Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jesus' Baptism and Ours: A Two-Way Act?

As I've continued thinking and studying what the Scriptures say about baptism, an interesting thought occurred to me: Is there a difference between what we do and what God does in this rite? In general, the Reformation churches (i.e., Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran) and some Methodists focus on baptism as an act of God. Conversely, other evangelicals (e.g., Baptists) see baptism as an act in which repentant sinners confess their sin and "appeal to God for a good conscience" (1 Peter 3:21). Consider the oft-neglected story of Jesus' baptism:

"John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. . . .

"In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'" (Mark 1:4-5, 9-11)

On one hand, Baptists would probably point out that in this baptism sinners who wished to repent of their sins and inaugurate a new way of life came to the river and confessed their sins as they underwent baptism (vv. 4-5). On the other hand, Reformed folk (such as I) would point out that when Jesus is baptized, the heavens open and the Father declares to Jesus the reality of his identity (vv. 9-11). Both realities are present here--and elsewhere in the Bible as well.

Baptism as a human act. Every single reference to baptism in the New Testament is a passive act. That is, converts are called to "be baptized," not to baptize themselves. It is always an act done by someone else upon the baptisand.* (If you can find an exception to this, please do point it out!) For this reason, I find it very difficult to believe that baptism is a symbolic rite in which a new convert signifies his own faith. The Scriptures never say that. What action is present upon the baptisand's part in the NT is this: Acknowledging one's sinfulness and calling on God for mercy in the name of Jesus the Messiah-Savior. (See Matthew 3:13-16; Mark 1:4-5; Luke 3:3; Acts 2:21, 36-41; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21). Even in his own baptism, though himself sinless, Jesus identifies with sinful humanity and "repents," in order to "fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15). He acknowledged his need for cleansing and came to the waters, appealing for mercy.

Baptism as a divine act. If the baptisand is always passive, then who is the real actor? It is no less than all three persons of the Triune God in action. Here we see easily enough that God spoke to Jesus, his Word confirming to Jesus his identity as the beloved Son. He also confirmed to Jesus his calling as the Messiah who would undergo another "baptism" on the cross (John 1:31; Luke 12:50). The Spirit also descends on Jesus--and we often see the Spirit in Scripture active in bringing God's Word in light and power to our hearts (1 Corinthians 2:10-16). But above all things, Jesus is the real Baptizer in the Bible. John repeatedly testified that while he baptized with water, Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8 and parallels). So as Jesus has ascended, he (along with the Father) pours out his Spirit into men to give them new birth and to bring God's Word home to their hearts.**

In baptism believers are divinely joined to Jesus' death and raised to newness of life (Romans 6:3-4). They are ingrafted into the church, the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). They are clothed with Christ and also identified as "sons of God" (Galatians 3:26-27). God confirms to believers in baptism the righteousness that they possess by faith (Romans 4:11) and that he is cleansed and renewed within (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5).

Instead of signifying the convert's faith, we see in baptism the visible Word--the testimony of the Spirit--that the believer who repents and embraces Christ in faith, he is confirmed as a child of God, cleansed and washed from sin within, reborn in righteousness, joined to Jesus' body, and sealed by the Spirit for the kingdom's possession. Or, perhaps more accurately, the New Covenant promises which are "Yes" in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20) are not only confirmed by God in general, but their reality for and upon the believer is confirmed in baptism.

The two acts together. If we put the two together, we could see God, in baptism, shaking hands on promises he has made. On one hand, from the human viewpoint baptism is an act in which a repentant believer accepts his judgment-and-cleansing in Christ and submits to live under Christ in his kingdom (Matthew 28:19; 1 Peter 3:19-21). On the other hand, from the divine viewpoint God confirms to him who believes that he truly has a new identity in Christ as "my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased." He confirms the believer's rebirth and cleansing by Spiritual union with Christ and his body. And in baptism the believer has a new destiny and calling as well--one of God-exalting, cross-bearing, Spirit-fueled discipleship and pilgrimage on the way toward future glory.

* * *

What do you think? I'm not 100% sure about this yet, but it seems biblically consistent to me right now. I'm continually astounded at the potency of salvation-realities ascribed to the baptized in the NT, which is leading me away from a Reformed covenantal view into this version of credobaptism--or at least a greater measure of ambivalence. (I say "leading away" because I'm not yet fully convinced of it.) I am having an increasingly difficult time figuring out how to apply NT texts concerning baptism's effects to those who are baptized yet don't exhibit the marks of new birth (e.g., some infants as well as those who merely profess faith but do not possess it). Yet at the same time, I'm not willing to embrace the overly subjective idea that baptism is simply a public profession of faith or a mirror of one's conversion experience. To do so would deny the way the NT points to baptism in an admonishing or encouraging manner, since faith is nothing--it's merely the hand that receives Christ and his benefits. And this distorts the point of faith anyway, that is, to look away from oneself and one's own decisions, commitments, and merits to those of Christ alone on our behalf.
*One could argue that Acts 22:16 provides a contradictory example: "And now why do you [Saul] wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name." Saul here is said to wash away his own sins--active on his part. (I'm not sure what to make of this yet or how to reconcile it with the rest of the NT.) But the point is that he is still passively baptized.

**Consider that Luke wrote his Gospel to record what Jesus "began to do and teach, until the day he was taken up" (Acts 1:1-2), implying that Jesus is everywhere active in the book of Acts by his Spirit and church.


Ted M. Gossard said...

Interesting, Andrew. Like you say "baptism" doesn't always mean the same thing, and maybe more than one thing is going on at a time. I do see it as both a command that humans are to fulfill, and a work of God. This would land me more on the credo-side, though God surely honors the faith of parents for their children.

I like the way N.T. Wright expresses Jesus' baptism. Jesus certainly idnetifies himself with the human race in it, a forerunning of his death. My own words here.

I don't think one should lump all the passages on baptism in the letters together; not really sure that 1 Corinthians 12:13 is synonymous with Romans 6, etc.

Just my little thoughts on it.

Halfmom said...

..."If the baptism is always passive...". Perhaps the act of baptism is passive, but submitting oneself, or rather presenting ones person and ones testimony for public display before baptism is anything but passive. You might find Adam's testimony - Dena Marie has put it up on facebook - and baptism at the church picnic quite interesting.

Andrew said...

I have to ask: Where in Scripture do you ever see baptism as an admitting of one's conversion "testimony"? I'm not saying it's not there, but I don't know of any instance.

Halfmom said...

I think that I was thinking of the baptismal testimonies of a few weeks ago at the church picnic. So, tradition or practice perhaps. However, off the top of my head, I think of of the Ethiopian. Didn't he say to Philip - there is water, what is to prevent it now? He recognized the truth and because of his recognition wanted to follow through with baptism? Or is that reading too much in to the text? Either way, it is well worth the time to listen to Adam's testimony and watch his baptism as a professing adult.

Ted M. Gossard said...

"baptism -- saying good bye and hello to a new world, a new story, where the past is past and the future is now."

This from Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog today captures the essence of what I believe baptism truly is.