By the Revd G. W. Bromiley, M. A., D. Litt.
Vine Books Ltd (Publishers to Church Society) , 1955, 1976 & 1977
Chapter 7: The Scope of Baptism
Baptism declares the inward operation of the Holy Spirit which is to make us conformable to Jesus Christ. This work may include an endowment with special gifts and graces for the service of God, but basically it consists in the movement of identification with Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection. As applied to us, the death and resurrection of Christ mean the remission of sins and regeneration, with both of which baptism is connected in the New Testament. But the remission of sins is the cancelling of the old life, and regeneration the beginning of the new. In the power of the Holy Spirit, therefore, we are initiated or inserted into the dying and rising again of Jesus Christ so that we personally—together with other believers—may enjoy the benefits of His substitutionary work.
Now when we turn to the New Testament we find that this initiation or insertion is not the act of a moment. It is a single act, but an act in three successive stages. Dying and rising again with Jesus Christ cannot be identified wholly and exclusively with an isolated experience of conversion. It is a whole process of redemption, a process which at every point is the work of the Holy Spirit identifying us with Jesus Christ. There is a common pattern running through the process which shows us that it is in effect a unified work. This is the pattern of dying and renewal which is so clearly declared in baptism. In its witness to the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ and the regenerative work of the Spirit, baptism is not only the sign and seal of God's redemptive activity but a summons to us to enter into that activity. It tells us what has been done for us. God has reconciled us to Himself. It also tells us what we have to do in the power of His Spirit. ‘Be ye therefore reconciled to God.’
The first stage in this identification with Jesus Christ is, of course, conversion, in which we turn away from sin in repentance and turn to Jesus Christ in faith. Conversion has all the importance of a first step, and in this case it has a special importance, for in a sense it includes the whole. We are entering into a finished work, and therefore the end is given to us with the beginning. Once we are in Jesus Christ by faith we can say with confidence that we are justified (Romans 5, 1), we are risen (Colossians 3, 3), we are a new creation (II Corinthians 5, 17), we have eternal life (John 3, 36). For as we read in Hebrews 11, l: ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’
Because conversion is the first step, and has this special importance, there is plainly a very strong connection between conversion and baptism. But we must be careful not to state it in the wrong way. Baptism is not the witness and seal of my consciousness and confession of repentance and faith. It is the sign and seal of what Jesus Christ has done for me and of what the Holy Spirit is doing in me. If I am an adult convert from heathenism, I will be baptized on conversion. Previously I could not be baptized. I was outside the sphere of the word and the Spirit. I knew nothing of the saving work of Christ, or the testifying work of the Spirit. I had no desire for baptism and it could mean nothing to me. But now baptism confirms the Gospel promises and attests that work of the Spirit which has brought me to repentance and faith. It shows me that my repentance and faith have a deeper significance than just a human decision or a change of religious belief or practice. They are a dying and rising again with Christ which are not my work but the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit within me.
If, on the other hand, I am the child of a Christian, I am in the sphere of the word and the Spirit from the very first. I am not necessarily converted, but the Gospel promises are before me and the Holy Spirit is at work within me. I receive baptism as a seal of the divine election, substitution, and regeneration. When I grow to age, I may grow up in a personal repentance and faith or I may wander away for a time. But baptism is always there, attesting the work of Christ and the working of the Spirit. It shows me what I have to do, that I too must die and rise again with Christ in individual repentance and faith.
In its personal application, conversion is now the first objective. It has an evangelistic office as an adjunct of the word. It tells me that it will have true relevance to me and meaning for me only when the first work of the Spirit is done, only when I repent and believe. When I do repent and believe, it is a reminder and assurance that this is not merely my human decision but the deep work of God. But until I repent and believe it is a continual pointer to what I myself have to do as one who is within the sphere of the word and the Spirit. As an act which has been performed on me, it is something which like the Gospel message I may ignore or forget, resisting the work of the Spirit. But it is something which I can never escape. If I do ignore or forget it, it will witness against me in the day of judgment, that God made covenant with me and Jesus Christ died for me and the Holy Spirit willed to do His work in me, but like Esau I despised my birthright.
Conversion is the first step and it has this special importance, but it is not by any means the end or the whole of the work of the Holy Spirit conforming us to the death and resurrection of Christ. It is, in fact, only the beginning, and it is succeeded at once by the life-long process of mortification and renewal which is the special meaning of the Christian life. Here again we have to do with an identification with Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection. It is a dying to sin and a rising again to righteousness on the basis of the substitutionary act of Christ and in the power of His Spirit. The Epistles especially are full of this theme. We read, for example, that ‘if we through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, we shall live’ (Romans 8, 13). Or again, we are not to be ‘conformed to this world’ but ‘transformed by the renewing of our mind’ (Romans 12, 2). We are told to ‘put off concerning the former conversation the old man’, to be ‘renewed in the spirit of our mind’, and to ‘put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness’ (Ephesians 4, 22-24). The goal of the Christian life is to know Christ, ‘and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death’ (Philippians 3, 10). We must work out the putting off of our old man and the putting on of the new in the mortification of our ‘members which are upon the earth (Colossians 3, 5f.). This will take place in our sufferings as well as in self-discipline, but we can rejoice that ‘though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day’ (II Corinthians 4, 16). This message can be understood in its full range and depth only in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ on our behalf, but it is securely rooted in Christ’s own teaching: ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself’ (Matt. 16, 24); or again: ‘Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14, 33); or even perhaps: ‘If thy hand offend thee, cut it off, etc.’ (Mark 9, 43f.)
What is the relationship of all this to baptism? There is, of course, an implicit
similarity of theme. Baptism attests the death and resurrection of Christ into which we
are to enter not only by repentance and faith but also by daily mortification and renewal.
But the connection is made explicit in Romans 6, where the thought of the baptismal
death and resurrection is introduced as a summons to its outworking in Christian
conduct. The thought of the chapter is this. Baptism into Jesus Christ is baptism into
His death and burial for us. In Him we are dead already. Accepting this fact in repentance and faith, we know that our old life is crucified with Him that the body of sin
might be destroyed. Knowing this fact, we are challenged to reckon ourselves to be
dead indeed unto sin and alive unto God, not yielding our members as instruments of
unrighteousness unto sin, but yielding ourselves unto God as those that are alive from
the dead, and our members as instruments of righteousness unto God. In other words,
baptism as the attestation of our death and resurrection in and with Jesus Christ has a
reference to the whole life of the Christian. It is not merely an evangelistic summons,
but a spur to mortification and renewal.
Again, however, baptism is not the sign of a human work, for the mortification and
renewal of the Christian are not a venture in human ethics but the continuance of the
regenerative work of the Spirit. Christians themselves are of course engaged in it. We
cannot escape or minimize the personal reference. But we are engaged in it only because
Christ Himself has done it for us and the Holy Spirit is doing it in us. As Paul puts it,
it is because we are already dead in Christ that we are to mortify our members. And in
Romans 8 especially, but also in Galatians 10 and Philippians he makes it plain that
this working out of salvation is through the Spirit: ‘If ye through the Spirit do mortify
the deeds of the body, ye shall live’ (Romans 8, 13). ‘It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure’ (Philippians 2, 13). For our part, we learn from the sacrament what is the continuing work of the Spirit and what identification with Christ means for us in terms of daily life and service. Whether we are baptized as adults or as infants, the meaning and message of baptism in this respect is much the same. We can none of us claim that this continued work of the Spirit has already found full expression in our lives prior to our baptism. Baptism is to all of us an assurance that our sanctification is an accomplished fact in Jesus Christ and a present reality in the operation of the Spirit. But it is also a summons to all of us to enter into the fulness of it which in terms of its personal expression is always future.
Nor is this the closing stage, for beyond conversion and sanctification there is the final consummation of the Christian life when we enter into the actuality of the new life in Christ which is now our calling. Again, and this time finally and literally, we are in the sphere of identification with Christ in His death and resurrection. On the basis of the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ and in the regenerative power of the Spirit, we will ultimately be put to death in the body in order that we may be resurrected to the fulness of our new creation in Christ. The New Testament is full of forward-looking references to this consummation. In Romans 8, for example, Paul moves on from a consideration of the present work of the Spirit to the hoped for redemption: ‘Ourselves also, which have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body’ (Romans 8, 23). Or again, in 1 Corinthians 15 he speaks at large of our final destiny when this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal immortality (I Corinthians 15, 53-54). Or again, in Ephesians he looks forward to the redemption of the purchased possession (Ephesians 1, 13). Again, Hebrews 11 speaks of the special function of faith in looking forward to a better resurrection (Hebrews 11, 35). Peter, too, reminds us of ‘an inheritance incorruptible, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time’ (I Peter 1, 4-5). The witness undoubtedly goes back to the teaching of Christ Himself when He spoke so clearly both of our redemption at His coming again and also of the resurrection of the dead (John 6, 39-40).
The implicit relationship with baptism hardly needs to be emphasized, for again the theme is that of death and resurrection, the basis is the substitutionary dying and rising again of Jesus Christ, and the operation is that of the life-giving Spirit. But here, too, there are one or two explicit references. One of them is the obscure verse 1 Corinthians 15, 29. The exact interpretation of this saying will always be something of a mystery, but there can be no doubt that baptism is introduced in this context because of a definite connection with physical dissolution and resurrection. We are baptized into death with a view to our final raising again. The verse Ephesians 1, 13 is also a little obscure, for not every exegete would accept a reference to baptism. But it seems difficult to see how sealing with the Holy Spirit of promise can be anything else. If the reference is to baptism, or to the work of the Spirit signified in baptism, the thought is similar to that of Romans 8, 23. God will complete the work which He has begun in us. The outward sign and seal of that work declares, therefore, not only the first instalment but the final redemption of which it is the pledge.
The linking of baptism with the resurrection is significant, for it means that like the Lord’s Supper baptism is a sign for the period between the accomplishment of our salvation in the death and resurrection of Christ and its consummation in His coming again and the new creation. It has a backward look to the substitutionary work of Christ and a forward look to His triumphant coming with His brethren. Between these, it has a present reference to our identification with Christ in faith and sanctification which is the particular purpose of the intervening day of grace. This forward-looking aspect of baptism means, of course, that there is no genuine fulfilment of the personal application, no completion of the work of the Spirit, until the faith of conversion gives way to the sight of the resurrection. Baptism is a sign which cannot be exhausted in this life. It speaks to us of faith as an initial entry into Christ. It stirs us up to self-sacrificial love as a daily dying and rising with Christ. It encourages us to hope, a patient expectation that the natural body will one day give way to the spiritual.
The fact that baptism points us to the resurrection as our final identification with Christ helps to emphasize even more strongly two important truths. First, we cannot treat baptism as a witness primarily to our own activity. Apart from hastening our dissolution, there is no contribution that we can make to our resurrection from the dead. It is the miraculous work of the Creator Spirit for which we can only wait. In relation to conversion and sanctification there is always a temptation to allow what we can do to occupy the centre of the stage, as though after all it was simply a human work accomplished with a little divine help. But in relation to the resurrection from the dead this is quite impossible. It is my resurrection, certainly, just as it must be my conversion and my sanctification, worked out in terms of my life. But it is my resurrection only on the basis of that of Christ and in the power of the regenerative and therefore the life-giving Spirit.
Second, there is not one of us who can say: ‘I have a right to baptism because the ultimate truth which it attests has already been fulfilled in me and I am declaring the fact that I have identified myself in this way with Jesus Christ’. Whether we are baptized as infants or as adults, there is no time when we can say that baptism refers only to a past experience in our life and that it has value only as a witness to that experience. For as a sign of the regenerative and therefore the life-giving work of the Spirit it has always a wider time as well as a narrower. It begins with the first coming of Christ and it ends with His coming again. Its message is that our beginning, too, is with the first coming of Christ, and our end with His return. We begin with His death and resurrection for us. We end with our death and resurrection with Him at the last day. The attainment of that end is the miraculous work of the Spirit attested in baptism and expressed already in conversion and sanctification. Only when we have attained that end can we say that by this work of the Spirit we have fully entered into the baptism of Christ. But then the attestation of the sacrament will no longer be necessary.
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