Baptism: Symbol or Sacrament?

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

Baptism of Christ (c. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Why do Protestants, especially evangelicals, reject the Sacraments, and the concept of sacramentality in general? Even Baptists, who per the name, are very particular about Baptism, consider Baptism merely “a symbolic act of obedience” (“Basic Beliefs,” Southern Baptist Convention). The Early Church, from the Apostles at the Day of Pentecost, down through all the ages, clearly and explicitly believed that Baptism was much more than a symbol — that it, done in repentance, was εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ὑμῶν (“for the remission of your sins”) (Acts 2:38). The Apostles and the Early Church emphasized Baptism to such an extent that it was literally the first thing one did, the first thing one even thought about, after coming to faith in Christ. Baptism, for the Early Church, was the act of becoming a Christian — the new birth into Christ that He commanded.

So how did Baptism become merely a symbol? How did Protestants, who place such absolute authority in Scripture, come to reject the clear scriptural testimony of its efficacy and sacramentality — and its absolute necessity? There is not a single instance* in the narrative of the New Testament when one’s coming to faith in Christ was not followed immediately, as if part of the same thought, by Baptism. Per the very Word of Christ, only those who “believe and are baptized” will be saved (Mark 16:15-16).

* Edit: Okay, there’s only one (see below).

Indeed, Baptism for many Protestant communities has become not merely symbolic, but optional. In my church growing up, Baptism was performed maybe one Sunday out of a month, if that often. This past Easter, thanks be to God, they had a mass baptismal service in which the hundreds who had come to Christ over the years but had never been baptized were dunked in the manner of an assembly line. I have often complained about the selectiveness of sola scriptura Protestants in what Scripture they choose to read and what they ignore — and there’s not a clearer case in point than this.

Giotto, The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305)

The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305), by Giotto. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Is it, as my Lutheran friend Ken suggests, that the idea of efficacious sacraments is “too Roman Catholic”? In breaking away from the Catholic Church, were the Sacraments thrown out with the rest of the dirty bathwater? The Lutherans and Anglicans, generally, still affirm sacramentality in some forms; so it’s apparently more a Calvinist and evangelical thing (Calvinists were, after all, far more iconoclastic). Or is it, as I’ve often suspected, a tendency to reject the supernatural — which is a little ridiculous, since evangelicals otherwise affirm that the Son of God was born to earth of a Virgin, traveled Palestine healing the sick, died for the sins of humanity, rose again from the dead, and ascended to Heaven. My bunch, too, is quite ardent in their belief in miraculous gifts of healing and prophecy even in our day. There’s very little about Christianity that’s not supernatural — that’s the very idea. But does the idea of sacramentality — the idea that washing in water in Jesus’s name could literally wash away one’s sins — smell too much of “magical” thinking or “superstition” (which, I guess, smells to them a lot like Roman Catholicism)?

I will dig a little deeper at Baptists — they brought it on themselves by calling themselves “Baptists.” Thanks to this helpful site for a detailed and explicit summary of Baptist beliefs (emphases mine):

Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism is important but not necessary for salvation. For example, the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), Saul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-18) and the people gathered in Cornelius’ house (Acts 10:24-48) all experienced salvation without the necessity of baptism. In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter urged those who had repented and believed in Christ to be baptized, not that baptism was necessary for salvation but as a testimony that they had been saved (Acts 2:1-41).

Tintoretto, The Baptism of Christ (1581)

The Baptism of Christ (1581), by Tintoretto.

As I pointed out above, that’s not quite what Peter said: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins.” This article seems to reject the idea of Baptism as a legalistic requirement — which, to my thinking as a Protestant, was how Roman Catholics viewed it. But we don’t; not at all. Baptism is necessary not because it’s a legalistic requirement, but because it’s how one is born again in Christ — how Jesus taught us that our sins are forgiven. There’s no legalistic requirement, of course, that one take occasional baths — but it’s what one has to do if one wants to be clean.

As the article points out, yes, there are examples, such as the repentant thief on the cross, of a sinner being saved without having been baptized. But the thief is certainly an exception, saved by the very divine fiat of Christ: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The other two examples it cites are explicit in declaring the necessity of baptism. The very first thing Saul did after having his sight restored to him was “he rose and was baptized” (Acts 9:18). And the very first thing Peter commanded Cornelius and his friends to do was “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48). The Baptist text, as evangelicals so often do, interprets “being saved” in a very narrow way, as the moment when one comes to faith in Christ. Yes, these believers, such as Saul and Cornelius — such as every believer ever — came to faith in Christ first, and then were baptized. One generally has to take off one’s clothes (i.e. repent of one’s sins, humble oneself before Christ, and believe in faith) before one takes a bath.

Thus, baptism is symbolic and not sacramental. Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism symbolizes that a person has been saved and is not a means of salvation. Baptism is not a means of channeling saving grace but rather is a way of testifying that saving grace has been experienced. It does not wash away sin but symbolizes the forgiveness of sin through faith in Christ.

This couldn’t really have been phrased any more explicitly to reject any idea of sacramentality in Baptism. I would be interested to hear a Baptist exposit to me just how he believes the Bible teaches this. Every reference to Baptism that I can find indicates just the opposite. Neither Jesus, nor Peter, nor Paul, nor any of the other Apostles ever once said “be baptized as a testimony to your faith.” They were instead very insistent and urgent — “repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.”

Baptists are very particular, as this article states, about when and how one should be baptized: only for adult believers and only by immersion. But if Baptism is ultimately nothing more than a symbol, why should the manner of it matter? It is, I suppose, only worth anything as a symbol of believing faith if it’s done deliberately by someone with a genuine and abiding faith in Christ. But why should it matter whether one is dunked in a baptistery, or in a river, or in a bathtub, or sprinkled from a baptismal font, or from a watering can, or from a Dixie cup, if the act has no efficacy?**

** For what it’s worth, the Roman Catholic Church would accept Baptism by any of those methods as valid.

While baptism is not essential for salvation, it is a very important requirement for obedience to the Lord. Christ commanded his disciples to baptize (Matthew 28:19) and therefore baptism is a form of obedience to Jesus as Lord. Baptism is one way that a person declares, “Jesus is Lord.”

Yes, we should be baptized in obedience to the Lord, because that’s what He explicitly taught. But why would Jesus and the Apostles be so insistent about it if it were just a symbol; if it had no real purpose or power? Why would Jesus command us that we have to do something unless there were a reason for it? Elijah commanded Naaman to be washed in the Jordan (2 Kings 5) not as a public symbol that he believed he was going to be healed, but because being washed in the Jordan was going to cleanse his leprosy. The act of doing it in faith, even though he was skeptical, even though he was angry, is what brought about his healing. Likewise Jesus commands us to be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins — not because we believe in Jesus and want to show our friends at church — but because being baptized is how He washes away our sins and gives us a new birth in Him.

And yes, that message of love and hope I promised is still coming. Even this criticism is given in hope and love.

9 thoughts on “Baptism: Symbol or Sacrament?

  1. Oh I’ve missed your posts! 🙂 I think for me it was always felt a little ridiculous and unfitting that something we do, something so physical and easy to “fake” could be the way we are saved. That belief has been dismantled firstly by the incarnation whacking me over the head. How much more physical can you get? And secondly, by finding that we are not once saved, always saved. If we are, then baptism can only be a symbol because plenty of people get baptized and want nothing to do with Christ, whether as a child or adult. Maybe that’s partly why Calvinism has been more iconoclastic? An over-emphasis on the “transcendence” of God to protect His “sovereignty”, which is supposedly irreconcilable with any action or agency on our our part?

    • Thanks! I’ve missed yours a lot, too. I hope I can get my stress level down enough that I can actually post and read blogs on a regular basis! Yes, Reformed Protestants have to do all kinds of gyrations with their theology to explain people who seem to be faithful but then fall away. I really want to talk to my Baptist friend a lot more about theology — I just worry that we’ll get into an unpleasant argument. We got into a spat around the time of our high school graduation over the King James Bible (whether or not it was the only valid translation, etc.) — and then didn’t speak for five or six years (not that the argument had much directly to do with it, but we certainly drifted after that).

      The Sacraments definitely make our relationship with Christ so much more physical and tangible and deep and intimate, don’t they? To encounter Him in the flesh in the Eucharist; to be baptized, sealed, healed, forgiven by His hand.

  2. I see a tension held in the New Testament accounts. On the one hand, the majority of references to Baptism say that Baptism was the act that granted the Holy Spirit to the believers. Others, though, like Acts 10:48, clearly state that the believers already had the Holy Spirit, and that Baptism was, in that case, a recognition of the already-present Spirit.

    However, to throw one out over the other does injustice to the Biblical witness. That there is a relationship between Baptism and the Holy Spirit is clear. They should be held together. But it’s not so clear cut that A leads to B only. That’s part of why I love God–every time we try to say we have the whole system figured out, God comes along and throws a curve ball to remind us of who is really in charge.

    I love what Phillip Melanchthon says in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession concerning infant Baptism:
    “Second, it is evident that God approves the baptism of little children. The Anabaptists who condemn the baptism of little children teach wickedly. That God approves the baptism of little children is shown by the fact that God gives the Holy Spirit to those so baptized. For if this baptism had been ineffectual, the Holy Spirit would have been given to no one, none would have been saved, and ultimately there would be no church.”

    Luther’s Small Catechism says:
    “What gifts or benefits does baptism grant? Answer:
    It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.”

    The Lutheran tradition has a very strong sacramental view of Baptism–the Roman Catholic Church and the original Protestants and Evangelicals believed the same thing (as stated in the Roman Confutation to the Augsburg Confession).

    The problem of why Baptized Christians continue to sin has been a question that has plagued the church since its inception. Because it happens–it happens to all of us. How do we reconcile the fact that the body of Christ, Baptized and washed and justified, still sins against God and itself? The best I’ve found in the Book of Concord (a good starting point for Lutheran theology), in Luther’s Large Catechism, says this:
    “Therefore baptism remains forever. Even though someone falls from it and sins, we always have access to it so that we may again subdue the old creature. But we need not have the water poured over us again. Even if we were immersed in water a hundred times, it would nevertheless not be more than one baptism, and the effect and significance would continue and remain. Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to baptism, to resume and practice what has earlier begun but abandoned.”

    Regarding the number of sacraments: the number doesn’t seem to have been all that important. The argument can still be made that Lutherans may in fact have three sacraments, Baptism, Eucharist, and Confession, but you won’t find any Lutherans who list Confession as a Sacrament, sticking to the first two only. Melanchthon argues that the number isn’t important because the seven Roman Catholic sacraments weren’t listed as such until Peter Lombard in the 12th century proposed it. That doesn’t mean the sacraments themselves didn’t exist before then, but that the definition of what made a sacrament wasn’t fully explored yet.

    Likewise, though Lutherans hold only two sacraments, they don’t reject the other five rites–they just don’t call them sacraments. For Lutherans, a sacrament is only a sacrament if it is commanded by God, and it confers grace. Baptism and Eucharist fulfill these requirements. Confession does (but somewhere along the way it fell out of practice and the Lutheran church has never recovered it). Marriage and ordination are commanded by God, but do not confer grace. And Confirmation and Last Rites, though important, have no direct divine command and do not confer grace. They are nevertheless important rites. Really, it’s all about definition.

    Whoo, long post!

    • Yes, long. But thanks. 🙂

      I don’t know the Church’s official teaching here, but I think Acts 10:44–48 just goes to show that the Holy Spirit does whatever He wants to. God can bend and break his own rules, and here, He wanted to demonstrate to Peter that the Gospel was for Gentiles, too — and that they could receive the Holy Spirit. Certainly, as you say, God is always throwing curve balls. My point about the entry above is that the Sacraments aren’t legalistic requirements — do this, and you’ll receive this. They are interactions with a living and loving God.

      Another passage that’s worth thinking about is Acts 8:14–17 — the believers in Samaria who had been baptized in the name of Jesus who had not received the Holy Spirit. I heard an interesting explication of this recently, which apparently is the Church’s teaching. In short — the theological terminology was not very well developed at the time of the writing of Acts, but what is happening here is that these believers had been baptized (and had received the Holy Spirit in some capacity), but not confirmed, by which they would receive the Holy Spirit in His fullness. The Early Church, and Orthodox churches to this day, generally performed Baptism and Confirmation at the same time, but that didn’t happen in this case.

      About the other Sacraments — I’ll get more into those when I get to them. 😉 Just because they are not explicitly laid out in Scripture as direct, divine commands — “Do this” — they are certainly given as examples, and the fact that the Apostles did them and clearly held them to be sacramental is an indication that Christ had taught them, and passed them down to us by Tradition. Confirmation and Anointing of the Sick (Last Rites) and Holy Orders too have more scriptural support than you would think.

      • I think I had heard that interpretation of the Acts 8:14-17 story, but hadn’t thought about it recently. Something to mull over.

        I have to see if I can figure out why the Lutheran tradition seems to have stopped doing Last Rites. Using oil for the sick is actually becoming more prominent again, which I am grateful for, but we don’t have anything specifically for the dying.

        • I’ve only ever heard Protestants call it Last Rites, and then mostly in the movies. 😉 I think that term was used more often a generation or two ago. (“Extreme Unction” is another archaic name that nobody uses.) Most Catholics I know now refer to it as Anointing of the Sick, and it’s not exclusively for the dying. The dying probably receive it more often than the living — but that’s mostly because most people don’t bother until it’s too late. My pastor offers it at least once a month, at a Mass for veterans and old people — but anybody who’s sick can come and ask to receive it. Personally, coming from a Pentecostal background, I think it ought to be offered and emphasized more — but that’s largely, I think, coming out of “prosperity” and “word of faith” teachings that seemed to think that we all deserve to be healthy and prosperous bodily and materially. The Catholic Church’s stance on healing, according to the Catechism, is that God heals the body when it’s beneficial for the salvation of the soul. I wrote a post that went into a bit more detail earlier this year, but I’m looking forward to exploring it again now that I’ve learned a lot more.

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  5. Joseph,

    Thanks for this article – I am a believer in the UK who has been very happy to attend a baptist church just outside of London since 2008. But as someone who believes baptism is more than symbolic I have been bemused by baptist warped logic and massive assumptions that are not in the bible and you highlighted very well. Thank you for highlighting this irrational thinking. I thought I was the only one who thought it was just plain illogical. i.e. – It is required for obedience sake. Obedience is required for salvation. Yet baptism is important but not essential for salvation 🙂

    Neil from London

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