Baptism and Responding to Grace

The Christians in the New Testament had all been baptized in water (F.F. Bruce in his commentary on Acts simply says that the NT knows nothing about unbaptized Christians). The church was a baptized community and their baptism said that they not only believed the truth about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ but that they had committed themselves to him by faith in being baptized into union with him.

These people didn’t see it as optional. What’s more, it never entered their heads to ask if they “had” to do it. They wanted to be saved in and through Christ, they were told to be baptized to that end and they did it and went their way rejoicing. It’s a very modern thing indeed to argue about this matter. I can understand questions being raised about the status of those who are genuinely ignorant about all this but I confess it’s more than disappointing to hear people, who know what the scriptures plainly say, dither on what they should say about it. Worse, it’s more than disappointing to hear people who know what the scriptures plainly teach on this matter encouraging others not to be baptized as the New Testament teaches.

Baptism in the New Testament was part of the response of faith. It was repentance in action; a response to the holy grace God was extending to the world in Jesus Christ. God by the gospel was calling to himself an elect community to be his witness to the world that he had not abandoned it in its sin. Those who heard that electing message responded by taking the name of Christ on themselves by being baptized in his name that they would find remission of sins. But it wasn’t just personal forgiveness they were given; it was a place in the Community of the Christ whose death, burial and resurrection they identified as their own. Baptism then was the response of faith to God’s grace. But it wasn’t a response of faith to God’s grace that the Church came up with; it was the wisdom of the Holy Father and expressed in his holy Son through the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t for people to debate over but to obey. It wasn’t a loveless obedience, which is nothing more than legalism; it was a heartfelt commitment in trust.

Like every other obedient response, baptism was more than a “condition to be met” if people wanted sins forgiven by God’s holy grace in Christ. It was a privilege. And it was seen to be a profound privilege in the New Testament. Whatever else is true in the case of the gentile Cornelius (see Acts 10 & 11) the privilege of water baptism is underlined (though that isn’t the central thrust of the text). Here was a man who loved God with all his heart and it showed in all the ways that we would like to see in ourselves. The Jewish group come to his house under duress, Peter begins to tell him about the Christ and God interrupts him by sending the Holy Spirit on the man and his gathered family. Stunned at what has happened, what is Peter’s question? Before us we have a man of whose righteous character God has personally approved and to whom God has exceptionally given the Holy Spirit (note 11:15) and what is the apostle’s question? “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” (10:47)

Doesn’t that strike you as odd? One might have thought that loving God as he did was all that was required. If more, then one would have thought that the coming of the Spirit was enough privilege. Peter’s question is in light of those two already existing realities. What does the question imply? That someone might want to keep it from them and that the two realities mentioned make it clear that Cornelius had the right to water baptism. Some are coming to see the privilege of water baptism as well as the obligation of it while some who should know better are belittling the ordinance. And Peter commanded them (Cornelius and family) to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and so take on them that glorious name (see Acts 2:38 and 22:16).

Water baptism is both required of us and is a privilege granted to us by the Holy Father in his own name and in the name of the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).

©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.

Comments are closed.