Sadly, the teaching and practice of baptism is a conflicted issue among Christians. Talk to ten different churches in any community and one will certainly hear at least several different views, if not more, expressed about baptism. The snarky part of me wonders if the only thing Christians agree one about baptism is that it somehow involves water and is mentioned in the Bible. While that’s an overstatement of the case, it does highlight the confusion that exists over the issue of baptism. It also seems that what most churches have to say regarding baptism is, at best, only a part of the story. So could this not actually be a problem and one that runs deeper than the issue of baptism itself?
Two Opposite Positions…
Most of the conversation about baptism has to do with the bigger subject of salvation. As humans, we are sinners and our only hope for salvation is the grace of God, particularly expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This good news calls us to renounce our sinful way and receive this grace, the promise of salvation, from God which calls for a response of faith. That much all Christians seem to agree on but it is at this place in conversation where baptism is located and also where a divergence of trajectories regarding the role of baptism begins.
There are two popular positions among contemporary Christianity which are polar opposites of each other. The first position, and one I am the most familiar with since it is held by most Churches of Christ, says that baptism is essential for an individual to receive the promise of salvation from God. In the most extreme expressions of this position, it is held that one cannot possibly be saved without baptism and without receiving baptism for this reason which unintentionally seems to reduce to nothing more than a “ticket to heaven.” The other position says that baptism is not essential for an individual to receive the the promise of salvation from God. In the most extreme expressions of this position, baptism is viewed as merely a symbol that may even be optional as to whether or not one participates in baptism.
It’s important to understand that churches espousing both positions can cite biblical proof-texts and put forth reasons based on those biblical passages to support each view. My own view is that baptism is a necessary part of receiving the promise of salvation and therefore baptism cannot be reduced to a mere symbol but that baptism as a sacrament (means of grace) cannot be expanded into the sum-total of God’s grace so that we cannot exclude from the fellowship of Christ those who, for whatever reason, have believed in Jesus but were unable to be baptized (in fact, I am personally inclined simply to proclaim Christ and invite those who believe to receive baptism and let God do the judging about who receives his promise of salvation and when they receive that promise). But the problem with both positions is that they seemingly fail to account for the real reason why Paul even mentions baptism in Romans 6:3-4 and Galatians 3:27-28 (I have linked to the extended passages in each book so you can click on those links and read the passages for yourself).
In both Romans and Galatians Paul is dealing with issues stemming from differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians as a result of the inclusion of Gentiles in the gospel. In Romans, Paul is particularly addressing the question of how God can show favor (grace) to both Jews and Gentiles. By insisting that both Jews and Gentiles are justified by grace through faith, Paul must deal with the question of whether Christians should continuing in sin so that the grace of God might increase. In short, Paul’s response is an emphatic “No!” and his reason is that the Christian has been “baptized into Christ.” In Galatians, Paul is dealing with the question of whether or not one is saved on the basis of faith or the Mosaic Law. By insisting that Christians are saved on the basis of faith, Paul must deal with the question of whether the Law or any other status marker, such as maleness, gives one an advantage. Again, in short, Paul’s response is an emphatic “No!” and his reason is that Christians have been “baptized into Christ.”
Do we see the problem? When we reduce baptism to merely a “ticket to heaven” or just a symbol having nothing to do with salvation, we lose the meaning of baptism in both Romans and Galatians. We also reduce the biblical meaning of salvation from being redeemed and transformed into the image of Christ to mere forensic justification of our sins but I digress. Getting back to the problem, in both cases Paul is neither concerned with the issue of baptism being necessary for salvation (though based on my understanding of scripture, I believe Paul would be dumbfounded at the suggestion that baptism is unnecessary) nor with whether baptism nullifies faith if it is indeed necessary (Paul, I believe, would say that baptism is part of our faith response to the work of God in baptism which we receive from God, which is why he speaks of our baptism in the passive-tense voice). These are issues we bring to scripture ourselves, sometimes making so much of them that we fail to see what scripture actually says. Furthermore, if baptism is merely about getting saved or just a symbol of salvation, what Paul says about baptism in Romans and Galatians makes little sense.
Paul is rhetorically invoking the experience of baptism into his arguments in Romans and Galatians because in baptism we undergo a profound change that reorients the aim (telos) of our life as believers who follow Jesus. Baptism is our surrender to Jesus in which we give up our old life in exchange for his new life. Faith here is not having perfect doctrinal knowledge of what baptism is but is entrusting ourselves to God, letting him do the work of crucifying us with Christ and then raising us into the new resurrected life of Christ (indeed a mystery of faith). Because we have been baptized and therefore have died to the old life, we cannot continue allowing sin to rule our lives. Likewise, our value and role is not determined anymore by our ethnicity, gender, and social-status since we have been baptized into Christ. As a result of God baptizing us into Christ, we are now equals in Christ who live our lives as instruments of righteousness and we have faith that God has saved us, is saving us, and will save us when Christ returns.
Why This Matters…
We have often heard it said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time during the week because local churches tend to be homogenous when it comes to race and ethnicity. There’s a lot of truth to this. Many local churches have also been fellowships where being white, wealthy, and male means power over minorities, the poor, and females. At the same time, the demarcation that the Christian church as the fellowship of Christ distinct from the world has becoming increasingly blurred, so much that some Christians are unsure of the differences between the way of Christ and the way of being a good American.
Perhaps it is just coincidence that this has also occurred when baptism has too often either been reduced to a mere salvation ticket or a mere symbol of salvation. But maybe it’s not a coincidence. Maybe it’s time that to rethink our understanding of baptism, dig deeper into the theology of this sacrament, and consider what it truly means to live as a people who have been baptized into Christ. After all, if we truly desire to follow Jesus as participants in the mission of God, it seems necessary that we truly understand that we have indeed been baptized into Christ and belong to his new life − lest we continue living as though we are baptized into some other reality still belonging to the old way of life.
As a minister who has been asking questions about baptism for sometime, I still feel like there is much more digging to be done and more repenting to do! How about you?