Traditional Seventh-day Adventist teaching on baptism has centered on three aspects: (1) baptism as a personal act of faith, as opposed to the concept of infant baptism; (2) baptism as an outward sign of the believer's renunciation of sin and of his acceptance of God's grace; and (3) the Biblical mode of baptism, immersion, as opposed to pouring or sprinkling. Nothing should detract from the importance of these three foci. Their Biblical foundation has been well established, and many have found in them a new assurance and a new basis of life.
At the same time we ought to recognize that other aspects and dimensions need to be explored, especially in light of the concept of the priesthood of all believers. For example, the meaning of Christian baptism is rooted in the baptism of Jesus Christ. This insight needs to be examined carefully. The view that Christian baptism should be defined not only in terms of personal salvation but also in the context of the missionary nature and calling of the church is an other dimension that deserves study.
A new baptism
Jesus' baptism in the Jordan had antecedents in the ritual baths and washings of the Old Testament and in the proselyte baptism of ancient Judaism. (See Lev. 11-15; 16:4, 24ff.; 17:15ff.; Num. 19; 2 Kings 5:10-14; Ps. 51:2, 7; Isa. 1:16; Jer. 4:14; Eze. 36:25-27; Zech. 13:1.) There are, however, significant differences between these Old Testament washings and the baptism of John. The former were primarily clean sings from ritual defilements, whereas the baptism of John stressed repentance and the re mission of sins. (See Matt. 3:1-12; Luke 3:3-18.) Another difference is that the baths of cultic purification in the Old Testament had to be repeated, whereas baptism at the hand of John occurred only once. The proselyte baptism of Judaism also was a one-time event, but the proselyte, like the ritually defiled believers of Old Testament times, washed themselves; in baptism, the believer has the cleansing rite administered to him.
When Jesus came to the Jordan, He insisted on being baptized, thereby set ting a pattern for all who would follow Him. We would do well, therefore, to look once again at the characteristics of John's baptism, since it became the basis of all Christian baptism.
John's baptism required faith in the word of the prophet, acceptance of that word, and repentance. "Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins" (Matt. 3:5, 6).* Baptism is not a purification of cultic and ritual impurity; it is a deliverance from sin. The person who is being baptized recognizes his state of utter lostness be fore God. But he is also lifted out of the water to experience the joy of a new status before God. His sins have been forgiven and he is reconciled to God! The water itself has no sacramental, purifying value; it does no work of its own, ritually or ceremonially. Genuine faith, acceptance of God's Word as it is pro claimed by His prophet, repentance, and confession of sins are the preconditions for the effectiveness of the water ceremony. (See Mark 1:4; 16:16; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:12, 26-39; 16:30-34; Eph. 4:4-6"; Col. 2:12.)
A second hallmark of John's baptism was that it required fruit. As the Baptist himself said: " 'Bear fruit that befits repentance' " (Matt. 3:8). And he left no doubt in the minds of his hearers what he meant: " 'He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.' Tax collectors also came to be baptized. . . . And he said to them, 'Collect no more than is appointed you.' Soldiers also asked him, 'And we, what shall we do?' And he said to them, 'Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages'" (Luke 3:11- 14).
Throughout the New Testament there is an inextricable relationship between baptism and a holy life. Repentance, the basis of baptism, is shown in a turning away from sin and in conformity to the will of God. As the apostle Paul pointedly put it, "How can we who died to sin still live in it? 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" (Rom. 6: 2-4).
John's baptism aimed, also, at establishing a special community of believers and preparing them for the day of judgment and the coming of Christ. It is true that the washings in Old Testament times also aimed at preparing people to meet their God. But in Christian baptism, people are already experiencing that eschatological event. In the baptism of John, that glorious age of the Messiah, the realization of the kingdom of God, was still an expectation. Baptism was part of people's preparation, the "gate" through which they would enter into the kingdom. But in Christian baptism that kingdom has become a reality; the age of the Messiah has come, with its peace and joy and man's new status before God.
The example of Jesus
If these are the basic meanings of John's baptisms, why should Jesus insist on being washed by him? He needed no repentance, for He had no sins. There was no reason, therefore, to recognize His lostness before God. In fact, He Himself was the Messiah, in whom the kingdom of God was made real on earth. The fact that Jesus did insist on being washed, even though John tried to dissuade Him, points at a number of important facts.
First of all, Jesus' baptism confirmed that the baptism of John indeed was "from heaven." It was not merely a practice tied to a particular time or situation. Baptism is a basic requirement for salvation.
Second, by being washed by John, Jesus set an example for all who would follow Him. From this moment on, Jesus' own baptism would be the prototype of every believer's baptism. Thus a study of the meaning of Jesus's baptism is important for any church that calls itself Christian, and makes the baptism of Christ the basis of admitting people into its fellowship of faith.
But most important is the fact that by His baptism Jesus has shown His total solidarity with us. He became so much one with us that He not only took upon Himself our flesh and blood, but He also identified Himself with our lostness be fore God. He who knew no sin became as one who was lost in sin. "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). This text clearly points out the double meaning of Jesus' solidarity with us. On the one hand, Jesus chose to take our side, over against the devil, the "accuser of the brethren." He was willing to die with us rather than to see us lost in sin and suffering. He also died for us, carrying our suffering, our guilt, our punishment. In fact, He carried the "wages of sin," so that we need not suffer eternal death. It is significant that on the two occasions Jesus referred to His baptism, He spoke of it in terms of suffering and death: " 'I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!'" (Luke 12:50; see also Mark 10:38, 39). In Jesus' baptism, the righteousness of God was fulfilled; the name of God was vindicated; the sinner was set free.
This meaning of Jesus' baptism gives a dimension to Christian baptism that was lacking in the baptism of John. The believer does not have to wait any longer for the coming Messiah; He already has come. And everyone who follows Christ in baptism is thereby made a partaker of I the peace and joy of the kingdom of God. In baptism we have died with Christ, but we have also been resurrected to a new life. The old is gone. We are a new creation (see Rom. 6:1-12; 2 Cor. 5:14-21).
The seal of the Spirit
Three aspects stand out very clearly in the baptism of Jesus as the prototype of Christian baptism: (1) the believer's sins have been forgiven and washed away; his conscience is clear; he is saved (1 Peter 3:18-22); (2) the believer himself has died to sin and has been resurrected to a new life with Christ (Rom. 6:1-12); (3) the believer can already share in the promises of the kingdom—peace with God and with one's fellow men, the end of sin and death—in short, the restoration of the image of God in man (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).
To guarantee the reality of this experience in the daily life of the believer, God, in His mercy, has put a seal on every believer who is united with Christ in baptism. "In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory" (Eph. 1:13, 14; see also 2 Cor. 1:22 and Eph. 4:30).
Christian baptism, in contrast to the baptism of John, is a baptism of the Spirit, as John himself was very much aware. " 'I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire'" (Matt. 3:11). This does not mean that the baptism of the Spirit replaced the baptism of water. Rather, the new experience of the Spirit found its expression in the death and resurrection symbolized by the total immersion of the believer in water. The message of repentance and forgiveness received new meaning and significance through the work of the Spirit. That is why Jesus told Nicodemus: " 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God' " (John 3:5). Baptism of the Spirit does not exclude water; rather, it is experienced in and through the baptism of water, as Jesus' own baptism has clearly shown us. But His baptism also clearly signifies that a baptism that does not convey the Spirit is no true baptism and must be completed by the receiving of the Spirit. In that sense, John's baptism is inadequate, as is evident from the experience of Apollo, who "knew only the baptism of John" (Acts 18:25), and from the situation in the church at Ephesus (see Acts 19:1-7). Not until the Ephesian believers were baptized in the baptism of Jesus and received the Holy Spirit did that church come alive and develop into a missionary church. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that baptism without the gift of the Spirit is not baptism in the full sense!
What does this mean for the life and work of the believer after baptism? What is the role of the Spirit in the daily existence of those who have been joined to Christ in baptism? Commonly, this role has been described as a work of sanctification, as indeed it is. (See Gal. 5:22- 25; Eph. 4:17-32.) Yet, from Christ's ex ample we learn that the gift of the Holy Spirit at baptism has a different role still—to ordain, to guide, and to enable the believer to participate in the ministry of Jesus Christ. During instruction for baptism, as well as afterward, much more attention should be given to this role of the Spirit in the believer's life. Interpreters agree that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Jesus Christ at His baptism signified ordination to His Messianic ministry. The same holds true for every believer who is baptized in the baptism of Christ. By being joined to Christ in baptism, we are joined to His ministry of salvation. The Spirit, given as a seal of our own salvation has at the same time been given for the "equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:12). Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, baptism signifies the believers' consecration and ordination to the ministry of Jesus Christ. That is evident from such passages as Romans 12:6-21 and 1 Corinthians 12-14, where the gifts of the Spirit are clearly spoken of as a special divine endowment, given at the time of baptism, to enable the believer to serve the church and to minister to those who have not yet accepted Jesus Christ. Anyone who takes his Christian baptism seriously must now ask himself: What have I done with the gifts of the Spirit given to me at my baptism? What a tragedy, however, that the baptism of most believers resembles more the baptism of John than the baptism of Jesus Christ!
Added to His body
This leads to another dimension of the meaning of baptism in the New Testament—those who are baptized in Christ are thereby also added to His body, the church. As the apostle Paul writes: "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Cor. 12:13). The meaning of Christian baptism is inextricably related to the Biblical concept of the church. In the New Testament the church was in essence a missionary body. This shaped the concept of baptism as a mark of distinction between those who had accepted Christ and those who had not, between those who were members of His body and those who were not.
In later years, especially after Constantine, baptism lost this mark of distinction, resulting in such practices as infant baptism and sprinkling. There is ample Biblical evidence that young children, before they have reached the age of accountability, do belong to Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself not only declared that the kingdom of God belongs to them, He even made such children an example of what believers should be come. Children of believing parents do share in the promises of the gospel; they are indeed partakers of the salvific life of the church. (See Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20ff.; 1 John 2:12.) But that does not mean, as many have thought, that these children should also be baptized. In spite of their inclusion in the covenant relationship of the believers with God, children must tread the path of personal decision and the obedience of faith. They can be received into Christ's church only if they have undergone baptism on the basis of their own faith, repentance, and a new life with Christ. For the message of salvation brings deliverance as the power of God only to those who believe. To teach otherwise is contrary to the whole New Testament message on baptism, and to the Biblical view of the church.
That view sees the church as a missionary community, a fellowship of believers called into existence for the pur pose of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people. Anyone who joins the church, therefore, enlists himself as a minister and missionary of the gospel. Everyone who through baptism has tasted the goodness of the Lord is added to the church as a living stone and be comes a member of the holy priesthood, called to proclaim the triumphs of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light (see 1 Peter 2:3-10). True discipleship, therefore, means fol lowing Jesus in making others disciples of Jesus Christ. Everyone who by baptism joins the church is thereby pledged to become a missionary of Jesus Christ—a co-worker in His ministry of salvation unto all the world.
To that end, says the apostle Paul, has God endowed His church with special gifts, "for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:12). These are the very gifts the Lord gives the believer at the time of his baptism.
Ellen G. White forcefully summarizes these Biblical views of baptism: "Those who have taken part in the solemn rite of baptism have pledged themselves to seek for those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God; pledged themselves to labor earnestly for the salvation of sinners." Messages to Young People, p: 317.
"The Saviour's commission to the disciples included all the believers. It includes all believers in Christ to the end of time. It is a fatal mistake to suppose that the work of saving souls depends alone on the ordained minister. All to whom the heavenly inspiration has come are put in trust with the gospel. All who receive the life of Christ are ordained to work for the salvation of their fellow men. For this work the church was established, and all who take upon them selves its sacred vows are thereby pledged to be co-workers with Christ." —The Desire of Ages, p. 822.
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