Floating with the Elephant—Toward a Fuller Doctrine and Practice of Water Baptism (Part 2 of 3)

elephant floatingFor as the word of God, by the mysteries which it contains, exercises the understanding of the wise, so usually by what presents itself on the outside, it nurses the simple-minded. It presents in open day that wherewith the little ones may be fed; it keeps in secret that whereby men of a loftier range may be held in suspense of admiration. It is, as it were, a kind of river, if I may so liken it, which is both shallow and deep, wherein both the lamb may find a footing, and the elephant float at large. (Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job, pref. 4)

These words from the preface of Gregory the Great’s Morals on the Book of Job beautifully describe the depth of meaning associated with sacred Scripture. Novices can understand its straightforward message of what to believe and how to live . . . experts can expend a lifetime of scholarly toil wrestling with its profound depth and complex intricacies. Like a lamb wading in the shallows, new believers can refresh in Scripture’s simplicity. Or like an elephant floating in the depths, mature believers can fill their open minds with awestruck wonder. How can the same Scripture be both shallow and deep? Because of “the mysteries which it contains.”

Like Scripture, God has given to the church sacraments, or “mysteries,” which are also both shallow and deep: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Many Christians have been taught only one or two facets of these mysteries, unwittingly exchanging a deep river for a babbling brook. Yes, those who understand just the basic significance of the sacraments are still experiencing the water like a lamb finding a footing in an ankle-deep stream . . . but how much more rich their experience would be if they delve into the depths of these mysteries, floating at large with the elephant in an ocean of meaning!

The first two facets of water baptism discussed in part 1 of this series emphasized the confessional function of the practice—1) a public proclamation of faith in the Trinitarian creation and redemption narrative and 2) a personal association with the death and resurrection of Christ. The next pair treated in this essay emphasize the practical dimensions of baptism—3) repentance from a life of sin and 4) commitment to a life of sanctification.

In the earliest known record of pre-baptismal teaching for Gentile converts to Christianity, The Didache (c. 50–70), we see two very different lifestyles contrasted as “the way characterized by life” and “the way characterized by death” (Didache 1.1). After describing in some detail the new lifestyle of righteousness expected of believers (1.2–4.14) contrasted with the old lifestyle of wickedness expressed by unbelievers (5.1–6.3), the Didache presents the act of baptism itself as that pivotal point at which a believer makes the official, public, one-time turn from the path of sin and death to the path of righteousness and life. Chapter 7 begins, “Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: after you have reviewed all these things [the old lifestyle of death and the new lifestyle of life], baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (7.1–1).

Thus, in the earliest church during the time of the apostles, the single act of baptism simultaneously marked the convert’s official exit from the road of darkness and death and his or her commencement of a journey on the road of light and life (Rom. 6:13; Eph. 5:8; Col. 1:13; 1 Pet. 2:9). In the original practice of Christian baptism, the believer entered the water as the decisive visible act of departing from the broad path that leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13). He or she then came out of the water having committed to traveling the narrow path that leads to life (Matt. 7:14). At that very moment the believer’s entire trajectory—including values and morality—had changed. The baptized believer had once been walking according to the course of this world (Eph. 2:2), but now they had committed to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).

Let’s look briefly at each of these opposite directions of the moral compass—the repentance that turns from a life of sin and a consecration that turns to a life of sanctification.

3. Baptism as Repentance from a Life of Sin (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11)

Since the ministry of John the Baptist, the act of water baptism was connected to repentance from a life of sin. Mark 1:4–5 says, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (see also Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:3). The Greek word for “forgiveness” here is aphesis, indicating a “release.” It could refer to a release from the guilt and consequences of a person’s sins, but it also relates to a release from the life of sin. This is why along with “water for repentance,” John preached that those who were baptized should “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8; Acts 26:20).

Though people sometimes attempt to draw a heavy line between John’s baptism of repentance from a life of sin and the Christian baptism of association with Christ in the name of the triune God, Jesus Himself made it clear that repentance, baptism, and a release from a life sin were meant to continue on in the proclamation of the church. In Luke 24:47, the resurrected Jesus said that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” This corresponds with the mandate in Matthew 28:18, “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.” Thus, the practice of baptism as the mark of repentance from a life of sin continues from the ministry of John the Baptist into the Christian era. With that turning from a life of sin, the baptized believer experiences a “release” (aphesis) from its enslavement.

In another place, I have shown that the references to “repentance” and being once “enlightened” in Hebrews 6:1, 3, and 6, when read in light of an early Christian catechetical background like that found in the Didache, reveals that “baptism” was often used interchangeably with the words “repentance” and “illumination.” The former, repentance, referred to the turning from sin to righteousness. Illumination referred to the transferal from the domain of darkness to the domain of light. Thus, when Peter cried out to the Jews, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38), the baptism itself was their act of repentance, releasing them from a life of sin, just like John’s baptism had marked the same conversion for sinful Jews.

The implication is clear: at baptism, believers were not simply confessing their personal faith in the triune God and associating with the death and resurrection of Christ. They were publicly testifying to their repentance from a life of sin. This is why baptism was often metaphorically described as “washing away sin” (Acts 3:19). Just as the blood of Christ spiritually and invisibly pardoned and cleansed a believer of all sin and guilt before God, the act of baptism publicly and visibly transitioned that believer out of a life characterized by sinfulness. This is why Paul was able to say in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” Though the believers in Corinth had once lived lives characterized by sinfulness, they had been washed by baptism: set apart and declared righteous. That Paul most likely had the moment of water baptism in mind as that mark of repentance from a sinful life is suggested by his mention of the triune Persons: “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ [the Son] and in the Spirit [the Holy Spirit] of our God [the Father]” (1 Cor. 6:11; compare Matt. 28:19). Though a believer is spiritually and invisibly forgiven of their sin and guilt and justified before God by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:8–9), this spiritual reality is manifested before all through the act of water baptism, by which the regenerated believer visibly washes away his or her former lifestyle of sin by this solemn act of repentance

This rescue (or salvation) from a destructive sinful lifestyle is also in Peter’s mind when he says that “baptism . . . now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21). Some have taken this to mean that the act of water baptism itself somehow applies saving grace to the individual, so without baptism a person cannot be eternally saved. However, when we understand Peter’s imagery and typology in this passage, such a view doesn’t hold water. Peter said that baptism corresponds typologically with the water of the flood. Note the analogy Peter draws: Noah constructed the ark, “in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that [water], baptism now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:20–21). So, in a way similar to the salvation achieved for Noah and his family through the waters of the flood, the waters of baptism now “save” believers in Christ. How did the waters of the flood save Noah? Peter’s second epistle tells us that the utterly sinful world, which stood under the just condemnation of God, was “destroyed, being flooded with water” (2 Pet. 3:6). Noah and his family were then deposited in a “new” world, washed clean of sinfulness. Similarly, the believer enters the water as a citizen of an old world—their world of sinfulness, darkness, and destruction. They then come out of the water as citizens of the new world—a world of righteousness, light, and life. The waters of baptism, according to Peter’s imagery, “save” a person from a lifestyle of sin, because baptism marks the moment of that person’s official, solemn abandonment and release from the sin that once characterized his or her life: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Yet baptism as repentance from a life of sin is only one end of the compass. It represents the orientation and trajectory of the person prior to entering into the water. Nobody remains buried in the waters that wash them clean of a lifestyle of sin. As the believer died to the former direction of the “sinner,” he or she rises again facing a new direction: the life of a saint. This leads us to the opposite end of the compass to which the believer turns through baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life.

4. Baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life (1 Pet. 3:21)

Turning from a life of sin automatically involves turning to a life of righteousness, as does turning to a life of righteousness means forsaking a life of sin. Thus, as I have been saying, the third and fourth facets of baptism are inseparably linked. Paul wrote with the same dip of his pen, “You were washed . . . you were sanctified” (1 Cor. 6:11). Washing indicates the eradication of the dirtiness of a person’s immoral life. Sanctification means the setting apart unto a clean life.

From the beginning of the New Testament church, then, baptism involved not only the outward sign of one’s decision to abandon a life of sin, but also—in the same held breath—the commitment, pledge, or vow to live the Christian life by the power of the Spirit. It’s the pledge to live out “deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:20). Just as believers turned away from their trespasses and sins in which they “formerly lived” (Eph. 2:1–2), they committed to walk in “good works” (Eph. 2:10). Implied in the act of baptism as a solemn mark of repentance is the idea that the one being baptized was committing to live as a disciple, dedicated to observe all that Christ commanded (Matt. 28:20).

For explicit language related to baptism as a “pledge” or “oath,” however, we turn again to 1 Peter 3:21. After saying that “baptism . . . now saves you,” he clarified the precise nature and power of the rite he had in mind: “not a cleansing of dirt from the flesh”—that is, this wasn’t a bath to scrub the body—“but a pledge to God from a good conscience” (my translation). The second part of this statement has been variously translated as “an appeal to God for a good conscience” (NASB), “the answer of a good conscience toward God” (NKJV), and “the pledge of a good conscience to God” (NET). The Greek text itself is not clear whether baptism is meant to be the act that appeals to God for a clean conscience, or that baptism is a response to God with a commitment to holiness because of the conscience that has already been cleansed. It seems to me that the second option best fits the context and the overall teaching of the New Testament. Thus, the emphasis is on baptism itself as a visible pledge of the believer to God before many witnesses to forsake the lifestyle of sinfulness and begin a new way of life—like a wedding ceremony is a pledge of fidelity to one’s new spouse and faithfulness to the married life.

In this view, the language of 1 Peter 3:21 is best understood as indicating a personal “oath,” “vow,” “pledge,” or “promise,” in which the recipient of baptism thereby swears to live the Christian life by the help of the Spirit. In one of the earliest descriptions of how Christians baptized new believers, Justin Martyr said that baptism was administered to those who “are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly” (1 Apology 61). By submitting to water baptism, the new Christian was publically confessing his or her faith and promising to walk “by the Spirit,” the lifestyle associated with “the way of life,” that is, the sanctified life of discipleship to Jesus Christ.

Let me make one final clarifying note regarding baptism in order to clarify a common misunderstanding. Although the idea of “baptismal regeneration” is widespread among the early church fathers, it should not be confused with the notion of “baptismal salvation” in the sense of the water itself affecting a person’s eternal position before God. In the early church, the term “regeneration” or the “new birth” originally referred to a practical change in lifestyle—the very act of repentance from a life of sin to a life of righteousness we’ve discussed in this essay. The candidates for baptism had resolved to live new lives, abandoning their lives of unbelief, idolatry, and sin. The early Jewish Christian communities regarded baptism as the conscious decision to abandon the “path of death” characterized by sin and to begin a journey on the “path of life” characterized by righteousness (see Didache 1–6). Even in the New Testament baptism is metaphorically associated with being “made alive” (Col. 2:12–13) and setting a believer on the path of “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).

Given this background of instruction that contrasted death and life, the language of “regeneration” in the earliest church fathers likely derived from the notion that baptism was the point of one’s conversion from the lifestyle characterized by death to a lifestyle characterized by life. Similarly, the early church also referred to baptism as “illumination” or “enlightenment,” as baptism marked the new believer’s change of course from the “path of darkness” to the “path of light” (compare Epistle of Barnabas 18.1).

This early Christian idea of baptism “washing” away an old lifestyle of sin and initiating a believer, empowered by the Spirit, into a new lifestyle of righteousness, is expressed well by Irenaeus of Lyons (c. A.D. 180):

When, therefore, did we bear the image of him who is of the earth? Doubtless it was when those actions spoken of as “works of the flesh” used to be wrought in us. And then, again, when [do we bear] the image of the heavenly? Doubtless when he says, “Ye have been washed,” believing in the name of the Lord, and receiving His Spirit. Now we have washed away, not the substance of our body, nor the image of our [primary] formation, but the former vain conversation [or, behavior] (sed pristinam vanitatis conversationem). In these members, therefore, in which we were going to destruction by working the works of corruption, in these very members are we made alive by working the works of the Spirit (in iisdem ipsis vivificamur, operantes ea quae sunt spiritus). (Iren. Against Heresies 5.11.2)

How, then, did the idea develop that says the water of baptism saves a person from eternal damnation, not merely from a sinful lifestyle? While the earliest church used the metaphors of regeneration and illumination to refer to the practical change of lifestyle, later Christians began to interpret these metaphorical terms more literally and metaphysically, resulting in the notion that the water itself supernaturally mediated saving (life-giving) grace to the recipient. From that point on until the Reformation, the idea that water baptism was a gracious means of salvation rather than a gracious means of initial sanctification became common. However, it seems most proper to regard baptism as intended to be the first means of sanctifying grace, the moment when a new believer commits to live the Christian life by God’s grace, to walk in newness of life.

To sum up: besides confession of faith in the triune God and personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection, baptism is an act of repentance from a life of sin and a pledge to live a sanctified life. Yes, those who understand baptism as a confession of faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as well as a profession of trust in person and work of Christ have genuinely waded in the refreshing waters of this sacred rite like lambs lapping in a cool stream. However, with a greater understanding of its mysteries, those who have repented from sin and pledged a life of holiness through water baptism will find themselves going deeper than the little lambs, entering a sacred river where the elephant floats at large.

(NOTE: This series is continued in Part 3 of 3: “Dealing with the Elephants”)