Monday, June 16, 2008

Baptism VI: Baptism is Eschatological

Now that school is out for the summer and I have a little more time on my hands, I’m picking up where I left off several months ago in my discussion of the sacrament of Christian baptism.

In Titus 3 Paul tells of how God mercifully saved us “through the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (vv. 5-7).

What is this “washing of regeneration” through which God has saved us? That is, what is regeneration, and how is it a “washing”? In a word, regeneration or rebirth is the work of the “living water” of the Holy Spirit in uniting us to Jesus Christ. In union with him by faith, his Spirit not only cleanses from the stain of sin (as in our sinful nature, not just sinful deeds), but he also remakes us as God’s children for “newness of life” in Christ (cf. Rom. 6:3-4). Commenting on John 3:3-8, John Murray explains being "born of water and the Spirit” in this way, which certainly applies equally well to Titus 3:5:

Entrance into the kingdom of God could only be secured by purification from the defilement of sin. The water of purification is as it were the womb out of which must emerge the new life which gives entrance into and fits for membership in the kingdom of God. This is the purificatory aspect of regeneration. Regeneration must negate the past as well as reconstitute for the future. It must cleanse from sin as well as recreate in righteousness. (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 98)

This sounds an awful lot like Noah and the flood, in which God also judged and renewed by water. He erased the old world in which sin abounded in all its ugliness and rebellion and simultaneously re-created the world, as it were, in hope and peace. Water both wiped out the old in judgment as well as birthed the new. Peter teaches this in saying that “the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and . . . by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished” (2 Pet. 3:5-6).

But Peter also explicitly says that the Noahic flood was a shadow or type that finds its fulfillment in Christian baptism. “In which [the ark] a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you--not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:20-21, NRSV).* Baptism is an even greater saving and recreating event than the Flood ever was!

So we see that baptism involves a watery “flood” that condemns unrighteousness and recreates in righteousness and hope. Even though God will again destroy the world, he will recreate it as “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:7, 13). Interestingly, Jesus speaks of this same event in Matthew 19:28 as “the regeneration” (Greek palingenesia, “rebirth”; ESV “the new world,” NIV “the renewal of all things”). The only other NT use of palingenesia is in Titus 3:5. Our spiritual rebirth is a foretaste of the great recreation of the coming age (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15), the future reaching back into the present.

But if this regenerating salvation-flood that eradicates that old and forms the new finds its fulfillment in the waters of baptism, in what way can we link baptism with the “washing of regeneration” in Titus 3:5? Peter explicitly states that baptism does not have its efficacy in the outward washing itself (1 Pet. 3:21); the water works only by the word of God (2 Pet. 3:5). It is perhaps best, then, to understand it this way: Just as washing with water is seen and experienced visibly in baptism, so is the inner, spiritual cleansing promised in the gospel visibly offered to believe in. For all who by God’s grace repent and trust in Christ, they are not merely washed with water externally; they are also cleansed within. Thus we can call it a “washing of regeneration.” (See also Ezekiel 36:25-29a, where cleansing, rebirth, water, and the Holy Spirit are all linked in God's new covenant promises.)

God does not sport with us by unmeaning figures, but inwardly accomplishes by his power what he exhibits by the outward sign; and therefore, baptism is fitly and truly said to be “the washing of regeneration.” . . . It is therefore the Spirit who regenerates us, and makes us new creatures [not the water ritual itself]; but because his grace is invisible and hidden, a visible symbol of it is beheld in baptism. (John Calvin, Commentary on Titus)

Note also that this “washing of regeneration” is done by the Holy Spirit, who is “poured out on us richly” (Tit. 3:6). Where else do we read of the Spirit being “poured out”? Pentecost. When the apostles begin preaching of Christ in many languages, it is because God had fulfilled his promise to pour out his Spirit on all people—a promise to be fulfilled only in “the last days” (Acts 2:16-21, 33; cf. Joel 2:28-32). This outpouring sheds abroad God’s love in our hearts, marking us no longer as slaves but as his children, heirs in hope of our eternal inheritance.

Therefore we can say that baptism is eschatological. (Eschatology is the study of the “last things,” the future kingdom of God.) It’s not so important to think about the link between baptism and the future as it is to realize that the regeneration in Christ it signifies is both real and necessary for entering the kingdom. And it is a regeneration not somewhere off in the distance, but one that has happened to you if you believe in Jesus. You have a new hope and a new identity. A new power is at work within you, and sin no longer has mastery over you. The coming destruction of sin and rebirth in everlasting life and righteousness are offered and pledged in baptism to all who embrace Jesus as their Savior and Lord—and for those of us who do, we possess even now the beginnings of our great future hope.


*I prefer the NRSV over the ESV here because it more clearly indicates that baptism is the antitype (Greek antitupon) of the Flood. A type is a pattern or foreshadowing that finds its deeper fulfillment in a future counterpart, its antitype. Think of the type as the mold into which a plaster sculpture is poured; it provides the shape but lacks the substance. The antitype is the plaster that fills the mold's form. This means that the events of the Flood were always meant to point toward their greater, eternally significant counterpart, baptism.


Penn Tomassetti said...

I saw your comment under my Bible study. To answer your question, I was looking for stuff you wrote about teaching teens. What it is like communicating with them and helping them learn to understand what you are teaching them. I thought you may have written some posts that would be informative on that subject. Sorry, I haven't had time to check your archives yet. I may take a look around. Thanks.

On baptism: I used to be a member of a church that taught baptismal regeneration. Your post does not seem to go either for or against it, even though you commented on some insightful verses. You mention that the physical water is not the cleansing agent, but the Spirit. However, to me, it is still not clear if the act of baptism to you is where sins are remitted and the person baptized is reborn. I do like how you included the quote about the relation of John 3:5 with Titus 3:5, because Titus 3:5 makes it clear that the new birth is according to God's own mercy, pouring out His Holy Spirit when His goodness and loving kindness appeared.

God bless.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Your work on baptism has made me dig and I really appreciated the exegesis, theology and pastoral treatment in this book.

John Calvin seems to want to say that water baptism is the water of regeneration and it is also symbolic of the water of regeneration. The Titus 3 passage Calvin is referring to speaks of the Spirit as the one who regenerates, and indeed both John the Baptizer and Jesus diffentiated between baptism with water, and baptism of the Spirit, which occurred at Pentecost (Acts 2). Water baptism may picture that, but I don't see how it's the means or agent or vehicle of the Spirit's regenerating work. At least not on the exegesis of that one passage, and in light of how Paul seems to downplay it in 1 Corinthians 1

Looking at J. Ramsey Michaels
a little, I think what is spoken of in 1 Peter 3 is probably just the human side of salvation. Noah had to build the boat and get in the ark, and the waters while judging the condemned world, saved he and his household and all in the ark. Also Hebrews 11:7 God does not water baptize anyone, we (other disciples, I take it) baptize believers in Jesus. So that the one submitting to baptism is doing so as an act of faith. And the faith that acts in obedience to God's word is what saves. Though that's still a difficult verse to interpret and "appeal" could mean "pledge", as well. I take this as just the reality that the New Testament does not know of any believers who are not water baptized. It's taken for granted. The baptised person in faith is either appealing for a good conscience, or is making a pledge from an already good conscience.

And you make it clear it's those who believe in Jesus who are regenerated, and this is true whether or not they're water baptized, though I think such a position is a misinterpretation of the New Testament in that water baptism is for today whereas some say it is not (I work with a couple of guys at work who happily hold to this position, which is the position of their denomination.). Of course they're regenerated as well, just not water baptized.

Of course I'm sure you agree with that. You're just trying to grapple with what the New Testament teaches on water baptism for us today.

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

funny - I can be pretty much with you until the concluding sentence and draw a different conclusion from the same presentation of "evidence"

Andrew said...

Ted: "God does not water baptize anyone, we (other disciples, I take it) baptize believers in Jesus. So that the one submitting to baptism is doing so as an act of faith. And the faith that acts in obedience to God's word is what saves."

Well, to the first part I would totally agree that ministers baptize with water. But God gives what the water signifies and pledges to believers (though not necessarily at that moment in time):

"In this way [baptism] he [the Lord] signifies to us that just as water washes away the dirt of the body when it is poured on us and also is seen on the body of the baptized when it is sprinkled on him, so too the blood of Christ does the same thing internally, in the soul, by the Holy Spirit. It washes and cleanses it from its sins and transforms us from being children of wrath into the children of God.
". . . So ministers, as far as their work is concerned, give us the sacrament and what is visible, but our Lord gives what the sacrament signifies—namely the invisible gifts and graces; washing, purifying, and cleansing our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts and filling them with all comfort; giving us true assurance of his fatherly goodness; clothing us with the 'new man' and stripping off the 'old,' with all its works."
(The Belgic Confession, 1561)

I guess I never thought of submitting to baptism as itself an act of faith. Well, sort of. I certainly can see the faith of Noah in building the ark and getting in it as an act of faith--this faith through which he was saved/brought safely through the water (Heb. 11:7; 1 Peter 3:19-21). We could (perhaps) modify 1 Peter 3 as "through his act of faith and fear Noah was brought safely through the water that destroyed everyone else. This faith-rescue prefigures water baptism, which now saves you ... through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." I suppose. But somehow that's not entirely satisfying, because it doesn't highlight the "now" difference for Christians in the last days. On the other hand, perhaps we can view "now" as "still": the faith-ark embarkment (via baptism) still saves you." Or it could be that "now" denotes 1 Peter as a baptismal homily, and the "now" is the present day in history on which a convert was baptized. But this makes little sense, given that 1 Peter is an epistle sent to scattered churches and was not written specifically for the baptism of any one person.

Stuff to think about...

Andrew said...


What's your conclusion? How would you change my final sentence?