Pastoral Theology and the Administration of Baptism
Those of us who teach Christian theology are familiar with the well-worn accusation that theological reflection is impractical, divisive, and deadening when it comes to the spiritual vigor and vitality of individual Christians and the church. And while I would agree that the study of unbiblical theology, though interesting and sometimes necessary, is ultimately a drain on intellectual and spiritual energy, attempting to plumb the depths of God and his revelation in the Scriptures cannot be characterized as such. If we approach this great discipline and divine obligation with humility, wonder, and joy because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, I believe we will be strengthened and encouraged in our relationship with him.
What is true of the study of theology in general is also true of Christian baptism. If the doctrine of baptism is unpacked in a way that is consistent with the overall biblical storyline, it is something to rejoice in as Christians. Baptism does not come out of the blue, so to speak, in the NT Scriptures. It is connected by Jesus and the apostles to the reality that the long-promised new covenant had been inaugurated by Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and the giving of the Holy Spirit.
As we read the NT it becomes evident that it teaches at least 4 things about Christian baptism.
A Public Declaration of Faith
First, in the NT Christian baptism is the primary way that Christians publicly declare their faith in Jesus. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, we are told how our risen Lord commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples of all the nations (28:18-20). The disciple-making process involved two things: 1) baptizing new believers into the name of the Triune God and, 2) teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded. The explicit Christ-centred nature of the teaching is consistent with the fulfillment theme that runs through Matthew’s gospel and presents Jesus as one who does not abolish the Law and the Prophets but instead fulfills them (5:17-20). All that has come before in salvation history must be read, interpreted, and applied in light of the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the baptizing and teaching ministry he inaugurated. All that has come before in salvation history must be read, interpreted, and applied in light of the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the baptizing and teaching ministry he inaugurated. Click To Tweet
The book of Acts and the rest of the NT tell us that the early church was obedient to her Lord. When the apostle Peter preached the first sermon of the new covenant era he explained that the coming of the Spirit indicated that the new age promised in the Old Testament had come (cf. Joel 2:28-32; Ezk.36:25-27; Jer.31:29-34) and that Jesus had accomplished salvation and was now Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). When the crowd, under the Spirit’s conviction, asked what they should do, Peter told them to: “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. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39).
The proper response to these history changing events is submission to Jesus as both Lord and Christ as outwardly proclaimed by the believer’s repentance and baptism. This is true of all believers, whoever they are, and wherever they may be found. And this is exactly what happened on the day of Pentecost when those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized and about three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2:41).
In our day, largely because there is still so much confusion regarding the NT teaching about it, baptism does not have the prominence it should as a way of testifying to the church and a watching world about the wonder of God’s saving grace received by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Today, this public testimony is desperately needed as a visual proclamation of the gospel. When Christians are obedient to their Lord in this way they experience his blessing in their lives, and in turn their obedient proclamation is a powerful testimony that God can, and often does use, to draw others to himself.
Union with Christ
But Christian baptism is more than a confession of faith on the part of a new believer; it also signifies union with Jesus in his redemptive work. Although Christians agree that there is some kind of union signified, not all agree on the nature of the union. Historically, evangelical Protestants have rejected sacramental ideas that water baptism conveys saving grace. The Bible does not teach that something magical happens when water is applied to an individual of any age by a religious minister or anyone else. Baptism does not regenerate and bring a person from a state of spiritual death to spiritual life.
Moreover, as a Baptist, I would also insist that baptism is not a sign and seal of a covenant of grace that should be administered to the infant children of Christian believers indicating their place in the covenant community. Some argue that just as circumcision marked those who belonged to the covenant community of Israel, so baptism identifies those who belong to the church. In the case of infants, this means that baptism is the promise of union with Christ if the child exercises faith as they grow older. While not necessarily sacramental as described above, the notion of a promised union based on future faith, does not do justice to NT teaching about baptism, which speaks of the vital spiritual union that exists between Jesus and his people when they put their faith in him.
This reading is consistent with key Pauline texts like Romans 6:1-10 and Colossians 2:11-12, which speak of baptism symbolizing the fact that by grace through faith believers have died with Christ, been buried with Christ, and have risen again to new life in Christ. The close connection between faith and baptism is also seen in Galatians 3:26-27, and Peter says something similar in 1 Peter 3:21. A careful reading of these passages in light of clear NT teaching that salvation is God’s work accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and applied to us by the Holy Spirit, reveals that in the new covenant baptism symbolizes this saving union.
As NT commentator Douglas J. Moo has put it, “Baptism stands for the whole conversion-initiation experience presupposing faith and the gift of the Spirit.” Many of the disagreements that persist regarding Christian baptism could be resolved if Christians would agree on the nature of the union symbolized by the new covenant ordinance. I believe that the impact of such an agreement would be profound and the benefits of a united testimony many. Furthermore, the biblical emphasis on the present reality of our union with Christ is an encouraging reminder that God is at work in people’s lives and it reminds us of the spiritual reality that empowers our saving relationship and walk with God.
Third, Christian baptism signifies the believer’s entrance into the church. To be baptized into Christ is to be baptized into his church because the church is the body of Christ (1 Cor.12:13; Eph.5:29-30). Although we are saved as individuals, we are brought by means of baptism and all that it symbolizes, into the church. In Galatians 3:27-28, Paul goes from speaking about being baptized into Christ, and being clothed with Christ, to stressing the unity of the church because all believers are one in Christ.
Similarly, in Ephesians 4:22-5:20 Paul employs the baptismal imagery of putting off and putting on to speak about the change of life that must occur if we are in Christ. He then describes the impact of God’s work of grace in our lives in terms of our relationships within the family of God, undoubtedly a reference to the church. Again, this is consistent with what happened on the day of Pentecost when Luke reports that those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized and about three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2:41). Luke tells us that these newly baptized disciples devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and to prayer (Acts 2:42). Our baptism should encourage us to press on until we see the Lord face to face, and until we receive the goal of our salvation, the redemption of our bodies. Click To Tweet
The connection between baptism and the church is underappreciated in our day. The NT knows nothing of unbaptized Christians, neither does it allow Christians to exist in independent isolation from the church. To be a Christian is to be part of a new family and humanity. Christian baptism makes explicit this important connection with its accompanying privileges and responsibilities.
Finally, Christian baptism looks to the future and the full realization of the promises of God and the salvation that we have in Jesus Christ. As Christians we are currently living between the inauguration and the consummation of the kingdom of God. Our location in salvation history is spoken about in a variety of ways in the NT.
For instance, we are in the world but not of it (Jn.17:14-26). Or, our citizenship is in heaven and we await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body (Phil.3:20-21). Or, as Paul puts it in 2 Cor.5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old is gone, the new is here.”
Just as Christian baptism speaks about what has happened in the past when we were saved by the Lord Jesus, and what is happening now as we follow him, so it reminds us that he will reign until he has defeated all of his enemies, including death, the greatest enemy. Our baptism should encourage us to press on until we see the Lord face to face, and until we receive the goal of our salvation, the redemption of our bodies (Rom.8:23). The new covenant outpouring of the Spirit that is connected to the first Christian baptisms at Pentecost also looks forward to the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom.8:18-23). Christian baptism reminds us that if we are in Christ the best is yet to come!
 Moo, Douglas. Romans. The New Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996. 390.