Monday, April 28, 2008

Engaging with Barth

Eds. David Gibson and Daniel Strange

Two confessions: firstly, I haven’t read a lot of Barth – just four parts of the Church Dogmatics and the collection of short essays in God Here and Now – so I am not an expert; secondly, I am a bit of a fan of Barth. I love his emphasis on the sovereignty on God, the invincible grace shown in Christ, and the uniqueness of Christian revelation. So I approached this volume with some trepidation. On the whole, when I have come across evangelical engagement with Barth in the past it has been shallow and harshly critical. Often, I was left wondering whether the critics were reading the same Barth I was! This book, however, has proved to be remarkably fair and even-handed, and I actually enjoyed reading it. It should be pointed out in advance, however, that this is not a good introduction to Barth – read the great man first, and then start on the critics! I would recommend getting a copy of God Here and Now – neither difficult not long, this will give you a great overview of Barth’s thought. Then maybe you can come to this book.

One of the most frustrating aspects of much evangelical engagement with Barth is the tendency to pick up on one point of his theology at which he disagrees, or is perceived to disagree, with reformed orthodoxy, and to critique him for his failure to be a conservative evangelical. This type of criticism, to my mind, fails to ask the important questions – such as ‘why does he disagree with conservative evangelicalism?’ and ‘might he be right?’ – and fails to notice that such disagreements on detailed points have their foundations in disagreements on much larger questions – such as ‘what is theology?’ and ‘how ought we to engage the Scriptures?’

This book is not without essays that fall into these traps – in particular, I found Sebastien Rehnman’s essay on Barth and logic to be frustrating – but thankfully the volume as a whole was much less frustrating than I had envisaged. Whilst some of the essays necessarily focus on narrow aspects of Barth’s theology, they generally try hard to put those aspects in the context of his wider construction and to show how questions about specific issues relate to much broader questions of methodology and indeed the very subject of theology itself. The essays with the broadest scope were, to my mind, the best. Henri Blocher on Barth’s Christological method – touching as it does on the very heart of Barth’s doctrine – excellently captures the ‘feel’ of the Church Dogmatics, which is saturated with Christ, but also raises (tentatively, and all the better for that) some issues and tendencies in Barth’s ‘Christological concentration’ which may be unhelpful, particularly the apparent collapse of time into eternity, and the incarnation into the immanent Trinity. A.T.B. McGowan’s critique of Barth’s view of the covenant shows the fair-mindedness of the volume as a whole – he sides with Barth over against reformed orthodoxy on the issue of the inter-Trinitarian covenant, whilst highlighting serious problems with Barth’s own doctrine (not least, once again, the vexed issue of the relationship of time and eternity). Garry Williams' essay on the atonement was also an excellent analysis of the issues involved in reading Barth on this central theme. It will come as no surprise that one of the main issues raised is the displacement of history in favour of eternity in Barth’s thought! Nevertheless, there is much that Williams seeks to affirm and encourages us to learn from in Barth, not least his emphasis on the objectivity of Christ’s cross-work.

There will be points during this volume where Barth fans will find themselves annoyed. I would suggest that Donald Macleod’s essay on Barth as ecclesial theologian misses the point of Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, and also seems to display the beginnings of confessionalism gone to seed – where the Westminster Confession is essentially seen as the finished product and not theologia viatorum. But on the whole the contributors seem to have wrestled with, and even appreciated, Barth as a positive contribution to theological discourse. At points (I won’t tell you which points!) I found myself siding with Barth against the essayist, but I did not often feel that he was being misrepresented. The concluding essay by Michael Horton on Barth’s legacy for evangelical theologians sums up the approach of the volume: “Confessional reformed Christians can learn a lot from Barth and his heirs. However, I remain convinced that where these roads diverge, the latter represents a declension rather than a renewal of the great Reformation legacy”. You may or may not agree, but this is the level at which evangelicals should be engaging with Barth.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Circumcision, Baptism and the Church (2d)

Theological Conclusions

In essence, I think the evidence of the New Testament stands against any separation between faith, repentance and baptism. I propose the following:
  1. Baptism symbolises the death and resurrection of Christ. The water of baptism symbolises the death/judgement endured by Christ at the cross.

  2. By submitting to baptism, the believer identifies with that death and resurrection. They voluntarily submit to ‘death/judgement’, going down into the water. This involves the admission that they are sinful and that their sinful self deserves death. However, they come out of the water, just as Christ was raised from death. This involves the recognition that Christ has removed the ‘sting’ of death by enduring death/judgement on our behalf.

  3. These two ‘acts’ in the ritual of baptism are therefore equivalent to repentance and faith. The believer goes down, symbolising their recognition of sin, their recognition that they deserve death/judgement and their desire to see the sinful self killed – this is repentance. They come up, symbolising new life and the fact that death/judgement does not in fact fall on them but on Christ – this is faith.

  4. The New Testament authors therefore appear to answer the question “how do I become a Christian?” by saying “repentance and faith, normally expressed in baptism”. I say ‘normally’ because it is clear that baptism is not strictly essential to salvation where repentance and faith are nevertheless present – witness the dying thief.

  5. The New Testament therefore has no concept of an unbaptized Christian. Baptism is normally the beginning of the Christian life. However, the existence of baptized non-Christians is recognised, in the character of Simon Magus. This illustrates that baptism does not make a Christian if it is not an expression of repentance and faith.

  6. Baptism makes disciples of Jesus Christ in the most radical way. A disciple is simply a follower; baptism encourages us to think of ourselves as ‘following’ Christ even into the grave, and out the other side as new people. Having followed him thus far in baptism, we are encouraged to follow him in day to day living.

  7. Baptism does not accomplish an objective thing, but makes a prior objective accomplishment real in the life of the believer. Objectively, my salvation was won at the cross – I died in Christ at that point. Subjectively, I only appropriate that fact by faith/baptism.

  8. Notwithstanding the above, the close link between water baptism and Spirit baptism means that the Spirit accompanies our faith in Christ’s act done externally to us and begins to make it real internally, by performing that heart circumcision and writing the law on our hearts. We become righteous in Christ at once; we become righteous in our experience gradually through the Spirit’s work.

Practical Considerations

  1. It is not appropriate to baptise people who cannot express repentance and faith in their baptism. This rules out children. For them, baptism could only be a washing of dirt from the body, not an appeal to God for a clean conscience.

  2. It is appropriate to baptise any who wish to follow Christ. We should not be so concerned to avoid baptizing unbelievers that we turn people away if they are seeking baptism. If baptism is the normal expression of repentance and faith, it must be open to all who request it. Further, there must be no long delay between someone expressing a desire to follow Christ and baptism. Baptism is the normal beginning of the Christian life.

  3. Baptism is not primarily an opportunity to witness to others. Rather, it is an interaction between the person submitting to baptism and God, with the church acting as the minister of God’s grace. Therefore, nothing should be asked of the baptized but repentance and faith – they should not be required to give a long testimony etc. Indeed, the tradition of testimony-giving in Baptist churches largely assumes that conversion will always be an experience prior to baptism – this cannot be sustained from the New Testament.

  4. Children who grow up in Christian homes should not be encouraged to look for a particular moment of conversion. Rather, they should be periodically challenged as to whether they wish to follow Christ. If the answer is positive, and they are of an age to understand and trust in the symbolism of baptism, then they should be baptized.

  5. Baptism by immersion is the most appropriate symbolism for Christ’s death and resurrection; however, baptism by pouring can also stand for the judgement of God poured out on Christ, and baptism by sprinkling also conveys the idea of the application of Christ’s death to the believer. The mode of baptism is hardly important.

  6. A person baptized as an infant should not be forced to be rebaptized – indeed, the concept of rebaptism is theologically problematic, implying two deaths of Christ. If a person is capable of seeing their infant baptism as an identification with the death and resurrection of Christ and the beginning of life as a Christian, their baptism should be allowed to stand. However, if a person ‘baptized’ as a child considered their baptism to be invalid, they should be baptised – for the first time.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Circumcision, Baptism and the Church (2c)

Baptism in the New Testament Epistles

The New Testament epistles are the most obvious source for our understanding of baptism. Unlike Acts, they do not in most cases merely report what is happening in the churches, but give guidance for what ought to happen. However, the references to baptism are frustratingly brief and undeveloped, probably because the subject was basic to the Apostles’ message and therefore covered in full during the period of initial evangelism (cf. Heb 6:1-2). This fact suggests a disparity between Apostolic and contemporary practice which is itself illuminating, but it also leaves us having to piece together the significance of baptism from the few brief reminders that are included in the Apostles’ letters to their churches. This we will now proceed to do in canonical order.

The first reference to baptism occurs in Romans 6:3-7, in the context of Paul’s dispute with his hypothetical interlocutor who claims that the Christian can continue to sin. Paul asserts that the Christian cannot continue to live in sin because they have died to sin. The text bears quoting in full:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin”.

Paul argues that it is impossible for Christians to continue sinning freely because of something objective that has happened to them – they have died. He refers, of course, to their sinful self, the old man. This death occurred by a participation in the death of Christ. The apostle goes on to command the believers to “consider themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:10), which is essentially a call to them to exercise faith in the death and resurrection of Christ on their behalf. The phrase “in Christ Jesus” added to the end of this verse is not merely a stylistic flourish. The old self is very much alive in the experience of the Roman Christians (and, I would suggest from Romans 7, the experience of the apostle himself). In one sense, they did not die, and have not been raised. But Christ did die, and has been raised, and they are to consider themselves dead and raised “in him”. Faith thus unites them to Christ and claims his work as its own.

For Paul, however, this faith is expressed in baptism. He does not simply point the Roman Christians to their faith as evidence that they have died and risen with Christ. Neither does he point them only to the historical fact of Christ’s death and resurrection. Rather, he points them back to their baptism. Baptism, for Paul, is the participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. Of course, objectively it is true that my sinful self died when Christ died – Paul makes that clear with his language of crucifixion, something not symbolised well by baptism! But in the experience of the Christian, this became true of them when they underwent baptism. In that ritual, the Christian is united with Christ in a death like his, the old self dies, and the Christian is set free from sin. In a sense, baptism is the bringing together of two points in history: the point at which Christ died and rose in AD33, and the point at which I find myself enslaved to sin and needing to die and rise in my experience. Baptism applies the former to the latter.

It is necessary at this point to make clear that Paul is not advocating ritualism. What counts for him is faith in Christ expressed in baptism, not baptism by itself. Indeed, in Galatians, where there is danger of overemphasis on ritual, Paul barely mentions baptism (it is mentioned only in 3:27, and there connected very strongly with faith) and ascribes its function, of uniting a person to Christ in his death, to faith pure and simple (e.g Gal 2:20). This is significant, and will be discussed in more detail in the conclusions to this section.

References to baptism in 1 Corinthians are brief, and largely relate to particular problems in Corinth. In 1:10-17, Paul argues against factionalism in Corinth. Here we see the disciple-making aspect of baptism clearly displayed, as Paul is at pains to show that he was not in the business of making disciples for himself while he was with them. No one was baptized into his name (1:15), neither were they baptized into any name but Christ, which makes their division inappropriate in the extreme – it implies division in Christ (1:13)! If 1 Corinthians 12:13 is a reference to water baptism, then it carries the same message – because there is one baptism, the Corinthians are baptised into one body, and therefore must serve one another. In the context, though, this may well be a reference to baptism in the Spirit. (Bearing in mind, nevertheless, the close relationship between Spirit and water baptism noted above). The only other reference to baptism in 1 Corinthians is at 15:29, a reference I do not pretend to understand! The unifying power of baptism is stressed again in Ephesians 4:5.

Colossians 2:12 has already been discussed for its reference to circumcision. However, it requires a brief further analysis for its teaching on baptism, which will be found to be quite in accordance with our interpretation of Romans 6. Paul describes the Colossians as having been “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you also were raised with him through faith…”. In the light of Romans 6, we can say with more certainty that the circumcision of Christ described here is the putting away of the old self, the death of the sinful self, accomplished by Christ’s death on the cross. This occurred in baptism, because this was the point at which the Christian associated themselves with Christ in his death and resurrection and expressed their faith in him.

Titus 3:5 may, I think, have reference to baptism, described there as “the washing of regeneration”. If this is a baptismal reference, it has significance for our understanding of conversion. However, the reference is uncertain – it may be using washing as a metaphor for what occurs in the believer at the point of regeneration.

1 Peter 3:20-21 provides another interesting insight into the apostles’ teaching on baptism. Peter discusses the flood, and particularly the ark, “in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 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”. The analogy drawn appears to work like this: the waters of the flood represent God’s judgement on the world, as do the waters of baptism; the ark was the only means of salvation through the waters of God’s judgement, and Christ’s resurrection is the only means of salvation through God’s judgement. In both cases, the waters mean death as God’s judgement on sin. Baptism, then, is the willing submission to ‘death’, trusting in Christ to take the believer through that ‘death’. This he can and will do because in fact he has already suffered the death and been raised. Note that Peter rules out any idea that the sacrament will work independent of the disposition of the person being baptized – without faith it is simply “a removal of dirt from the body”. Only when the resurrection of Christ is clearly in view and being trusted by the person submitting to baptism will it become an appeal to God for a good conscience on the basis of Christ’s work. Note also, however, that where this faith is present Peter is not timid to say that baptism “now saves you”.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Circumcision, Baptism and the Church (2b)

Baptism in the Gospels and Acts

Before we examine the introduction of Christian baptism at the end of Matthew’s gospel, it is worth flagging up to metaphorical references to baptism in Mark and Luke. In Mark 10:38 and 39, Jesus addresses the glory-seeking of James and John by asking them whether they can drink the cup that he drinks and be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized. In typical headstrong fashion, they assert their willingness and ability, and Jesus affirms that they will indeed drink this cup and endure this baptism. He clearly refers to his own suffering and death. Luke 12:50 also records Jesus using the image in this way. The link between Jesus’ death and baptism is thus established early on, and the fact that baptism is linked to “the cup” of God’s wrath is also significant for our understanding of the rite. Both will be alluded to in other New Testament teaching.

The introduction of Christian baptism proper occurs in the Great Commission, recorded in Matthew 28:16-20. The resurrected Jesus gives the disciples the following instructions: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in (or into) 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”. Several things about baptism can be observed from this passage. First of all, Christian baptism is the way in which disciples are made. I take it that the logical structure of the commission is as follows:
Go and make disciples by
Baptising in the Triune name
And teaching them to obey all that I have commanded.
At least one significant element is therefore carried over from the baptism of John: baptism is a rite that makes disciples. Just as John gained disciples by baptising them, so Jesus will have disciples by baptising them.

Secondly, Christian baptism is in (or into) the Triune name. As many commentators have noted, this is one name – the name of God. But this one name is borne by the three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Given the explicit nature of the instruction, we should not allow subsequent references to being baptised in Jesus’ name alone to imply that baptism was not into the Triune name. (Consider again the baptism of John’s disciples at Ephesus in Acts 19 – an incident provoked by the fact that they are unaware of the Holy Spirit and therefore have not been baptised into the Triune name). Rather, we should assume that baptism into Jesus is shorthand for baptism into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The shorthand is used because the rite of baptism makes a person a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, Christian baptism is to be accompanied by the teaching of Christian doctrine and ethics, such that the person being baptised is a disciple in truth – a follower of Jesus. Baptism without teaching will not make disciples. Neither will baptism and teaching without obedience.

This ministry of baptism and teaching is carried on by the Apostles from the day of Pentecost onwards, as is recorded in the book of Acts. There is no need to look at every mention of baptism in this book, since many are routine and are mentioned only in passing. Five instances will be considered separately, although not all to the same level of detail: the baptisms at Pentecost in Acts 2; the baptism of the Samaritans by Philip in Acts 8; the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch, also in Acts 8; the baptism of the household of Cornelius in Acts 10; and Paul’s testimony to the Jews in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 22. Finally, common features of the other references to baptism (16:15; 16:33; 18:8) will be briefly considered. My focus will be on what is said about baptism, although the circumstances must also be taken into account.

Baptism is presented on the day of Pentecost as the Apostles’ response to people who are “cut to the heart” by the gospel message, acknowledge their guilt and cry out “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter’s answer gives two requirements and two promises. On the one hand they are called to repent, and to be baptized into the name of Jesus. On the other, they are promised the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit. It is interesting that Peter makes no mention of faith here; I will later suggest that if we are to make this fit with other New Testament teaching on the way that forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit are to be received, we must assume that in Peter’s mind baptism and faith are at least very closely tied together, such that the former can serve as shorthand for the latter. At this stage, though, it is worth noting primarily the way in which forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit are associated with baptism, themes which will recur.

Acts 2:39 is variously interpreted, and is worth examining in some detail. It reads: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself”. In the context, the promise is certainly that of the outpouring of the Spirit made through the prophet Joel. This promise was made to the nation of Israel, the people of the forward-looking covenant, and Peter clearly sees Pentecost as the fulfilment of that promise. Therefore, with the assembled representatives of Israel in front of him, he urges them to claim the promise that God made to their nation long ago. He extends the promise in two ways, and restricts it in one. It is extended to the people of Israel in all generations (“for your children”) and in all places (“for all who are far off”), but it is limited to “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself”. This is, of course, consistent with Joel’s prophecy, which in Peter’s quotation concludes “and it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”; the only difference is that Joel looks at it from the point of view of human responsibility and Peter that of divine sovereignty. Either way, it is assumed that those who are called by God, and who therefore call upon him, will not constitute the whole people of Israel. This will be useful for our analysis of the relationship between the old and new covenant.

Finally, we gather two further facts about baptism from the Pentecost narrative. Firstly, baptism is administered only to those “who received [Peter’s] word” (Acts 2:41). This counts against a mechanistic understanding of baptism, and serves to bind baptism and faith (which is of course receiving the word) more closely together in this narrative. Secondly, those who are baptised are added to the community of believers, becoming subject to its discipline and joining in its life (Acts 2:41ff).

The references to the baptism of Samaritans in Acts 8 are interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the separation of water baptism from the reception of the Holy Spirit is unexpected, given how closely the two are bound together in the Pentecost narrative. I take it that this is connected to the fact that this is the first advance of the gospel beyond orthodox Judaism, and that the presence of the Apostles is required in order to make it clear that the Samaritan conversions are ‘legitimate’. As an aside, within the context of the whole New Testament we can hardly understand the passage as saying that the Holy Spirit was uninvolved until Peter and John arrived, for the Samaritans had “believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God” (Acts 8:12), something only possible through the Holy Spirit’s intervention. However, the giving of the Spirit in an obvious way is restrained until the Apostles arrive so that they can vouch for the genuineness of the Samaritan’s faith.

The second interesting feature of this narrative is the presence of Simon Magus. Simon is baptized, and is described as having believed (8:13). However, he later offers money in exchange for apostolic power, and is told by Peter that his “heart is not right before God” (8:21). The straightforward interpretation is that Simon’s faith is counterfeit, for he is described as being “in the bond of iniquity” (8:23). This is the first clear instance of someone being baptized upon confession of faith, but then showing later that this confession was not genuine, saving faith. Again, this counts against mechanistic understandings of baptism, for baptism without genuine faith proves to be useless to Simon.

The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the latter part of Acts 8 adds little to our understanding of baptism. It is chiefly important because of the speed with which it is carried out. The eunuch has the Scriptures explained to him, and upon understanding them immediately requests baptism (Acts 8:36). This shows that baptism was an integral part of the message presented by Philip (for otherwise the eunuch could scarcely have known to request it), and seems to indicate that baptism has been presented as the means of becoming a Christian. Philip’s willingness to grant this request backs up this interpretation.

The end of Acts 10 presents a situation that is in many ways similar to the Samaritan mission in chapter 8. The gospel is once again crossing a significant boundary, and once again the presence of an Apostle is required to legitimate the mission. However, the situation is also exactly reversed in one significant way. Whereas the Samaritans believed, were baptized and then received the Holy Spirit, the household of Cornelius believe, receive the Holy Spirit and are therefore baptized. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the mission to Gentiles is going to be ‘harder to swallow’ for the Jewish majority in the church than that to the Samaritans. However, all the familiar ingredients are present: faith in the message preached, baptism into the name of Jesus and the reception of the Holy Spirit. It is significant that in Peter’s report of this incident he recalls the Lord’s words: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit”. It was this thought that provoked Peter to administer water baptism. This shows both how closely bound together water baptism and baptism with the Spirit are in Acts, and also that in Peter’s understanding the one does not replace the other – those who have received the Spirit are also to submit to baptism.

The final particularly significant mention of baptism in Acts occurs at 22:16. I draw attention to this because here Paul links three elements that we have seen to be common to baptism in Acts, namely: water baptism; the forgiveness of sins, here connected to the symbolic function of baptism as washing; and calling on Jesus’ name. The washing will be picked up later in our analysis of the symbolism of baptism.

The other references to baptism in Acts are brief, and add little to our understanding. They have become significant, however, because of the weight that has often been put on the fact that entire households are baptized together. This will be examined more closely in my theological conclusions at the end of this section. For now, suffice it to say that in at least one of these occasions it is specifically recorded that the word was preached to all in the house (Acts 16:32) and that the whole household rejoiced (16:34), which makes it highly likely to my mind that all those baptized also received the word with faith. If we allow the more detailed accounts of baptism to control our interpretation of these brief accounts (and I think we should), Acts presents an overall picture of several elements bound together, although in varying orders. They are:
  • Repentance (always in conjunction with baptism)

  • Faith (likewise)

  • Baptism itself

  • Reception of the Holy Spirit (sometimes before, sometimes after baptism, but always closely connected)

  • Forgiveness of sins (promised as a result of baptism/faith/repentance)

The evidence of Acts seems to count against any separation of baptism from faith and repentance, as I will argue in more detail later.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Circumcision, Baptism and the Church (2a)

For the first part of this essay, see here. In the next three (or possibly four) installments, we'll be looking at baptism in the NT, beginning with John's baptism. And so, without further ado...

In this second part of the essay [i.e. the part dealing with baptism, which I'm serialising here], I intend to briefly overview the New Testament texts that deal with baptism. Because the references are rather more numerous than those for circumcision, I will group them into three broad groups: the baptism of John, baptism in the gospels and Acts, and baptism in the New Testament epistles. This method should allow for a sketch of the New Testament teaching on baptism to be made without exhaustively citing each text. As with the article on circumcision, I will offer minimal theological comment on the overview, with the intention of drawing some theological conclusions at the end. Because baptism, unlike circumcision, is a New Testament ordinance, I will also try to draw some practical conclusions. As previously, the point of the exercise is to learn, and I hope that people will graciously contradict me where they think that I am wrong.

The Baptism of John

The majority of the references to John’s baptism are found, as might be expected, toward the beginning of the gospel accounts. The synoptics all cite Isaiah 40, showing that they understand the ministry of John to be preparatory for the coming of Christ. His particular ministry is described in two ways: firstly, he was “preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt 3:1-2), and examples of his preaching are preserved in Matthew 3:7-12, Mark 1:7-8 and Luke 3:7-17. His message bears out his function as the one preparing the way: he urges repentance from sin, and encourages the people to look forward to one who is coming who will be greater than he is. Whereas John baptizes only with water, this coming person will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.

This leads into the second part of John’s ministry, and the part which has earned him the epithet “the Baptist”: “they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matt 3:6). The other synoptics make the baptism itself the subject of John’s preaching: “John appeared…proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4, cf Luke 3:3). John’s baptism is accompanied by the confession of sins, and symbolises both the repentance of the person being baptised and the washing away of sins. This is essentially linked to John’s role as the forerunner, as is made particularly clear in John 1:31. He sees the imminent coming of the Christ as connected with the judgement of God coming on Israel (“who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” [Matt 3:7]), and calls those who will acknowledge their sinfulness to confess their sins and accept God’s forgiveness before that wrath falls. There are also overtones of ritual cleanness: those who are baptised are clean and therefore able to stand in the presence of God when he comes. (It is noteworthy in this connection that the Pharisees and scribes did not accept John’s baptism [Luke 7:30] – presumably because they considered themselves to already be pure). In this way, John prepares a people for the coming of Christ.

John’s baptism is important because it provides the immediate backdrop for the practise of baptism carried out by Christ and by the early church. However, it is clearly a temporary ordinance pointing forward, a fact underlined by Acts 19:1-5. Here Paul comes across some disciples who have no knowledge of the Holy Spirit, and after questioning them establishes that they have been baptised “into John’s baptism” (Acts 19:3). John, Paul points out, “baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is Jesus” (Acts 19:4). As a result, these disciples are “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5) and subsequently receive the Holy Spirit. This episode is important not only because it highlights the temporary and preparatory nature of John’s baptism, but also because it makes it clear that John’s baptism and Christian baptism are two different things. Otherwise, Paul would hardly have rebaptized this group!

Probably we are to understand the baptism of Christ as the climax of John’s ministry; certainly this fits with his testimony in John 1:31 that the purpose of his baptism was that the Christ be revealed to Israel. The continuation of John’s ministry beyond this point is marked by a decline, symbolised in John’s gospel by the disciples of John the Baptist leaving him (at his own instigation) to become the disciples of Christ (John 1:35-37). John’s gospel is also the only one to record that Jesus’ disciples baptized during his ministry (in 3:22, 4:2), and this baptism was apparently even more popular than John’s (3:26, 4:1). This is to be interpreted as a “handover” period – in John the Baptist’s words, from this point on Christ will increase and he himself will decrease. Given the scant references, it is difficult to pin down the theological significance of this baptism by Christ’s disciples. John’s aside that Jesus himself did not baptise may be significant: it seems likely that we should understand this not as full Christian baptism, but as a continuation of the preparatory ministry of John. Examining the nature and significance of Christian baptism will reinforce this conclusion.