The Sacraments of the Church: On Baptism

I wanted to do a couple of articles on the issue of the two essential sacraments of the church that, especially in Protestantism, we all agree are important. The two sacraments of course, are the Eucharist (The Lord’s Supper) and baptism. There is an ongoing debate today on both of these subjects. Thinking and reading about the different perspectives in Lutheranism, and in reformed circles, and even in standard evangelical circles, I have wanted to for some time, offer where I am in the subjects.

What I want to do in this article is to focus on the subject of baptism, and where I fall on the issue. I don’t want this article to focus on the negative critique of the other views. Instead, while I will include some negative argumentation, it will be primarily meant to push the conversation forward; I want to focus on positive arguments for the position I take, showing why I take this perspective. Because I want this to be me, and not simply the 1689 London Baptist Confession talking through me, I will not be relying on that confession primarily to prove my Baptist persuasion. It doesn’t mean I won’t refer to it, but I think this whole thing will come through more real if you see where I am coming from, rather than me just being a standard Baptist. If that were the case, why write this? Why not just link you to the LBC and be done with it? That’s no fun.

As you may have guessed, I do subscribe more closely to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of faith. Why do I not say I absolutely do? Simply because I’m not strictly confessional; I see the confessions are useful guides, but I haven’t read through them thoroughly to accept one or the other, and I may often disagree with them on one point or another. Ultimately, I feel it would be dishonest for me to completely subscribe to one when I haven’t actually read it in its entirety. But the 1689 is what I am closest to because I am reformed, and because I am a Baptist.

Faith Alone, Christ Alone, Grace Alone

As always, I think it is essential that when we dive into these subjects, we always lay out our foundational approaches. By this I mean, laying the presuppositions. We’ve all got them, and the best way to communicate meaningfully is to lay them out to be examined. People typically don’t take a position for the position’s sake, but rather because they are assuming something that leads them there. I am no different, and hence, I need to start from the ground up–the foundational principles that lead me to my position. Please note: that for those who are Lutheran, Orthodox or Roman Catholic, read the entirety of this before you begin to critique. It may seem to you as though I am making standard, evanjelly arguments against your view, but I’m not. As I present what are arguably some negative claims towards your view, it is not the end of my argumentation.

Christ Alone

I will begin with the sola we know as Solus Christus (Christ alone). What, you might ask, does this have to do with taking a Baptist persuasion? Let me answer the question with this thought in mind. Lutherans often speak of “Remembering your baptism” as a means of overcoming the guilt of sin. This is tied to their doctrine of baptismal regeneration (something we’ll discuss later). The point is that when one feels the guilt of sin attempt to destroy their salvation, or their confidence in salvation, the Lutheran is always able to recall their being baptized into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and in baptism have the promise of a clear conscience before God (1 Peter 3:21). Thus, the Lutheran is always called, in these moments, to remember their baptism and what it has done for them.

This raises one of my main objections to this position. While I offered a pair of verses Lutherans will use for their position, I think those are rather isolated texts, and in the second place, I don’t find Scripture ever commanding us to remember our baptism when sin has overcome us, or when other difficulties arise in our hearts and minds. What I do see is what we find in John 6:29. The Jews have come to inquire of Jesus about the “bread which never perishes” and how to work for it. Let’s see how Jesus answers them,

Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

John 6:29 (ESV)

The answer Jesus gives is almost paradoxical; the “work” is not really a work that we labor to do in order to gain a reward. We are called simply to believe in the Christ. The implication clearly is that salvation rests not upon whatever actions we are doing, nor looking upon particular actions, but rather looking upon the Son alone. What Jesus means is that salvation is found in him alone, and nowhere else. Obviously, I am not here saying that Lutherans don’t believe this. Even I wouldn’t think this is contradictory to remembering your baptism, and I hope I haven’t said that it is. My point is that I don’t see anything in Scripture that calls me to look upon an action performed by me, but instead to always be looking to the Son. Jesus says later,

For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

John 6:40 (ESV)

Echoing what he just said in verse 29; it’s not my actions, it’s not my baptism, it’s not even the Lord’s Supper, it’s the simple, plain reality that my heart and mind, however hindered it is by sin in this body, is ultimately laid upon the Son. When you think about it, Scripture–especially the gospels–is filled with this kind of language, since after all, Jesus is the pinnacle point of all of it. Constantly, over and over and over again, Jesus is made the subject of prophetic fulfillment.

For example, Jesus is proclaimed to be the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29), making Jesus the end of the sacrificial laws (Hebrews 10:10-14). The Old Testament law of sacrifice points to the final sacrifice of Christ. Therefore, salvation is found in him alone. In Jesus is eternal life (John 1:4, John 3:15-16). Jesus fulfills Old Testament messianic prophesies (Matthew 1:1-17, 2:4-5, 5:17-20, John 19:36) and that Jesus’s prophetic ministry culminates the new age. All of salvation, in other words, is found in Christ. Hence, when Jesus says that all those looking upon the Son have eternal life, clearly what he means is that eternal life is given not to those who continue to work as though they had a righteousness to give to God, but to those who simply cling to Christ. Christ alone, therefore, is to whom we are to look for salvation.

Now again, just because I know my Lutheran brothers are ready to pounce on this and say, “You’re making the sacraments irrelevant, meaningless symbols!” I am not. You have to wait until I’m done here. I am not pitting Scripture against itself; I am fully aware of the arguments prepared to be put against me, such as that I am presupposing a reformed view and as a result turning the sacraments into meaningless “pseudo-symbolism”. I’m not doing that, but for me to show you how, I am giving you the groundwork for my doctrine of baptism. So again I ask that you wait until the end before you cast your stones.

Faith Alone

The “hinge upon which the church stands or falls” as it was said by Martin Luther, the man who sparked the Reformation in the sixteenth century. It is spoken about often in evangelical circles, and in fact, this is one of the central tenants of Protestantism. Anyone who holds to this position (however cloudy they may hold to it from its purest form), is a Protestant. Faith Alone (Sola Fide) is the doctrine that Paul explicitly teaches in Romans 3-4, which I have talked about here. To briefly go over this, in essence what it claims is that my salvation and station before God is based, not on my works before God, but by the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which I hold onto with faith.

What does this mean? I am saved by my faith in Christ, not by my works for Him. What this does not mean, is that I punch my ticket and have my insurance to heaven no matter what I do (the idea of “once saved, always saved”). This is an area where Roman Catholics, as well as Eastern Orthodox, and sadly, evangelicals get very confused. After all, Paul does warn us of sin that leads to death in Romans 1, Romans 11:17-21, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, and James himself in his epistle warns that “faith without works is dead”. Hebrews is filled with sobering passages to warn us of judgment if we “trample under foot” the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 6:6), indicating that a refusal to repent leads to damnation. Christ also warns people to repent or perish–turn from sin. If I am called to a holy life, hence must change how I live, how then am I justified before God by simply believing? Doesn’t this require working on my behalf?

This is solved, I believe, in the reformed doctrine of Faith Alone. I am saved by faith alone, as what Paul teaches clearly in Romans 4, but Paul goes on to say in Romans 6 that those buried into Christ’s death cannot be possessed by sin. It doesn’t mean they are sinless, but that they now have power over it (Romans 8:4). What so many evangelicals today get wrong is what Faith Alone shows us, and as a result, either teach antinomianism, or legalism. One way to diagnose whether you have fallen into this trap is if you say, “I’m saved by faith alone, but” instead of, “I am saved by faith alone, therefore”.

The apostles did not treat faith as simply an intellectual assent to an idea. It’s not simply what we would call believing Jesus is the Son of God, and believing he died for our sins. It’s a conviction in our heart that causes us to fall upon our knees, and in recognition of the agony Christ bore before a righteous God for wretched sinners like we are, we hate the idea of striking another blow upon him with more sin. Because of the faith that is within, we are able to grab hold of the promises of God, we are able to repent of sin, and to turn towards righteousness, and to lay aside all manner of sin that impedes us from taking hold of the promises of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Grace Alone

Now finally, grace. This again, was another one of the hinges of the Reformation: was grace a bridge God provides for us to take upon ourselves if we will walk across it? Or is grace a verb in which God is Himself carrying us across the bridge? In simpler terms, did grace make us savable, or did it actually save? The reformers believed, against Rome, that grace actually saved, and hence made it the power of God, not the will of man (Romans 9:11). Once again, one has to ask themselves–especially if you are an average evangelical in America today, which of these do you subscribe to? If you hold to the idea that grace is something available that we must now utilize, or be lost, then you are on Rome’s side, not the Reformation.

As before, I can only provide cursory explanations of this, since my purpose is to set forth my view on baptism, and so I again would point you to Romans 9 as an example of this doctrine coming out in its most vivid sense. Often times opponents of the Doctrines of Grace try to take us to the passages in Hebrews which seem to indicate to us that grace can be resisted. But the problem is Hebrews isn’t dealing specifically with the subject of grace’s effectiveness. Romans 9 is; whether in the end, we are saved by our willing, or by God’s. Returning to John 6, we read,

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, “And they will all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me–

John 6:44-45 (ESV)

See how Jesus, in just a few sentences, teaches us what Paul later echoes in Romans 9, Ephesians 1, 2 and 1 Corinthians 1? Coming to Christ is conditioned on whether we are being drawn. The drawing results in the raising up on the last day. Now what does it mean that we are drawn? What does that look like? Robots performing a script? No. Jesus adds the citation of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 54:13, and Jeremiah in Jeremiah 31:33-34, indicating that what this drawing looks like is people being taught by God, becoming, as Jesus himself says, as little children who are learning, and growing in their faith. They obey God, and listen to the voice of the Shepherd (John 10:1-4).

Their obeying is not a result of their singular desire alone, rather of a desire given to them by God, by which they come to Christ, and their coming results in the strengthening of faith, the renewing of the mind, and the repenting of sin. All that they do in righteousness now are not done simply for the sake of being righteous, but in faith towards the Son (John 6:29, 40, John 10:1-4, Hebrews 12:1-2).

Hence once again, the true and plain statement of Jesus in John 6:29 and 40, that the will of God is that we believe in Him whom God has sent (Christ), and that we look to Him whom God has sent (Christ). All the gifts of the gospel are found in Christ, not in the sacraments. The question now then is, what becomes of the sacraments?

Baptism

With these having been seen (they being the key elements of the gospel), we have the framework from which we work outwardly to the sacraments. We will talk about the Eucharist in the next article; here, we are going to ask, what becomes of baptism? If, after all, the promises of the gospel are found simply in our faith towards God in Christ, why do we need to do the sacraments?

There are many evangelicals in America today, who do ask these questions. Unfortunately, they ask them outside of the context of what the original meaning of evangelical is, and outside the Protestant roots that are theirs, but they are ignorant of. As a result, the tendency is to create a chasm between the sacraments and faith, to focus only on faith in Jesus, and give the sacrament of baptism a view liking it to a sweetener, or a cherry on a cake. It adds a nice compliment to the whole cake, but doesn’t really do anything else.

This, by the way, is also what has led to the “Not a religion, a relationship” idea in evangelicalism, a concept that even when I embraced it years ago, had no idea what it meant. To this day, I really don’t understand what it means (everyone has a relationship with God, it’s either good or bad). What I do know is that this idea embraces the imbalanced view that since its faith and not works, works are of little importance, except perhaps the ones that get you in trouble. But “religious” works are not important. It is honestly a complete confusion of words and categories.

The fact is, Scripture treats baptism in much higher regards than most of these evangelicals. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that your standard evangelical doesn’t think baptism is important, but it is treated with a glib and care-free mindset, as though it were an easy thing–as thought it, once again, frees you from religion to a “relationship”. Nevertheless, if you press them enough, they will reject your assertion that baptism is a command of the gospel. The word ‘command’ is a bad word; that’s religious! Not relational! Is it?

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV).

The last thing Jesus says to his disciples before he ascends into heaven is to command them to make disciples of the nations, and to baptize them in the name of the triune God. One might say that this was not meant to be taken literally, rather figuratively, such as a “baptism” of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the gospel.

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:37-38 (ESV).

Peter said this just days after Christ gave the command of Matthew 28:19. Seems like he took Jesus’s words rather straightforwardly. Peter did not treat baptism as something that would be a suggestion, but not really a command. It was and is an important element of the gospel. Paul, in his conversion, was baptized (Acts 9:18). Simon the Magician repents of his schemes and is himself baptized and after him others that were preached to were also baptized (Acts 8:13).

But notice that while they were baptized, and baptism was a command, it did not necessarily lead to receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-16). When Cornelius and all those listening heard Peter preach, the Spirit falls upon them first, and then they were baptized (Acts 10:44-48). Evidently, it is not the sacrament of baptism that causes salvation, but something else.

When Phillip is teaching the Eunuch the Scriptures, the Eunuch is asking sincere questions about the matter, which tells us he is seeking the Christ. In other words, it would seem to me that the Spirit is already with him, guiding him and pointing him to the key, which is Jesus. Then we read,

And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the Eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Acts 8:36-39 (ESV).

I included verse 39 because I think it is a most wonderful ending to that story. But once again, what seems to be the case is that baptism is offered to someone who has been seeking, who desires to be part of the new covenant–they are already looking to the Son. Nevertheless, the importance of the sacrament is not sacrificed to the reality that salvation is solely and completely of the power of God. How do we then put these things together?

Baptism as Our Confession

As I put these things together, I come to what baptism means. In a certain sense, I absolutely agree with Luther that the sacraments are “a means” to our sanctification. It may even be said (though I would not use the terms), that by the sacraments of baptism and of the Eucharist, we are continually taking upon ourselves the body of Christ. What I would say instead is that God uses these sacraments to sanctify us, to grow us in the faith.

This is why I began this article laying out my foundations, because the foundations give rise to the rest. When Paul is giving us the message of the gospel in Romans, he begins first with the problem. The good news doesn’t make sense until you begin with the bad news. Likewise, the sacrament of baptism doesn’t make sense unless it is put in its proper order. What then, do we make of with passages, such as,

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 good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 3:21 (ESV).

My answer is, once more, to appeal to my presuppositions I have laid out, that firstly my salvation is found in Jesus Christ (which Peter mentions in this verse). One might argue that what Peter meant here was not a physical baptism, but the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11), but I will not insist on this, especially considering I took a literal approach to his assertion at Pentecost. What I will insist upon is that baptism, being a command, is an appeal to God for a good conscience, i.e. a sacrament performed with a heartfelt confession of faith in Christ alone. We are saved through faith alone, but that faith seeks the will and commandments of God, and if He commands the sacrament of baptism, we will desire it for ourselves and for His glory.

Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of His fellowship with him, in His death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into Him; of remission of sins; and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life.

1689 LBC, Chapter 29

But this is not done so that we may be saved, or that through the sacrament we are indeed saved in that moment. As we have seen, the Spirit falls upon people whether they are baptized or not. Yet nevertheless, it is something we are called to do. Therefore, in conclusion, we perform this sacrament in faith towards God, and in that mindset, with our eyes set upon Christ–who alone holds our salvation before God. Baptism then, as well as the Eucharist are means of grace, not in that they save us, but that when we partake of them in faith, we attain more into the glory and grace of God and the salvation in Christ. We are laying aside our sin, and looking to the Founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

Q: Are both Word and sacraments, then, ordained and appointed for this end, that they may direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation?

A: Yes, indeed, for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which He offered for us on the cross.

Heidelberg Catechism, Question 67 (Of the Sacraments).

All the ordinances of the church, whether they be the preaching of the Word, the corporate worship, the baptisms, and the Eucharist, are to be done in faith towards our Savior, Jesus Christ. This maintains the central tenant that salvation is by faith alone, looking towards the Son, believing in Him, while also emphasizing how important the sacraments are; they are not simply symbols, but ordinances commanded of us. We are baptized while looking unto Jesus, believing in him. As Paul says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” -Romans 6:4 (ESV).

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