The Value of Baptism

Baptism has an interesting place in Pentecostal theology. Baptism in the Spirit is perhaps the signature belief of Pentecostal Christianity. They believe that it is practically essential for the full Christian life and a fully empowered church. Now water baptism, on the other hand, has nowhere near the importance of its spiritual counterpart. In comparison it is almost an afterthought. While water baptism is regarded as something that ought to be done, in effect it is ultimately regarded as optional. This is because in Pentecostal theology if a person does not get baptised, they do not really lose anything, at least not anything necessary for salvation. Pentecostals consider baptism as important in the beginning for what it represents but beyond that it is not really significant at all.

It seems to me the core reason for baptism’s lack of importance stems from the Protestant belief inherited by Pentecostals that it plays no role in salvation. In Protestantism, salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone and not by human works (Ephesians 2:8-9.) Only God has the power to save and we cannot save ourselves by virtue of our strength or merit. Since the baptismal act is performed by people, it qualifies as human effort and therefore cannot save. So while the rite is still required among Protestants and Pentecostals because Jesus himself expressly commanded it, they both interpret it as having only symbolic value. This means the rite in itself does not substantively accomplish anything. At best it is only an external sign of inward faith, which is far more important.

A symbolic understanding of baptism within a faith versus works paradigm raises some questions. Now the most obvious question it raises is why the Lord would even command baptism if it accomplished nothing and held only symbolic value. Another question is whether the Protestant dogma that results in a symbolic interpretation is even the right framework for making sense of baptism. Now the most direct obstacle to a symbolic interpretation is whether the text even warrants a symbolic understanding of the value of baptism. If baptism is not merely symbolic, then it does have a purpose, which is why the Lord commanded it. It also means a dogmatic Protestant lens is not the right way to interpret baptism. (I have argued elsewhere, apart from the specific issue of baptism, why the Protestant view of faith and works is wrong.) Now let’s briefly examine what the New Testament actually says about baptism.

A survey of the New Testament reveals that it foregrounds a literal understanding of baptism. [1]Leading New Testament scholars Thomas J. Schreiner and Douglass K. Moo have pointed out that whenever Paul talked about the act of baptism, he usually had actual immersion in water in mind (Romans 6:3, 1 Corinthians 1:13, 15:29, Galatians 3:27, Ephesians 4:5.) Elsewhere in the New Testament, they also tended to talk about baptism in a literal manner (Matthew 28:19, John 4:1, Acts 22:16, Hebrews 6:2, 1 Peter 3:21.) We can tell in context that they understood baptism literally because they referred to it directly without using symbolic language to discuss what it meant or accomplished. We can therefore be confident that when they talked about the main things baptism was said to accomplish such as saving, cleansing or uniting us to Christ, they really meant that the actual physical act accomplished those things. Simply put, baptism in itself did something and what it did was very significant. On the few occasions that it was used strictly metaphorically, the literal meaning remained fundamental and the symbolic meaning did not overshadow it. Rather, the purpose of the symbolism was to deepen the understanding of what the concrete act actually accomplished.

Now the best case for a symbolic interpretation of baptism is the metaphor Scripture itself uses called “baptism in/with the Spirit”. I have heard some people interpret passages that clearly refer to literal baptism such as Romans 6:3-4 as baptism with the Spirit, arguing that it was even more important than baptism in water therefore, it must have been what Paul was referring to. Even if for the sake of argument that was correct, it assumes a sharp distinction between water baptism and Spirit baptism which, as we shall soon see, is not actually supported by the text.

First of all, when it comes to the expression “baptism in/with the Spirit”, the vehicle of the metaphor was still actual baptism in water. So even when the metaphor was used, it was closely associated with concrete act that it took inspiration from and was universally practiced. So the metaphor itself underscores the strong biblical association between baptism and the Spirit. While Pentecostal theology tends to separate them out, it seems Christians in the New Testament period generally considered water baptism and Spirit baptism as part of the same phenomenon, even if they happened at different times (Acts 2:38, 10:47-48, 19:3-6.) As Jesus himself said, to be born again a person had to be born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5.) So Christ is presented as adopting the baptism of his predecessor John and then adding the new dimension of the experience of the Spirit to it, just as John had predicted, in order to make baptism a complete transformative experience that fully depends on Christ’s person as the risen and exalted Lord (Ezekiel 36:25-27, Mark 1:1-11, Acts 1:4-5.)

In resonance with Jesus’ words in John, Paul sometimes used baptism to refer to the entire conversion experience which included receiving the Spirit (Romans 6:3-4, 8:9, Galatians 3:27.) [2]So Schreiner writes that “…it would never have occurred to Paul that baptism in water could be separated from baptism in the Spirit” (see 1 Corinthians 12:13.) Baptism in the New Testament was actually a holistic experience which, among other things, included the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38.) We will examine the holistic nature of the baptismal experience in upcoming posts in this series.

Part II⇒

[1] Thomas Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (e-book version), p. 633, Baker Academic, 1998.

[2] Ibid., p. 1944.

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