This past week I have been fortunate to be with a group of good friends of pastors, elders, and professors through a program called the Re-Forming ministry project through the PCUSA. We have had some rich, at times challenging, and ultimately humbling and unifying discussions. Through breaking bread together, laughing together, at times weeping together, and worshiping God together, strangers have become friends and these friendships are changing the way we do ministry. It is a gift and a responsibility that in this delicate time of churches within our denomination asking what it means to be together in unity to show what diversity and unity looks like.
A large part of our recent discussion centered around the question of our baptismal vows – what does it mean to be people baptized into the body of Christ? This means different things to many people – in some ways there is more diversity on what we mean by baptism than what people understand the Eucharist to mean – and so I thought I would reflect on some of my thoughts.
As I read the Scriptures and look at the tradition of faith both in the particular stream in which I serve (PCUSA) as well as the Church universal, I hold that Christian baptism is to be marked, stained, sealed, poured out *from* the world and poured out *into* it again for the sake of the Gospel. Baptism is not the exclusive claim of any particular group within Christianity as being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ based on method (how it is done – how much water, how little, emerging from the depths or water poured down upon), location (where it is done), persons (who does it, for whom they do it, gender, race), or station in life (when they do it, how much they understand, how smart, how ill-educated, rich, poor). If you have been baptized in the name of Jesus… you are baptised (Matthew 28:19) and there is only “one faith, one Lord and one baptism” as Paul proclaims in Ephesians 4: 1-6 in Christ – not determined nor measure by human standards – and this is a baptism of unity:
“I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle;be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”
So, first of all, what is baptism? According to a number of biblical interpreters, the word “baptisma, baptism” is reimagined in the Christian church as both a subversion of pagan practices of purification rites as well as various schools of Jewish practices in relation to Levitical, Essene, and other orthodox practices of purity. It is important to remember that like today, there were a lot of different interpretations of what baptism meant and how it was to be done. The Jews were not uniform on this point – the fact of John’s baptism being something Jesus submitted to is not an endorsement of John’s form of baptism at all. Rather, Jesus is subverting and reclaiming the place of God as the ‘Baptiser’ not water (how ever much or little) nor human effort – Jesus’ ‘baptism’ is marked and claimed in the embrace of the fullness of the Trinity – the descent of the Holy Spirit to rest upon him, the words of affirmation of God the Father in his words “this is My son, in whom I am well pleased” consists of the adoption into the family of God through the invitation and embrace of the fullness of the Trinity.
So…The word “baptism” as used in the New Testament:
I am not a NT scholar, but do work with the text in Greek and English as well as numerous commentaries in my teaching and church work. Baptizo, the verb form, means “to baptize, primarily a frequentative form of bapto, to dip, was used of the Greeks to signify the dyeing of a garment, or the drawing of water by dipping a vessel into another.” The NT is written in Kione Greek, a later more colloquial form of the classical Greek used by Plato and Homer. Many phrases throughout the NT are borrowed and re- appropriated. Bapto was a common term to mean both “staining” and “sealing” – think of it in making tye-dye T-shirts when you dip the cotton into a dye and the coloring is drawn up and into the fabric, staining it for all time. Similarly, the term was used by ship builders to denote the sealant used to ensure that a ship is sea worthy. Another use was to ladle out a portion of water from a well or cistern – taking it out of one source and pouring it out into or on another. In short, baptism is the sign/stain and seal of God’s claim on us and the mark with which we are separated out from ‘the world’ as those called to live lives as Christ for the glory of the Gospel – we are ‘stained’; we are ‘drawn out from the world’ to be poured out. The key verse that seals and binds Christians to the practice of baptism as an essential part of our faith is found in Matthew 28 – “Go into the entire world, make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” For some reason, there are those who hold the belief that the King James Bible changed the Kione Greek text and moved the ‘original’ use of ‘baptism’ – that it was a word for ‘immersion.’ There is no Kione Greek word that we have in the Scriptures for ‘immerse’ probably because the early church didn’t need to make that distinction – baptism was ‘baptism’ – not something where we measure the amount of water nor question the way a practice is done apart from the ‘circumcision of the heart’ that is called for (see the reflections on Acts 15 later on in this discussion). Our understanding of scientific veracity (measuring things to prove whether they are ‘real’ or ‘meaningful’) is a foreign concept to the first century Christians. These were primarily slaves, illiterate, marginalized converts who received their understanding of the Christian faith through oral transmission and teaching (the Canon of Scripture as we have it is not gathered until the 6th century and only ‘closed’ as the definitive ‘Bible’ until the 9th century). It isn’t until the 4th century that the early Christians even began to formalize what constituted “Christian worship” with the Edict of Milan in 313. As we see in Acts 15 and later in Luther’s push for the Reformation in part through his reading of Romans 3, the questions we see throughout the scriptures is one of faith in Christ – sola fide or faith alone. Another question is whether Henry VIII or James I altered and perverted the biblical understanding of baptism with the 1611 translation of the King James Bible? The King James Version was a faulty translation in many respects, but the word baptizomi in Greek is preserved in both the Latin Vulgate which the King James based its translation upon (Matt 28: 19- “euntes ergo docete omnes gentes baptizantes eos in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti”) as well as the Kione greek baptizomai which is the text that the early used in their worship and Christian practice.
The KJV also translates baptizomai as ‘baptize’ as do many of the translations that follow. In looking at the early church (see the Patristic commentaries – the early Church leaders going back to the 2nd centur) baptism (that is who is adoptable by God as children of God) was not exclusive to age (child and adults were baptized) nor by gender (men and women) nor by class (slaves and free) nor race (Jew nor greek) delimited by ability to reason (no commentary nor biblical text defines the level of understanding – reason – that is necessary to be baptized – i.e. if you are severely mentally retarded, if you are illiterate, whether you could read the Greek text, if you are a genius in the world’s standards, etc).
The disciples are commissioned to stain, to seal, and to pour themselves out (‘ladle themselves out’ if you will) for the sake of the Gospel. In staining, sealing and being poured out through the act of baptizing, the early church was also unifying itself through the sign and seal of the Holy Spirit as something both distinct from the world around it and at the same time finding unity with each other even though they come from pagan, Jewish, and the various corners of the known world – in short, unity through diversity. This is further endorsed in Paul’s writings to churches in crisis throughout the New Testament calling them to remember their baptism as a unity of faith (Eph 4:5; Jude 3); unity of origination (Eph 2:19-21): unity of sacraments (Eph 4:5; 1Co 10:17; 12:13): unity of “hope” (Eph 4:4; Tit 1:2); a called to a unity of charity (Eph 4:3): a reminder to hold a unity (not uniformity) of discipline and government in how all Christians will organize themselves.
So, does bapto mean ‘immersion’ exclusively? Linguistically, the answer is ‘no.’ It does not give a measurable frame of amount (how much water) type (river, lake, from a pool) nor method (poured over someone’s head, plunged into the depths) Given the uses of the term in antiquity and the uses in the NT, there is no aligning of baptism with either the amount of water necessary, or the type of water (Lake? River? Ocean? Stream? Pool inside a church? Outside?), nor the depth with which one is plunged nor the amount of soaking for the individual participation in baptism.
As the NT writers layout both directions for baptism and examples of those who are baptised, the diversity is extraordinary in method yet unified in the constant reminder that those who are baptized are ultimately baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – that is, they are ‘re-named’ into the body of Christ and are now stained, sealed and ‘ladled out’ from the world and as disciples are now to be poured out for the sake of the Gospel as Christ was poured out (Phil. 2: 4-7) for our sake.
Acts 15 – a case study is dealing with diversity amidst unity – The Council of Jerusalem:
As part of our communion service last night in the Re-Forming ministry gathering, we renewed our baptismal vows with one another and partook of communion. The text we read together was Acts 15.
At the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: `Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved’ ” (15:1). They were saying that circumcision was required for admission into the Church. They probably thought the question was simple: Christians should obey God, and God had commanded circumcision. If people want the blessings of Abraham, they should act like children of Abraham, and that meant circumcision for gentiles as well as for Jews (Gen. 17:12).
Paul and Barnabas had a different opinion: “This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them” (Acts 15:2). How was the argument to be resolved? “Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.” In this way the church could have unity. So “the church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad” (v. 3). Luke is letting us know that most Christians supported the gentile mission. “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them” (v. 4). What God had done was part of the evidence. The miracles and conversions supported what he was saying.
Then they debated the question: “Some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, `The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses’ ” (v. 5). We saw in verse 1 that they believed that circumcision was necessary for salvation. Here we see that they also believed the laws of Moses were required. Circumcision was the first step in the process—they believed that Christians must keep all the laws of Moses.
What were these laws? Were they biblical laws, or the unbiblical traditions of the elders? In every other New Testament mention of the “laws of Moses,” the biblical books of Moses are meant (Luke 2:22; 24:44; John 7:22-23; Acts 28:23; 1 Cor. 9:9; Heb. 10:28). Luke could have said “traditions,” but he did not. Anyone who knew the teachings of Jesus would already know that unbiblical traditions were not required of anyone. They did not need to debate about Jewish traditions.
Just as circumcision was biblical, so also were the laws of Moses. The claim was that gentile believers should be circumcised, and then, as part of the covenant people of God, obey the laws of the covenant. One of the laws of Moses was that males were to be circumcised.
We might dismiss this debate as not relevant to this argument in relation to whether baptism by pouring on of water over someone’s head or dunking them in a river once, or dunking them three times in a lake is the correct method by explaining that Jesus instituted a new covenant, and that the Jewish believers were God’s people not because they were Jewish, but because they were believers. Membership in the new covenant is by faith, not by ancestry. But the Jerusalem council did not approach the question from this perspective and in many ways goes to the heart of this disagreement regarding baptism methods.
As we hear in verse 6, “The apostles and elders met to consider this question.” Perhaps dozens of elders were involved. “After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: `Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe’ ” (v. 7).
Peter reminded the people that God had used him to preach the gospel to Cornelius and his whole family (Acts 10). As far as we know, Cornelius was not circumcised, but Peter did not use that precedent as proof. Rather, he focused on the biblical foundations of how a person is saved and as we hear, Cornelius is baptized along with his entire household – oikos in greek – which would have included slaves, children, and women upon hearing the Gospel.
“God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (vs. 8-9).
God gave the Holy Spirit to this uncircumcised family, purifying their hearts, pronouncing them holy, as acceptable to him, because of their faith. Peter then began to scold the people who wanted the gentiles to obey the laws of Moses: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (vs. 10-11).
Peter’s point is that the yoke of Moses was a burden that the Jewish people were not able to keep successfully. Those rituals showed that, no matter how hard people worked, they could never be perfected as a sanctified people in this manner of thinking and practice. They showed, for anyone who ever wondered, that works can never lead to salvation. Salvation is attained in a different way—by grace. We can’t earn it, so it has to be given to us.
Since the law of Moses cannot bring us salvation, there is no need to require the gentiles to keep it. God gave them the Holy Spirit and showed that he accepts them without all those rituals. They are saved by grace, and the Jews are, too. If we follow Peter’s logic, we will see that Jewish believers do not have to keep the laws of Moses, either. They are saved by grace through faith, just as the gentiles are. The old covenant is poured out and into the new covenant – not abolished but ‘fulfilling’ to overflowing the new and this river pours over us through Christ, so its laws are no longer required for anyone, and that is why Peter could live like a gentile (Gal. 2:14).
After Barnabas and Paul told “about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12), James spoke. As leader of the Jerusalem church, he had a lot of influence. Some of the Judaizers even claimed him as their authority (Gal. 2:12), but Luke tells us that James was in complete agreement with Peter and Paul.
“Brothers, listen to me. Simon [Peter] has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself” (Acts 15:13-14). The fact that God has already acted was powerful evidence. James then quoted from the Greek translation of Amos to show that Scripture agreed with what was happening (vs. 15-18). He could have used other Old Testament prophecies, too, about gentiles being included among God’s people.
Experience and Scripture pointed to the same conclusion. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (v. 19). There is no need to require the yoke of Moses, for that would make things unnecessarily difficult for the gentile believers.
James then suggested four rules: “Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (v. 20). Instead of making things difficult for the gentiles, these four rules would be enough.
Obviously, gentile believers should not lie, steal and murder. They already knew that, so they did not need a special reminder about it.
Why, then, these four rules? Some scholars say the Jews believed that these laws dated back to the time of Noah, and therefore applied to all nations. Others say that all four rules were associated with idolatry. Some say that these four rules were laws of Moses, and were given so gentiles and Jews could eat together. However, the decree makes it clear that gentiles do not have to be circumcised, nor do they have to obey the laws of Moses. They are circumcised spiritually, not physically. God never gave those commands to the gentiles.
We should not make it difficult for the gentiles, James said. Instead, it will be enough to give them four rules, which they will find easy to comply with. Why give them these rules? Notice the reason that James gives: “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (v. 21).
James was not encouraging gentile Christians to attend the synagogues. He was not saying they should listen to the laws of Moses. No, but because those laws were commonly preached, the apostles should tell the gentiles four rules. Then they would not think that Christianity is more difficult than it is.
To summarize: Some said that gentiles should be circumcised and obey the laws of Moses or else they could not be saved. Not so, said the apostles. Gentiles are saved by grace and faith. God is pleased to dwell in people who aren’t circumcised and who don’t keep the rituals. But since Moses is widely preached, we need to give a decree that clearly distinguishes the Christian faith in word and deed. This pleased the entire church, so they wrote it in a letter and sent it to Antioch, where they “were glad for its encouraging message” (v. 31).
Romans 3 – Sola Fide By Faith Alone
Fast forward a 1,000 plus years to Martin Luther’s reading of Romans. Echoing the sentiment of the Council of Jerusalem, the early reformer came to his focus on sola fide or “faith alone” asserting God’s pardon for guilty sinners is granted to and received through faith or belief alone, to the exclusion of all human efforts or works. All humanity, it is asserted, is fallen and sinful, under the curse of God, and incapable of saving itself from God’s wrath and curse. But God, on the basis of the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ alone (solus Christus), grants sinners judicial pardon, or justification, which is received only and solely through the divine gift of faith. Faith is seen as passive, merely receiving Christ and all his benefits, among which benefits are the active and passive righteousness of Jesus Christ. Christ’s righteousness is imputed (or accounted) by God to the believing sinner (as opposed to infused or imparted), so that the divine verdict and pardon of the believing sinner is based not upon anything in the sinner, nor even faith itself, but upon Jesus Christ and his righteousness alone, which are received through faith alone. Justification is by faith alone and is distinguished from the other graces of salvation, which always accompany justification.
As Luther wrote in relation to his commentary on Romans:
The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us … Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls (Mark 13:31).
So if ‘baptism’ is a staining, sealing and pouring out for the Christian disciple, how is the church to do this? As asserted by the early church, we are saved by faith alone (sola fide) in and through Christ and not by practices, what can we learn from the accounts of baptism in the NT? In the NT, we see John the Baptist “baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there.” (John 3:23) One of the points I have heard argued is that since John was baptizing where there was much water, this gives us both the reason and method of baptism for the church: if he was baptizing with lots of water, we should do so as well. Similarly, in Acts 8 we see the Ethiopian eunuch saying, “Look! water! What prevents me from being baptized? … And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, and he baptized him.” (Acts 8:36, 38). As we will see in the later passages and as I stated in the beginning, there is no biblical precedent nor requirement for method (how are you to do it?) but there is a requirement of faith and intention. The second question is “who is it for?” Getting back to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus told His disciples, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make (poiete – recreate, creative like poetry) disciples of all the nations (ethnos – ethnic groups), baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
The operative commands here are “make disciples” and “baptize.” The command to “make disciples” is a call to recreation and imagination (the greek word used here for “make” (poiete – the English variant is ‘poetry’) is the same cognate that Jesus uses in calling us to the Lord’s Supper in Luke 22:19 – “do this (poiete) in remembrance of Me” that is a journey (discipleship) not a finale or stopping point.
The command to “make disciples” coupled with baptism is a call for the Church to walk along side in faithfulness as people stained and therefore marked as the beloved children of God who are then poured out and into the world as Christ himself was emptied and poured out for us all (Phil. 2) The waters of baptism flow through us and are not to be kept away from the world but announced and proclaimed through our ‘kenotic’ self-emptying of all privilege, power, and position. (NT word kenosis = ‘emptying, pouring out’ is used to describe Christ servanthood in Phil. 2. I work on this notion in much more depth in my book Freedom of the Self and the implications this has for the Church and missional life). Like a river that pours through the world with purpose and passion, the church embracing its baptismal vows is one that invites others to be stained and poured out.
Come on in, people… the water is fine…