The other day I was having a talk with a couple from our congregation about baptism. As readers of this blog may realize, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this subject recently, and as a consequence of this, it seemed helpful to suggest to them a distinction between ‘ritual’ and ‘actual’ baptism. Others may find this helpful too.
The reason for this is partly that the gospel itself distinguishes two kinds of baptism — in water and in (or by) the Spirit. John the Baptist was, of course, the archetypal ‘baptizer with water’, but the disciples practised water baptism too. When the Ethiopian eunuch was persuaded of the truth of the gospel, he asked, ‘Here is water, what is to prevent me being baptized?’ (Acts 8:36).
This we may call ‘ritual’ baptism, not to disparage it, but to clarify what is taking place. Going through the ritual of baptism means a person is physically baptized. There is thus no doubt it has taken place. It may be appropriate or inappropriate, but as a ritual it is real — it has actually happened.
There is, however, another baptism — the baptism in (or ‘by’ since the dative may be ‘instrumental’) the Spirit. This is first described on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, but other examples follow, eg Acts 10:44-45).
This I intend to call ‘actual’ baptism, for unfortunately, just as the debate about ‘ritual’ baptism has been hijacked by discussions concerning outward forms and appropriate timings, so the topic of ‘Spirit’ baptism has been hijacked by the Charismatic movement and I don’t want to get bogged down in that, any more than in the debate about baptismal policy (please note!).
Unlike ritual baptism, it is harder to say whether Spirit baptism has taken place. Yet there is no doubt that it does, according to the New Testament, and there is no doubt as to its key effect. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:13, ‘We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body.’
Baptism ‘in the Spirit’, is first and foremost not a personal experience of ‘more of the Spirit’, but a joining with the body of Christ. This is the ‘actual’ baptism which is signified by ‘ritual’ baptism, not least because ritual baptism enacts the truths of actual baptism.
When we read the New Testament, and especially the Pauline epistles, joining with Christ is the key ‘outcome’ of baptism, for ‘all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death’ (Rom 6:4, NIV 84). Hence,
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Rom 6:4, NIV 84)
If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with (Romans 6:5–6a, NIV84)
Baptism in water symbolizes in actions what Spirit baptism actualizes through union with Christ — our death and resurrection.
Baptism is therefore not simply an ‘entry ritual’ into the Christian life. Much less is it a ‘declaration of our faith’ (insofar as it declares anything, it declares the gospel — see Acts 8:35-36). Baptism, rather, is the Christian life when it is actualized by the work of the Holy Spirit through our faith in the gospel (Col 2:12). ‘Being baptized’ is the ongoing condition of the Christian, who is baptized ‘into’ Jesus.
But ‘being baptized’ is also our ecclesiology, for the actually baptized person becomes thereby a member (a limb or organ) of the Body of Christ, which is both ‘Christ’s body of which he is the Head’ and ‘the Church’.
To be ritually baptized, again, signifies and symbolizes this, but it does not guarantee it, any more than feeding on Christ’s body is guaranteed by eating the Lord’s Supper. Hence Paul draws the attention of the Corinthians to Israel at the Exodus:
They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert. (1 Corinthians 10:2–5, NIV84)
Actual baptism is only guaranteed to those who persevere in faith. Nevertheless, actual baptism is not a matter of a one-off ‘coming to faith’. It is an ongoing state: ‘I am baptized’. And the baptized is dead, and daily dying, to sin, having put on Christ.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: