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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 7 "Baptism and the Lord's Supper" Part 1

"Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper."

Characteristically of baptistic evangelicals in America, this section of the BF&M on baptism lays out a credobaptistic, memorialistic/symbolistic, subjectivistic view of the ordinance of baptism. I think what I most appreciate about it, as a covenantal paedobaptist, is its explicit connection of the symbolism with the objective work of Christ in history, in His death and resurrection.

To be sure, baptism is closely related to faith and the heart-enlivening work of the Spirit in the New Covenant. But I fear that sometimes Baptist expressions of the significance of baptism (ironically) focus so much on the subjective, personal-faith-related aspects of the observance of the ordinance that they eclipse or minimize the gracious, objective realities of "redemption accomplished" which baptism not only points to, but I would argue (based on texts like Romans 6, Colossians 2, and 1 Peter 3), sacramentally communicates (which communication as a "visible/tangible gospel proclamation" benefits the one who exercises faith and brings cursing to the one who rejects those promises).

Actually, even many modern credobaptist theologians (including several who contributed to 'Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ', ed. Thomas R. Schreiner) use stronger language than "symbolizing" to refer to the effects of baptism. Some of them limit the spiritual effect to an idea of special "assurance." Others state it more vaguely. I think it best to conceive of baptism (and the Lord's Supper, which is the next topic) as a visible and tangible word of the whole gospel coming from God through the Church to man, and also as a ritual through which faith and vital union with Christ and His ecclesial body can be expressed (I think this basically works as a judgment of charity for the baptism of young children, as well as a means of grace to them in picturing God's initiative in saving helpless individuals and the objective historical accomplishment of redemption in Christ, and in normally working through the covenant unit of families to bring up children in the faith--so I take Acts 2:38-39 as implying, to a Jewish ear especially, that children of New Covenant believers are still recipients of the covenant promises and a true part of the covenant community, and as such should still receive the sign of formal initiation into the covenant; cf. my long note on the topic elsewhere).

I find the statement "It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead" interesting because I don't recall off-hand any New Testament text that explicitly makes that connection, apart from the general idea of belief in Christ's middle-of-history resurrection being part and parcel of saving faith. Nevertheless, in the book of Acts especially, the question of resurrection at the end of history, connected with final judgment, is front and center and repeatedly connected to Christ's resurrection. So I think it's a perfectly legitimate and important connection! I had never given this line in the BF&M much attention before, but I really like it!

The last line, "Being a church ordinance, [baptism] is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper," may be offensive to many modern evangelicals, but represents an answer to a question no early church father would have ever thought to ask. In the first century, there was no such thing as an "unbaptized Christian" or "unbaptized member of the Church." Holding to a more strongly "sacramental" view of baptism as I do, I should be clear here that I do not believe that the rite of water baptism itself is always, for every person, utterly necessary for salvation. It does not operate ex opere operato guaranteeing true spiritual regeneration for the baptizand; nor does its neglect, however unfortunate (or rebellious, depending on the circumstances) prevent the Spirit from doing His saving work. Regeneration of the heart by the Spirit, resulting in faith in Christ (at whatever level of maturity that faith can be expressed), is what ultimately counts. Nevertheless, it is God's ordinary way of salvation that a believer in Christ be a baptized and active member of a local church body. Baptism is the God-ordained way to express formal membership in the Church and initiation into the covenant of grace today.

A final word, on the issue of the mode of baptism: I simply have not studied the issue enough to say much about it here. For now suffice it to say that if I were convinced in the near future that immersion is the only biblical mode of baptism, I would probably go the Luther (not Lutheran) and Eastern Orthodox route and advocate dunking babies. Yes. Let the protestations commence...

In sum, as a paedobaptist, predictably, I detect a slight over-emphasis of the subjective in the BF&M's discussion of the significance of baptism and an under-emphasis on the objective (although I certainly appreciate the explicit connection made once to the historia salutis in the second sentence--although even there it is couched as the object of faith). I don't think I would actually be alone on this, though, if you asked some scholarly credobaptists like Don Carson and Tom Schreiner what they thought! Many theologians of differing covenantal and sacramental perspectives today recognize the almost inarticulable richness of the sacraments in their symbolism, the mysterious ministry of the Spirit through them, the subjective-objective connections made in them, the Incarnational analogies that can be drawn from them, the eschatological overtones of them, etc., etc., etc.

God in His infinite wisdom and mercy has given us very great gifts in these beautiful rituals His Church is to observe! This includes the covenant initiation sign of baptism. And these precious ordinances/sacraments point to and indeed in some way or another even communicate the ultimate gift of Christ Himself, to whom we are united by faith, through the ineffable working of the Holy Spirit.

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