Baptism declares the faith of the one submitting to it. It tells the meaning and nature of that person’s faith. It means they not only understand certain truths about Christ but that they’re making a personal commitment to him and to the truths about him. In the NT these people that came to be baptized understood they had not been Christ’s and now they were giving themselves to Christ in a trusting and penitent faith. They didn’t know all there was to know about this Christ but they were saying that whatever it was that they needed, under and before God, that this Christ was the one in and through whom they would get it. They didn’t know in specific all that they would be called to give to God but they knew that whatever was to be given was to be given in and through him. While they didn’t know in all specifics how their lives were to be lived out, they knew that they were giving themselves to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour and that their lives were to be lived out in light of that.
But their baptism was more than a personal commitment to Christ in a personal confession because what they were confessing was objective reality and truth. Their faith commitment wasn’t simply what they believed was true, it was a proclamation of what was indeed true whether they believed it or not. Had they never committed to Christ it would still have been true that he had lived, died and rose again to immortal glory and Lordship. Baptism doesn’t belong to an individual and the individual does not give baptism its rich and complex meaning. The individual commits to what baptism already means independent of any individual.
Baptism means what God, in and as Christ by the Spirit, has determined it to mean. It means Christ’s life and death and resurrection to immortality and Lordship and it means that the person of faith enters into union with all that Jesus Christ is and stands for and purposes.
It means that the elect of God have passed from the realm of the “old man” (Adam—as a fit representative of the human race that has followed in his steps and come under the holy and righteous judgement of God—Romans 6:3-10). They have come into the realm of the “new man” (the last Adam, the second man—1 Corinthians 15:45,47). It means they have moved from the old creation that is seen through the eyes of a sinful humanity and into a new creation (as seen through the eyes of Jesus Christ—2 Corinthians 5:17, Ephesians 2:10). It means they have passed from death and judgement to life and forgiveness in Jesus Christ whose death and resurrection they embrace by faith (Romans 6:3-10).
Baptism means that everything that fragments and promotes division among people (racism, sexism, nationalism, elitism in any form) is contrary to the unifying and redeeming work of God in Christ in reconciling the world to himself (Galatians 3:26-28, Colossians 1:20).
It doesn’t matter that people are ignorant of these things and so much more. The response to such ignorance is not to refuse to teach these truths. That only furthers the ignorance. It doesn’t matter that they are ignorant of these things—if they’re true they should be taught and people should be nurtured in them. While leaning on the NT itself, it isn’t for nothing that believing people down the centuries have continued to hold baptism (along with the Supper and the proclamation of the Word) as vitally important and the invariable response to the gospel.
There are those who for one reason or another now speak dismissively of the ordinance of baptism. This state of affairs has developed step by step. Some of them grew weary of hearing baptism talked about as if it were the Saviour himself, and rightly protested. They rightly began to stress truths that were being neglected but before long they were receiving with full approval even people who resolutely refuse to honour God in the ordinance he ordained.
Then the “mode” of baptism became unimportant (why would how you do a thing matter if the thing itself is of little consequence?) and now they approve a “baptism” that takes place in the absence of faith. For a while they continued to say baptism is important but it’s hard to persuade people that you believe something is important when you show in general speech and practice that it’s unimportant.
And what may be even more disturbing, in trying to make baptism less important they are now approving of a “baptism” (infant) where the simple application of water in the absence of personal faith does what the NT says can only happen in the presence of faith. They must now construct a whole new theology about an infant’s baptism, which is the application of water in the absence of personal faith. Some now accept that baptism in the place of a faith-baptism and believe it has a retrospective effect. They don’t want to jettison baptism altogether (how could that sincerely be possible in light of the NT?) so they’re willing to regard the sprinkling of infants as acceptable obedience. Baptismal regeneration is coming home. This makes more of baptism than the Scriptures do and introduces something foreign to the NT scriptures.
It’s vital and perfectly appropriate to let God have the final word about everything but it is never right or safe to allow anyone—however popular—or anything—however pervasive—to move us from faithful allegiance to the whole counsel of God. Bigger congregations, friendlier relations, a better reputation and (an uneasy) “unity”–some things are bought at too great a price.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.