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Baptism and the Church

by Peter Leithart

Copyright © 1998, All rights reserved.

In 27.2, the Westminster Confession says that because of the “spiritual relation” between sacraments and the things they represent, “the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.” Applied to baptism, this means that when the Bible says that we are baptized into Christ (Rom. 6), it doesn’t necessarily mean that the rite of water baptism engrafts us to Christ but rather means that the “thing” that the sacrament signifies joins us to Christ. Peter doesn’t really mean that “baptism now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21), but that the spiritual reality of baptism saves.

This idea seems perfectly natural, but a moment’s reflection shows how arbitrary the whole procedure is. No matter what the Bible says about baptism, you can always trot out the idea of “spiritual relation” to show that the Bible is speaking “sacramentally,” and doesn’t mean what it seems to say. But you can only do this if you know already–before actually looking at the Bible–what a rite like baptism can and cannot do. If we want to develop a biblical understanding of baptism, we need to begin with what the Scriptures say, no matter how unusual or unbelievable, rather than try to fit the biblical statements into some preconceived notions.

But how can we take the biblical statements seriously without attributing magical power to baptism? Our difficulties with the biblical claims for the sacraments arise from our individualistic modern focus. We wonder how “water applied to this person” can do what the Bible says it does, but we forget that “water applied to this person” is only a part of the total picture. We need to think in the context of the church, rather than merely in the context of individual salvation. Water is applied to this person by the church and to join him to the church.

With this in mind, let’s look at a particular text, 1 Corinthians 6:11. Paul is contrasting the condition of the Corinthians before their conversion to Christ and their new life afterward. Some were dissolute and wicked, but now they are “washed, sanctified, and justified” in Christ and the Spirit. I take the “washing” to be a reference to baptism, and the wording suggests that sanctification and justification are conferred through the washing. I believe this because the phrase “in the name of Jesus” occurs at the end of the series of verbs, though we would expect it to be directly connected with the “washing.” Thus, it is best to read this as, “you received a sanctifying and justifying washing in the name of Jesus and in the Holy Spirit.”

How can Paul attribute justification and sanctification to baptism when he everywhere attributes justification to “faith, without the works of the Law”? We can go a ways to answering this question by taking more seriously the biblical claim that the church is the “body of Christ.” Because this is true, being joined to the church also means being joined to Christ. Christ is the holy one, and His Body is the holy people, the “saints” (“holy ones”) claimed as God’s peculiar possession. By His resurrection, the Father vindicated or justified the Son (Rom. 4:25), and by union with the body of the Justified Christ, we are justified (ie., counted as covenant-keepers).

None of this means that baptism guarantees eternal salvation. One consecrated as a saint may renounce God’s claim on him; one can be cut off from the people whom the Lord regards as covenant-keepers, and entire churches may be snuffed out, cut from the vine. But those who live out of their baptism, faithful to the Lord in His Body, may be assured they are sanctified and justified.

Copyright © 1998, All rights reserved.

Peter Leithart is an ordained minister of the Gospel in the Presbyterian Church in America. He received an A.B. in English and History from Hillsdale College in 1981, and a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1986 and 1987, respectively. In 1998 he received his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in England. He is Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature and Librarian at New Saint Andrews College. He has written many books on theology, the Bible, and literature. His dissertation on baptism will soon be published.

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