(Part of an in-depth series on Baptism. Part 1.)
In this and ensuing posts I will examine in particular the view of Baptism held by Baptists and other evangelicals in their tradition: that Baptism is not sacramental but merely a symbol. I want to make every effort to be fair and consider the Baptist arguments in full; so I would very much like any comments supporting the Baptist view. I am curious, and will listen and not argue.
The first major difference of opinion among Christians regarding Baptism is whether or not Baptism actually does something — whether Baptism regenerates us; whether it is efficacious in applying the grace of God through faith, as Catholics, Orthodox, and some Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Reformed believe; and among evangelical Christians, the Churches of Christ.* I will call this the “sacramental” view, though I know not everyone embraces that term — what I mean is that we believe in baptismal regeneration.
* And well, I am starting to get lost in the denomination soup of who believes what. I think I may need to order the newest edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States after all, as mine is now over a decade old!
We Catholics define a Sacrament as an outward sign that symbolizes as well as actually accomplishes an inward grace: in the case of Baptism, the washing with water brings about the washing away of our sins; being placed under water represents our burial with Christ and rebirth in His Resurrection (Romans 6:3–5). We will return to this later.
The Baptist View: Origins
On the other hand, in what I will call the “Baptist” view — since in modern evangelicalism, it seems to have descended from the Baptists — Baptism is understood as merely a symbol, a sign, a public profession of the grace and regeneration that has already taken place in the believer’s life by faith alone. In addition to Baptists, my Pentecostals and many other groups of evangelicals follow this understanding. The symbolic view of Baptism appears to be Zwinglian in origin, though the history of the Baptists themselves is more difficult to follow. Historians are divided about their origins, some claiming influence from the radical Anabaptists. But the belief was stated clearly as early as the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith:
Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3–5; Colossians 2:12; Galatians 3:27; Mark 1:4; Acts 22:16) (1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith §29.1).
[Many thanks to ReformedOnTheWeb for the links to early Baptist confessions of faith, without which I would have been lost without a map.]
Like so much of the movement of the Reformation, the rejection of Baptism’s sacramentality and of sacramentality in general seems to have been in part a reaction against the “sacerdotalism” of the Catholic Church, that the work of God’s grace was only administered through the hands of priests. Many other proponents of sola fide, justification “by faith alone,” including Luther himself, even though they rejected the sacerdotal priesthood, affirmed that the sacraments of the Church, in particular Baptism and the Eucharist, were the “means of grace” through which the Holy Spirit worked. But this thread of Protestant thought rejected the Sacraments in the view that they were “works” — and that justification “by faith alone” excluded the idea that any other action was necessary for salvation. This seems, more than anything else, to have been the origin of the interpretation.
I have searched high and low for an argument from any particular verse of Scripture that is used to support the Baptist view, and found only this: Rather than any specific verse that supports a purely symbolic understanding, the view stems from a general interpretation of all Scripture referring to Baptism as symbolic.
Is this justified? Certainly Scripture describing Baptism, especially in the words of Paul, is rich with symbolism. Paul describes Baptism as burial with Christ in death and resurrection in His new life:
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, so that 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. (Romans 6:3–5)
We Catholics agree that Baptism is symbolic; but it isn’t only symbolic. In actually accomplishes the grace it represents: we, buried with Christ, are raised from being dead in sin and given new life in the Holy Spirit.
Beyond this interpretation, the only basis I have found for the belief that Baptism is purely symbolic, and thus not necessary for salvation, rests on the fact that in three noted cases in the New Testament, the regeneration of sinners seems to have been accomplished apart from Baptism: (1) the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), (2) Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), and (3) the fall of the Holy Spirit on the gathered Gentiles at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:24–48).
Next time, I’ll take a close look at these passages and consider what support they give to the Baptist view. Are they indeed indicative that regeneration is apart from Baptism and Baptism is not necessary for salvation? Does the rest of Scripture support this view? For now, I will step back — partly because I would dearly like the input on my Baptist friends, to share with me whatever other support they find in Scripture for their views, and partly because this post is just far too long already.