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”.