By the Revd G. W. Bromiley, M. A., D. Litt.
Vine Books Ltd (Publishers to Church Society) , 1955, 1976 & 1977
Chapter 3: The Meaning of Baptism
The fact of baptism, and its general administration, does not give rise to any particular problem. The disciples of Jesus clearly baptized from the very first (John 4, 1-2). When Jesus gave them His last commission in Matthew 28, He told them to preach the Gospel, to make disciples, and to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28, 19). The apostles baptised the first converts on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2, 38, 41), and from that time baptism continued to be the initiatory rite of discipleship. Deviations have arisen with regard to the precise mode and more especially the subjects of baptism, but baptism as such is plainly established and has been more or less universally practised in a recognizable form.
But when we turn from the fact and the general character of baptism to its meaning and purpose the matter is not quite so evident. On the one hand, there are those who invest the sacrament with an almost magical quality. As they see it, it is a rite which is the divinely appointed means of entry not only into the church but into Christ Himself. If there are no impediments of insincerity, unbelief, or impenitence, its proper performance is a guarantee, because it is an instrument, of internal cleansing and therefore of ultimate salvation. Its omission involves a serious risk of eternal perdition. On this view, no problem of infant baptism arises. It is a simple task of obedience and charity to extend this necessary and efficacious instrument to as many children as possible.
That is the one view, and we do not need to spend too much time over it. For the plain fact is that although a certain measure of truth underlies the extreme, there is no genuine support for this interpretation in either the teaching and practice of the New Testament or in the anticipatory types and tokens of the Old. In the Gospels the only possible text which can support this interpretation is John 3, 5, and it does not seem to be either a necessary or a natural meaning of the verse. In the Epistles there are very few references to baptism at all, which is in itself very strange if it is such an important instrument of redemption. Such references as there are do not seem to support its high instrumental significance. Paul, indeed, dismisses it in almost cavalier fashion in I Corinthians 1, 13-17, although, of course, his main concern is with the false view that there is any importance in the human administrator of the word and sacraments. But it needs a good deal of inference, and a blindness to the general trend of biblical teaching, to derive this extreme understanding from the Scriptures themselves.
The opposite extreme is superficially much more convincing. The argument in this case is that baptism is a sign, not of something which is done to us or for us, but of something which we ourselves do. It is an act by which we make a public confession of our faith, signifying our conversion from sin and the world to new life in Jesus Christ. The whole significance of the sacrament is as an attestation of faith. Its purpose is to give an opportunity for a public enactment of renunciation and renewal. This being the case, it is quite wrong that baptism should be administered to infants. Whatever may be their covenant status, they cannot make a conscious profession of faith and therefore baptism as the enactment of that profession cannot have any meaning or serve any useful purpose in their case. Indeed, it is more like to confuse them into thinking that a conscious decision of faith is no longer necessary.
There are, of course, passages of Scripture which seem to favour the view that baptism is a confession of faith. Even in the Old Testament we find that the circumcision of Abraham was linked with his faith. It was the seal of the ‘righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised’ (Romans 4, 11). When we turn to the Acts, it is obvious that the adult converts either made some profession or gave some sign of faith prior to their baptism. The classic case is the Ethiopian eunuch, who was baptized when he responded to the challenge of Philip: ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God’ (Acts 8, 37). Even the symbolism of the sacrament as brought out in its personal application in Romans 6 lays a certain emphasis upon this aspect. Baptism is the believer’s burial with Jesus Christ, and his subsequent re-emergence to the new life of the resurrection (Romans 4, 11). This truth has been recognized by all churches, for from the very earliest days the liturgies have always found a place for the confession of faith in baptismal administration. Even when infants are baptized, it is only if their parents or sponsors are ready to make a confession either in their own name or in that of the child, which comes to very much the same thing.
But while this is all true and necessary, we must not jump too quickly to the conclusion that it settles the matter. The question is worth investigating whether in the New Testament baptism is in fact instituted and administered solely or even primarily as an act of personal profession. Where, indeed, do we learn that this is in fact the meaning and purpose of baptism? In what Scriptures do we read that even when adult converts are baptized they are baptized primarily for the profession of their faith or as an enactment of their personal decision for Christ and therefore of their conversion? We are not trying to deny the close and necessary connection which there is between baptism and confession. In the case of adult converts, in all the missionary work of the church, it is inevitable and right that these should go hand in hand. It is no less right that there should be an appropriate confession of faith where the children of Christians are baptised, for the sign of the covenant is claimed only for those who make profession. But it is one thing to say that confession of faith accompanies baptism, and quite another to say that the meaning and purpose of baptism is to give an opportunity for confession.
When we look at the matter in the Bible we find that the case is very different. In fact, we ought to be warned at the very outset by the character of this sacrament. In contradistinction to the Lord’s Supper it is an act in which the subject is passive rather than active. He does not baptize as he takes and eats or drinks. He is baptized. He does not do something for himself or to himself, but something is done to him. When we turn to the relevant passages we soon see that this is not accidental, for baptism is not related to what we do, to our faith, or to our profession of faith, but to that which is done for us. In this respect it corresponds to circumcision, for Paul does not actually say that circumcision is the seal of the faith of Abraham, but of the righteousness of faith (Romans 4, 11), a righteousness which according to the whole argument of Romans is the gift and work of God. It is here, of course, that we begin to see the truth which is distorted in the quasi-magical, sacramentalist views of baptism.
In relation to baptism itself, the first thing which strikes us in the New Testament is that the emphasis is not so much on the person baptised but on the One in whose name he is baptized. The words of institution tell us that baptism is to be administered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28, 19). In the accounts in Acts we read time and again that baptism was given in the name of Jesus Christ (e.g. Acts 2, 38; 10, 48, etc), which implies the whole Trinity. Paul disclaims the importance of the human minister only to emphasize that of the One into whose name we are all baptized (I Corinthians 1, 12f). But this means that in the first instance baptism does not invite either ourselves or others to look at us and our faith and profession, but to look at the One in whom we believe and whose gracious benefits we know when we confess His name. Faith is necessary enough, but salvation does not lie in our faith as such. It is in the name of Christ. Baptism is not instituted primarily to witness to our name and act as though that were the first thing, but to witness to the name and act of God in which we are caught up in faith. It is our baptism and our confession of Christ only because first of all it is Christ’s baptizing and acknowledging of us.
But perhaps it will be objected that too much is being read into the mention of the Triune name, if we can ever read in too much when God is mentioned. We will, therefore, look a little further, and see for and to what we are baptized when we are baptized into the name of Christ. Once again, we find that in the New Testament the explicit connection of baptism is not with what we do, the confession of faith, but with what God does in Christ, the forgiveness of sins and regeneration. In Acts 2, 38 Peter exhorts those who were pricked in their heart to be baptized in the name of Christ ‘for the remission of sins’. When Ananias summoned Paul to be baptized, he certainly asked for a confession, but that is not where the emphasis lies: ‘Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord’ (Acts 22, 16). In John 3, 5, if the reference is to the water of baptism, as seems likely enough, baptism is linked primarily with regeneration, not with the profession of faith. The same is true in Titus 3, 5, where we have the similar linking of baptism and regeneration in the context of the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit.
Now it is obvious that neither the forgiveness of sins nor regeneration is a human work or even a human possibility. There are certain things which we ourselves can do and must do. We can repent and believe. We can call on the name of the Lord. We can confess our faith. We can receive or accept forgiveness and renewal. We have to do these things if they are to be ours. But forgiveness and regeneration as such are plainly the work of God. ‘Who can forgive sins but God only?’ (Mark 2, 7). The Pharisees were quite right when they asked this. Where they were wrong was in failing to see that Jesus is Himself God. Again, the new birth is ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’ (John 1, 13). God alone is the life-giver. If we are to be born again, we must be born from above, born of the Spirit (John 3, 3, 6). But this means that if baptism is primarily for the remission of sins and regeneration, the emphasis is not on our necessary but subsidiary part, faith and the confession of faith, but on the indispensable primary part, the divine work of reconciliation and renewal. The chief thing which is declared in baptism is not what I do, but what God Himself has done and does for me.
This is true even in the passage in Romans 6 which draws out the lesson of the believer’s mortification and renewal. We shall have to return to this point later, but we must note already that the central message of these verses, and that to which our baptism witnesses, is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which has already taken place for us. Only on this basis is there even the possibility of our dying and rising again. In other words, we are summoned by our baptism to die and rise again only because our baptism tells us that Jesus Christ died and rose again for us. The underlying and primary emphasis is exactly the same as in all the passages which deal with baptism. We are not directed to ourselves and our faith and our confession of faith. We are directed to God, and to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and will do within us by the Holy Ghost. Only in that context can we think of the necessary response of faith as the personal entry into the saving work of God.
But if we are forced to the conclusion that primarily baptism is a sign of God’s work, that is only another way of saying that it is a sign of the covenant and its fulfilment in Jesus Christ. For the saving work of God is the carrying out of the Old Testament promise which is at the very heart of the covenant and of all God’s dealings with the covenant-people. From the very first the covenant aimed at the reconciliation made in Jesus Christ and the extension of its blessings to the men of all nations. The fulfilment of the covenant in the blood of Christ means that the word of promise has now been succeeded by the word of reconciliation, and the Old Testament’s signs of anticipation by the New Testament signs of achievement. But if this is the case, it is no less perverse to treat baptism as primarily a sign of faith and the confession of faith than it is to regard circumcision as primarily a sign of the faith of Abraham. Indeed, it is more than perverse. It is false to the New Testament. It destroys the whole balance of the Christian Gospel and the Christian life. It puts the ‘I’ and its decision in the place of primacy and honour which belongs rightly and exclusively to God and His work. It gives it an apparent independent importance apart from Jesus Christ and the atonement. It finds the critical point in our turning to God rather than in His turning to us and His turning of us to Himself. In other words, it turns the Gospel upside down, and in so doing it misses the real meaning and purpose of the Gospel sacrament.
By its very nature, baptism is calculated to drive home the personal application of
the Gospel. The same was true of circumcision. But like circumcision it does so only
as it witnesses to the divine covenant now fulfilled in Christ by the Holy Spirit. In the
sections which follow we must consider this witness more closely in relation to the three
Persons of the Trinity in whose name we are baptized.
>> Chapter 4 - Election of the Father (to be added)