What’s the Big Ordeal @ Baptism?

Many people misunderstand certain churches to teach that one of the practices of the church, baptism, in and of itself is what saves a person.#  “Are you saying that baptism saves a person?” or “Are you saying that a person who dies without baptism isn’t saved?” or “Will there be people in heaven who were never baptized?”# Questions like these are important to ask and answer but the fact that they are asked reflects either poor schooling or poor learning.  A healthy, biblical teaching on baptism will avoid confusion and equip growing Christians in teaching others this important rite of the Church.
Baptism only does what God has said it does and so, if God says baptism does (a) certain thing(s) that statute ought not be altered.  Here are some of the things God says about baptism:
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit,# he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,
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.
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Regardless of how one follows up these verses with one’s interpretation, the verses above do reveal what God says about baptism.  These are the Spirit and the water are united, forgiveness of sins, receiving the Holy Spirit, washing away sins, identification with one’s leader, washing and renewal by the Spirit, death, resurrection, new life, and unity by one baptism.  
The eyes of faith, therefore, see what God says and believe what God says: the Spirit and the water are united by God to communicate the mercies of God to his people by faith and are also united to communicate death for the faithless.  The difficulty here is when one’s systematic idea about salvation comes into contact with the Bible’s own way of speaking.  Salvation, in biblical terms is always predicated either upon faithfulness or faithlessness.  If a person has faith until his dying breath, there is reason to believe he was a man of faith and so baptism communicated life to him.  On the other hand, if a man were to appear all his life to have faith but either renounce his faith along the way or (only known to God) never really have faith, (still) baptism will have communicated something to him—death.  This is the two edged sword of the rite.  Just like the Lord’s Supper (I Cor. 11) gives life to the faithful but death to the unfaithful;  so, too, baptism.#
Baptism, fundamentally, is a mark or a badge of membership into the visible community God has set apart for the work of his kingdom (Matt. 28; Romans 6; Col. 2).  When a person, either of age or an infant, is marked by baptism that one is now a real and authentic member of the visible body of Christ, the visible kingdom of God, the visible church, or whatever other moniker of which one can think (I Cor. 6, 12).  It does not mean, however, that said person will remain faithful to his ordination (and so “go to heaven when he dies”).
In a very simplistic way, the idea is this: 
Q: Is a person a Christian?  
A: Is he baptized?  Then, yes.
While most of us would be more comfortable with saying rather, “Does he have faith?” that is really on one side of the coin.  Ultimately, as this essay will argue the position, it depends upon what God says about the person and not what the person says about God.  Think of this in terms of an infant.  There is no outward display of personal faith (even though the Bible speaks of infants having such, Psalm 22.9), but this does not matter.  What matters is what God says about his covenant child.  Baptism is baptism.  If it means one thing for an adult, it means the exact same thing for an infant.  To say otherwise is to deconstruct the term and the Bible will not allow this to be done.  
Baptism is also an outward act and sign regardless of whether or not the “reality” to which it points is effected.#  Having said this, baptism does have many “effects” attributed to it.  Here are some: justification, adoption, sanctification, cleansing, forgiveness, regeneration, and repentance (and all of these are done to the recipient by the Spirit and the water [John 3]).  But as stated above, these “effects” are secondary for its meaning.  
The primary meanings of the term however, are two; and, these two, are not very often understood or even well-known.  The primary meanings are sanctification and cleansing.  This idea traces its way back to the Old Covenant and the ritual washings (baptisms) of the priest and leper. # For the priest baptism was a sanctifying washing making him ready to do the work of a servant in Yahweh’s house.  For the leper, it was both a cleansing and a re-admittance to the worship of the kingdom.  In the Old Covenant, it was in circumcision that both of these ideas existed when God gave the sign to Abraham.#  There were four “horns” that God required the priest to have “circumcised” when he was ordained to the ministry: his right big toe, his right thumb, and his right ear.#  “But that’s only three,” one might respond.  Yes, that’s because the first “horn” that was circumcised at birth was the penis.  Circumcision, then, was first and foremost a sanctifying ordination rite (the nation as a whole was a “priestly kingdom” in God’s land for the nations); secondly, it was a spiritual picture of the need of cleansing from the death of sin.  Circumcision, then, was ordination to service to Yahweh.  This is baptism’s first meaning.
The more debated theological meanings of baptism are the difficult issues and for the serious theologian, these are the ones that take precedence over the primary meaning.  Were it not for systematic theology, we wouldn’t have a clear understanding of many of the ins and outs of what the Bible teaches but systematic theology is only helpful as far as it goes.  Where it becomes less helpful is when it takes what it does well and makes it the end- all-be-all. 
This is when systematic theology tries to rule over biblical theology.  Biblical theology is, first of all, what God says about what God does.  It is his way of “saying and doing” as we find it recorded in the Bible.  Systematic theology takes Biblical theology (what God says and does) and dissects it for better or worse.  So, for instance, baptism in the New Covenant is only ever seen as being applied to mature people or adults who professed the true religion.  Systematically, one could draw from this that only adults are to be baptized and that with a confession of repentance toward Christ.  Biblically speaking, though, the Old Covenant application of the covenant sign to the infant of believing parents overrides this and proves that baptism is for infants as well.  Baptised infants, then, are ordained to serve in God’s kingdom just as are adults.#
Systematic theology is also helpful in understanding how salvation works.  Another way to say “how salvation works” is “how a person is taken from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.”  Note, however, what was not said.  Salvation is first of all about one’s right standing before God, not about going to heaven when one dies.#  Unfortunately, while ST has rightly focused on how God saves a sinner, it makes that focus too narrow.  
Rightly understood, then, salvation and seeing it to its fruition is all a work of God and those who persevere to the end do so because God has preserved them from apostasy.  Those in whom God works in such a way are called elect, chosen, the church, the body, believers, disciples, and children of God.  Biblically speaking, however, those who are baptized and do not persevere also have these attributed to them.  The book of Hebrews is key in understanding all of this. According to Hebrews, true believers can and do fall away from God’s grace and the book is one serious call for all those who believe not to imitate unbelieving Israel.
How can this be?  How can it be true that true believers will persevere by God’s grace and that true believers can and do finally reject the King that saved them?  One of the simplest ways to answer this is the Bible never uses the term true to refer to believers.  This is a construct of the discipline of systematic theology.
To sum up, then, the real culprit is the tension created by trying to make one’s theological constructs override the Bible’s own story.  The Bible does not ask the question, “Was she a true Christian?”  The Bible’s presumption is baptism = the grace of God’s gift of the Spirit so that the Bible would ask is question. “Did the person appropriate the gift God gave with a life of faith, hope, and love?”  Think of the myriads of priest, kings, and regular “Joes” in the Bible who abuse the grace of God to their demise.
While the first meaning is ordination, the second is cleansing.  The theology of the Old Covenant teaches that all babies are born under the curse and consequence of Adam’s sin: In Adam’s fall, sinned we all.  Genesis 5 goes to great pains to spell this out.  Every son of Adam, born in his likeness, dies (save one!).  The point is clear: death spread to all men because all sinned (in Adam).  
God takes great pains to spell this out in his Levitical laws when he addresses the event of childbirth.  Yahweh had already revealed what it meant to be allowed into his presence: one had to be clean.  This begs the question, From what must one be cleansed?  One must be cleansed from the corruption and consequence of sin.#  That is the point of the unclean laws.  They were given, not to reveal which animals were good or which foods were bad.  No.  They were given to demonstrate that everything about humanity was unclean.  God simply used physical pictures to make his point.
Understanding this one minute concept will carry a person miles into understanding the Bible’s anthropology.  Imagine this.  Imagine, God had simply designed a person’s own personal sin-tone (or ring-tone) so that whenever he actually committed a sin in thought, word, or deed, he would know it (brrrrrrrrring!  brrrrrrrrrrring!  “DOH!!”).  Apply this idea to the clean and unclean laws.  
Now remember, it’s not the act itself [eating pork] which is wrong even though God said not to eat certain foods [like the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to demonstrate what disobedience looks like]; rather, the point to be made by giving unclean laws is this: everything about man is corrupt and an abhorrence in God’s sight and death spreads to all.  The laws that God gave to demonstrate this were more issues of obedience rather than anything else.  The question then would look like this, “Will you obey me (even if my request makes no sense to you)?”
Whatever God labeled as unclean  made one unclean symbolically, so that, whenever one carried out said prohibition (brrrrrrrrring!  brrrrrrrrrrring!), one was now symbolically unclean and unacceptable to God.  Consequently, that one then had to be re-presented# to God as having been made clean again (much like our leper above) in the sacrifices.
For instance, think of a lobster or a pig.  Unclean right?  Yes, but only symbolically because as St. Mark understood Jesus to teach, now all foods are clean!!  God might well have prohibited chocolate if he wanted.  Or kissing one’s wife or child, or perhaps even eating from a tree of some sort.#  These prohibitions were God’s ring-tones of uncleanness.  God was tutoring his people in understanding what they were deep down inside in and of themselves: unclean.  This implies then, that whatever comes out of a man (whether good or evil) is in and of itself unacceptable to God unless it is symbolically removed (whatever is evil) and made clean (even a good deed).#
This brings the point back to childbirth.  I suppose I could have made this argument shorter by simply saying, “We all know that babies are born under the curse of sin because babies die.”  That point would have been valid, but not quite sufficient.  Reproducing human life is a blessing and it is a good thing.  God, however, saw fit to use this good and natural and ordained event to prove, too, that all that man produces is death—or that which is unclean.  The unclean laws regarding infants prove that babies are born under the curse of sin and death and are therefore (before being “cleansed”) by nature children of wrath just as the rest.  Whatever, therefore, is unclean is unacceptable to God must be made clean before it can be called acceptable.  This is what circumcision did for the male child and the days of purification (!) for the female.  And this is precisely what baptism “does.”#
In baptism, God says at least two things and these two things are primary.  First, God says, Your child is dead in sins and thereby under my wrath due for sin.  Imagine if he had left it there!  In Adam’s fall, sinned we all. Where does one go from there?  One proceeds to the rite.  Secondly, in and with and by the waters God symbolically makes that which is by nature unclean, clean.  From waters above, God cleanses in love.  This is why the rite is both an act and a sign.  As an act it serves as the ceremony of transfer.  It is God alone who delivers from the kingdom of darkness by transferring to the kingdom of his dear son.#  
Secondly, baptism demonstrates God’s appointing his Spirit as a gift to the recipient for the work of the kingdom.
Baptism, then, does something and the only thing(s) it does is what God has said it does.  Baptism is the symbolic ritual God uses to remind his people that they have a great need and that he has provided a great solution for that need and that procuring that solution is done by a life of faith, hope, and love all begun in baptism.
For whom then is baptism a sign?  It is a sign for both God and his people.  It remains a sign for God for all the life of the child like a perpetual rainbow shining off the brow declaring, “This one is mine!”  It is a sign unto his people, one which they cannot perpetually “see” but one that nonetheless still speaks.  What it says is this:  What God has made clean, do not call common.

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