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Baptism (sacramentarian view)

BAPTISM (SACRAMENTARIAN VIEW) τὸ βάπτισμα, immersion or dipping as a Christian sacrament of incorporation in the Church.

Biblical basis.

The sacramental view of baptism rests upon an interpretation of Scripture which conceives of salvation as a drama that is played out in the progression of time. The word “sacrament” comes from the Lat. sacramentum meaning “token” or “pledge.” It was used commonly in the world of exchange as a token or guarantee that full payment would eventually be made in a business transaction. Today it might be called a down payment on a mortgage. The word had another secular usage as a pledge of loyalty from an individual to a group, as for example the vow of allegiance from a soldier to the military platoon in which he served. A sacrament was a promise to fulfill a certain kind of conduct in one’s vocational relationships. This promise was sealed with a token such as a ring, just as in the business pledge, and there was always a physical element accompanying the vow.

Biblical writers proclaimed the coming of Jesus as the fulfillment of an ancient promise which had been made to Abraham that God would provide from his seed a Redeemer who would be a blessing to all nations. Jesus was believed to be the conclusion of an old covenant, the tokens or sacraments of which had been given through prophets and priests in the traditional ordinances of worship in the Temple of Jerusalem. He ushered in the end time, not the end of time, but the last era when all things are to be brought into subjection under His lordship for the glory of the Father. Since He came, however, in humiliation, and since He can be seen to be Lord only by faith, Christians still wait for the final consummation when God’s promise of redemption will be accomplished in full view for all to see, not by faith but by sight.

In this sense the coming of Jesus was itself sacramental since He functions as the physical pledge for an eschatological promise. When He left in the flesh He provided tokens, such as water, bread, and wine, to continue to guarantee His promise until He comes again in glory. Jesus, who was the fulfillment in history of an old covenant which had its prior sacraments in the cultus of Israel, now becomes the sacrament of a new covenant which developed in its new worship a new set of sacraments. Just as secular usage combined the physical element with the inward vow, so church usage called the combination of a physical element with the spiritual promise a sacrament. Later in the tradition, the sacraments were described as an outward manifestation of an inward grace. The water of baptism is the first of these physical elements which signifies and also guarantees, as a down payment, the pledge of God to be with mankind faithfully until the Last Day when Christ will come in glory to raise the dead and grant everlasting life to all who believe.

Baptism as a rite of immersion was not begun by Christians but was taken by them from Jewish and pagan forms and given the new meaning attached to the promise of Christ. Daily ablutions were common in pagan circles and even the Jews practiced a regular baptism for proselytes. When John began to baptize in the River Jordan a new dimension was added to Jewish experience. He called all Jews to a baptism of repentance as preparation for Another who would come with a baptism of fire and the Spirit. John’s baptism was a sacrament pledging the coming of a new kingdom and a new King, and when Jesus came and was recognized by John as the One who was to come, he at first refused to baptize Jesus. His sacrament was now fulfilled and therefore had lost its usefulness as a token.

Yet Jesus insisted that He be baptized so that the righteousness of God might be fulfilled. He suffered this as a token beginning of His humiliation under the curse of sin and death. For this reason Jesus came from the Father to be one with mankind as a sinner who yet committed no sin. He suffered the curse of sin although He was obedient to God, and unlike every sinner had never defied God. Having come in the form of a sinner He went to death where sinners go. He began in this baptism His course of death. Later, on several occasions, He referred to His death as a baptism which He must endure. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38). “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50). Clearly the first significance of baptism is the dying of Jesus.

In the second place, it is interesting to note that Jesus Himself did not baptize, but that His disciples began to baptize immediately after the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, i.e. not until after the Resurrection. The second significance of baptism is the rising of Christ with the newness of the Spirit which came first to the disciples in the Upper Room. As the dying of Christ is represented by the physical element of water in which the old man drowns, so the rising of Christ is represented by the physical laying on of hands to lift the new man up in the Spirit. In this way the promise of John was fulfilled at Pentecost when the risen Christ came through His Spirit in the rushing wind and the tongues of flame.

The new promise of God to bring all things under the lordship of Christ is sealed and guaranteed in the dying and rising of Jesus of Nazareth. Here was a physical man whom all had seen and whom the Jews together with the Romans had crucified. He had mysteriously and wonderfully risen from the tomb in which His body had been laid. After many appearances to specially chosen Jews, the risen Christ came to abide with His elect ones through the presence of His Spirit. The Spirit not only guided them in truth but also gave them power to do the things Jesus did when He was with the disciples in the flesh. They healed the sick and raised the dead. Although these miraculous signs diminished after the first generation, the community of Christians still acknowledges and celebrates the presence of Christ in His Spirit. Indeed, this presence is what the Church has always proclaimed as a sacramental reality, sealed and guaranteed by both the physical elements of water and the laying on of hands in baptism.

It appears from Biblical records that the earliest Christians baptized with the formula “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). The trinitarian formula ascribed to Jesus in His final commission (Matt 28:19) is generally regarded to have been shaped at a later date through the liturgical usage of the community of Christians. This in no way denies the trinitarian basis for sacramental baptism since the formula “in the name of Jesus Christ” can make no sense without a trinitarian understanding of God. As noted, the Biblical accounts declare that baptism involves the dying and rising of Christ with the descent of the Spirit.

The Spirit calls the elect ones into a community which lives by the presence of the risen Christ. Under the call of the Spirit through water and laying on of hands God’s chosen ones become incorporated in the body of Christ, and share in His dying and rising. This incorporation is called the “Church” because this is the word which literally means from its Gr. origin those who belong to the Lord (kyriakoi), those who are members of His body completely. The third significance of baptism is incorporation into the eschatological community, the Church or the body of Christ, the new family of God which lives by the sacramental presence of its Lord who has promised to come again in glory at the Last Day.

Doctrinal construction.

There have been many disputes in the history of the Church over the doctrinal construction of the meaning of baptism. Some have defined baptism as a symbol which indicates the presence of faith in the believer (believer’s baptism). Others have contended that the sacramental significance of baptism is the inward reality of God’s grace which is manifested outwardly in the tokens of water and laying on of hands. According to the first view, the token of water signifies the human decision to be cleansed, and it announces the belief that the Spirit is presently active with power to accomplish this sanctification. According to the second view the token of water signifies the divine act of grace whereby God through the dying and rising of Christ regenerates sinners by incorporating them as new creatures in a redeemed community.

Believer’s baptism must necessarily require a responsible decision and therefore is usually delayed until the age of discretion is reached. Sacramental baptism, since it is viewed as the gracious action of God, is offered to infants soon after birth. The Spirit as the Lord and Giver of life is believed to regenerate the child and to make him a living member of the body of Christ, the family of God. This is sacramental because it is seen in faith and not empirically, and it is believed to begin a process of growth in grace which carries the new creature into his eternal destiny.

From the basis of Biblical teaching, the sacramental understanding of baptism declares that three things happen to one who has been elected in Christ and called by the Spirit: (1) he dies with Christ to his old self; (2) he rises with Christ to become a new creature; and (3) he is incorporated in his new life with a living community which looks for the coming of its Lord in glory on the basis of the sacramental pledge it has received in baptism. There are, of course, other sacramental pledges, such as the bread and wine of the eucharist, which corroborate and substantiate this initial incorporation of baptism.


K. Barth, The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism (1948); O. Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament (1950); N. Clark, An Approach to the Theology of the Sacraments (1956); D. M. Baillie, The Theology of the Sacraments (1957); J. Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (1960).

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