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