In the previous post, I demonstrated that a primarily symbolic understanding of baptism is simply not biblical. When the New Testament talks about baptism, in most instances it refers to the concrete act. Even when it talked about it symbolically or metaphorically, immersion in water was still implied or indirectly referenced. Since the notion that baptism only has symbolic value is not really biblical, the Protestant doctrine that led to the symbolic interpretation needs to be critically re-evaluated.
Protestants draw a sharp distinction between faith and works. In their view baptism falls on the wrong side of the dichotomy therefore, it can only be a symbolic representation of faith. The trouble with this dichotomy is that it is demonstrably false. While they think of faith as something primarily internal and personal, having nothing to do with external activity, recent research on faith in the New Testament has moved in the opposite direction in what Dr Matthew Bates has described as an “external-relational shift”. This means instead of faith being primarily about believing the right things, faith in the world of New Testament was primarily about public displays of loyalty and trust. For them it was not just about intellectual assent to a set of correct theological propositions. From their perspective, real faith was not what you thought or felt but what you did. So instead of faith and works being antithetical to one another, what constituted faith, certainly what made it complete, was action.
The synergy between faith and works is perfectly represented in the Epistle of James where he said, “I will show you my faith by my works” along with the famous line, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:18, 22, 26.) This understanding of faith as a commitment to action in allegiance to someone is also present in Paul when he speaks about “the obedience of faith” since obedience implies action (Romans 1:5.) As Matthew Bates explained in his excellent 2017 book “Salvation by Allegiance Alone”, the main idea behind Christian faith was allegiance, which meant embodied acts of loyalty to the Lord Jesus. This is not to say there wasn’t a mental aspect to it but what mattered most was enacting professed loyalty.
Now if action constitutes a fundamental aspect of faith according to the New Testament, then certainly the act of baptism is intrinsic to Christian faith. Indeed, it is the principal step in fulfilling “the obedience of faith” since it is portrayed as the right initial response to the preaching of the gospel. Baptism was an initiation rite. It was how a person became a convert, that is a member of Christ’s body. Once we recognize that faith meant public acts of fidelity and not merely private belief, it makes sense that the baptism was the principal act that properly constituted faith in Jesus.The great New Testament F.F. Bruce once observed that,
Faith in Christ and baptism were, indeed, not so much two distinct experiences as parts of one whole.
In the ending of Mark, Jesus himself said “whoever believes and is baptised will be saved”. Not only does the Lord explicitly relate faith and baptism, naming them as equally necessary for salvation, the contrasting statement he then makes that “whoever does not believe will be condemned” suggests that baptism is part and parcel of what it means to believe in the gospel (Mark 16:15-16.) The baptismal act made faith in Christ a concrete reality instead of being just an abstract belief. Another example that baptism was integral to faith is found in Acts.
And after [Lydia] was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:15 ESV)
The interesting thing is Lydia had just become a Christian so it would seem she had done nothing to demonstrate her faithfulness. Now the word translated as “faithfulness” is actually the same word ordinarily translated elsewhere as “faith” or “belief” i.e. the pistis word group in New Testament Greek. Once we recognise that faith fundamentally meant public acts of fidelity, we quickly surmise that it was her baptism that demonstrated to Paul and his companions her faithfulness to the Lord. Therefore, baptism was considered a person’s pledge of allegiance to the Lord Jesus.
Jesus himself said in Matthew 28:18-20, in order to become his disciple, you first have to be baptised in his name. This is because being baptised “in his name” was how a person willingly gave themselves into their Master’s possession. So when Paul complained about the divisions among the Corinthians, he argued they belonged not to Cephas, Apollos or himself but to Jesus because they were baptised in his name and not theirs (1 Corinthians 1:10-17.) On this, the late great New Testament scholar, James D.G. Dunn, wrote,
[B]aptism into the name clearly means ‘to baptize into allegiance to the person named’ and indicates that baptism in the name of Christ is the formal act wherein and whereby the baptisand gives himself to Christ… We need not press the actual phrase: what is important is the idea it conveys—of a change of ownership. Baptism is such a transaction, where the baptisand formally gives himself into the hands of a new Master… Baptism we have seen to be the means of commitment to Christ’s lordship so as to belong to him.
Baptism was how a person came to belong to Christ, such that they gained a new identity as Christ’s. This is literally what it means to be a Christian, that is someone who belongs to Christ. This change in belonging and identity is part of the background of baptism. It originally began in the Second Temple period as an initiation rite for Gentiles who wanted to become Jews, a process known as being “born again”. Jesus famously uses the same language regarding baptism in his conversation with the Jewish teacher Nicodemus in John 3. However, the difference with the Christian version of baptism as an initiation rite was that it was for both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48, 11:15-17.) It was how they gained a new identity as full-fledged members of the Church of God in Christ Jesus (see Matthew 28:18-20, John 3:3-5, 1 Corinthians 1:12-13, 12:12-13, Ephesians 4:5.) Paul perfectly captures the idea that baptism is the foundational conversion event in the following passage,
…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28 ESV, italics mine)
In the above passage, we see Paul thinking of faith and baptism simultaneously when it came to Christian identity. We can even say that to him baptism was integral to having faith. The single event all believers had in common was the public act of baptism. It was what initiated a person into the church. So a person could not be identified as a fellow believer apart from baptism. Indeed, faith was not something a person had in private but rather a thing that was held in common with others. So the notion of “private faith” was almost oxymoronic. The faith was certainly not up for private interpretation (Jude 1:3.) As I earlier said, faith meant action. A public gospel therefore required public faith which was properly realised in the public event of baptism.
Now I ought to also mention that repentance, another important idea that is biblically associated with baptism, is also treated much like faith as a primarily psychological event in popular Christian theology. To be sure, it does have a psychological aspect but in the New Testament it was primarily about action much like faith. The baptism of John was described as a “baptism of repentance”. This meant that baptism was actually how a person repented. So without the baptismal act, repentance was not complete. As with faith, baptism was what made a person’s repentance a concrete reality.
Now the relationship between faith and repentance in the New Testament is best represented by the expression “repent and believe.” Leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has pointed out that when the expression is read in historical context, repentance meant changing allegiances and belief meant showing loyalty. Therefore, “repent and believe” meant “join my side and prove your loyalty to the cause.” Similarly for followers of Jesus, faith and repentance required embodied action which was fully birthed at baptism. This means baptism was not merely symbolic but integral to both as concrete acts.
One of the strongest pieces of evidence for baptism’s tangible value in Scripture is Paul’s comments on some people in the Corinthian assemblies who were baptised on the behalf of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29.) If the ritual was considered to have only symbolic value and no merit, it would make no sense why they went to such an extreme. The reason why they acted in such a peculiar manner was because they believed the concrete act did truly accomplish something tangible, regardless of whether it was appropriate to administer baptism in that manner. Notice that Paul did not actually dispute the fundamental belief in the effectiveness of baptism but rather reaffirmed it.
Baptism was a public concrete act, therefore a real instantiation of faith, and it was done in order to participate in a public concrete event with universal benefits, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah (Luke 12:50, Colossians 2:12.) Simply put, the reason why they baptised on behalf of the dead was because they wanted to ensure their loved ones who had passed away could participate in the resurrection. (Notice that it was not about going to heaven.) They took such drastic measures because the church believed baptism united a person to Christ’s death and consequently united them to his resurrection. In other words, baptism was a means of securing the hope of resurrection. Paul sums up this foundational belief perfectly:
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, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5 ESV)
F.F. Bruce, Romans, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (e-book version), p. 201, IVP, 1985.
 James D.G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, pp. 117-118, The Westminster Press, 1970.
 Craig Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament 2nd edition, p. 255, IVP, 2014.
 Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (e-book version), pp. 355-359, IVP, 1985.