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What Does Baptism Do?

At the close of my first year in seminary, I put my name in the hat for summer ministry positions. Basically, we identified how far we were willing to travel, the types of ministry we were interested in, etc., and the seminary sent our résumés off to churches that seemed to fit. One of the churches that wrote me back sent a “questionnaire” meant to assess my doctrinal stances on a range of issues. What made this questionnaire so memorable was that it was presented in multiple-choice format—exactly like a poorly constructed theology exam! It had questions like “Jesus Christ is: a. fully God and fully man b. not God, but a great moral teacher, c. None of the above.” For every question, all you had to do was know what the average conservative-minded Baptist believed and it was painfully obvious what the “right” answer was supposed to be.

A Strange Recommendation

The question about the meaning of baptism had answers like: “a. is necessary for salvation b. may be performed either by sprinkling or immersion c. is not necessary for salvation, but is strangely recommended.” That’s right, “strangely.” I’m about 70% sure that was supposed to be “strongly,” but then again, after the first couple of questions I had already decided this church wasn’t for me!

For a lot of Baptists, about all we can say about baptism is that it is “strangely recommended.” The biblical “recommendation” seems strange because, despite our strongly held opinions about who may be baptized and how to do it, we don’t often delve into the meaning of baptism other than to protest that its function is “merely symbolic.”

Baptists have always held that the only valid candidate for baptism is a professing believer in Jesus. Since babies can’t give rational expression of whatever degree of faith they may have (at least, none that I have so far been able to understand), we disallow the baptism of infants as invalid. The technical term for this view is “believers baptism.” At the same time, we also insist that baptism is a symbolic observance with no saving power. Faith alone saves, and baptism is simply the public profession of one’s prior faith commitment. (For almost as long—though most definitely not from the very beginning—Baptists have also insisted on immersion as the only acceptable mode or method of baptism, but that’s another story.)

Now, all this poses us a problem. If baptism doesn’t “do” anything, why do we Baptists get so worked up about it when other Christians do it wrong? Why do we want to call infant baptisms invalid and require most Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, and other believers who may have been serving Christ faithfully for decades to submit to rebaptism if they ever want to join a Baptist church? If it is simply a matter of following what we see as the correct biblical protocol, how does that differ from the empty formalism we so often rail against?

Before we can explore a more ecumenical approach to baptism among Baptists, it is necessary to ask what baptism does. To do that, I want to triangulate a position by bouncing off the two scholars who have shaped my understanding of baptism in the New Testament more than any others: George R. Beasley-Murray, a British Baptist scholar, and James D. G. Dunn, also a British scholar, who has described himself as “a Methodist with Baptist leanings and Pentecostal interests.”

The Efficacy of Baptism

I’ll start with Beasley-Murray and his monumental Baptism in the New Testament (I’ll be citing page numbers from the original 1962 edition). For my money, there is no better summary of the topic. Whatever your view of baptism, the exegetical work in this volume is a must-read. Remarkably for a Baptist, Beasley-Murray is quite willing to argue for a water baptism having a genuine spiritual (he actually uses the word “sacramental”) effect on the life of the one who is baptized. After 262 pages of careful exegesis of every mention of baptism in the New Testament, he states:

In the light of the foregoing exposition of the New Testament representation of baptism, the idea that baptism is a purely symbolic rite must be pronounced not alone unsatisfactory but out of harmony with the New Testament itself. Admittedly, such a judgment runs counter to the popular tradition of the Denomination to which the writer belongs, as it does to some of the significant contributions to the study of baptism that have appeared from theologians of other Churches in recent years. But the New Testament belongs to us all and we all stand judged by it. (263)

He summarizes the following elements associated with baptism in the New Testament (264):

  • Forgiveness of (Ac 2:38) and cleansing from sins (Ac 22:16; 1 Cor 6:11)
  • Union with Christ (Gal 3:27), especially in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-11; Col 2:11-12), involving release from sin’s power and sharing in the risen life of Christ (Rom 6:1-11)
  • Participation in Christ’s sonship (Gal 3:26-27)
  • Consecration to God (1 Cor 6:11) and, hence, membership in the church, the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27-29)
  • Possession of the Spirit (Ac 2:38; 1 Cor 6:11; 12:13) and, therefore, new life in the Spirit (i.e., regeneration) (Titus 3:5; Jn 3:5)
  • Grace to live according to the will of God (Rom 6:1-11; Col 3:1ff)
  • Deliverance from the evil powers that rule this world (Col 1:13)
  • The inheritance of the kingdom of God (Jn 3:5)
  • The pledge of the resurrection of the body (Eph 1:13-14; 4:30)

How does one explain this attribution of the fullness of saving grace to the performance of the outward act of baptism? Certainly not out of any kind of “magical” sacramentalism. Rather, Beasley-Murray sees this attribution as an outgrowth of baptism’s connection to one’s personal encounter with Christ: “Baptism saves, not because water washes dirt from the body, but as the occasion when a man is met by the Risen Christ” (265).

Baptism and Faith

For Beasley-Murray, the efficacy of baptism is strongly tied to the faith response of the person being baptized, so perhaps he isn’t as far from traditional Baptist doctrine as might be supposed:

The relation of faith to baptism is illuminated for us by this recognition of the relation of faith to the Gospel and to grace. For baptism is the embodiment of the Gospel. The objective givenness of baptism lies in its being a representation of the redemptive act of God in Christ, whereby life from the dead became possible for men, and the means of participation in that act and life through the participation in the Christ. God Himself must grant this participation, even as He gave the Christ on the cross and raised Him from death. Yet the very term ‘participation’ (koinonia) is meaningless without the assenting will of the human koinonos [participant]…. [I]n the New Testament faith and baptism are viewed as inseparables whenever the subject of Christian intiation is under discussion, so that if one is referred to, the other is presupposed, even if not mentioned. Care must be taken not to press this beyond warrant, but it is undoubtedly true that in the New Testament it is everywhere assumed that faith proceeds to baptism and that baptism is for faith.(271-72)

The closer I get to affirming a sacramental view of the Eucharist, the more I tend to believe in open communion. Likewise, the closer I come to embracing Beasley-Murray’s view of the sacramental efficacy of baptism, the more convincing I find his case for baptizing believers only.

Before moving on, however, more needs to be said about the relationship between baptism, faith, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. To say it, I’ll turn in my next installment to a more traditionally “Baptist” approach, but I’m going to have to go to a Methodist scholar to do it!

technorati tags: baptism, sacrament


  1. Originally, Baptists held to a more sacramental (in the Calvinist sense) understanding of Baptism as our early confessions make clear. Along with A.C. Gilmore, Beasley-Murray was an early part of the British reclamation of this tradition. It also has some following in Europe. In the U.S., however, Baptist views of baptism have been “hyper-Zwinglian” except for the believers part. I hesitate over the word “sacrament,” but I find Jame Wm. McClendon’s use of the term “perfomative sign” (from speech-act theory) to be helpful. Also Tillich’s concept that symbols participate in the reality toward which they point.


  2. I should mention that the Rom. 6 and Col. 2 passages are the ones which dominate the citations in Baptist confessions of faith–often being the only ones cited.


  3. Anne says:

    Now, Dr. P., you make me want to get into the patristics of it. I need to chase down the source of a text of Origen’s that I’ve seen cited, “The church has received from the apostles the tradition to give baptism even to infants” (etc., along with reasoning behind it). Irenaeus and Justin Martyr also seem to have had interesting things to say on the subject. Let’s see how soon I have time for a patristics scavenger hunt to check the accuracy of the things I’ve seen cited.


  4. Craig says:

    In his book “Becoming Christian: A theology of baptism as the sacrament of human history,” Alexander Ganoczy paints a picture of baptism as the act that ingrafts the believer into the story of Christ, redeeming our past and freeing us for the future of God. As God’s story becomes our story, baptism serves as “the beginning of an historical process on the ‘relational’ and ‘temporal’ planes. The process, moreover, occurs both in the individual and the community.” (p. 34)



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