Monday, May 08, 2006

Christ: The Foundation of Baptism

There is enough to say about baptism to fill a book easily. And for those who will read this and notice that I left much unsaid, I know even as I begin typing that will be true enough. Still, this post on baptism will begin with baptism and Christ; the next one forward will continue with baptism and the Holy Spirit. This is not intended to separate the two, since they cannot rightly be separated; it is only to keep one post to a manageable length.

In our would-be-sophisticated age, it is too easy to miss the simple forerunners of baptism: the ceremonial washings which had foreshadowed it, God's promise of purity to be fulfilled in us. In our would-be-sophisticated age, it is too easy to be high-minded and miss God's humility. He has time and again chosen lowly ways to reach out to us. And it is easy, in our intellectual age, to forget that physical things such as water and the body are God's good creation. In the age to come, God does not resurrect only our intellects or our souls, but he raises both body and soul. In obedience, his laws govern more than our minds, but our bodies also. So in cleansing and renewal, he reaches out to more than just our spirits, but also our bodies. In this intellectual age, Christians should lead the way in keeping a holy regard for the physical world, in which and through which God chooses to make his wonders known. We should not despise the simple water of baptism, in which the body is honored as well as the soul in our Christian life, and the body participates as a good and redeemed part of creation. The baptism with water on our flesh renews the promise of Eden that the physical world is good, and points forward toward the world to come which, if you read the end of the Book, is not where man joins God in heaven, but where God joins man on a beautiful, holy earth (Revelation 21). God does not allow us to divide our bodies and souls, as if one could be holy and the other not also holy.

The first lesson that the New Testament hammers home about baptism is repentance. It is not spiritual accomplishment that drives us to seek baptism, but our filth, our humility, our need. In baptism, we turn to God for cleansing. The New Testament repeatedly discusses the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This connection between baptism and forgiveness offends some people on the grounds that forgiveness comes from God through Christ, not from water or, worse, from obedience to a law. If forgiveness comes through obedience, then it is earned and not a gift; it is no forgiveness at all. But on the grounds that the plain words of our first teachers must stand unchanged and undisputed if we are disciples, if we trust these words and go forward trusting them, we find that the Scripture says baptism saves us not through our obedience but through Christ's death and resurrection. Baptism is no empty ritual. Christ speaks of his own death as a baptism. He speaks of the deaths of his disciples after him as baptisms that they must undergo. Paul speaks of our baptism as being baptized into the death of Christ. Paul teaches that our being joined to Christ's death is a guarantee of our being joined to Christ's resurrection. Paul compares baptism to Moses leading the people out of slavery to freedom through the waters of the sea. Peter compares baptism to the flood of Noah, when by water God judged and cleansed the world, and saved his people. This baptism, Peter says, now saves us not by washing the dirt from our bodies, but the answer of a good conscience toward God through Christ's resurrection. So baptism is not an exercise in obedience to a ritual which does nothing; it is joining in Christ's death and resurrection, which transforms and saves us, forgives us and cleanses us. Our repentance also is the death, or putting to death, of whatever within us is still an enemy of God, nailing these also to the cross. Repentance always goes to the cross and seeks forgiveness and cleansing there in Christ. So Christ's death and resurrection are the foundation of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Index for systematic theology series

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