Who believes in baptism?
To start with the second question, there are many churches
for which baptism is unimportant. The
Salvation Army does not practice sacraments, and many Baptist churches make
baptism voluntary. Many Christians
see “conversion” or “baptism in the Spirit” as the reality, while water
baptism is only the sign. At the
other extreme are churches where theology gives a highly significant place to
baptism, yet most baptisms take place when few of the regulars are present, or
when the parents are never seen in the congregation again and appear to have
little intention of bringing up children “as Christians within the family of
the church”. Is this believing in
“The necessity of faith for the reception of the
salvation embodied and set forth in baptism is acknowledged by all the
churches” says Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (see p16), but with regard to
how baptism, faith and salvation are related, the churches are deeply divided.
Where to start?
Everyone approaches this issue with a personal history and
its associated feelings, so it is not helpful to “begin where people are”
with psychology or sociology. Nor
are church law, church history or
sacramental theology good places to start - all these are loaded with
controversy and generate heat rather than light.
An enquiry must begin with the scriptures, held as unique and normative
by all churches, and recognized as of ultimate
authority by Anglicans (Article 6).
But which scriptures to start with?
Some suggest the OT’s teaching on circumcision as the forerunner of
baptism - but are the two covenants related unequivocally like this?
Some suggest John the Baptist - but his baptism is clearly pre-Christian.
Some begin with the baptism of Jesus - but surely this was not
“initiation into Christ”! Likewise
the allusion to Jesus’ death (Lk 12:49f), and baptism’s place in the Great
Commission, do not provide the key to its biblical significance.
From the nine instances of baptism in the Acts of the Apostles (2:38f,
8:12f, 8:36f, 9:17f, 10:47f, 11:15f, 16:15, 16:31f, 18:8 and 19:1f) can be seen these
five characteristics of Christian baptism:
it is “in the name of Jesus Christ”, implying allegiance to him,
it is closely linked to preaching the gospel and making disciples,
it involves repentance and faith and leads to sins forgiven,
it usually includes the gift of the Holy Spirit,
it usually implies incorporation into the church.
However, these are not all present every time, and narrative is not
normative. And so we turn to the
epistles for more systematic teaching on Christian faith and practice.
There are nine explicit references to baptism in the epistles, and eight
others which use three metaphors: “washing”, “sealing”, and
“anointing” as probable references to baptism.*
These verses show two clear features of baptism: its
ethical consequences and its covenant context arising from the OT.
So it is the NT epistles which drive us back into looking at the OT’s
covenant theology as the basis for baptism.
The effects of baptism.
Having examined these passages in the light of the covenant
context, the baptism ministry of John, and the baptism experience of Jesus, we
can move to deduce the blessings, context and effects of baptism.
For there is one baptism into the one and only Lord Jesus Christ, so
there can only be one theology of baptism: certainly not a theology for adult
baptism and another for infants. Baptism
does not belong to any one tradition or denomination, signifying as it does the
transfer from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.
What effect has baptism?
Four answers have been given through the centuries:
none: baptism is unnecessary,
it is desirable as obedience to Jesus, but not essential: the sign is
only a sign.
it effects what it signifies, in the context of faith.
it is essential and conveys God’s blessing, ex opere operato.
Each of these answers can be examined in the light of the blessings and
context of baptism to emerge from the scriptures, and so we can arrive at a
theology which holds together the NT’s language of efficacy and insistence on
faith. With this theology we can
then move to the difficult questions of discrimination in baptism, preaching and
teaching baptism, and handling cases of “rebaptism”.