Messiah who also is crucified and resurrected as the means of assuring salvation (grace) to his follow him (faith). The story of God’s redemptive work in Jesus is proclaimed and applied for faithful continuance to the circumstances facing the new communities of people following Jesus. Much of this is gathered together into a collection of writings we call the New Testament (surely the work of God) as an instructive witness to subsequent communities of Jesus follower’s.
One of the things we learn is that Jesus followers were also given the promised Holy Spirit as both an assurance of their salvation and a guide to lead us in following Jesus. However, being led by the Holy Spirit does not imply coercion. The Apostle Paul speaks about the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1.5, NRSV). Obedience assume some free-will choice to either obey or disobey. Jesus himself spoke of discipleship in terms of self-denial and picking up our own cross as a condition for following him (cf. Mk 8.34). According to scripture (Old and New Testament), the condition of repentance has been a part of living as God’s people. While the specific meaning of each time repent/repentance is used must be determined within its own context, the condition of repentance assumes changing in the ways of ones thinking, behavior, goals, and aspirations in exchange for creative and redemptive goal of God. All this seems to suggest that being the repentant people of God, becoming followers of Jesus, living by the Holy Spirit…is neither a trivial nor easy matter but that this is what it means to participate in the resurrected life of Jesus and his church.
The common denominator, if I can use that phrase, in all this appears to be that our participation in the resurrected life of Jesus and his church requires a complete surrendering of our will for that of God’s. This is why death appears to be a prominent feature of our most prolific passage on baptism in the New Testament. Here is the larger passage again from Romans 6.3-7, quoted from the New Revised Standard Version:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.
In this context, Paul’s is addressing the problem of Christians who think that continuing in sin will bring about God’s grace all the more (v. 1). Paul’s prohibition against such a notion is the fact that Christians have died to themselves, which occurs in baptism. This death is thus a participation in the death of Jesus and because of this, it is also a resurrection into the resurrect life of Jesus Christ. Thus baptism serves as the point of departure for why Christians no long engage in a life of sinful living…because they have died to themselves and been raised into Jesus Christ.
In the larger picture of God’s creative and redemptive intent, does it not seem fair to say that baptism is the point of departure for how believer’s in Jesus no longer live for themselves but as repentant followers of Jesus living a life that is led by the Holy Spirit? This understanding of baptism within the larger picture of God’s creative and redemptive goal seems to provide the rationale for why baptism is the normative response of those who respond to the gospel proclamation in the book of Acts because baptism is the way in which God has thus chosen to initiate the believer into the life of Christ. It is the means by which God is taking the surrendered life of the believer and burying him or her with the crucified Christ and raising him or her into the resurrected Christ.
I want to point out two other issues that I will talk about in more detail in another post. First, in passages such as the Romans 6 text as well as passages like Acts 2.38, 22.16, and Gal 3.27, the verb “baptize” is in the passive voice. This means that the work being done in baptism is done by God. The believer being baptized is passive in the role. Thus baptism does not detract from the grace of God but is a means of grace from God. Second, one question is what about those who are unable to be baptized or have been baptized with what I believe to be a wrong biblical view of baptism. I will try to offer my response to the second part of this difficult issue in another post. As for those who are unable to be baptized such as a believer who is imprisoned without any religious rights, this is where we need to trust in God who reveals himself as desiring mercy over sacrifice. However, such scenarios are exceptions to the norm and it is both unwise and erroneous to interpret scripture in reaction to possible exceptions.