Here in this penultimate post on baptism, I explore the idea of …
(iii) Baptism as obedience and hope.
There is a place for a truly human response in salvation, objectively made possible by the human response (obedience) of Jesus, and subjectively made possible by the baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:12-13). Thus, baptism carries an imperative, a command of God, to be conformed to the death of Christ and to his Resurrection (Rom. 12:1ff.). To ignore this imperative is to forfeit the place given to our humanity by the work of reconciliation accomplished in Christ. So then it is proper, with Barth, to link baptism with conversion in three ways: (i) as a concrete visible act, by which conversion becomes a matter of public knowledge; (ii) as a social communal act, by which the church as the community of Christ attests to its sanctification and cleansing by the Word and Spirit; and (iii) as a free, obedient act, by which the true beginning of a human decision is directed to its proper goal – Jesus Christ. Thus Barth, rightly, concludes that baptism involves both renunciation and pledge, by which the human act of obedience follows justification and sanctification as the objective grounds for salvation.
But baptism is also a sign of hope. There is a goal announced in baptism that is the eshcaton – the reality sealed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The goal of baptism does not lie in its administration in a teleological sense, as though one could produce or determine a ‘result. Rather, the goal is eschatological; baptism directs us to baptism of the Holy Spirit which, as both source and goal, is transcendent and yet present. For as Barth commented,
Now it would obviously be strange if Christian baptism were different from that of John, which Jesus sought and received like all the rest, and after which He was manifested, acknowledged and confirmed from heaven to be the Baptiser with the Holy Ghost and the Son of God. It would be strange if Christian baptism were plainly better and stronger than that of Jesus in the sense that it had its goal somehow within itself, in the faith of the community, in that of the candidates, in an efficacy proper to the act because somehow imparted to it, in a sanctification of those who give baptism by their commission or of those who receive it by a cleansing, endowment or change which they undergo in, with and under the baptismal water. Christian baptism, like John’s, is in no sense a self-sufficient act which is in some way divinely fulfilled or self-fulfilling within itself. Its goal does not lie in its administration. As its genuine goal, its truly divine goal, this goal lies before it, beyond the participants and their action and means if action. Christian baptism, as a human creaturely action, is directed to seek its divine, creative fulfillment in that which it cannot be or achieve or bring about or mediate of itself, but which it can only seek and intend and hasten towards. Baptism with water is a promise entrusted to and enjoined upon the community and those whom it baptises. As such it points forward, away from itself and beyond itself, to its fulfillment in the future baptism with the Holy Spirit. The baptising community and those baptised by it neither can nor should seek in the administration of baptism a present which is somehow enclosed or anticipated in this administration. It must strictly and exclusively intend, affirm and seek only that which is beyond the administration and future to it. When in an action on this side the community baptises, or the candidates are baptised, in prospect of and in orientation to that which is beyond them and their action, and future to them, then baptism corresponds to its institutions, it is done in obedience to the baptismal command, and it is well done; it is Christian baptism, not a Jewish or pagan baptism, both of which seek to be and do more than this, and for this very reason are and so less.
Thus baptism is the foundation of the Christian life from below, in correspondence with its goal as already achieved in the event of redemptive history – God’s act of judgement and grace, of salvation and revelation, through Jesus Christ. The ‘evangelical truth of baptism, therefore, is none other than the God who has acted, and continues to act, in Christ, through whose baptism we are baptised into his Body. It is only in the environment of this baptism that we can speak of the unity of the Community. This is because the function of this baptism is not found primarily in the incorporation of the individual into the corpus ecclesiae, but in the establishment of this unity itself. To ask what I get out of baptism is to ask the wrong question. I am involved, of course, but by virtue of baptism I am destined for membership, for integration into the building of the Community, to renounce my isolation, and to turn to the One who makes me a partner of his covenant in the Community.