Christian bloggers everywhere are piling in to a big discussion about baptism at the moment. (See Adrian Warnock's blog if you need to catch up on this!) How could I not join in?
Obviously, baptism, and particularly the question of whom to baptise, has been debated for ages. Those who know me will know that I am somewhat in favour of believers' baptism, and somewhat opposed to infant baptism. Those who know me well will know that this is putting it mildly. But the debate at the moment revolves around something different: should those who believe in baptism for believers only join in communion with those who were baptised as infants? Should a credobaptist church require credobaptism as a condition of membership?
I actually think that this apparently minor issue could help us to get to the heart of the larger issue (paedo or credo), because it has to do with what baptism is.
I think most credobaptists see baptism as a believer's response to a salvation already received by faith. It is therefore a work, and belongs in the traditional ordo salutis within the realm of sanctification. Hence for Grudem, the effects of baptism are "the blessing of God's favour that comes with all obedience, as well as the joy that comes through public profession of one's faith, and the reassurance of having a clear physical picture of dying and rising with Christ and of washing away sins". What does baptism do? More or less the same as any obedience to Christ, with a little extra symbolism thrown in.
I'm not sure that measures up to the New Testament. Here are a few things I'd want considered:
How do you become a disciple? "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19).
What do unconverted sinners need to do when convicted of their sin? "Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38)
How are people forgiven of sin? "Repent and be baptised...for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38)
How do we participate in Christ's death and come to benefit from it? "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death..." (Romans 8:3-4)
How are we saved? "Baptism... now saves you" (1 Peter 3:21)
Obviously, look up the references and check I'm not ripping them mercilessly out of context!
So, what is baptism? If baptism does all the things above, how are we to hold that we are saved by faith alone?
The answer, I think, is simply this: baptism is a promise, given by God, and therefore we are saved by exercising faith in that promise. Baptism is the offer of forgiveness. So we cannot ask "should baptism come before or after believing?" Baptism is believing! Or at least, baptism is the offering of a promise, effective if met bu faith in the person being baptised. That is why I am a credobaptist, incidentally. I don't believe that baptism is the first step of obedience after faith; I believe that baptism is, or should be, the first step of faith.
So what about communion with people who were baptised as infants? What about rebaptising them? Well, if they are believing the promise of baptism, then I would receive them as baptised. I would not rebaptise them - indeed, the very idea of rebaptising makes me feel a little ill. If, on the other hand, they found that they could not trust the promise of their baptism because of doubts about its validity, I might counsel them to receive a (first) baptism they could believe in - and to regard the former ceremony as empty and no baptism at all.
Baptism is the appointed means of entering the church by faith. Baptism saves us through our faith in Christ. It is not empty symbolism or magic ritual. It is the church's gift, the gift she received from the Lord and offers to all who will take it in faith.
I believe in it.