The Saving Power of Baptism
Over the course of this series, I have argued in various ways that baptism does not merely have symbolic value but that it actually does something significant. One of the critical things that baptism accomplishes according to the New Testament is salvation (Mark 16:16, 1 Peter 3:21, Acts 2:37-41.) Those who accept the Protestant doctrine of salvation through faith alone and not by any works find this difficult to accept. But as I explained in a previous post, if we understand faith to mean relational fidelity and enacted allegiance, as contemporary New Testament research suggests, then baptism is actually repositioned as integral to faith.
The pattern in the New Testament is clear, if you believed you were baptised. Baptism was what made faith in Christ a tangible reality instead of just a theoretical belief. This is because baptism was how a person pledged allegiance to Jesus as their Lord. To borrow a phrase from Dr Matthew Bates, if we are saved by allegiance alone, that allegiance is embodied by baptism, which formally initiates the relationship of mutual fidelity between the Lord and those who willingly submit to him. In other words, within the historical context of the New Testament, faith actually meant relational allegiance, therefore baptism was essential for salvation since it initiated the relationship of enacted allegiance to the Lord Jesus.
The type of relationship baptism initiates is one of union with Christ. I had previously written many posts explaining the nature of this union. The difference is that I now recognise that baptism and the Spirit are not two separate markers of union but one holistic phenomenon that initiates the believer’s union with Christ. Now the believer is united to Christ through allegiant faith but that faith is instantiated through baptism. Paul remarks on the union through faith saying,
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 ESV)
The apostle then goes on to say how that union is concretely realised through baptism.
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27)
So in the old Protestant paradigm, a person simply had to believe in the “finished work of the cross” to be saved. However, in the allegiance model of faith, the act of baptism is actually how a person believes. As Jesus himself said, those who believe and are baptised will be saved. Now in the New Testament, the basis of the believer’s salvation was union with Christ, a union that existed through baptism, which functioned as an enacted pledge of allegiance to Jesus as Lord. In order to understand why baptism in particular is the divinely ordained means to receive salvation in Christ, we need to first understand the need for salvation.
Salvation is necessary in order to escape divine condemnation due to sin. Sin here does not only mean sinful acts but the power of sin and its consequences as well, which include death and eternal judgement. So the purpose of the cross is to resolve the problem of sin in its entirety, a function that we will refer to as atonement. Therefore, for the purposes of this discussion, atonement will serve as an umbrella term for any phenomenon that ultimately results in salvation from sin, which includes purification, forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, justification and others. Now the problem with the various theories of atonement is that they are all about the cross, forgetting that the resurrection is just as crucial. Paul puts it this way:
[Jesus] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Romans 4:25 ESV)
Elsewhere he says,
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:17 ESV)
The Epistle to the Hebrews goes into further detail regarding how the risen Christ completed universal atonement by offering his own blood in the heavenly temple as God’s eternal high priest (see Hebrews 1:3, 3:1, 9:11-15, 22-28.) So simply put, the atonement is not complete without Christ’s resurrection. Not only did Christ die for all, he was raised for all. So participation in Christ’s resurrection, and not just his death, is the only means to be saved from the power of sin and death. As Paul earlier said, if Christ were not raised, then we would still be dead in our sins. Now when a person is baptised, they partake in both the Messiah’s death and resurrection, thereby fully receiving the atonement fully provided by the risen Lord Jesus.
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)
In Romans 8:1-17 Paul makes it clear that the resurrection-life he spoke about in chapter 6 comes from the Spirit. In the New Testament, the Spirit was actually invoked at baptism as the final stage in the process after immersion in water (Acts 19:1-6.) As Paul explained in Romans 6, the act of immersion was how a person participated in Christ’s death but we can infer from Romans 8 that the baptismal invocation of the Spirit was how a person participated in Christ’s resurrection-life. Again, it is both Christ’s death and resurrection that provides atonement. Therefore, the way a person receives atonement is through baptismal union with his death and resurrection. The atoning effect of baptism is perfectly captured in the following passage from Paul,
And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11 ESV)
Since Paul refers to baptism multiple times throughout the epistle, it strongly suggests that when he said they were “washed” he had baptism in mind. Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 12:13 he intimately associates baptism with the experience of the Spirit, which further suggests that the reference to the Spirit in 6:11, along with the mention of washing, was a reference to baptism. So basically, a sinner is sanctified by baptismal washing and justified by the gift of the Spirit who is given at baptism.
It is important to carefully delineate the place of baptism in salvation. While it is evident that it is essential for salvation, salvation does not ultimately depend on the baptismal act itself. It ultimately depends on Christ’s finished accomplishment, that is the atoning power of his death and resurrection-life. The atonement is characterised as a gift from God (Romans 4:6-9, 5:17 2 Corinthians 5:21.) Like with any gift, for the gift to be of any use, it has be received once it has been offered. Similarly the gift of atonement has to be received to come into effect (Romans 3:25.) (The theological term for this is appropriation.) Baptism is the means authorised by the Lord Jesus himself to receive the gift of justification, which is available to all those who believe in him. In other words, since atonement is necessary for a sinner to be saved, baptism is how a sinner receives the gift of salvation in Christ.
The baptismal act is the means by which a person receives the forgiveness of sins that is made available to all people through Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. Now it is no accident that baptism, of all rituals, is the Christ ordained means for appropriating forgiveness. First of all, we must recall that the fundamental purpose of baptism in the New Testament was for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:5, Luke 3:3, Acts 2:38.) It therefore makes sense that a purification ritual is the way to personally appropriate the ultimate act of atonement, since both purification and atonement are actions taken to resolve the problem of sin. Now there is much more that can be said about the power of baptism. However, if someone does want to have a deeper understanding of the ritual logic of baptism, particularly why it is the divinely ordained means of forgiveness and repentance in the New Testament, you have to understand the ministry of John the Baptist and its deep influence on the Jesus movement.
In summary, salvation from sin and judgment is the result of the atoning power of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Through baptism, the believe is united to Christ’s atoning death and resurrection-life, gaining full access to the salvation that is in the Lord Jesus alone. Baptism therefore embodies full trust in the saving power of Christ since through the act the believer willingly pledges full loyal submission to Christ as Lord. Simply put, baptism in Christ’s name is absolutely necessary for salvation.