Meditations on baptism (part 1)

Baptism of Jesus, Andrei Rublev, 1405
(Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow)

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2: 38-39, ESV)

I have been thinking and wondering about these verses. Peter has just proclaimed the gospel and the hearers have responded positively. They ask, “What shall we do?” That is, we have heard the message, know that it is true for it has convicted us, and now we want to become, like you Peter, followers of Christ. What steps are required now? The verses above are Peter’s response. I like Peter’s response, but I have come to realize that my Baptist training makes me do a little mental shift as I read it. That shift is kinda like when one reads about how people lived and thought in centuries past, and where one holds simultaneously the ideas of reverence for those people, but also judgement. In other words, I hold in the highest esteem Peter and the other apostles, but I “know” that baptism is really just a symbolic act, something that was popular then, in that culture, but not necessary for either salvation or receiving God’s grace. Is that true? That is my training. Is that how Peter saw it, or how he would see it now if he had the wisdom and clarity that has come to us? Or, and I fear much more likely, are my beliefs somehow skewed? I do not want to believe that having an apostolic faith means that I come up with the arguments that make most sense to me and then claim the apostles meant what I believe—because they must have, because my argument is air tight, because I revere the Bible, right?

The irony that I have inherited is that my Baptist training may have actually taught me an un-apostolic understanding of baptism. My desire is to correct my understanding and to follow Peter’s (and the other apostles’) teaching. I want to sort this out not only for my sake, but for my family’s as well.

The issues for me with these verses are:

  1. “Repent and be baptized every one of you…” I have always believed that baptism is optional. I know that in some way it must be. If someone does not have the opportunity, or has never heard of baptism, then they must still be able to be saved, for it is God who does the saving. But here is Peter combining repentance and baptism as interlinking requirements. Possibly baptism could be understood as a culturally proscribed public act and therefore it could be substituted in some way with another act, but there is still the combination of repentance and the public act (and maybe repentance is understood as a public act as well, though I tend to think it is more internal to the individual). Regardless, Peter says everyone of them must be baptized along with their repentance. I wonder what many Christians today would say in Peter’s stead. I think many, at least many lightly-reformed Christians would not include baptism—either as forcefully or at all. But Peter seems to require it. Was he merely a product of his culture?
  2. “…for the forgiveness of your sins…” Having been excellently trained in reformed thinking about such things I have always known that what Peter really mean to say is, “Repent for the forgiveness of your sins, and then publicly display your new heart commitments with the external, ritualistic act that has cultural meaning for us today, that is, be baptized.” Is my reformed thinking right? Peter, as we read, actually says something closer to repentance+baptism=forgiveness of sins. How do we sort this out, or do we? Even repentance isn’t really a matter of the heart as much as it’s a result of a heart change. We repent because we have had our hearts invaded by the Holy Spirit and our eyes open to the truth from which we find no escape except in Christ. Repentance is the act of turning to God, of turning away from what it was we were worshiping before, of being contrite; their response shows they are already chosen by God. Thus, when the crowd asks what they shall do, they have already been convicted by Peter’s message. The Spirit of God has already worked the beginnings of salvation in their hearts. Peter. looking over the crowd, would realize the crowd’s response indicates that God has chosen to save them. Given that, the proper response is repentance and baptism. Why not just repentance? Why not just a welcoming embrace? What does baptism do? Why does Peter require it? Or should I merely do my little mental gymnastics and “know” that that is not what Peter really meant, at least outside of culturally bound expectations.
  3. “…and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Now Peter really messes with my head. He seems to be saying something like: repentance+baptism leads to the forgiveness of sins and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. In other words, if I repent and get baptized I will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (As an aside, is the gift of the Holy Spirit something different than the Holy Spirit? Do I receive the Holy Spirit or the gift of the Spirit? Is there a difference?) Again we are in that position of wondering if there is a direct and even necessary connection between baptism and being saved. If I must both repent and get baptized in order to have my sins forgiven and to receive the Holy Spirit, then I must repent and be baptized. And again I am left with the same questions: Why not just repentance? Does not the response of the crowd indicate they have already received the Holy Spirit, at least in some fashion? What does baptism do? Why does Peter require it? Or should I merely do my little mental gymnastics and “know” that that is not what Peter meant.
  4. “… the promise is for you and for your children…” These words are popular amongst the crowd that practices infant baptism. I do not know anything of the theology or arguments for infant baptism, but I do wonder at these words. I can understand the words, “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” That makes sense to me, and who is to stop God? But why specifically say, “the promise is for you and for your children” instead of “the promise is for you and for anyone who believes?” How is this promise made to the children? Is this merely Peter’s way of saying the promise is for everyone who is of the age when they can understand what the sinner’s prayer really means? Even then it would seem that Peter is saying the promise is that everyone who repents and gets baptized will have their sins forgiven and will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; and that this gift is even for children. (This part of the verse is less of an issue for me, in that it can be understood rather easily in different ways. Or maybe it’s even more of an issue because it’s too easy to just plug in what I want it to mean.) Does baptism apply to the whole family? Imagine a family where the parents have heard the gospel preached by Peter, their hearts have been made soft by God, and they want to take the next step. Peter says to repent and be baptized. (He does not say, “Ask Jesus into you heart,” or anything so formal as the sinner’s prayer, btw.) So the parents say let’s do it. And then they think of their children, and they are reminded of the words of Joshua, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” They turn to Peter and ask if their whole family can be baptized. (Or maybe this issue never came up because it was just assumed.) How would Peter have replied? And if he said yes, would he believe that the children, who we imagine were too young to truly understand what is happening to them, would still receive some benefit, some grace, because of the act? I am inclined to think that Peter would have said yes to the family being baptized and that he would believe in the benefit of baptism, even to the children. This way of thinking flies in the face of my particular reformed training which denies infant baptism.

So here I am with all these questions. I am steeped (have been brewed in) a concoction of reformed thinking since I was born. And the particular version of that brew is a mix of evangelical, fundamentalist, Calvinist, and Baptist. Curiously, I find myself fascinated with Catholic theology these days. All the classic rebuttals against Catholicism have been gradually turning into questions again for me. The answers I was given are not so self-evident anymore. I feel less affinity with a number of the classic reformed arguments. Thus I am swimming in the zone between. I do not fully accept the Catholic position, but I no longer fully accept the reformed position. To the chagrin of any Bible thumping fundamentalist I am, as we tend to say these days, in process.

I grew up with something like this perspective on baptism (from the Southern Baptist Convention): “Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water. …It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.” This perspective falls within the concept of “believer’s baptism.” As you can see from the statement, baptism is an act of obedience and it is symbolic. I am not sure why an act of symbolism is also an act of obedience, especially if it symbolizes faith. I mean, I know all the arguments since I grew up with them, but it seems to me we are back at the mental gymnastics of not wanting to say that baptism is required, but still wanting to say it is. And I know from past experience (though I can’t say what it is today) that to become a member of a Baptist church one must be baptized, that is, fully immersed before witnesses.

So what about symbolism? We use symbols to stand for larger or more complex ideas or beliefs. The cross, as a symbol, stands for the death of Christ, which is part of the gospel message, which is much bigger than the symbol of the cross. But the cross is a kind of shorthand, something that powerfully stands for a total. But symbols only have meaning in a corporate context. Symbols bind us together. Thus baptism can be a powerfully symbolic act within a body of faith, that is within a corporate context of belief. But then I think of the verses from Acts 8:35-38, where Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch and teaches him the gospel from Isaiah. I pick two translations to highlight verse 37, which is missing from the ESV, but included in brackets in the NASB:

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (ESV)

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” [And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him. (NASB)

Why does the Ethiopian need to be baptized? What made him think he should be baptized. It makes sense that Philip said something to the Ethiopian like what Peter said earlier, that one must repent and be baptized, which raises all the same questions as before. But in this situation we also have only two people present, at least from what we can tell from the text. Today an evangelist will lead someone to Christ, then rejoice when they accept Him, then maybe hug them, then encourage them to join a church. What we don’t get today is the evangelist saying repent and be baptized. Billy Graham didn’t call people to come down, say a prayer and accept Jesus into their hearts, and then get baptized in some mass baptism ritual the way they did after hearing Peter’s preaching. Does Philip need to see the Ethiopian rise out of the water to know he has been saved? For whom is this symbolic act being performed other than Philip and the Ethiopian? In the context it would seem to be a rather private baptism. If this is the case then this baptism is not sending a symbolic message, at least not for others to see as it happened. It did get recorded, so we “see’ it, and presumably the Ethiopian told others. But given the situation it would seem that the need for the Ethiopian to be baptized is that it was thought by Philip as a necessity for becoming a follower of Christ, an important requirement, along with repentance, to be saved. In other words, it would appear that the apostles did not see baptism as merely a ritual, even an important ritual, but saw it as an essential part of the conversion process; one would not receive the Holy Spirit otherwise. Does this mean that baptism coveys something to the believer, something spiritual, something tangible? Are we saved in some way through baptism? Are we made better Christians in some way? Paul says in Romans:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5, ESV)

Here Paul links the act of baptism to Christ’s death. This makes sense, even if only at a symbolic level. But then Paul says that we were buried with Christ into death by baptism. This language seems rather forceful to me if we are only to see baptism as an optional and symbolic act. If Paul did not see baptism as anything other than a symbolic act tacked on to faith, then why draw such a strong link between the act of baptism and the theological point of our being buried with Christ? This baptism, according to these verses, links us to Christ’s death. Paul then goes on to argue that if we are united with Christ in his death by our being baptized, then surely we will also be united with him in the resurrection. Here then baptism is also linked to our resurrection. In other words, baptism is a part of the process we believers must go through if we are to be finally united with Christ, resurrected, attaining glory, saved. Right? Or is Paul writing only of an inner spiritual reality? If so, why the emphasis on baptism, which is something external, public, administered by someone else? Does this imply that those who have believed the gospel message, but have not yet been baptized, have not yet been baptized into Christ’s death? What are the implications of not being baptized? And is Paul referring strictly to a water baptism or some other kind, such as a spiritual baptism? In Colossians Paul says, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith…” If the circumcision is made without hands could also be the baptism Paul refers to?

In both cases (in Romans and in Colossians) I am inclined to see baptism as being a typical, water immersion kind of baptism. That is the kind of baptism, I believe, we see elsewhere in the Gospels and the book of Acts. It makes the most sense to me that the apostles and other disciples, as well as the rest of the early church, understood baptism as a physical act of immersion in water. The apostles saw the gospel as beginning with the baptism of John (see Acts 10:36-38) which was in the river Jordan. And consider John’s baptism. In Luke we read: “And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He proclaimed a baptism. I find that language interesting. It would seem either that the apostles saw baptism as being more than merely symbolic, or that today we tend to have an anemic understanding of what symbolism means in God’s creation—or both.

Here is the tension for me: I have come to believe, at a deep level, and from my evangelical Baptist training, that baptism is not essential; that it does not impart anything, at least not in the way some see the sacraments doing. Then I read scripture and I see, at least on the surface, the apostles proclaiming baptism as essential. I want my faith to be that of the apostles. I have also come to realize that so much of my understanding of the Bible has been presented to me with a kind of formula: “Yes, it does say that n the surface, but let me tell you what it really means.” In other words, what I get from so much reformed teaching is akin to how we psychoanalyze people: we are always looking for the hidden meaning below the surface. Reformed theology, it seems to me, is based upon, or at least fosters a view of perpetual skepticism, including and maybe especially, the “obvious” meaning of scripture. Even my quotes around the word obvious speaks to this skepticism.

Tentative conclusion: It seems obvious to me that the apostles believed baptism is essential to the life of the Christian; that repentance and baptism go together, are tied to the receiving of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that a whole family can receive baptism, including the children, and that, in some way, that is good and proper. However, in the long run, and like circumcision, baptism does not save us by itself, rather it must accompany a heart oriented toward God and the eternal. Thus baptism, like circumcision, may be more an act of entering the communion of believers, the church. Baptism may also be an act of entering into a right relationship with God. It may also impart some spiritual gift, of which I am still unclear. Therefore, I am beginning to see baptism as more important, more relevant, and more powerful than I have believed in the past.

1 Comment

  1. I ran across your website doing some investigation for a class I teach at my church. Brother, have you consider the Anglican Church? Think about it…you are writing and thinking like an Anglican.


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