Baptism as Gospel Proclamation (Jan – Jun 1995)

By Matt Dabbs

by Bob Hendren
January – June, 1995

The meaning baptism has acquired for us as a people is extraordinary. Baptism has often been presented as if it had a life of its own. For many it is the Queen of the Commandments, the final step on the staircase of initial salvation. Quite often, in mounds of literature, baptism is employed as a description of the total conversion process. Reports filter in from various churches listing x number of baptisms occurring during certain meetings or other measured intervals. I do not recall reading in any significant number of cases about x number of persons expressing their trust in Jesus the Christ, or a similar number finding God’s grace and turning to the Lord. The number of baptisms is seen as the normative manner of reporting conversions. “Have you been baptized?” is more frequently asked than “Have you been converted to Christ?”

Baptism, in our brotherhood, is also seen as the sine qua non of biblical soundness. “He preaches everything biblically except baptism” is a remark I have heard on more than one occasion. In addition, you may have heard, “If they just required baptism, I would feel more comfortable about their doctrine.” How much is measured in terms of baptism? It’s even a metaphor used to enforce the importance of any point a preacher wants to make. On several occasions I have heard preachers, making a point on the importance of some idea, state “It’s a command, just like baptism!”

Few Bible topics have received as much coverage as baptism. I have difficulty recalling a gospel meeting where the topic was not fully developed even though more than 90% of the audience consisted of persons who were baptized, and had heard scores, if not hundreds of lessons on the subject. The number of sermons on baptism would make you believe the Bible was filled with similar sermons, whereas not a single sermon on baptism can be found in the Bible.

In addition to isolating the topic, the constant generic use of scripture on baptism promotes a shallow understanding of this profound response of faith. The necessity for baptism is underlined by merely quoting or referring to New Testament passages as though they were items in a legal brief. One can often hear “Be baptized! Acts 2:38, Galatians 3:26, Colossians 2:12, Romans 6:4, etc.”: This is inexcusable, as the specific content of each of these passages is thrown out in service to a generic command. For example, in following this method, gone is the promise of the Holy Spirit from Acts 2:38-39, gone is the awakening to a new life in Romans 6, gone is the call to sonship found in Galatians 3, gone is the emphasis on God’s work in Colossians 2! Such reaching empties the doctrine of baptism of all scriptural meaning.

We may even have invented a new sin, one that did not exist before baptism became such a solitary hallmark of acceptance. I have frequently heard young people talking about “getting baptized” as in “he or she got baptized.” Again, missing is the language of conversion so often found in the Bible. Instead we have a focus on “getting baptized,” and since so many young persons tend to look at their conversions through the keyhole of baptism rather than faith in Christ, it is usually their baptism they question later in life.

This emphasis has created the sin of “not being baptized.” A young person will be asked if they have been baptized, and realizing they have not, they assume they are guilty of the sin of “not being baptized.” They are not at a point to be aware of the magnitude of sinning against God’s holiness, nor of the provisions of the cross for their redemption. They are often not at a stage where these factors have a great deal of meaning for them, but they know they have not been baptized. To make up this deficiency they “get baptized.”

There is no such sin as “not being baptized.” The real sin is to know the depth of one’s transgression and then willfully decide not to respond to Jesus in full surrender. This surrender would certainly include the faith encounter the Bible calls baptism. Perhaps it is time to realize why baptism is important. Baptism is important because Christ is important! One is not saved by faith in baptism, nor, for that matter, by faith in faith, or faith in repentance, or faith in correct issues. One is saved because he or she places trust in Jesus without reservation.

Now apart from law, being in the right with God has been made clear, and this is witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets; it is being right with God through faith in Jesus Christ, it is available to all who believe, for there is no distinction since all have sinned and constantly fall short of God’s glory, but they are put in the right freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus….1

So many mistaken emphases on baptism have blunted the meaning of this dramatic encounter with Christ. Worse, the conversion of baptism to a human work has imported a legalistic righteousness alien to biblical conversion. It has also scandalized persons of good will who may indeed be open to baptism when it is approached from a grace-faith understanding, but who rightly oppose anything that smacks of human achievement in the obtaining of salvation.

Baptism does not exist in isolation. To give it a life of its own is to kill it. Baptism is a proclamation of the cross in one’s own experience. It has the profound meaning of accepting the cross of Jesus as one’s deepest need. Baptism also embraces the new life by the power of the resurrected Jesus. In Romans 6 “Baptism implies participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. The break with sin is thereby accomplished and attachment to the life of the new creation effected….”2 In other words, our surrender in baptism proclaims the gospel during the very process of our conversion.

Martin Luther’s insight is on target: “Baptism is grace clutching you by the throat.” In a similarly dramatic passage, William Willimon, a chaplain at Duke University, effectively highlights the fundamental notes sounded by the baptismal experience:

Cleansing, death, birth, refreshment, illumination, the Spirit are all New Testament baptismal themes. But none of these negates the essential image of baptism as participation in the converting, life-changing, submission-evoking power of the gospel, the good news of a kingdom which begins with a cross. Rich New Testament baptismal images underscore the life-changing nature of baptism: Birth (John 3:3-5), a funeral and burial (Romans 6:1-11), a bride’s nuptial bath (Ephesians 5:26-27). The bath ends by arraying the body in new clothing (Gal. 3:27) for baptism sets Christians apart as specifically as circumcision sets Jews apart (Col. 2:11). So radical, complete and primal is this experience of baptismal metanoia that only the most limnal, primal human experiences can convey it: birth, marriage, death, bathing.3

A proper appreciation for grace provides the correct understanding of baptism as a proclamation of the gospel. When we understand that leaving grace is really leaving God (Galatians 1:6), we will comprehend that our response to the gospel message is not that of an ignorant person needing logical insights into a command structure, but the reaction of a desperate human being grasped by the loving hand of God. Baptism is throwing oneself upon God’s mercy, a proclamation of the absolute necessity of grace. In the words of Albert Schweitzer it is “an elevator not a staircase.” Identifying as it does with Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, it is nothing less than a faith reaction to Christ’s saving acts. To disconnect baptism from the cross is fatal to its meaning.

“God could have as well said, ‘Repent and jump through a hoop’ as ‘Repent and be baptized’ and we would have to do it.” I could not believe my ears, but these words poured forth from a preacher in a “gospel” meeting. I deny his statement with this simple question, “What does jumping through a hoop have to do with the cross?” Baptism points to the cross. Jumping through a hoop points to nonsense. The cross is God’s masterpiece of salvation. Humans, by their obedience, add nothing to the cross. Religious experiences and wise insights are not the answer to our problem (1 Corinthians 1:22-25). The necessity of the cross causes us to recognize there is no human solution to the problem of sin; were it not for grace all would be eternal losers. The cross is God’s answer to the problem of sin, the only answer! The cost of this solution is extreme—to God. The cost is—his Son! “He who did not know sin, he made to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). And, in taking advantage of this, many Corinthians responded appropriately (Cf. Acts 18:8). Those who responded, “some of them” at least, had been killers, sexually immoral people, macho male homosexuals, female-acting male homosexuals, thieves, drunks, and loudmouths. But “you got yourselves washed [middle voice], you were set apart by God, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

The Corinthians responded out of their desperation, for they had no other choice. When a person appreciates the unique work of the cross and its adequacy for salvation, he or she will want to accept God’s gracious offer. The proclaimers of the gospel, as any casual reader of the book of Acts will testify, were not slow to communicate the necessity of responding to God’s grace. Though they never conceived the idea the human response deserved grace, they did affirm its importance. For the one dead in sin, that is, beyond human help, there is one possibility and one alone: “By grace you are saved through faith” (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10).

Baptism apart from grace has no meaning. Baptism alone is like an empty setting for a ring whose central precious stone is missing. Grace cannot be trifled with by hurrying through a pat definition to move toward exhortations for human response. Grace is far more than a definition for God; for him it is no less than the death of his Son (John 3:16). Grace simply cannot be over-emphasized. It is sometimes distorted into anti-legalism or corrupted into permission to sin, but in biblical context grace is the total environment of conversion as well as the believer’s subsequent lifestyle. Grace colors the total picture of salvation from inception to completion.

Even the response we make to God’s grace is a gift from God. That is to say, we who are sinners cannot create our own response, just as people cannot create the universe in which they live. We can respond appropriately to the universe we find ourselves in, so responding appreciatively to God extends his grace into our lives. But we seriously distort the picture when we attempt to connect legalistic righteousness to our faith response. Persons who attempt this often call baptism a “work” necessary for salvation and invoke James 2 as though James were carrying on a dialog on conversion rather than on the dedicated Christian life. Poor Paul! What a shame he could not develop a complete theology of conversion! James had to finish what Paul omits. James, of course, is not discussing initial conversion in the second chapter, and he certainly would not enjoy being used to trump Paul. The response of faith can add nothing to the cross. Paul must be dealt with on his own terms when he writes:

Now, to the one who works his reward is not based on grace but on a debt owed, but to the one who does not work, but trusts in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…. (Romans 4:4-5).

Baptism must never be depicted as adding anything to the cross. It is a response to the cross, not an addition to it. We must remember the constant message of the Bible is that no person can hope to please God with a wholly external response unconnected to the heart. Also, no element of our response to God can have materialistic or magical powers. In other words, baptism is important because Christ is important! Persons of good will are rightly repelled by any treatment of the gospel which suggests man’s response has coordinate value with God’s grace, or that baptism is a human work or a magical act which forces the gratitude of God.

Perhaps a grace-centered dialog on baptism would open more doors than we have imagined. If we move away from the externalism and magical view and hold baptism up in the light of the cross we may find more grounds for agreement than ever found in debates. For example, J. R. Mantey, a New Testament scholar and one of the authors of a well-known grammar of the Greek New Testament noted:

When one considers in Acts 2:38 repentance as self-renunciation and baptism as a public expression of self-surrender and self-dedication to Christ, which significance it certainly had in the first century, the expression eis aphesin ton hamartion humon may mean for the purpose of the remission of sins. But if one stresses baptism, without its early Christian import, as a ceremonial means of salvation, he does violence to Christianity as a whole, for one of its striking distinctions from Judaism and Paganism is that it is a religion of salvation by faith while all others teach salvation by works. (Quoted in H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 104).

A grace-centered view of baptism is a biblical view. Much healing will be made possible by a return to baptism as gospel proclamation, a testimony of the saving power of Jesus! Disconnecting baptism from faith has been a red flag for those who respect God’s grace. It is unfortunate many may have envisioned only the ceremonial possibilities and lost sight of the true self-surrender envisioned in biblical baptism. Salvation by faith is certainly the only way, yet we need to be clear on one thing, faith is not limited to the intellect alone!

Approaching Jesus by faith requires a readiness to surrender our whole persons to him. Our sin has involved our whole being (cf. The analysis of sin in Romans 1:24, 26, 28). We have sinned “in word, in thought, and in deed,” that is we have sinned with our emotions, our minds, and our bodies. Our whole beings have been caught up in living for self. Jesus asks us to return along the same road we left by. We come back by faith, but it is a faith that responds intellectually, emotionally, and physically. In other words, by faith we respond with our entire beings. Why should I hold my mind back from God? Or my emotions? Or even my body? I want to come to God with all my self.

Consider that Jesus came to us in all these ways. If he had only understood our predicament and no more, then we would still be lost. If he had understood and felt great compassion for us, and no more, we would still be lost. But his knowledge and his feelings coupled with a love of surpassing depth resulted in his incarnation. He came to us as a Whole Being; can we hold back anything of ourselves? As we thankfully give our entire beings in faith to God, let us realize baptism is God’s work (Colossians 2:12) and declare the saving acts of Jesus to all who witness.


1 Romans 3:21-24.
2 Albrecht Oepke, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 541.
3 William Willimon, “Baptism: Deadly Work.” The Service of God, pp. 97-98.
Wineskins Magazine

Bob Hendren

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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