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Biblical Theology & Baptism

By Mark Horne

Copyright © 2004

According to Presbyterian doctrine, as articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, baptism is a baptized person’s “admission… into the visible church.” By referring to the “visible church,” the document makes clear it is referring to the present institutional Church with all her imperfections, as opposed to the future Church that will appear at the resurrection in perfect holiness. This present Church on earth, we believe, is “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”

Thus, according to Reformed theology the Kingdom of God is bordered by water. One must go over the moat to enter the King’s Citadel. One must pass through the flood to enter a new world (First Peter 3.20-23).

The Bible teaches this not in a doctrinal handbook (because there is no such manual of theology anywhere in Scripture) but in the whole story of God’s dealings with creation. It begins in Genesis one, as most things do, when on the second day God raises up some water into the heavens where his throne room is. It is important to remember that, while clouds might symbolically represent this water, it is actually taken out of this world altogether. It is above the “firmament,” the veil [1] between the dimension of the Spiritual world and our own dimension of reality. When Ezekiel sees God’s throne carried by the four Cherubim he sees something like ice (chapter 1; NASB) above it. When John is taken up into heaven, he sees a “sea of glass” beneath him (chapter 4).

This is the basis it seems for three transitions that are marked out by water in the Pentateuch:

In each of these cases there is a definitive break with the old order—whether it means that the Egyptian soldiers will finally be killed never to be seen again (Exodus 14.13), or that the old generation of rebels has finally been destroyed by God’s hand (Deuteronomy 2.13-15), or that “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” (Joshua 5.9). In each of these cases, there is also a new beginning—whether God makes a covenant about health and freedom from the Egyptian plagues (Exodus 25.25b, 26), or commands them to cross a border (Deuteronomy 2.16, 17) or allows them to eat from the land as circumcised participants in Passover (Joshua 5.10-12). Crossing water represents a definitive transition to a new realm.

Corresponding to this, in the Tabernacle and later the Temple, water was placed in a container before the entrance to the sanctuary (thus the custom in many churches of putting the baptismal font at the doorway to the Church building). To move from “the earthly” to “the heavenly” one must cross the waters.

In addition to being liberated from sin, Jesus delivered us from humanity’s immature period of sacred geography. Unlike the time of Adam (the garden in Eden) or Moses or Solomon, there is no longer a special land with an exclusive sancturary for God’s presence. The transition marked out by baptism is not a literal boundary in space. But it marks out a new community and creation. Within the Presbyterian doctrinal statement, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the prooftexts for baptism as admission into the Church are First Corinthians 12.13 and Galatians 3.27-28. In both cases, since it is a divine institution promised the power of the Spirit, to baptism is ascribed a breaking with the identities of the old creation and a new identity in Christ as members of one family, which “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”

Tragically, as Paul explains and warns his fellow Christians in First Corinthians 10.1ff, not all those delivered from Egypt into a new situation were willing to trust God that they were better off than they would be in Egypt. When we are brought into Christ’s new community and entrusted to him in baptism we are called upon to continually trust him. We are to live by faith.

If you are an unbaptized person, you need to believe the Gospel and entrust yourself to Jesus, “migrating” from earth to heaven, from the fallen human society to Christ’s new society as soon as possible. If you are a baptized person who has abandoned the faith, you are guilty of treason within the Kingdom of God. You need to repent and believe the Gospel while you have time. If you are a baptized believer, you need to understand that your baptism has put you in a new situation. It may not look like much, but you have a birthrite that you should never trade for all the treasures the world has to offer. Walk by what God says, by faith, rather than what you see.

You have crossed the border between heaven and earth.

Copyright © 2004


In the Spirit of Elijah


1. I choose the word “veil” quite intentionally. Consult my commentary on Mark to see how the heavens being ripped open at Jesus’ baptism (!) corresponds to the veil in the Temple being ripped open at Jesus’ death.

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