I’ve argued elsewhere that the Sunday gathering is for worship, but as the priests gather in the Temple they find that the Lord comes to them. The occasion is worship, but we encounter God as he comes to us.
As one of the four ‘events’ when God meets us as we worship him, Baptism is part of a normally ordered Sunday gathering, even if we might not have people to baptise each week. I’m going to argue for my understanding of Baptism in this post—I’m a credobaptist, believing that baptism is for professing believers rather than covenant children, but I’m much more interested in the question of what baptism is.
Baptism is Christian initiation, we see this throughout the book of Acts. You repent, you believe, you are baptised, you receive the Spirit. I don’t believe in baptismal regeneration—that the waters of baptism turn your heart of stone to flesh—but we are so frightened of the idea that we throw the… the usual metaphor isn’t going to work here, my pedobaptist friends will get too excited. Suffice to say we shy away from saying that baptism is conversion, which it is, or that baptism is becoming a Christian, which it is, or that baptism saves you (1 Peter 3), which it does, because we think people will hear that baptism regenerates you.
Our fears are not entirely misplaced, this is finer theological argument than many of our people often engage in. We use the word ‘salvation’ differently to how Peter does and wonder if people will get confused. We want to be clear that salvation is by gift alone and justification is by faith alone, though perhaps miss that this is the story baptism tells.
My main concern is that we can still call Christians to live holy lives on the basis of Romans 6. I want to be able to say, ‘remember your baptism’ and have it be meaningful.
What’s going on in baptism?
I often explain it to the church using the following three categories, though this is itself a simplification:
Firstly, God is doing something. He is rescuing. He is washing. He is gifting new clothes. He is joining us to the church.
Secondly, we are doing something. We are acting out the gospel—a set of physical signs that replicate what we understand has and is and will happen to us, and we are making a vow of allegiance to Jesus as our King.
Thirdly, the church is doing something. The church welcomes the newly baptised Christian into their church community, we become the visible sound of God’s well done that each person is receiving by making a lot of noise as they emerge from the water, and we each again get to receive from God as we watch the sign.
What’s the story?
Baptism is a symbolic act. Which, because we live in a machine-age that thinks symbols are less than things sounds like I’m saying Baptism isn’t a thing. “We’re just acting out what’s already happened to us,” we reassure each other to affirm that the water isn’t actually going to do anything. Like a lot of statements, it’s a half-truth, the problem is with the word ‘just.’
The Bible sees symbols as bigger than the things in themselves. Is Baptism a symbol of washing or is it being washed? Yes, that’s right. My biggest issue with Baptism explanations is when they imply Baptism is “just a symbol”. There is no such thing.
We’re drawing on a rich Biblical set of images, primarily the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14, 1 Corinthians 10) and Noah’s Ark (Genesis 6-9, 1 Peter 3), but both of those are accounts that mirror the creation account (Genesis 1). Baptism is rebirth, is new creation, it’s the separating of chaos from order, of old from new, of water from water. It, like all God’s acts, creates by dividing, and speaks a thing that was not as though it was, which it then becomes.
Beyond that we’re being washed (Psalm 103), our old ‘self’ is dying in a watery grave (Romans 6), and we’re being born again (2 Corinthians 5). We act out our promised resurrection (1 Corinthians 15), we identify with Jesus in his death and resurrection (Colossians 2), and we’re rescued from the sea dragons (Revelation 21, Isaiah 27, Psalm 74).
Baptism is a symbol of all these things. Which means it is all these things.
Incidentally, the suggestion that Jesus got baptised to ‘identify with us’ seems backwards to me. A fair few things are going on in his baptism, but I’d preferred to affirm with the Fathers that the Lord was plunged into the river to fight sea monsters. Jesus was identifying with Israel—becoming Israel and Israel’s king—passing through the Red Sea with them and identifying with repentant remnant Israel. He doesn’t identify with us, with identify with him as our first act of obedience and are then named ‘Christian’ as one of his people (Revelation 2).
If we want to point to Jesus ‘identifying’ with us, we would do better to look at the incarnation: the marvellous King of Life garbed in unapproachable light choosing to become dust to raise us heavenward.
Baptism is a sign—an act that points beyond itself—signifying that Jesus already has and will continue to change our lives (2 Corinthians 5, Philippians 1); a sacrament, a moment of God’s grace imparted to us which is unrepeatable (Romans 6, Galatians 3); and a seal—the Holy Spirit through the church confirming and agreeing our repentance, our regeneration, our newness of life, and our eternal hope of glory (Colossians 2, Acts 10, 1 Corinthians 12).
Baptism tells us a story: we couldn’t rescue ourselves but needed rescuing. We are welcomed into a people, and an ancient one. The Bible is our story too. Creation starts in watery chaos and tends to the order of the land of the living.
Therefore, liturgically baptism would be ideally placed at the start of the meeting (and every week if it were possible—though for lots of practical reasons it is unlikely to be) to begin our Sunday of telling each other the story of our world, from Genesis to Revelation. We begin then by seeing that we are each welcomed, the book we will sing and hear and pray is our story, and we desperately need rescuing.
I think the ideal would be that we baptise each week, rather than in less frequent gluts—such that we as a congregation get to encounter God in another’s baptism and enjoy the liturgical story that baptism tells about us as frequently as possible. Of course, there are some practical considerations that make this fairly unlikely: most churches like mine don’t own a building and setting up the baptism pool is difficult extra work for our set-up teams. But, if you’re a significant enough sized church to own a building, I’d strongly consider spreading your baptisms as part of your normal liturgy.
Baptism is joining the church
Baptism is us as a local church welcoming those getting baptised into joining our family, our particular outpost of the household of God. We are recognising together that these people have met Jesus and are being changed by him. They are joining us, and we will all receive from God together as we do so (Acts 10).
We are in baptism tied to a tighter bond than we often think. “Blood is thicker than water,” they often say, implying familial bonds always come highest.
That’s backwards. I want us to think more and more that water is thicker than blood: Familial bonds in the Household of God come highest (Mark 10). We talk the talk here well enough in most churches I’ve come across, but the sorts of decisions we make—especially in our ‘private’ lives—make me wonder to what extent we really believe it.
If we’re baptised, we belong to the wider body, and specifically to this people. This isn’t some sort of ‘you must ask your Pastor before you buy a sofa’ heavy-shepherding nonsense—though if you’re in that sort of situation, run—but a sense that these are our people who we have a set of obligations towards just as they do towards us.
I don’t think it’s on us that we don’t think this way, but somewhere, somehow, something has gone drastically wrong.
Lonely Christians who go to church are a failure of the body, not of that Christian. Christians who don’t consider the church when making life decisions—not that they have to ‘stay,’ or do what they’re told, but we must consider the church—are a failure of the body.
Why? Because water is thicker than blood. Because we remember our baptism. Because we are not our own.
To subscribe and receive email notifications for future posts, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page.
Would you like to support my work? The best thing you can do is share this post with your friends. Why not consider also joining my Patreon to keep my writing free for everyone. You can see other ways to support me here.