Some thoughts on baptism, part one is here. Thanks, John.
In my first post on baptism, I said (among other things) that a better question about baptism to begin with than the typical, “What does baptism do?” is instead, “What does baptism mean?” Then, I proceeded to offer two more questions for the bible to answer on our way to answering the question of baptism’s meaning.
Those 2 questions for the bible were:
1. What did biblical writers say about baptism? In other words, what meanings are associated with baptism from the biblical writers?
2. What did people in the bible do? In other words, what was their practice of baptism?
As to the first question, there are many meanings associated with baptism in the New Testament; I’ll try to gather most of them up into a smaller list, but I certainly do not claim to have captured them all here. The ritual act of baptism may be compared to a sermon because we are proclaiming something about God when we do it. So, when someone is baptized, we are saying that when God saves us, he…
a. Forgives & Cleanses Us of Sin
b. Raises Us to New Life with Christ
c. Unites Us with Others in Christ
d. Initiates Us into the Christian Life
I won’t claim that my list is exhaustive. But, allow me to share the Scriptural basis for these 4 meanings of baptism, with some commentary sprinkled in. I am listing quotations of Scripture here, but let me say clearly that I am not engaging in mere prooftexting. Rather, I am offering a few short verses that are representative of the whole context of the passage/book wherein the verses are found. Also, the Scriptures overlap, sometimes speaking of more than one meaning for baptism in a way that intertwines them. This is part of the richness of the sacrament.
Forgives & Cleanses Us of Sin
Peter replied, “Each of you must turn from your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is to you and to your children, and to those far away—all who have been called by the Lord our God. Then Peter continued preaching for a long time, strongly urging all his listeners, “Save yourselves from this generation that has gone astray!” Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church—about three thousand in all.” (NLT)
+ At the conclusion of his Pentecost sermon, Peter connects baptism with God’s salvation. There is a parallel within the connection between salvation and baptism: While they involve a response on the part of the hearers, they are both essentially something that is received and not performed by the baptized person.
+ Peter clearly connects receiving baptism in the name of Jesus Christ with receiving forgiveness of sins.
Raises Us to New Life with Christ
Or have you forgotten that when we became Christians and were baptized to become one with Christ Jesus, we died with him? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised as he was. Our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also share his new life. We are sure of this because Christ rose from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. He died once to defeat sin, and now he lives for the glory of God. So you should consider yourselves dead to sin and able to live for the glory of God through Christ Jesus. (NLT)
+ Paul here speaks some of baptism’s cleansing us from sin (see above point).
+ Paul teaches that in baptism we are united with Christ in his death. Since this is the case, Christ’s victory via the cross and resurrection over sin and death is applied to us such that we now share Christ’s present life–“able to live for the glory of God through Christ Jesus.”
+ This is the passage that underscores the Baptists (and others) emphasis on immersion. The baptismal enactment using immersion envisioned by Paul in these verses is no doubt an incredibly powerful one. Since we technically affirm three modes of water baptism–sprinkling, pouring, and immersing, it would be good for us United Methodists to take hold of this by somehow including both a font (for infants and smaller children) and a pool (for adults who come to Christ as adults or youth who wish to receive the sacrament through the mode of immersion.
For in Christ the fullness of God lives in a human body, and you are complete through your union with Christ. He is the Lord over every ruler and authority in the universe. When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. It was a spiritual procedure—the cutting away of your sinful nature. For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to a new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. (NLT)
+ Again, intertwining of baptism and salvation in meaning. This passage leads nicely into the next one…
Unites Us with Others in Christ
So you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have been made like him. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all Christians—you are one in Christ Jesus. (NLT)
+ Paul compellingly levels the playing field ethically, socio-economically, and in terms of sex. The commonality that the baptized share in Christ is vastly greater than other aspects of commonality that we privilege from a worldly perspective.
Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Always keep yourselves united in the Holy Spirit, and bind yourselves together with peace. We are all one body, we have the same Spirit, and we have all been called to the same glorious future. There is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and there is only one God and Father, who is over us all and in us all and living through us all. (NLT)
+ As baptized Christians, we are united with others who share that baptism. Our unity here is described around our being “one body” and also as sharing the “same Spirit” and a calling to the “same glorious future.”
Initiates Us into the Christian Life
Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (NLT)
+ Matthew emphasizes, characteristically, that baptism is a distinctive part of initiating us into a new way of life: “Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” It is a new way of life modeled after that of Jesus the Christ. We are his disciples, his students…his apprentices, to borrow Dallas Willard’s description.
This is but a sample of what the New Testament writers have had to say about baptism, yet it is a helpful one, I think.
UPDATE: Some thoughts on baptism, part three is here.