On Baptism

Back in 2015 I did a lot of reading, teaching and blogging on baptism. Here is the resultant series.

Water or Spirit Baptism? | Baptism as Initiatory Rite of New Covenant | In Defense of Covenant/Infant Baptism | Baptism as Effectual Means of Salvation

Baptism with Water or Spirit?

This past week I had a great discussion (yeah, we’ll call it a discussion) about baptism in two separate ACGs (one on Union with Christ and one on Eternal Security).  I stated that baptism is the initiatory rite of the New Covenant. Those who are baptized into Christ are members of the New Covenant people of God, the church, and are Christians. That doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily the elect, that they’ll come to faith or that they’ll be saved in the end; instead, it means that they have [been] identified with the people of the new covenant, the church, associate themselves with the name of Christ, and bear the external mark of a Christian.

A fair bit of discussion revolved around the meaning of baptism in the NT – is it baptism in water or baptism in the Spirit that is referred to. So…here’s the list of passages referring to baptism or baptize or baptized (though not washed or cleansed).  I’ve sorted them as best I could in the time I had. On the ‘hinge’ texts, I’ve included comments from scholars – both those I agree with and those I don’t (basically, any I had access to in my office).  I’ve commented here or there, but I’ll not that in red type.  Have fun!

John the Baptist baptized in water
Matthew 3:6-7; 3:13-16, 21:25 Mark 1:4-5, 9; 11:30 Luke 3:3, 7, 12, 21; 7:29 John 1:31, 10:40 Acts 1:22; 10:37; 13:24; 18:25;
Both water and spirit baptism mentioned
Matthew 3:11 Mark 1:8 Luke 3:16 John 1:33 Acts 1:5; Acts 11:16;
Water baptism clearly, unavoidably indicated
Matthew 28:19 John 3:22-23; 4:1-2 Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12-16, 36-38; 9:18; 10:47-48; 16:15, 33; 18:18, 19:3-5; 22:16 1 Corinthians 1:13-17 1 Peter 3:21 1 Corinthians 15:29;
Water baptism indicated, but could be debated
Mark 16:16: since this is a part of the ‘maybe it’s original/maybe it’s not’ longer ending of Mark, I’ll skip comment
Baptism in the Spirit:
1 Corinthians 12:13;
Baptized into Moses (still water): 1 Corinthians 10:2 Into Christ’s suffering (must be supplied, not explicit): Mark 10:38-39
Hinge texts
Romans 6:3-4 Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 4:5 Colossians 2:12;
Romans 6:3-4
On this passage, Stott says, “baptism means water baptism unless in the context it is stated to the contrary. Some commentators have suggested that Paul here is referring to baptism with the Spirit as uniting us with Christ, and have quoted 1 Corinthians 12:13 as a parallel. But it is safe to say that whenever the terms ‘baptism’ and ‘being baptized’ occur, without mention of the element in which the baptism takes place, the reference is to water baptism.” Doug Moo, “Paul’s reference is to the Roman Christians water baptism as their outward initiation in to Christian existence. To be sure, a few scholars have denied any reference to water baptism here, arguing that ‘baptize’ means ‘immerse’ in a metaphorical sense, or that Paul refers to ‘baptism in the Spirit’, or that he uses ‘baptize’ as a metaphor for incorporation into the body of Christ. But, without discounting the possibility of allusions to one or more of these ideas, a reference to water baptism is primary. By the date of Romans, ‘baptize’ had become almost a technical expression for the rite of Christian initiation by water, and this is surely the meaning the Roman Christians would have given the word.” FF Bruce takes it to be water baptism also, writing, “He took it for granted that the Roman Christians, who were not his converts, had been as certainly baptized as his own converts were…In apostolic times baptism appears to have followed immediately on confession of faith in Christ.” He doesn’t, at least here, speak to infant baptism as that is a different issue, but of convert baptism. Everret Harris (Expositors Bible Commentary) goes in a slightly different direction, “It [Death to sin] was accomplished by being “baptized into Christ Jesus.” What is being described is a spiritual reality of the deepest import—not a ceremony, not even a sacrament.” As someone who interprets this passage to mean water baptism, I agree with Harris – it isn’t simply the washing in the water (so 1 Peter 3:21). The rite of baptism unites us to the covenant, but not all the blessings of the covenant automatically. Faith is required, and when exercised, faith receives the blessings which the sacrament points to – namely union with Christ in his death and resurrection.
Galatians 3:27
Stott contends this does mean water baptism but argues, “Our baptism sets forth visibly this union with Christ. This cannot possibly mean that the act of baptism itself unites a person to Christ, that the mere administration of water makes him a child of God. We must give Paul credit for a consistent theology…Faith secures the union; baptism signifies it outwardly and visibly. Thus in Christ, by faith inwardly and baptism outwardly, we are all sons of God” Ridderbos agrees that this refers to water baptism, “This close relationship which baptism establishes between Christ and the believers is also designated by the expression ‘baptized into Christ’. The expression is not to be construed as mystical so much as corporative or federal. The baptized person is added to Christ as His own, is reckoned to His account, share in His benefits…We are not to take this in a magical or automatic sense…What happens at baptism is a confirmation and sealing, a visible manifestation of what is given to the church by faith. So much is true, however, that Paul wants to indicate by his objective-sacramental mode of expression, and by appealing especially to baptism for establishing sonship of the believers, that the reality of becoming one with Christ is nowhere so clearly revealed or so firmly founded in the Christian consciousness of faith, as precisely in this baptism.” Fung, “Baptism is here regarded as the rite of initiation into Christ, that is, into union with Christ, or what amounts to the same thing, of incorporation into Christ as the Head of the new humanity…The baptism in view in Gal 3:27 is almost certainly water baptism…raising the question of the relationship between the two [faith and baptism]…the logical relationship between faith and baptism is represented by the statement that ‘St. Paul saw in baptism the normal but not necessary, the helpful but not indispensable sign and seal put upon the act of faith appropriating the gift of God in Christ’…Probably Paul mentions baptism here because he is about to emphasize the oneness of those who are in Christ: the visible sign of this oneness is not faith but baptism; the oneness with Christ that is symbolized in baptism is the basis for the oneness in Christ. There is an appeal in the presence of those who were in danger of forgetting spiritual facts, to the external sign which no one could forget.” Philip Ryken writes, “Here Paul is referring to the inward reality of spiritual cleansing by faith, and not simply to the outward sign of water baptism.” On the surface this might seem to be a dissenting voice from the opinion I articulated on Sunday, and it may be, but not by much. He doesn’t say “it’s not water baptism.” Instead, it’s not ‘simply’ water baptism. In other words, it’s not just water baptism that unites us vitally to Christ, but the inward reality to which water baptism points that must be received by faith. My gloss: It’s not merely the outward sign of water baptism, but the internal reality that is summoned by it. James Montgomery Boice, “This is not water baptism…Baptism signifies this transforming identification with Christ. So Paul refers to it here. Paul is not now contradicting all he has previously taught about the means of salvation, as if he were suggesting that baptism will now replace circumcision as a saving sacrament or ordinance. No one is saved by baptism. Indeed, Paul mentions baptism only once in the paragraph, but faith five times. Rather baptism is an outward sign of the union that already exists through faith. To be “clothed with Christ” means to become like Christ.”
Ephesians 4:5
A. Skevington Wood comments (Expositors Bible Commentary), “‘One baptism’ is the external seal of incorporation into the body of Christ. Falling as it does in the second triad (related to Christ) and not in the first (related to the Spirit), it appears to indicate water baptism and not primarily the baptism with the Spirit of which water baptism is the sign. Baptism is regarded as the sacrament of unity. In the Christian church baptisms are not multiplied as with the Jews (Heb 6:2). There are not even two baptisms—one of John and one of Jesus. There is “one baptism” symbolizing identification with Christ in his death and resurrection, sealing with the Spirit, and incorporation into the body of Christ, so that all Christians become one person in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:13; 2:5, 6; 3:15). Baptism is one because it makes one. It provides the evidence that all Christians, without discrimination as to color, race, sex, age, or class, share the grace of Christ. If we ask why Paul does not at this point mention the other dominical sacrament, that of the Lord’s Supper (cf. “one bread” in 1 Cor 10:17), the answer may be that he regards the Eucharist not as a prerequisite of unity but an expression of it.” Peter O’Brien, “there is only one baptism because there is one Lord Jesus Christ in whom believers are united, one body into which all Christians are incorporated…the apostle is not making distinctions as to whether it is water baptism or baptism in the Spirit that is in view. The one without the other was an anomaly.”
Simpson, “Christ occupies the central place, and with Him are linked the inward and outward signs that bind His people to the Savior. Faith may signify the instrument of justification or carry the more objective sense of Christian doctrine. The initiatory rite of baptism seems selected to represent all external ordinances of worship, such as prayer, praise, preaching, the Lord’s Supper and His Day, in the practice of which, broadly speaking, all branches of the church, despite its fissures, may be said to coincide.” Chapell, “by our baptism [water] we testify that we are cleansed of sin and united to him by his grace alone” Foulkes, “The outward sign of this faith and the ‘visible word’ expressing the work of Christ was baptism. Instituted by the Lord himself, it was an experience that every Christian shared. All had passed through the same initiation. All had been ‘baptized into Christ’ not into a variety of leaders such as Paul, Peter or Apollos, nor into a plurality of churches…The sacrament is therefore a sacrament of unity.”
Colossians 2:12
Curtis Vaughan, “Here Paul gives a further explanation of the spiritual circumcision he affirmed in the preceding verse. The context suggests that Christian baptism is the outward counterpart to that experience and as such is the means by which it is openly declared. The emphasis of the verse, however, is not on the analogy between circumcision and baptism but that of baptism as symbolizing the believer’s participation in the burial and resurrection of Christ (cf. Rom 6:3ff.). Being “buried” and “raised” with Christ conveys the thought not simply of burying an old way of life and rising to a new kind of life but of sharing in the experience of Christ’s own death and resurrection. That Paul did not think of baptism as actually effecting participation in that experience is made clear when he adds that the Colossians were raised through their “faith in the power of God.” Baptism, then, is not a magic rite, but an act of obedience in which we confess our faith and symbolize the essence of our spiritual experience. Faith is the instrumental cause of that experience and, apart from real faith, baptism is an empty, meaningless ceremony.”

NT Wright, “In becoming a Christian, he [Paul] transferred to the church the idea that the people of God was indeed a people – not now drawn from one race only, but made up from every family under heaven. This people [the people of God] is not merely an invisible family known to God alone, but is an actual company of people in space and time, the church in which Christ is confessed as Lord: outward and visible entry into this outward and visible family is accomplished through the rite of baptism. This explains Paul’s frequent appeal that the church should become in fact what it is in theory, should put into detailed operation the life to which it has been committed in baptism. 1 Corinthians 10 shows that it is possible, in Paul’s mind, for people to be baptized and yet to be in danger of losing all. This does not make baptism a mere empty ritual. The candidate, being placed into the family where Christ is loved and served, is in the best possible position to grow into mature Christian faith and life. If we find Paul’s definite statements about the effects of baptism hard to understand, it is probably because we have lost his vision of the church as the loving and welcoming family of God, the people who, by support, example and teaching, enable one another to accept the gospel down to the depths of their being, and so to make real for themselves the rich statements of Col 2:12
Eade, “the reference is plainly to the ordinance of baptism and to its spiritual meaning.”

Page . Exported from Logos Bible Software, 12:07 PM February 10, 2015.

Baptism as the Initiatory Rite of the New Covenant


So, what is baptism? Most evangelicals would say that it’s a testimony to our faith or something along those lines. And it is that. But it’s more.

John Calvin taught that baptism “is the initiatory sign by which we are admitted to the fellowship of the church, that being ingrafted into Christ we may be accounted children of God”

Before we can appreciate baptism as the initiatory rite into the church we need to understand that the church is more than a voluntary association like the Kiwanis Club. It is the community of the new covenant. To the church he gave the Supper, a new covenant meal (1 Cor 11:25). To the church the apostles as “minister of a new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6). The covenant comes with exceedingly great promises to the faithful and exceedingly stern punishment for the unfaithful (more on the double-sidedness of the new covenant in a later post).

But how does one become a member of this covenant community, of the church? Baptism (1 Cor 12:13). The new covenant is concrete and objective, not just internal and invisible. It has a people – the church, organization and leaders, ceremonies, meals, etc. And one is admitted into this concrete covenant and the covenant community through the rite of baptism, just as, in the old covenant, one was admitted to the covenant community through the rite of circumcision (Col 2:11).

Westminster Confession of Faith, 28.1: Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world.

Heidelberg Catechsim Question 74: Are infants also to be baptized? Answer: Yes: for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult; they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church; and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant.

Belgic Confession:  Having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, Christ established in its place the sacrament of baptism. By it we are received into God’s church and set apart from all other people and alien religions, that we may wholly belong to him whose mark and sign we bear. Baptism also witnesses to us that God, being our gracious Father, will be our God forever.

Ok, so next post will be on infant baptism. But the same truth holds for adult converts – its is baptism that marks them visibly as Christians.

John Frame: “It is baptism that gives us the right to be recognized as Christians, unless or until we are excommunicated. Thus, it gives us the right to be part of the great work God is doing through his church”

Edmond Clowney: “Baptism is recognized as the mark of membership in Christ’s church by those outside it…in baptism we are numbered amongst the children of God, receiving the name of our Father, written, as it were, on our foreheads. To be sure, the washing of God’s regenerating grace is accomplished by the water of the Spirit, no that of the font, but the outward sign  functions  precisely because it is outward; it is the Lord’s visible seal of his invisible grace.”

Coming soon, two posts – one defending infant baptism, another defending the claim that “baptism is an effectual means of salvation in the elect because God uses it to elicit faith in the baptized person.”

Covenant/Infant Baptism

I promised a post defending infant baptism, so here it is (notice I say defending it; not trying to push it upon anyone else who doesn’t hold the same convictions I do). Interestingly, though I embrace infant baptism fully, none of my children were baptized as infants. There’s several reasons for that, chief among them being that I was still in transition (ten years ago I was a Calvinist, but not really “Reformed” and had only the begun to explore ‘covenant theology’). The other big reason is that I was on staff at a Baptist church when my first two children were born, and they just don’t do that.

To begin, let me say that I believe an adult convert who has never been baptized should be. There is a misconception that those who advocating infant baptism wouldn’t baptize adult converts. I would. I have. I will. Though, if they had been baptized as an infant I would discourage it.

The first reason that I’ve come to embrace infant baptism is really a hermeneutical one. I see the continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament much more profoundly now than I used to. I used to see the discontinuity more prominently. Both continuity and discontinuity are there, it’s a matter of priority. As I’ve studied the development of the covenants, I have come to appreciate the continuity between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, without discounting the discontinuity. Both the Old Covenant (Mosaic Covenant) and the New Covenant are administrations (or arrangements or dispensations) of the Covenant of Grace, a covenant the has been in operation since Adam’s sin and Abraham’s call.

Second, seeing the continuity between the Old Covenant and the New, I appreciate now the continuity between the Old Testament practice of circumcision and the New Testament practice of baptism (and the continuity between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper). These sacraments were/are signs of the covenant that exists between God and his people. Colossians 2:11-12 make the connection between circumcision and baptism explicit. R. Scott Clark summarizes the connection, “For Paul, in the New covenant, our union with Christ is our circumcision. In baptism, we are identified with Christ’s baptism/circumcision, as it were, on the cross. Neither baptism nor circumcision effects this union (ex opere operato), rather God the Spirit unites us to Christ, makes us alive and gives us faith. The point not to be missed is that, in Paul’s mind, baptism and circumcision are both signs and seals of Christ’s baptism/circumcision on the cross for us.”

Beyond this, I believe it is likely that infants were among those ‘households’ that were baptized by the apostles (cf. Acts 16, Acts 18, 1 Cor 1:16). Moreover, Peter preaches that “the promise is for you and for your children” (Acts 2:39). In addition, because I believe the stress should be on the continuity between the Old and New Covenants, we should expect that the signs of the covenant would continue to be offered to children. It was offered to them in the Old as a sign of inclusion in the covenant community, it should be in the New also. If not, we would expect clear instruction to the contrary.

Let me clarify something here – being a part of the covenant community doesn’t necessarily imply that the member will experience God’s salvation. Many circumcised Jews did not. Many baptized Christians will not (even the faith of those baptized as adults may prove spurious). If it doesn’t prove salvific, why do it? Again, it is a sign of their inclusion to the blessing of the covenant community. I believe, as a visible sermon, it is yet another tool in the hand of God that he uses to elicit faith. In the act of baptism God says, “You are mine.” The child will one day need to respond, “Lord I am yours. I offer myself to you in faith and obedience.”

Lastly, the testimony from church history is that the church practiced infant baptism at a very early stage in it’s history. Origin was certainly baptized, according to the historical accounts, as an infant in 180AD, only 80 years after the last apostle had died. Was it controversial? There is no indication that infant baptism was controversial, appearing instead to have been the common, accepted practice in the church. As Schaeffer points out, “Those who would teach that the practice of the early Church was not infant baptism should be able to show in Church History when it started. There is no such break recorded.” The assumption in some circles that infant baptism began in the Roman Catholic Church is clearly incorrect.

Those are some of the arguments that pushed me over the line. I understand the baptism debate can be divisive and love the position of ECC, leaving it to the conscience of the parents whether they will baptize or dedicate their children.

Here’s a few of good links:

ThirdMill Ministries Q&A about infant baptism.

A Contemporary Reformed Defense of Infant Baptism, R. Scott Clark

Why Does the OPC Baptize Infants, Larry Wilson

Baptism, by Francis Schaeffer

Baptism as Effectual Means of Salvation

I know those words will create a visceral reaction in some. I’m sorry (not really).

Those words aren’t my own…and I’m not pulling them from a Catholic Catechism. In fact, they show up in a Baptist Catechism (from 1677)!


Q. 98. How do Baptism and the Lord’s Supper become effectual means of salvation?

A. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them or in him that administers them, but only by the blessing of Christ and the working of His Spirit in them that by faith receive them.

This question/answer is pretty much the same as Q.91 in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) and Q.161 of the Larger Catechism:

Q. 91. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?

A. The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.

Let me expand on these statements and offer some explanation. I sincerely believe that baptism   is an effectual means of salvation in the the elect because God uses it to beckon faith in the baptized person.

Let me try a thought experiment – replace the underlined word in the above sentence with   the preaching of the gospel  .  Does that work better for you?  Of course, we’d want to emphasize that hearing the preaching of the gospel doesn’t save someone by itself. The person hearing must respond in faith to the message they have heard. So preaching of the gospel doesn’t work in a mechanical ex opere operato kind of way. But, the preaching of the gospel is a means of salvation in that God uses it to elicit faith in his elect (Romans 10:14-15).

All that I said above applies, I believe, to baptism as well. Baptism is a visible gospel sermon. It is an instrument in the hands of God to beckon faith in the baptized person.  It isn’t that the water saves or the rite of baptism saves, but that God uses it just as he uses preaching to call forth faith in the elect.

For a parent who baptizes their infant, their prayer is that God will use the child’s baptism as a reminder of the great promises that are theirs if they believe. They bear the visible mark of the covenant in which God promises salvation to those who have faith.

But even in those who confess faith in Christ first and are then baptized, baptism is an effectual means of salvation because God continues to use it to beckon faith. We aren’t required to believe and trust in Christ just once – way back when we said a prayer and ‘came to faith’.  We are called to live by faith, to persevere in faith – without this no one will be saved. And God uses our baptism, again, to remind us of this – to remind us of the covenant and to seal all of God’s promises to those who believe.

Baptism has no saving effect in the non-elect; in fact, it has a condemning effect in that they have been baptized into the covenant and covenant community wherein faith is a requirement. Since they don’t have faith, they are subject to the cures of the covenant, which are severe indeed.

I’m harping on baptism a lot recently.  Why? I’m not entirely sure. Is it because I like being controversial? Maybe.  I know in part it’s because it’s been a front burner issue in two classes I taught this past month – union with Christ and eternal security. But, it’s more than that – I have sensed in the evangelical church (broadly speaking) a minimization of the importance of baptism. Its as if we don’t consider it very important – and many don’t. It’s an add on, and optional at that. God doesn’t ‘do anything’ in baptism, we do – we profess, give testimony, etc.  This is a tragic trend and I pray it’s one that gets reversed in the coming generations of believers.