In this post, I continue my thoughts on baptism as an evangelical sacrament, seeking to explore what it means to say that Jesus Christ is baptism’s objective reality.
(ii) Christ as the objective reality of baptism.
In rejecting the ex opere operato, the Reformers were careful not to separate baptism from salvation, for the New Testament directly links baptism with a salvation event. This ruling out of ex opere operato is clearly seen in the Apostle Paul where, in 1 Corinthians 10:1ff., he corresponds baptism with the Exodus event, and in Titus 3:5f., where he wrote that God ‘saved us … by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior’. Likewise the Apostle Peter, identifying baptism with Noah and the flood narrative, wrote that ‘Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 3:21).
It may indeed be true, as Berkouwer notes, that baptism is ‘a cause of grace, but the objective character of baptism as saving grace is bound to the redemptive event of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The original ‘regenerative aspect of baptism is the ‘regeneration of the body of Christ in resurrection. It is the humanity of Christ that is regenerated through his baptism (death and resurrection), and our baptism is a sign and seal of our participation and regeneration in his own new life, but always with the eschatological tension between the Word and power of this act. This is why we must speak of the regenerative aspect of baptism as associated with the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:12-13), and not with the physical act itself. And it’s also why baptism is an unrepeatable and indelible act.
Thus baptism is salvation through faith as a divine act of grace. There is no disjunction between the objective aspect of baptism as a divine work and the human appropriation of baptism as a subjective act through faith and water on the part of the human subject. Faith is not a condition which effectually causes baptism to regenerate, but regeneration through the Holy Spirit effectually binds the human subject through faith to the salvation of Christ. It is in this sense that baptism is an ‘evangelical sacrament, for here, the evangel is declared every time this ‘proclamation activity is performed. It is for this reason that Torrance can conclude:
Quite clearly the word and sacraments belong together. The Gospel as it is proclaimed in and by the sacraments belongs to evangelism as much as the Gospel proclaimed in word. Christ communicates himself to us through both and through both together, providing us in different ways with the appropriate human response which we cannot make ourselves but through which the Gospel becomes established in us … Thus … the sacraments … are not to be regarded merely as ‘confirming ordinances but as ‘converting ordinances, for in and through them the Gospel strikes home to us in such a way as to draw us within the vicarious response to God which Jesus Christ constitutes in his own humanity, the humanity which he took from us and converted back to God the Father in himself.
Paul repeatedly refers baptism to the historical work of Christ in obtaining salvation. There is no ‘second cause, or causa instrumentalis, of salvation through baptism allowed in the form of faith as a subjective act. The fact that faith is indispensable to baptism issues out of the fact that baptism of the Holy Spirit is the effective cause of faith, apart from which there would be no sharing in the Baptism of Christ. As Weber perceptively writes,
Our relationship to the Covenant of God with us is not like an ‘objective fact’ which we can examine and then could appropriate as ours. It embraces us because Jesus Christ as ‘true God and true man’ is absolutely precedent to us as the Bearer and Guarantor of the Covenant. This precedence, this embrace, this surpassing of our faith through God’s covenant act is what defines baptism. If we understand it as a gift which we personally experience, then it is always ‘incomprehensible’. It becomes accessible, although not “comprehensible”, when we see in it the warrant of the Covenant of God which establishes our faith. In it God’s will to save and to covenant is made known as the will which first calls us into the existence of believers. The reason this is true is that both baptism and faith are established on Jesus Christ. The unity, the point of juncture between faith and baptism, is not found in the sequence of human or interpersonal acts but in him. That removes them from the realm of our manipulation. We can neither see faith based in baptism, nor see baptism grounded in faith. Both are based in the salvific act of God in Jesus Christ which is effectively communicated to us through the Holy Spirit. The error of the Anabaptist view is that it places this conjunction of human faith and humanly given and received baptism in a temporal sequence, whereas that can only be understood in a pneumatic way in their conjunction. What they failed to see is the surpassing significance of the Covenant, concluded in Jesus Christ and directed towards the Eschaton, still to come in terms of its visibility. This failure will always arise when human behaviour, faith, and a human-ecclesiastical action, baptism, are brought together as such. In that situation, faith will be examined for its controllable correctness and durability. And in that situation, baptism becomes an inner-worldly, calculable consequence of faith. But only in that situation! The Covenant of God surpasses both faith and baptism and comprehends them both.
The temporal or chronological sequence of faith and water baptism are both relative to the baptism of Christ. As the base of the triangle, faith and water baptism converge in the apex of Christ as the objective reality and content of both baptism and faith.