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Toward a theology of baptismal transition

Some initial reflections


by Tim Gallant

Does a salvific transition occur in baptism? In an age of individualism, I suppose it might seem strange to want to look at this question again. There is a great deal of baggage carried by the term baptismal regeneration, which is part of the reason why I have chosen to employ different terminology. Such an alteration may alert us to the fact that we may not all be on the same page, which is sometimes blurred when we use common terms.

The reflections which follow are divided into three parts: 1) why we ask the question; 2) what we do not mean by speaking of a salvific transition in connection with baptism; 3) discussion of (some) objections. I aim here to help us put our thinking caps on, not to formulate a comprehensive view.

I. Why We Ask the Question

Why do I wish to speak of something "happening" at baptism? Why is it not sufficient simply to speak of faith and justification? Why not stick to the familiar Protestant ordo salutis (order of salvation): election, calling, regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification?

1. Historical considerations

We live in a "Bible-alone" era. Under the name of sola Scriptura, we often feel free to abandon a careful consideration of Church history in general, and the history of doctrine in particular.

The "Radical Reformation" aside, this was not the view of our Protestant forefathers. Luther, Calvin, Bucer: these were men who were deeply committed to the historical Christian faith. As innovative as they were in many ways, they never saw themselves as the first "real" Christians after the death of the apostles. They were (small-c) "catholic," meaning that it was not their intention to reinvent Christianity, but to be faithful to the best of what had come before. They knew that they were not the first generation to receive and interpret the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost is the Spirit of the Church, and it is arrogant to pretend that we need not listen to the Christian interpreters of history, even if ultimately we must disagree with each of them at various points.

In this connection, we ought to respect the fact that a view of genuine efficacy for baptism has been the almost universal testimony of the Church down through the ages, until the time of the Reformation. (Even then, most of the Reformers retained some sort of view that baptism was in some sense an instrument/means of the impartation of grace. Luther is usually cited in this connection, but Bucer and the other Reformed were not so far behind him on that point as is usually assumed - including Ursinus and even Calvin.)

Historically, the Church simply has not seen baptism as an empty sign, a parable of an absent grace. Even Augustine, usually considered the most "Protestant" of the early Fathers on the issue of the sacraments, thought of both baptism and the eucharist as necessary for salvation. Even with a stress on faith that was head and shoulders above many other Church theologians, Augustine was certain that they really conferred something, at least to the elect. And although we may hesitate to follow him so far as to teach the absolute necessity of the sacraments, we ought to agree with him that Christ's institution was for a purpose more profound than offering us a visual parable. There is something "necessary" about the sacraments, and it does not end at a simple acknowledgment that they were ordained by Christ, and therefore we should obey. For Augustine and the Fathers of the Church, there was a lot more to it than that. It seems to me that this is a weighty reason to be very careful about simply dismissing a high view of baptismal efficacy.

2. Biblical language

Scripture teaches us to view baptism as a saving event, a transition from death to life. While many of the passages that teach this tend to be read with a "spiritualizing" lens, so that biblical mention of "baptism" is transformed into something else (such as in Romans 6 and Colossians 2:11-12), this is not possible with the foundational baptismal text. Matthew 28:19 appears as part of the Great Commission mandate. This is usually translated: "baptizing them [i.e. the nations] in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Just as the Church is to outwardly teach, the Church is to apply the water of baptism. This is part of making disciples.

Now, it may be said: "This text is indeed about water baptism, not something else. But I don't see anything efficacious in the text." I respond:

1) The theme of baptism in the Gospel of Matthew comes to a climax here. We have in this verse a conjunction of "baptizing" and "the Holy Spirit." The only other place in this Gospel that this occurs is in Matthew 3:11, where John the Baptist says that he baptizes with water, but the One coming after him will baptize with the Spirit and with fire. The "fire," in the context of John's words, refers to judgment, and Jesus builds upon that theme, particularly in Matthew 24, as well as elsewhere in the Gospel. But the only mention of the Spirit in connection with baptism appears in Matthew 28:19. In other words, Jesus appears to be linking His Spirit-baptizing activity with the prophecy of John. Nor is it a strong counter-argument to say that John speaks of Jesus baptizing with the Spirit, but the Great Commission says it is the Church which is to baptize. For, as Jesus immediately adds (28:20), He is with the Church until the end of the age. The Church does not baptize upon her own authority, but under the aegis of Christ, who is present to baptize with the Spirit.

2) The usual translation of Matthew 28:19 actually greatly weakens the force of the original. By translating the text "baptizing them in the Name of the Father...." we are led to the false view that Jesus is saying merely something like: "Baptize them on the authority of the Father, Son and Spirit." The whole transitional language of the original is lost. The Greek is better rendered: "baptizing them into [Greek: eis] the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." When we recognize that, and realize further that God's "Name" in Scripture refers not merely to His title, but to His covenantal, active presence, we are ready to see that Matthew 28:19 teaches that baptism is a transition into covenantal union with the Triune God.

3) This reading, which correlates Matthew 3:11 and 28:19, appears to be supported by Peter's Pentecost sermon. This message is an exposition of the outpouring of the Spirit: Peter identifies it as the vindication of Christ, and "the promise of the Holy Spirit" from the Father (Acts 2:33). He concludes his exhortation with these words: "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call" (Acts 2:38-39) The point is not to abstract baptism from the repentance for which Peter calls, as if the promise is something autonomous, fulfilled without reference to Christ. Baptism is not set in opposition to faith or to repentance, but is the embodiment or enactment of faith and repentance (more on this below). In any event, with these words, Peter connects the giving of the Spirit to water baptism, as we might expect if our correlation of Matthew 3:11 and 28:19 is a correct analysis of the texts.

There are, of course, many other texts which attribute wonderful things to baptism. First Peter 3:21 brashly says, "Baptism saves" (more on this text below). Along with Romans 6, Titus 3:5 and other like texts, this passage tends to suffer greatly at the hands of interpreters, who do not wish to see water baptism in any of these places. That would be "sacerdotal." But interpreters have their hands tied with Matthew 28:19; no one can deny that it is a reference to water baptism. And it is just as strong as the texts that inevitably get "spiritualized." It forces us to ask the question. And it also leads us to wonder why we have radicalized the divorce between sacrament and reality in connection with baptismal texts. When Paul writes, "As many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27), that sure sounds a lot like Matthew 28:19. (Interestingly, Paul uses this language in connection with assurance: the Gentile Christians know from their baptism that they are no longer mere Gentiles, but have been incorporated into the One to whom the covenant promises belong [Gal. 3:16]. Thus, over against the doubts raised by the Judaizers, Paul appeals to the comfort of baptism - something modern evangelicals tend to think is completely out of order.)

II. What We Don't Mean

Alarms go off when we speak of baptismal efficacy. After all, we reason, if we attribute too much to baptism, we will promote a superstitious view of the rite and, hand in hand with that, a corresponding devaluation of faith that will lead to complacency.

1. I will deal further with faith in connection with the third section of these reflections, so will bypass that discussion for now. With regard to divine grace, however, which many see compromised by any notion of baptismal efficacy, we must say that God uses means. Baptism is not in competition with God; it is an instrument in His hand. As we stressed, Christ Himself is present in the disciple-making of His Church, so that when the Church baptizes, it may rightly be said that Christ baptizes. So by using strong language, we are not saying that baptism itself has this power. Baptism is a tool in the divine hand.

2. We do not mean by "baptismal transition" or "baptismal efficacy" that everyone who is baptized will ultimately be saved. If such were the teaching, we would indeed be promoting complacency. Rather, just as there are those who believe after hearing the Word preached, and yet ultimately fall away, thus it is too that one may be incorporated into Christ in baptism, and yet not bear ultimate fruit. As Jesus said, those in Him who do not bear fruit will be taken away and burned (John 15:2). The union of which we speak is real - we are not of that number who abstract covenant from salvation, as if the two were barely related - but yet this union makes no pretense to enter the hidden counsel of God.

Consequently, even as Paul noted that the Israelites really were baptized into Moses, and truly ate of spiritual food and drink, and yet many fell in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1-12, so it is too with the Christian Church. The sacraments are not magical amulets that protect one from all spiritual harm, while all the while the partakers can be absolutely careless concerning their level of faithfulness. In the same context, Paul speaks of how he himself disciplines his body and makes it his slave, guarding himself lest, after he has preached to others, he may not become unapproved, apostate (1 Cor. 9:27). Likewise, after having said the powerful words of comfort to the Galatians on the basis of baptism, whereby they are to be assured of their place as the seed of Abraham, and as adopted sons of God (Gal. 3:26-29), Paul goes on to express his concern that he must undergo labour pains on their behalf all over again, so that Christ can be formed in them (4:19). Even more dramatically, he says to these same ones, that if they seek to be justified by Torah, they have become estranged from Christ, and have fallen from grace (5:4). The transition of baptism is not a theoretical abstraction to possess, but first of all a promise to believe.

3. When we speak of baptismal transition, we are not intent on reconstructing a new ordo salutis (order of salvation) into which baptism can neatly fit and find a place where it will predictably remain. We have grave doubts about the possibility of constructing a thoroughly consistent ordo salutis to begin with. Notwithstanding valiant efforts to construct a consistent ordo, the text of Scripture repeatedly becomes a stumbling block. In Scripture, faith is credited with everything from justification to union with Christ. Yet union with Christ is itself the source of all saving benefits, including the regeneration which theoretically brings faith to life. Attempting to construct an ordo even in terms of logic, never mind chronology, raises what seem to us to be insuperable difficulties. We think it better to lay aside such attempts to abstract the "components" of salvation in such a fashion, as if they were independent pieces to put together, preferring instead, when necessary, to talk about "aspects" of salvation, or "angles on salvation."

The difficulties with constructing an ordo salutis aside, we have even graver doubts about attempting to formulate a model that will cover every contingency. Thus, we do not make the claim that baptism is the "real" moment when someone "really" gets faith. We consider that, once again, as an abstraction.

A final point in connection with the ordo salutis. No matter what formula is used, inevitably the diagram has a huge gap: no place for the Church. The traditional order-of-salvation formulas would be equally applicable if the Church did not exist. In my opinion, this is a grave problem. The Church in the New Testament is not merely a beneficial option; the whole of salvation is shaped by the reality and gift of the Church. Biblically, the gifts of salvation are not individualistic portion packs; they are enjoyed within the dimension of the Church. Indeed, it is not inaccurate to speak of the Church as itself being an aspect of salvation. Our conception of salvation needs to bear better witness to this fact.

Baptismal transition makes more sense within this sort of framework. An individualistic ordo robs baptism of its biblical place, but a more biblical conception of salvation which places more focus upon the communal dimension, while not resolving every issue, does help us to understand why baptism matters. Baptism is induction into communion and community - the community of the Trinity, the community of the Church, which is the body of Christ. Seen in that light, attributing some sort of "transitional power" to baptism is not so strange - no stranger than seeing a transition into new authority with ordination, or a transition to new privileges in consequence of a wedding.

III. A Few Objections Considered

What follows is in no sense a complete analysis of objections. Along the line with the rest of this "essay," what follows are simply some initial observations that may prove somewhat useful in dealing with issues that would appear to militate against any view of baptismal efficacy.

1. The wrong means

We argued above that baptism is not something that should be set up over against the power or grace of God, since God Himself chooses to employ means in His work of salvation. Scripture, of course, teaches us that the Lord employs the preaching of the Word in a salvific fashion - indeed, "faith comes by hearing" (Romans 10:9-17; 1 Peter 1:22-25). Consequently, those who do acknowledge that God employs means often stress that the Word is the agency, not the sacraments.

We think, however, that this is an artificial and misleading opposition. It is true that Paul distinguishes between the preaching of the cross (which he says is his calling) and baptism (which he says is not his calling) in 1 Corinthians 1:17. This has been often used as a proof-text: God saves through preaching, not baptism. After all, Paul goes on to say that the preaching is "the power of God" (v. 18), and even that it is through the foolishness of preaching that God saves believers (v. 22).

Yet these statements that follow are aimed, not primarily against baptism, but against the divisions of this age, which have come to mar the Corinthian church. When Paul thanks God that he baptized few of the Corinthians (vv 14-16), he is not disparaging baptism, but expressing relief: had he baptized a large number of the Corinthians, they were carnal enough to "claim" him on behalf of their divisiveness. That is why he introduces this whole section with the rhetorical question (v. 13), "were you baptized in the name of Paul?" His point is that baptism is by its nature anti-sectarian, because even as it was Christ who was crucified for the whole Church, so too the whole Church is baptized into Him, not into some charismatic leader. In this, we can see that baptism too is a proclamation of the gospel. Seen in that light, it can hardly be set off against preaching ("preaching is salvific; baptism does nothing").

Paul indeed says he wasn't sent to baptize, but to preach. If we think about it, that should not surprise us. Paul had a special apostolic commission to the Gentiles. His work in preaching was unique. But baptism requires no unique gifts. All orthodox baptism is equal. Consequently, to communicate that the power was not in himself, but in Christ and His cross, it was actually better for Paul to leave the work of baptism to others. This would "fit" Paul's message, a message that said that a new order had dawned, a new age when the only alignment that really mattered was with the New Man, Christ; that the old order of orators and "great men" had passed, and now all could be one in Christ Jesus (cf. Gal. 3:28).

2. John opposes water to Spirit

John the Baptizer acknowledged that he baptized with water, but the One coming after Him would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mt. 3:11). Hence, it is argued, we need to draw a strong distinction between water baptism and Spirit baptism. Only the latter is effectual.

I deal more extensively with the issue of John's baptism and the provision of the Spirit elsewhere, but I wish to provide a summary statement here.

First, it is simply untrue that John thought his baptism was ineffectual. It was effectual for its intended result. Notice that John came "preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Mk. 1:4; Lk. 3:3). Thus, John saw his baptism as effectual for forgiveness. But he did not see it as effectual for the provision of the Holy Spirit.

This lack, however, is not because water baptism is unrelated to the Spirit's work. The lack is a redemptive-historical one: the Spirit had not yet been given (Jn. 7:39). John's baptism could not confer the Spirit, it is true - but the reason is not because of the weakness of water baptism. The reason is because John's baptism stood too early in redemptive history: at the penultimate moment, rather than the moment of fulfilment.

When Pentecost arrives, however, the message changes. Remission of sins and the gift of the Spirit are now conjoined. Unlike John, who says that his is a baptism of repentance unto remission of sins, here is what Peter says when the Spirit is poured out: "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). The contrast to John's baptism can now be made in Christian baptism.

3. "Baptism" really means something else

In other words, those powerful baptismal texts are referring to the invisible work of the Spirit, apart from and in contrast to, water baptism.

It seems to me that this argument has already been robbed of its force when we recognize the power of Matthew 28:19. But it may be helpful to look at a passage which has an internal distinction which is often thought of as disproving baptismal efficacy. It is that most powerful of baptismal texts (in terms of sheer directness) in all of the New Testament: 1 Peter 3:21. Having mentioned the ark, which was used for the salvation of Noah and his family, Peter continues, "There is also an antitype which now saves us: baptism - not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ...."

Baptism saves. What a powerful statement. But how does Peter qualify it? Those who resist any form of baptismal efficacy appeal to the latter part of the verse to say that Peter is not talking about water baptism. Translated according to their interpretation, the verse says something like this: "We have an antitype which now saves us: baptism - not water baptism, but faith in God." The salvation has nothing to do with water, except that water baptism functions as a sort of parable for "the real thing."

There are, however, problems with this reading. First, it is the mention of water in verse 20 which sets the framework for verse 21. Noah and his family were "saved through water." Thus when Peter says that we have an antitype which now saves us, namely, baptism, the most natural reading is that he is saying that we too are saved through water. What follows is not a retraction (which is essentially what the popular interpretation of the verse amounts to), but an explanation. Baptism saves, but how? The answer: we are not saved through water by the mere fact that it cleanses our skin. There is no magical potency in the water as such. In that sense, Peter posits a distinction internal to baptism, not a distinction between baptism and something else.

Now, what is this "answer of a good conscience toward God"? A better translation would be "the appeal of a good conscience toward God." By its very nature, baptism is an appeal to God - the God who saved Noah through the water of the flood. That means that baptism is an act of faith (more on that in a moment).

What is interesting is the further elaboration: baptism saves "through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him" (3:22). There seems to be here an allusion to the Great Commission: "All authority in heaven and upon earth has been given unto Me" (Matt. 28:18). This leads us to believe even more strongly that "baptism" in v. 21 refers to real wet water baptism.

This text confronts us with the whole issue of faith. A common objection is that we are saved by faith, not baptism. Baptism is a sign and seal of our faith, even as circumcision was a sign and seal of Abraham's faith (Romans 4:11). This latter point is, of course, true, but one must wonder if it is entirely understood. Several things ought to be pointed out.

1. First Peter 3:21 identifies baptism as an appeal to God - essentially, an act of faith. It is not inaccurate to describe the sacraments as the actualization of both faith and of covenant.

2. The passage in Romans may indeed be in some sense relevant to this question, but we must be careful not to press it into service beyond its intention. Paul is not speaking about Christian baptism, but about circumcision, which was specifically for the Jews. In fact, it is precisely that point that is Paul's focus. He has been stressing that God is not the God of the Jews only, but also the God of the Gentiles (Romans 3:29), so that both circumcised and uncircumcised are justified through faith (3:30). Notwithstanding the legitimate analogies between circumcision and baptism, Paul would hardly have argued in that manner concerning baptism. Paul's redemptive-historical point is that the covenant sign of the Hebrews was delayed in Abraham's case to show that he was the father of all those who are of faith, whether they enjoy that covenant sign (circumcision) or not, so that he could be the father of many nations, and not just Israel.

Therefore, we do not think it is problematic to say that Abraham's faith preceded his circumcision, for at least two reasons: first, as we have stressed, the timing had a redemptive-historical interest regarding the Gentiles; and second, we have observed already that our interest is not to prove a systematic, consistent, revised ordo salutis which simply inserts baptism into the equation. (For a more detailed examination of this particular issue, see my related article, "A Note on Circumcision and Baptism.")

(This is also why the anomalous occurrences in Acts 8 - where faith and baptism preceded the giving of the Spirit - and Acts 10 - where the Spirit was poured out prior to baptism - do not worry us all that much. The texts themselves give ample evidence that both situations were considered abnormal at the time; both occurrences had to do with God's particular shaping of the course of events to force the Jerusalem church to affirm both Samaritans and Gentiles as full beneficiaries in the new covenant. It is true in any case that even in Acts 10, the transition is not considered complete until the water of baptism is applied.)

3. The sacraments are faith embodied, and it is a mistake to drive too large of wedge between faith and sacrament. When the Israelites killed the Passover lamb back in Egypt, we could ask the question: Did the angel slaying the firstborn pass over the Israelites houses: a) due to the faith of the Israelites; or b) due to the slaying of the Passover lambs? Seen in this way, we see that the issue is not faith versus sacrament, or even really faith plus sacrament, so much as faith as sacrament. The observance of the sacrament is an instantiation of faith - and an efficacious one, at that. If no Passover lamb is slain, there is going to be a dead child in the house, and dead animals outside. But the Passover enacts faith in the delivering God, and the angel passes over.

So too with baptism. It is the "appeal of a good conscience toward God."

4. The instrumentality of baptism is not from man toward God, but from God toward man. In other words, baptism does not stand alongside of faith as an instrument whereby man lays hold of Christ; rather, baptism (like the Word) is God's action toward man. By one Spirit we are baptized into one body (1 Cor. 12:12-13).

Enough for now. As these are initial reflections, I may update these thoughts from time to time.

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