Baptism – through troubled waters

“For so long as we live cooped up in this prison of our body, traces of sin will dwell in us; but if we faithfully hold fast to the promise given us by God in baptism, they shall not dominate or rule.” (Calvin, Institutes,4.15.11).

I was speaking with someone who enquired about Baptism yesterday and read Romans 6:1-4 to them. Most professing Christians have been baptised, but Church History is full of Christian debates about Baptism. John Fesco has written a detailed overview of the subject in his book ‘Word, Water and Spirit – A Reformed Perspective on Baptism’. I have found it very useful not only for his analysis of the Reformed understanding, but also to understand how other denominations view Baptism.

After the quote above of John Calvin, Fesco underlines the Reformed perspective with these words: ‘Note that the efficacy of baptism lies not in the water but in what the water points to: the promise of God.’ (p 87).

The book is 400 pages in length so there is plenty to read but it is really nicely set out so and chapters and sections clearly marked so one can jump around easily. And there is a concise conclusion from which I quote:

“…regarding baptism. First, if anything, this study has shown that one’s soteriology says a lot about his doctrine of baptism. If we want to understand what a person or church believes about salvation, we have only to ask what they believe about the sacraments. For the Roman Catholic Church, the sacraments save. God infuses his created grace, habits, and virtues substantially in the sacraments, which are then administered by the priests of the church. If a person wants to grow in grace, he needs more of God’s infused grace, and so he needs the sacraments. According to the greater portion of the evangelical church, the sacraments are personal oath-pledges – the believer has secured his salvation by his personal commitment, and it is his obedience that will keep him in. At worst, the sacraments are superfluous. Who needs ministers, sacraments, or church when a person can directly commune with God? However, if a person asks someone in a Reformed church what he believes about the sacraments, ideally the response would be that they reveal Christ, and it is Christ through God’s covenant who has saved him. God reveals Himself in Christ through Word and sacrament, and therefore, like the preaching of the Word, the church needs the regular administration of the sacraments because they visibly preach Christ’s gospel.

“Second, the church must recognize that God reveals His extraordinary grace in Christ through the most ordinary and even foolish means: Word and sacrament. …

“The church, however, never offers the double preaching of the Word in the hope of judgement, but of redemption, deliverance, and salvation. Therefore, as the corporate body of Christ preaches through Word and water, the universal hope should be that those who are baptized will be united to Christ and sacramentally enter the new heaven and earth. For this reason, Word, water, and Spirit preach a message of hope and redemption.” (pp 400-401.)

In his ‘Evangelical Theology’, Michael Bird also discusses Baptism (pp 864-881). I’m not sure, but I think that that Bird’s ‘evangelical’ would fit more under Fesco’s ‘Reformed’ position. Part of the issue is defining evangelical these days. But, I have certainly found Fesco’s book helpful as I reflect upon Baptism in the Scriptures and the Church history debates.

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