Saturday, 18 July 2009

Is Baptism a Gospel Issue?

I once heard a pastor say that he would not be encouraging a “new convert” to be baptised, since baptism is not a “gospel issue” and he could not add anything to what was presented when he “received Christ” (Col. 2:6). This post flows on from a previous one and the discussion there on how we understand  “the gospel”. I can readily assent to baptism not being a matter which should hinder fellowship when we come to different conclusions about the Biblical evidence. But that is not the same as saying it is not an outworking of the gospel. Yes, Paul, to make a point in the context of a church dispute, can say that he was commissioned “not to baptise, but to proclaim the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17). But to take this as a warrant for indifference to the NT’s mode of identification with Christ would be to outrun the evidence (Paul was baptised and did in fact baptise others, as well as writing on the subject as the occasion suggested). It is baptism which seals our union with Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12) and our incorporation through the Spirit into the one body (1 Cor. 12:13).

Baptism is the initial faith response expected in the discipling task which Jesus entrusted to his followers (Matt. 28:19). Consequently, baptism is right at the forefront of Peter’s proclamation of the gospel on the day of Pentecost. “Repent and be baptised” is his summary of the response he calls for to his message (Acts 2:38). Peter is even bold enough to express the thought that it is baptism which (rightly understood) “saves us” (1 Pet. 3:21). Baptism is the immediate response to Philip’s gospelling (Acts 8:12). In fact, as I read the account of the growth of the early church, I am struck by the constant note of the urgency of baptism; it is not something which should be denied or delayed to any who wish to identify with the Messiah and his new community. This is how the community recognises those who share their faith, those who are joined in a common bond of commitment to him and to one another. Baptism figures in a key list of core unifying principles: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6).

When we abandon baptism, we substitute other more individualistic and subjective forms of recognition and exclusion. We undermine the unity on which the NT places such a high value. We subvert the gospel.



Michael F. Bird said...

Excellent post. In the NT conversion & baptism go together like QLD & State of Origin triumph. What is more, if baptism is a genuine means of grace (even an effective sign in Baptist ecclesiologies), then I can't see why one would discourage a convert from going through with it.

Marty Foord said...

Dear John,

Thanks for the post. You raise an excellent point with which I'm in great sympathy.

To slightly elaborate, it seems to me that baptism itself is not an adiaphoron, however, I would suggest that the infant / adult issue is. This doesn't mean we shouldn't have an opinion, as Paul says in Rom. 14 all must be convinced in their own mind. However, I would want to say that it's not an issue over which church's should divide.

One last thought. I still struggle to see that we can say definitively 1 Cor. 12:13; Rom. 6:3-4 and Col. 2:12 are references to water baptism. They may be, but how do we know for sure? Couldn't they simply be metaphors for salvation--as "circumscision" is in Col. 2?


Marty Foord.

John Davies said...

Yes, certainly happy to contemplate 1 Cor. 12:13; Rom. 6:3-4 and Col. 2:12 having some metaphorical force. I heard Donald Robinson’s paper “Towards a Definition of Baptism” which appeared in RTR in 1975 and it did impact my thinking. My feeling now however is that the metaphor only really works in a context where water baptism is widely practised and understood to be the initiatory mark. It seems to be a modern Western thing to pull apart the sign and the significance in ways that might not have been quite so comprehensible to the early Christians.
As to the adult–infant thing, I wasn’t particularly getting into that and agree that we should not divide over our different interpretations. The example presupposed an adult conversion experience, language I would not myself use of those already united to Christ by baptism.

Martin Shields said...

Hi John,

Thanks for posting about a potentially thorny issue. Your note about the urgency associated with baptism in the NT reminds me of a comment a baptist pastor once made to me, that today no-one practices baptism in the way it is recorded in the NT. It is either performed long before "conversion" or else some time after. Yet, as you've noted, the NT seems at pains to emphasise the association between baptism and conversion.

This observation obviously raises a number of issues, including whether the disjunction introduced in modern practice between conversion and baptism undermines the significance of baptism.

Perhaps the (justifiable) historical reaction against an ex opere operato view of baptism leads inevitably to the view related to you by that pastor you mention. I think, however, that it reflects an over-reaction where the truth lies in the middle somewhere...

sujomo said...

Thanks everyone for your thoughtful and helpful comments.

I just realized that for Colossians 2:6-23 the NIV has the heading "Freedom from human regulations through life with Christ". This passage refers to: the significance of the incarnation for salvation, the juxtaposition of circumcision and baptism, the benefits of Christ's death and victory on the cross, union with Christ which means dying with Christ in order to live in Him.

I agree with Marty who alerts us to the fact that "baptism" doesn't always mean "water baptism". In this Colossians 2 passage the circumcision on view appears to be that of Deuteronomy 30:6 and Romans 2:28,29. This is clear from the reference to "circumcision done by Christ" which is placed in apposition to "having been been buried with him in baptism ..."

Like the other reformers, Buliinger saw a parallel between circumcision and baptism and between passover and the Lord's Supper. Re circumcision he focuses on Genesis 17:1-14 which although has strong words about circumcision (eg verse 14)emphasizes "walk before me and be blameless" because El Shaddai, in His grace, has already 'confirmed' the covenant with man. Perhaps this is the clue to understanding the "pledge" in 1 Peter 3:21.

The main reason that the sacrament of water baptism is often separated in time from conversion is that it is linked with membership in the visible church.


Ian Smith said...

This has been a very helpful discussion.

I think, however, that the reference in Colossians 2:11,12 does refer to water baptism. The NIV does not do too good a job on these verses when it says "the circumcision done by Christ". The original says the "circumcision of Christ". The NIV has taken this as a subjective genitive, but I think an objective genitive fits better. It is not something that Christ does, it is something that is done to him. The circumcision of Christ is a reference to the cross which is not just the putting off of a little little bit of flesh (as in circumcision); it is the putting off of the whole body. Paul's point is that the ritual of circumcision is fulfilled by the cross.

When Paul then goes on to talk about baptism, his point is that baptism also points to the sufficiency of Christ's work in death and resurrection. This then points to the new life that is found in Christ.

It is hard for me to conceive of the original recipients of Colossians reading baptism as anything other than the initiatory water rite. Baptism, as with circumcision, points to the reality which is found in the sufficiency of Christ, and in particular his death and resurrection. This interpretation seems to fit better with the flow of Colossians.

sujomo said...

Thanks for the very stimulating thoughts, Ian. A lot to think about.

However, I do note that in his commentary that Peter O'Brien does say, re Col. 2:11: this is not "'circumcision which belongs to Christ,' understood as a Christian circumcision in tacit contrast to the circumcision which belongs to Moses and the patriarchs, and therefore a periphrasis for baptism (though many exegetes take it this way)".

Indeed, Abbott in the ICC writes: "The simplest and most natural interpretation is: 'the circumcision which belongs to Christ, and is brought about by union with him', in contrast to the circumcision of Moses and of the patriarchs".

I wonder if a key exegetical crux here is the significance of acheiropoieto in the verse (cf the use of cheiropoietou in Ephesians 2:11).

I agree that we might expect the original readers of Colossians would read "baptism" in terms of the sacrament. But the understanding of a word is determined by its context. How would the original readers of Mark have understood Mark 10:38ff?

Anyway, I thought I might share the thought that arose in my mind.

But I agree with John that baptism (understood in the context of the whole message of the canon) is a "Gospel issue".


Steven Coxhead said...

I think Paul's thought in Col 2 is that through baptism--the apostolic practice of baptizing converts more or less straightaway means that they ordinarily viewed baptism in the Spirit happening at the time of water baptism (see Acts 2:38)--we are united to Christ, in whom we have the fullness of everything we need, the implication being in Paul's historical context that we don't need to be formally under the Mosaic law to be "complete." In the context, the putting off of the body of the flesh (Col 2:11) is a metaphor for the removal of sin and the sinful nature. This equates to the spiritual circumcision of the believer (as per Deut 30:6). This spiritual circumcision has been achieved through the circumcision of Christ. The conjunction of cutting flesh and the resultant bleeding in the act of circumcision would seem to be an apt metaphor for Christ's death. The fact that burial and resurrection follows in logical order in v. 12 also suggests a reference to Christ's death somewhere in the preceding context. In addition the cleansing idea behind physical circumcision fits in neatly with Paul's understanding of Christ's death (and resurrection) inaugurating the time of full spiritual cleansing and dedication to God in the new covenant age.

So I think I have to agree with Ian, therefore, that the circumcision of Christ is referring to Jesus' death. I think the similarity of wording in Col 1:22 confirms this. At the same time, we shouldn't forget that Paul views Christ's death and resurrection as a package. In the end, the situation is that Christ's death marks the end of the old covenant and his resurrection the commencement of the new, so they really go together.

Baptism formally links us to all those benefits. Paul wasn't sent to baptize, but he was sent to preach the gospel which includes baptism as an important component. Why was the Ethiopian eunuch so keen to be baptized if Philip didn't preach baptism when preaching to him the gospel (Acts 8:36)? Why did Paul baptize the Philippian jailer and his household "immediately" (Acts 16:33) if he didn't see baptism as a gospel issue? Not to mention the fact that Paul also baptized Lydia and her household (Acts 16:15) and the twelve disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus (Acts 19:5-6) at the time of their conversion. How can baptism not be part of the gospel?

Marty Foord said...

I've enjoyed reading the responses in this thread immensely. Thanks for all those who have contributed.

I'm still struggling with seeing Col. 2:12 as water baptism primarily because of the context. It concerns pressing on with Christ as Lord (2:6-7) because fullness is found in him (v. 9). This arises from what *Christ* has done: in his cross-work Christ was circumcised (v. 11), baptised into death not water [cf. Luke 12:50] , and raised to new life (v. 12). The context is not about what we have done, but rather, that believers enjoy the benefits of Christ's work (his fullness) by virtue of their union with him through faith.

The difficulty I have with saying that the average believer would have understood the word "baptism" to mean a water rite is that we must be able to prove that this is what the word always means in Scripture. However, it's actually not easy to do this.

I may well be wrong here, but I currently struggle to see otherwise.

Again, I'm not wanting to demean baptism as a rite--it's a part of the great commission.

Every blessing in Christ,


Ian Smith said...

Thanks for your comments Marty. I too am enjoying this discussion.

Paul's summary statement of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 mentions three stages: death, burial and resurrection. I think these three stages are echoed in Colossians 2:11,12. If we take circumcision as referring to Christ's death (see my earlier comments), then baptism, I think, is referring to burial. The text does not say that we are baptised into Christ's death; it says "having been buried with him in baptism" (NIV). Indeed the Greek implies that we are buried together with him in or by means of baptism. Burial is the sealing of death. Baptism is the sealing of our union with Christ. Just as burial is not the essence of death, so baptism is not the essence of union with Christ, but it a sign and a seal. Colossians 2:12 then goes on to talk about resurrection to complete the Pauline triptage of death, burial and resurrection.

It's true that baptism does not always mean a water rite in the New Testament, and the example you cite of Luke 12:50 is a good example, but even here, the only way to understand the death of Jesus as a baptism is to primarily understand the allusion in this verse to the water rite that is outlined in the earlier chapters of Luke with the ministry of the baptiser.

Water baptism was practised in Pauline churches (e.g. 1 Cor 1:14-16; Gal 3:27) and I cannot see why it would be different in Colossae. I think, therefore, that unless the context clearly refers to something apart from the water rite (e.g. Luke 12:50) that the water rite should at least be our starting point.

Warm greetings,

Marty Foord said...

Dear Ian,

I really appreciated your last comment. I hadn't seen the death-burial-resurrection link in Col. 2 with 1 Cor. 15:3-4. That's great.

I do have some more questions. Firstly, again in context, Col. 2:11-12 is focusing upon Christ's work not ours. Circumcision is not the physical outward action, explicitly mentioned in context, why would we assume that baptism is different here?

Secondly, if in Pauline theology we believe that our union with Christ occurs by faith alone, then strictly speaking we weren't buried with Christ in baptism, but buried with Christ by faith alone. Baptism may illustrate that, but it wasn't the actual occasion.

Thirdly, I was recently listening to a Don Carson lecture where he argued that the "one baptism" in Eph. 4:5 is synecdoche for conversion. In other words, he contended that "baptism" regularly in the NT refers to Christian conversion. I'd not heard that before. However, it doesn't seem to fit the context here with the focus of baptism being on burial.

Thanks again for your thoughts brother.