Some friends and I gathered at O'Neill's in Dublin last night for our weekly chat about faith and life and how those things intersect (and sometimes collide). Last night's discussion centered on the topic of Christian baptism. There are a variety of positions, theories, theologies, etc. regarding all things Christian and baptism is no exception. Because we're living on the backside of 2,000 years of church history, there's a lot of confusion about this topic. The easiest way to cut through the confusion is to go back to the earliest sources of information, namely the New Testament itself. The scriptural witness of baptism, its mode and its meaning is quite extensive. Here are a few examples of baptismal teaching:
Matt 3:13-17 & 28:16-20; John 3:1-18; Acts 2:29-47 & 22:6-21; Rom 6:1-14; 1 Cor 12:12-13; Gal 3:23-4:7; Eph 2:1-10, 4:1-5:27; Col 2:8-3:17; Titus 3:3-8; 1 Pet 3:13-22.
But any discussion of Christian baptism obviously begins with Christ himself. Without the Son of God humbly incarnating himself in the man Jesus, living a complete and faithful life in full obedience to God the Father, dying an undeserved, yet completely effective (to deal with the sins of the world) death on the cross, and then through the power of the Spirit defeating death by rising to new bodily life on the third day, any talk about baptism is meaningless. But the man Jesus was and is the Son of God, died and rose again, so a discussion of the meaning of Christian baptism is worthwhile indeed.
The reason that Christian baptism is a worthwhile discussion is because from the earliest days of the church, baptism was the normative way in which individuals, and often, groups of people responded to the proclamation of the gospel. It was never perceived as a work to be done nor as something that merited anything on behalf of the one submitting to it, but rather was seen as the means by which one accepts God’s gracious gift of the forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. It was the moment when one began the new life of Christian discipleship and it was the point in time when that individual was added to Christ’s body, the church, the new Israel, the people of God. One might say that we are saved by grace through faith and that this process begins at baptism. It certainly doesn’t end there. It ends (or begins again in a radically new way) in the new creation when God brings all things to completion and makes all things new.
God is a gracious God. He graciously forgives his children for their sins and so it is reasonable to assume that he also forgives us for our doctrinal misunderstandings as well. Due to 2,000 years of sometimes poor baptismal (as well as other doctrinal) teaching, many sincere believers are genuinely confused about the meaning of and the importance of believer's baptism. When Paul reminds his readers about faith, hope, and love, he’s quick to remind them that the greatest of these is love. This is important for us to remember, because in the modern Christian world there are many areas in which sincere believers have honest disagreements and in a variety of ways we all have massive misunderstandings. As we seek to better understand our faith, thank God for his grace along the way. And as we come to a greater awareness of God’s will, may he grant us all the humility to submit to his word in our lives. - Shay