Sunday, 12 September 2010

Say it with water!

Baptism of Christ –via Wikimedia Commons
A friend of mine in Exeter works for a local independent church (unless I'm getting my wires crossed) and just publicised an event of theirs on Facebook:
Say it with water!

3 Sunday afternoons to help you explore baptism before you take the plunge!
I thought straight away about the difference in belief expressed by that catchy title, but I didn't feel like saying anything at first. By the next day someone had left a comment saying "Love that slogan!" so I decided I would after all:
We think about baptism in a different way (which we think is biblical or we wouldn't believe it). Whereas I'm not really sure where the idea of baptism as an expression of faith comes from. I can't think of a passage that suggests it off the top of my head.
To which my friend replies:
What else is it? In the Bible it's a public statement of a decision to join/follow.
So here I am to tell you what I and my church think baptism is, beyond an expression of faith.

The Sacrament of Baptism

I was a little surprised by the question (perhaps it was rhetorical) because the bible says quite a lot more about baptism and he does know the bible, I'm sure.
Anyway, we call baptism a sacrament. A sacrament, in brief, is a symbol of grace and a means of grace i.e. baptism both symbolises an important spiritual reality and is an important spiritual reality:
Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. - CCC 1127
More specifically on the subject of baptism, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:
Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. - CCC 1257
I'll write something on what that doesn't mean towards the end.
Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: "Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word." - CCC 1213
Baptism before Christ

I think it makes sense to step back a moment before looking at Christian baptism. From the perspective of someone who doesn't know the gospel or Christ, the physical act doesn't suggest an expression of faith in itself - it suggests washing. That's an image that the bible adopts for Christian baptism, but also expresses the ministry of St. John the Baptist:
And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. - Mark 1:4-5
Rather than an expression of faith exactly, it seems to be a symbolic washing in token of repentance for sins. They even confess their sins at the same time. The prophet who prepares the way for Christ makes it clear that baptism is an expression of conversion, and we in hindsight know that we need that conversion in order to live according to Christ:
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "[...]Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.["...]

"What should we do then?" the crowd asked.

John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same."

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"

"Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?" He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay." - Luke 3:7-8,10-14
So far there's no reason to suppose that anything beyond the symbolic is happening at all, and yet in the course of Jesus' ministry we learn that it seems to be something very special. When he asks the priests and elders "John's baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?" (Mt 21:23-27) he deliberately asks a dangerous question. To the people, evidently, it was heavenly, and what's more, the priests and elders couldn't confidently refute this belief.

In fact, that question might be taken to represent the two viewpoints discussed. For Catholics, baptism is very much "from heaven" - the Catechism says in fact that it is Christ who baptizes - whereas many Christians, although not saying that baptism is truly "from men" (no-one is saying that we invented it ourselves), stress that it is the witness of men to faith in Jesus.

But whatever the baptism of John was (I'm not entirely sure myself now) what is clear is that Christian baptism is greater:
"I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." - Matthew 3:11
This opens some questions as well, like the meaning of and whether there is a difference between baptism in the Holy Spirit and in fire, and if so, to what moments in the life of the Christian in the Church they correspond. However, I'm not sure myself and I'm happy to move on because there's a lot more to say without dwelling on things I don't understand. The bible makes it clear in many passages that baptism is more than just washing your body.

Baptism is salvific
Eight people went into [the ark] and were brought safely through the flood. Those flood waters were like baptism that now saves you. But baptism is more than just washing your body. It means turning to God with a clear conscience, because Jesus Christ was raised from death. - 1 Peter 3:20-21
It's amazing what you can miss when you read the bible. St. Peter writes that baptism saves us, and I didn't notice for years. He also recalls St. John's message of repentance, of "turning to God with a clear conscience". Another verse indicates that baptism is salvific, but it comes from a disputed passage in the bible which apparently does not exist in the "most reliable early manuscripts" (NIV). Here it is, for the sake of completion:
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. - Mark 16:16
Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life

Another symbolic aspect of the act of baptism is the concept of death and resurrection. Descending into the waters represents death and rising again represents participation in the resurrected life of Christ. A pair of episodes in Jesus' ministry suggest a link between baptism and Jesus' passion and death, the request of James and John, where they accept the same baptism as the Lord (Mk 10:32-40), and an exclamation of Jesus (Lk 12:49-50). St. Paul writes much more explicitly:
Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. - Romans 6:3-8
I apologise if I went a bit over the top with the highlighting, but it's a relatively long passage to read on a screen and I wanted to emphasise the phrases which are especially relevant. Baptism, writes St. Paul, is our means of dying to Christ. "If" we have died "like this" then we can share in his resurrection and a new life.

Through Baptism we are freed from sin

A pair of passages indicate that baptism is linked to the forgiveness of sins:
"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."
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." Those who accepted his message were baptized. - Acts 2:38,40-41
This passage also hints at a salvific meaning, since those who accepted St. Peter's message of salvation were baptized. The other passage is perhaps more strong:
'And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.' - Acts 22:16
Through Baptism we are reborn as sons of God

Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.*"

"How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!"

Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.'* The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." - John 3:3-8
The asterisks indicate where the NIV gives the alternative translation "born from above", suggesting a heavenly, perhaps sacramental, act. Being "born of water" does immediately suggest baptism as the means of being born again, even if this is controversial. It is important to consider Christ's concluding instruction in St. Matthew's gospel:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. - Matthew 28:18-20
The fact that Jesus instructs his followers to baptize after teaching, more cryptically, that we must be "born again / from above [...] of water" is very leading. It is similar to Jesus saying "If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." (Jn 6:51 see also 35,55-57) and then taking bread and saying "Take and eat; this is my body." (Mt 26:26) - for there to be no connection would be very surprising.

Through Baptism we become members of Christ and are incorporated into the Church

For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. - 1 Corinthians 12:13
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. - Galatians 3:26-28
A further passage covers quite a lot of areas:
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. - Colossians 2:9-15
An interesting passage because it suggests that baptism is a replacement for circumcision, or rather that circumcision foreshadowed Christian baptism. Circumcision was of course a requirement for the Jews, it marked you out as one of the people of God. And "fulness in Christ" also makes us his people, members of his body. Associated with baptism, again there is new life in Christ, again there is forgiveness of sins.

And this baptism that makes us one in Christ gives us good reason to consider all baptized Christians as brothers:
Baptism constitutes the foundation of communion among all Christians, including those who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church: "For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church." "Baptism therefore constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn." - CCC 1271
Having gone through all that, it's clear that, even if you don't agree with me and my Church about the specifics, the bible has a whole heap of things to say about baptism other than that it's an expression of faith.

What the Catholic Church doesn't say about Baptism

You have to be clear about these things, because someone might think baptism is strictly necessary for salvation. It's not so.
The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are "reborn of water and the Spirit." God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. - CCC 1257

Every man who [...] seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity. - CCC 1260
That phrase "he himself is not bound by his sacraments" bears repeating. God gives us baptism as a gift, a means of salvation, but God does as he wills.

There are quite a few instances in the New Testament where God seems to have other ideas, but then God's always doing that - it's rather his style. When the good thief is told he's going to paradise and it seems unlikely that he's baptised (Lk 23:39-43) that's fine - it's God's grace operating without human intervention, as it only too obviously can do. The same kind of thing applies when there's a separate baptism with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5), when baptism come before the Spirit (Acts 8:15-17) and when the Holy Spirit is received before baptism (Acts 10:44-48).
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Anonymous said...

Hi Mark

Thanks for the post.

I'm the guy who said "Love the slogan". I already adhere to much of what you say. I've been taught for years that Baptism is a specific, powerful act that is not simply an outward declaration.

Just to point out, since you began the discussion, that not every instance of "baptism" in the New Testament means a baptism of water. When it says "so many of you as were Baptised into Christ Jesus", it does not mean water baptism. (like when Jesus says "you cannot be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised in".

Most theologians consider there to be three baptisms:
1. Baptism of Salvation
2. Water Baptism
3. Baptism with the Holy Spirit

I also would never use the NIV to form doctrine - not literal enough!


Mark said...

Hi Scott,

Many thanks for your comment. It's good to know I'm not just writing for myself.

Never fear, I would never use the NIV to form doctrine - I get mine from the Catholic Church*. I used for two reasons a) it's very widespread, or at least it was last time I checked, so not very controversial b) it's the one that comes up automatically on

It occurred to me as I was writing that baptism doesn't have to be read as water baptism. I appreciate that there are plenty of ways of interpreting the text. I don't understand why we can rule water baptism out in any particular case however, like the one that you refer to in Romans 6.

I think that perhaps Jesus' command to baptize "in the name [...] of the Son" might be relevant to the passage, to being "baptized into Christ Jesus", especially considering the importance that the Jewish people gave to naming, and the ontological meaning of the divine name. In the case of his instruction, that at least is very likely to be water baptism.

Thanks again,

* Mind you the very bizarre site graphically chalks the NIV up to a diabolical triumvirate of the devil in person, Rupert Murdoch and "the" Pope...

Jon.S said...

Just putting this out there, but if baptism is seen as washing away our sin, whether spiritual or metapgorical, why did Jesus need to be baptised?

Dave Pegg said...

Wow look at it go! I wasn't expecting all this after I posted the flyer but good stuff and encouraging to see people up for getting to the bottom of things.

I know baptism is more than 'saying it with water' but I think it is nonetheless a helpful and provocative title to get people interested in finding out more and that's why I went with it. It's the name of a course that John Allan wrote years ago about baptism and we'll be using some of the material.

When people get baptised at Belmont, we play a video that explains what the Bible says about baptism so that we can be clear about what it is (and what it isn't).

The video helpfully summarises it. I started typing up the words but it's probably easier and more effective to email the video. If anyone wants to email me ( I'll send it.


Mark said...

John the Baptist didn't know the answer to that one either of course, and the only clue we have is “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” (Mt 3:13-15) so it remains a bit mysterious. Even if baptism were purely symbolic, what would it represent? Jesus' commitment to following himself?

People have their theories. Benedict XVI put forward his favourite in his Jesus of Nazareth (which is a good read btw). From what I recall he suggests that it represents a particular moment of claiming humanity, of taking on the sin of humanity. It takes place at the beginning of his public ministry, setting the scene for his redemptive ministry (though we hold that his whole life accomplishes our salvation).

He also goes into the meaning of "all righteousness", but that part I forget.

Jon.S said...

Cheers for the reply Mark :) Hadn't thought of it like that before.

Mark said...


This is something I intended to mention in passing in the original post, but forgot:

Interestingly, certain iconographic representations of Jesus' baptism make the waters of the Jordan appear to wrap the lower part of Christ like a burial shroud, suggesting the link between his own baptism and death.