Baptism – an Evangelical Sacrament Part 7 (final)

I began this 7-part series by quoting a portion of Scripture from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and I have tried to show in this paper how that one baptism in this Pauline passage, points directly to Jesus Christ as the one Lord of the Church, for it was through his vicarious activity in life, death and resurrection that the Church came into being. Thus the Church can, and does, baptise, as it is in Christ. Christ himself was both the ontological ground and unifying core of the Church which he appropriated to himself as his own peculiar possession, and identified with himself as his own Body. Hence baptism in his name signified incorporation of the baptised in Christ as members of his body.One the other hand, one baptism pointed to the one Sprit, for it is one Spirit as well as through Christ that the Church has access to the Father. Furthermore, “the Holy Spirit is not only the bond of unity between the three divine Persons in the one being of God, but the bond of unity between God and human beings as they are baptised into the one Lord and are united with him and one another in one faith.”

It would be amiss of me if I did not also speak of the evangelical content of that one baptism, namely, ‘the remission of sins, the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’ (Nicene Creed). The forgiveness of sins was associated with baptism from the very beginning. In baptism we are united to Christ through the Holy Spirit in such a way that we partake of the whole substance of the Gospel, for all grace and truth are embodied in him. In other words, saving grace is not something detached from Christ which can be dispensed at will, but is identical with Christ in the unity of his Person, Word and Act. It is through the one baptism which we have in common with Christ, or rather which he has in common with us, that we share in all that God has in store for us. Because baptism is one (the baptism with which Christ was baptised for our sakes, and the baptism in which we are given to share in all he was, is and will be) to be baptised is much more than to be initiated into the sphere where forgiveness is proclaimed and dispensed in the Church. It is to be ‘delivered from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’. It is to have our frail transient existence taken up into Christ himself in such a way that, without any loss to our creaturely reality but rather with its perfecting through his Spirit, it is united to God and established in union with his eternal reality.

‘The remission of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come’, belong together to the very core of this mystery, for they are the saving benefits that flow from union with Christ through one baptism and one Spirit, and are enjoyed in one Body. They are not benefits that we may have outside of Christ but only in Christ, and so they may not be experienced in separation from one another for they cohere indivisibly in him. Nor may they be enjoyed in the experience of separated individuals, but only as individuals share together in the one baptism of Christ and his Spirit. People are certainly baptised one by one, yet only in such a way that they are made members of the one Body of Christ, share in his benefits as a whole, and share in them together with all other members of Christ’s Body.

To be united to the crucified and risen Christ through the baptism of his Spirit, necessarily carries with it sharing with him in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Through his incarnation the Son of God took up into himself our physical existence enslaved to sin, thereby making our corruption, death and judgement his own and offering himself as a substitute for us, so that through the atoning sacrifice of his own life, he might destroy the power that corruption and death have over us. And through the resurrection of our physical human nature in himself Christ has set us upon an altogether different basis in relation to God in which there is no longer any place for corruption and death. Thus the central focus of Christian belief is upon the incarnate, crucified and risen Saviour, who is himself the ‘evangelical sacrament’ in whom we participate, for he has penetrated and destroyed the bands of death and brought ‘life and immortality to light’ – that is the forgiveness of sins and resurrection from the dead into which we are once for all baptised by the Holy Spirit. So, far from being just a promise for the future, baptism is an evangelical declaration of what has already taken place in Christ, and in him continues as a permanent triumphant reality throughout the whole course of time to its consummation, when Christ will return with glory in judgement, and to unveil the great regeneration which he has accomplished for the whole creation.

So here and now in the ongoing life of the Church we live in the midst of the advent-presence of Christ, already partaking of this regeneration and sharing in its blessings with one another. Because the Church is the Body of the risen, ascended, and coming, Christ, all that is said about the one baptism is proleptically conditioned by the future. Hence due to its union with Christ through one baptism and one Spirit the Church cannot but look through its participation in the saving death of Christ to its participation in his resurrection from the dead, and thus look forward in expectation to the general resurrection at the return of its risen Lord and Saviour when its whole existence will be transformed and it will enjoy to the full the sanctity and eternal life of God himself. So Paul writes: ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish’.

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