The Covenant of Baptism
In the previous post, I talked about the more neglected elements of the baptismal process in the New Testament. I talked about the confession of faith that started the initiation rite and the invocation of the Spirit by the laying of hands which concluded the rite. By focusing on these elements and their significance, I came to the perspective that baptism in the New Testament functioned as an enacted oath of allegiance where both parties exchanged pledges of fidelity to one another. Now in this post, instead of focusing on the different components of the process, I will be looking at baptism as a whole and the type of relationship it sets up.
So far, the through line in this series has been the relationship between faith and baptism. I have discovered that since understanding that baptism was presented in the New Testament as the initial instantiation of faith, a better understanding of faith results in a better understanding of baptism and why it was so significant. For example, in my last post I argued that if faith is relational as Teresa Morgan’s work indicates and it is about enacted fidelity as Matthew Bates’ work suggests, then so is baptism since in the New Testament it was how faith was made real and not just a theoretical belief.
Now Morgan points out that faith in the Greco-Roman world to which the New Testament belonged had a wide range of meanings which tended to be relational. These include “assurance”, “bond of trust”, “guarantee”, “pledge” or even “covenant”. Now we have seen how these meanings were actively displayed in the baptismal act, particularly in the confession of Jesus’ Lordship, which was a pledge of allegiance to him, and in the gift of the Spirit, who was specifically described as the Lord’s “pledge” or “guarantee” (Acts 22:16, Philippians 2:10-11, 2 Corinthians 1:20-212 Ephesians 1:13-14.) Now the specific meaning of faith that Morgan points out, that is faith as a “covenant” or a covenantal relationship, is also relevant to baptism, just like the other meanings of faith that we just saw on display in baptism.
We have already established that faith in the New Testament was relational therefore, it must be grounded in an actual relationship. New Testament scholar Nijay K. Gupta in his 2020 book, Paul and the Language of Faith, argued that Greek speaking Jews in the diaspora, including the authors of the New Testament such as Paul, often talked about covenant using faith language. In other words, while faith and covenant are not identical, in certain contexts faith certainly did have a covenantal meaning. This observation is not surprising when you consider Morgan’s work which shows that faith was about relationships of mutual fidelity, which is the foundational notion underlying any covenant. When we step-back and look at New Testament theology overall, faith was certainly covenantal.
With the covenantal nature of faith in mind, when I talk about baptism being the means by which faith was concretely realised, I am specifically referring to baptism being how a person enters the new covenant. So the new covenant is the concrete form the faith-relation in Christ takes and baptism is the concrete means by which a person participates in that covenantal relationship. So baptism qualifies a person as a believer not just in some symbolic or private sense. It is a how a person comes into union with Christ as a member of his body. This is why in the New Testament Christ’s Spirit was invoked on the new believer at baptism since possessing his Spirit meant you belonged to him (Acts 2:38, 19:1-7, Romans 8:9, 1 Corinthians 12:13.)
Now the covenantal nature of baptism is due to what it accomplishes. The baptismal rite is how a person participates in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3-4, Colossians 2:11-12.) Now it is very clear in the New Testament that these events are what forms the prophesied new covenant between God and man (Luke 22:17-20, 1 Timothy 2:5-6, Hebrews 8:6-13, 9:11-15, 12:24.) Jesus personally mediates the new covenant because it is based on the sacrifice of his own life. Therefore, to participate in the new covenant, a person had to be in union with Christ, a union that was accomplished through rite of immersion. Therefore, baptism was how a person participated in the new covenant in Christ.
Now there is an even more explicit connection between covenant and the baptismal rite in the New Testament. In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul directly compares baptism to circumcision. Since it is through baptism that the believer participates in Christ’s death, Paul describes being “buried with him in baptism” as a “circumcision made without hands, by putting of the body of flesh”. Furthermore, he specifically refers to baptism as the “circumcision of Christ.” Circumcision was how males became a member of God’s covenant people (Genesis 17:10-14.) It was in a sense your membership badge as a full-fledged participant in the covenant community. It is therefore not surprising that Paul compared baptism to circumcision since both were initiation rites. While circumcision was a requirement for the old covenant, baptism was the requirement for the new, even if you were already circumcised. As with circumcision, through baptism a person laid aside their old identity and gained a new one as a member of a new covenant people.
Apart from being scriptural, one of the reasons why I resonate with a covenantal outlook on baptism is that it naturally lends itself to contractual metaphors and analogies, which are very helpful in explaining why baptism matters so much and it is not just a symbolic act. When people work out a contract, even though both parties have already decided to work with one another, signing the contract formally starts the partnership and legally guarantees each party will be held responsible for their contractual obligations to one another. Now the contract in this scenario is the new covenant between God and man mediated by the risen Christ.
For any ordinary contract, all the parties involved have to sign it for it to formally come into effect. Their signatures serving as a pledge they will both fulfil their respective ends of the agreement. Baptism is the functional the equivalent of signing on the dotted line but in this case the contract is the new covenant in Christ. Now the believer’s “signature” was their body, which they pledged in allegiance to the Lord Jesus by being immersed in water in his name. Now Christ, the other party in the divine contract, signature was the gift of his Spirit, who is described in the New Testament as his “pledge” and “seal” (2 Corinthians 1:20-22, Ephesians 1:13-14.) The seal metaphor is especially pertinent because a seal was basically the ancient form of a signature. So just like with any contractual relationship, in the baptismal act both parties, Christ and the believer, pledge to faithfully fulfil their obligations to one another.
So in summary, just as the marital union cannot exist without the marital contract, the believer’s union with Christ cannot exist without baptism. This is because baptism is how a person enters the new covenantal relationship with God mediated through Jesus the Messiah. Since baptism inaugurated the believer’s union with Christ, guaranteeing all the benefits of the union to the faithful, it was absolutely non-negotiable in the New Testament era and even afterwards. They did it because they believed the Lord Jesus himself commanded it, not merely as a symbolic act as popular Protestant theology would suggest but rather as an enacted oath of allegiance to him, while he pledges fidelity to the believer through the gift of his Spirit.
 Teresa Morgan, Roman Faith and Christian Faith, pp. 352, 395, Oxford University Press, 2015.