Baptism – an Evangelical Sacrament Part 5

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.

Baptism – an Evangelical Sacrament Part 4

(i) The baptism of Jesus as the basis for Christian baptism.

Jesus is baptised by John in the Jordan (Matt. 3:13ff.). The Baptism of John was a polemic against the Jews who assumed that they had standing within the Kingdom of God by virtue of their circumcision. Proselyte baptism of Gentiles was on the basis of their non-circumcision. Thus, for a circumcised Jew to be baptised by John was virtually to say that one was an ethos in the eyes of God!

Behind the motif of proselyte baptism lies the powerful theology of participation in the Exodus event, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the sanctificatory cleansing in the establishment of the Sinaiatic covenant. So when Jesus is baptised as the Messiah of Israel, as the second Adam, it happens at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing (Jn. 1:28). It appears significant, at least to me, that the Messiah, who was in himself, as munus triplex, the whole of Israel incarnate, had to leave the land, and then return into the land through the waters of the Jordan. Is it possible that he was calling his people to leave the occupied land also, that they may re-enter the land as the true and free people of Messiah, not only as an eschatological sign, but in the time and space of the first century world?

For a Jew to be baptised was a blow struck at the heart of the security claimed by adherence to Mosaic law, drawing the Jews under the judgement of the law and driving them to repentance and hope in the One who baptises with/by/in the Spirit and fire. The baptism by John had its counterpart in the cleansing, and/or, judgement, of the Temple by Jesus in preparation for his propitiatory sacrifice as the Lamb of God, a cleansing which points to the sanctification of the Church. For Jesus to submit to John’s baptism was an act of obedience and hope through which he drew his own humanity into the judgement which the law demands, and offered up through that humanity the obedient response in hope to the Father. In this sense, Jesus’ baptism by John was substitutionary and was completed in his baptism of blood on the Cross when he died as the representative of all humanity, both Israel and non-Israel. And in baptism, the Church binds itself to the covenant and the Heilsgeschichte of Christ. Furthermore, Jesus, as the baptised one who baptises with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33) continues the work of his own baptism through the Church.

Baptism – an Evangelical Sacrament Part 3

The human nature of Jesus is the sacramental reality of revelation on the ground of the hypostatic union between the divine and human in the one person. There is attestation, or witness of God to humanity and humanity to God in this primary event which is determinative of all secondary occurrences of the Christ event. So both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are to be regarded, as they are in the New Testament, as two aspects of the one event. There is, therefore, properly speaking, only one sacrament, of which Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are correlated expressions. So the original presentation of God to humanity and humanity to God becomes a re-presentation in the sacramental life of the Church. In this sense, and only in this sense, does the sacrament give to the Church a communion in the mystery of Christ; the sacrament being the true sign of this mystery. And only here can we speak of the ‘’evangelical’ nature of baptism.

The very withdrawal of Jesus from visible and direct relation to the world casts the Church into an eschatological relation with Christ as the Head of the Church. The Church lives between the Cross and the parousia and thus the original sacramental relation of the creature to the Creator in the hypostatic union (incarnation) is now re-presented through the enactment of the life of the Church itself. But in this re-presentation the full presence of the parousia is screened, permitting the Church to have a genuine history in relation to the world. Perhaps we can even speak of baptism taking place on the morning of the seventh day, the eternal Sabbath, rather than on the evening of the sixth day.

So in God’s revealing to and through the Church in Jesus Christ, God also is concealed in order to be present, not merely as another ‘presence alongside the existence of others, but in and through their existence. But precisely in that place where the Church discovers the eschatological nature of the sacrament She discovers Christ who is in himself the eschatos – the One who is the ‘end of the age, the final Word of God to humanity, who has already come, is present, and yet to come. In Christ, the eschaton broke into the present and yet the final Word of judgement and present redemptive action of the Word are ‘held apart to leave room for repentance and faith. The sacrament functions to preserve this unity between Word and power while maintaining the eschatological tension. So with the sacrament is associated a ‘presence in absence, whilst pointing to their own disappearance as interim events sustaining the life of the Church between Pentecost and resurrection.

It is only against this general background that we can now come to consider the specific of Baptism as an ‘evangelical sacrament event within covenant and Heilsgeschichte. In particular, over the next three posts in this area, I will focus on three facets: (i) the baptism of Jesus as the basis for Christian baptism, (ii) Christ as the objective reality of baptism, and (iii) baptism as obedience and hope.

Baptism – an Evangelical Sacrament Part 2

Jesus was baptised with the baptism meant for sinners, the baptism of repentance, not for his own sake but for ours, and in him our humanity was anointed by the Spirit and consecrated in sonship to the Father. Thomas Torrance writes that,

For Jesus, baptism meant that he was consecrated as the Messiah, and that he, the Righteous One, became one with us, taking upon himself our unrighteousness, that his righteousness might become ours. For us, baptism means that we become one with him, sharing in his righteousness, and that we are sanctified in him as members of the messianic people of God, compacted together in one Body in Christ. There is one baptism and one Body through the one Spirit. Christ and his Church participate in the one baptism in different ways – Christ actively and vicariously as Redeemer, the Church passively and receptively as the redeemed Community.

So we can never speak of baptism as a sacrament of what we do, but only as what God has done for us in Christ, in whom he has bound himself to us and bound us to himself, before we could ever respond to him. But it is also the sacrament of what God does now in us by his Spirit, uniting us with Christ in his faithfulness and obedience to the Father and making that the ground of our faith. So as an act done to us, baptism tells us that it is not upon our own faithfulness that we rely, but upon Christ alone and his vicarious faithfulness; it also tells us that in the freedom of the Spirit, God makes himself present to us and secures us creatively to himself in such remarkable ways that not only is faith called from us as our own spontaneous response to God’s grace in Christ, but it is undergirded and sustained by Christ and enclosed with his own faithfulness, and so grounded in the mutual relation between the incarnate Son and the Father. For, as Calvin observed,

For he (i.e. Christ) dedicated and sanctified baptism in his own body [Matt. 3:13] in order that he might have it in common with us as the firmest bond of the union and fellowship which he has designed to form with us. Hence, Paul proves that we are children of God from the fact that we put on Christ in baptism [Gal. 3:26-27]. Thus we see that the fulfillment of baptism is in Christ, whom also for this reason we call the proper object of baptism. Consequently, it is not strange that the apostles are reported to have baptized in his name [Acts 8:16; 19:5], although they had also been bidden to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Spirit [Matt. 28:19]. For all the gifts of God proffered in baptism are found in Christ alone.

Thus, before we can even begin to speak of sacraments in general (or baptism in particular), or what Weber preferred to call ‘proclamation activities’, we must see how Jesus Christ himself, in his own Person, is the primary sacrament, as he is the primary mysterion and revelation of the Triune God. In this sense, we must also speak of revelation as sacrament. For God to reveal Godself, this revelation must be disclosed in creaturely objectivity, adapted to our creaturely existence and knowledge. The theological concept of sacrament is thus bound up in the structure and nature of God’s revelation.

Thus, there is ambiguity from the perspective of the human person – the objectification of divine revelation is not a prediction of the creaturely mind – and a provisional aspect to revelation – the final Word of revelation encompasses the ‘end of history as well as its significance. This is no less true of baptism where believers baptised in the name of the Triune God are thereby simultaneously set in the trinitarian history of God” so that there is an eschatological tension between the revelation of God in its historical form and in its ultimate reality. This is true both of revelation and sacrament as a sign of revelation. So Jesus Christ remains the mysterion through which all sacramental ‘mystery is mediated and objectively confirmed (1 Tim. 3:16). So Barth:

In the New Testament mysterion denotes an event in the world of time and space which is directly initiated and brought to pass by God alone, so that in distinction from all other events it is basically a mystery to human cognition in respect of its origin and possibility. If it discloses itself to man, this will be, not from without, but only from within, through itself, and therefore once again only through God’s revelation … Faith as a human action is nowhere called a mystery, nor is Christian obedience, nor love, nor hope, nor the existence and function of the ecclesia, nor its proclamation of the Gospel, nor its tradition as such, nor baptism, nor the Lord’s Supper. Would this omission have been possible if the New Testament community had been aware that certain human attitudes, actions and institutions were freighted with the divine word and act, if it had ascribed to baptism in particular the quality of a bearer and mediator of grace, salvation, and its manifestation?

Baptism – an Evangelical Sacrament Part 1

Over the coming week, I propose to post some thoughts (in 7 sections) on baptism as an evangelical sacrament. I am reminded that in his lectures on Christology, Dietrich Bonhoeffer made a plea that we, in our theology, would give priority to the question of who over that of how, and that we will always seek to answer the latter in terms of the former. As we shall seek this is crucially important if we are to understand in what sense we can speak of baptism as an ‘evangelical sacrament’, as evangelium sacramentum.

This is because the sacraments of the Gospel find their ultimate ground in the Incarnation and the vicarious obedience and death of Jesus Christ in the humanity which he took from us and sanctified in and through his self-offering to the Father. This means that they have to be understood in terms of the historical Jesus from his birth to his resurrection and ascension, for their content, reality and power are constituted not simply by the saving act of God upon us in Christ but by the act of God fulfilled in the vicarious humanity of Christ, as he was begotten of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate and resurrected from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. This is to say that the primary mysterion or sacramentum is Jesus Christ himself, the incarnate reality of the Son of the Father who has incorporated himself into our humanity and assimilated the people of God, both Jews and Gentiles, into himself as his own Body, so that the sacraments have to be understood as concerned with our koinonia or participation in the mystery of Christ and his Church through the koinonia of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we can only understand baptism as we look through its rite in water, administered in the name of the Triune God, back to the corporate baptism of the Church at Pentecost which itself stands behind the baptism of every individual, and through that baptism in the Spirit back to the one vicarious baptism with which Christ was baptised, not only in water and the Spirit at the Jordan but also his baptism in blood on the Cross, and hold it in steady focus as the primary fact which gives baptism its meaning.

Thus baptism is to be interpreted similarly to kerygma and yet not so much as to the actual act of proclamation itself, but rather as to what is proclaimed, namely, Jesus Christ himself. Similarly, baptism is to be understood as referring not simply to the baptising of someone in the name of Christ but to the baptism with which Jesus Christ himself was baptised as representative man, as the second, or last, Adam, from his birth to his resurrection, the one baptism which he continues to apply by his Spirit to us in our baptism into him, thereby making himself both its material content and its active agent. So we are baptised into that baptism which itself was Trinitarian.