The Nature of Baptism:
In Matthew 3:11, we find the nature of John’s baptism qualitatively distinct from that of the baptism Christians now receive. The water with which John baptizes is for repentance, that is, it is a preparatory rite for the One who is to come, namely, Christ, as well as the kingdom he inaugurates. Here John is telling those who have gathered to him that baptism, in the current dispensation, is mainly to prepare the hearts of worshippers to receive the full blessings to come in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
But John knows and expects that, unlike him, the Messiah who comes after will baptize with “Spirit and fire” – which is something only Christ can do – in order to bring repentant sinners into the kingdom of God, as it takes on its form through the [catholic] church. There are, of course, many interpretations as to what that might mean, but we know that it cannot mean that water’s substance is therefore made irrelevant, less significant, or even merely symbolic. Reading it in context, “Spirit and fire,” within this passage, speaks to the consecration of baptismal waters, not its dismissal, so as to give it new meaning and purpose. How do we know this?
The Effect and Command of Baptism:
We read further. In vv.13-17, we see that Jesus subjected himself to baptism. Thus, Christ’s submersion beneath the waters is the very act of its consecration for future believers. It reveals through the direction of Christ’s humanity to Christ’s divinity that the Spirit and grace of God are mediated to repentant sinners through baptism, that is, for the forgiveness of sins, by which they are joined to Christ’s life and thereby the communion of saints. To put it differently, baptism is the initial rite [after which comes the Lord’s Supper] through which we not only obtain forgiveness of sins but also become members of the church-community itself, and thus to Christ himself.
And for those who have received Christ in faith, the command to become baptized primarily comes by way of Christ’s own example. The early church fathers and Reformers took this very seriously. Christ is demonstrating that for those who would be his disciples they too must become baptized because their Lord and Master was also baptized. Christ did not dismiss it, nor did he consider himself above it. Because the sinless Savior saw it fit that he should be baptized with water, how much more so for mere sinful mortals who would follow after him?
The Meaning of Baptism:
So, baptism is no longer a rite of repentance per se, since God’s kingdom has now come in Christ. We discussed before how Christ consecrates baptismal waters. Its signification, on the other hand, is brought about through Christ’s death and resurrection. That is, baptism illustrates through dramatization the deeper spiritual realities of what Christ has already accomplished for us on the cross. In obedience to the Father, Christ humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross, for the sake of our salvation [Philippians 2:8], and then on the third day he rose again, conquering sin and death forever. The benefits we receive through this are unmerited, for they are freely given to and received by those who profess faith in him. Therefore, baptism is not a human accomplishment. It is not something we achieve for ourselves.
This leads me to the caveat of my pastoral concern. A lot of today’s Christians think that if I can reach a certain level of spiritual maturity, and demonstrate that maturity through my manner of speech or outward acts of service, then I know I’ll be ready for baptism. But this is categorically false, since it is not what the baptism of Christ is about. This mindset is premised on law, as opposed to the life-giving grace and freedom of the gospel. Covenantal baptism is first and foremost about the promise of God for sinners, and how it is secured and obtained only through what Christ has done. Baptism is divine gift.
Which is why baptism, having been reconstituted through Christ, portrays sinners dying to themselves by being submerged beneath the waters. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” [Romans 6:1-3]. Thus, we die a death like his in denying a life of sin, to which we are then raised to a new life like his. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” [2 Corinthians 5:17].
In short, Christ consecrates, recreates, and commands baptism; Christ mediates the promise of God’s covenantal grace to believers through baptism, in and through which they are joined to him and the church-community; and baptism is the dramatic, embodied declaration of God’s invisible grace at work within believers as they die and rise again with Christ.
That is why I hesitate to say “he/she is ‘ready’ to be baptized” because that insinuates that that person has accomplished a spiritual status for him or herself, and thus reduces baptism to a hollow, grandiose gesture of how good I am as opposed to how good and gracious God is. No one is ever “ready” to be baptized, insofar as our understanding of readiness means how much I know, how much I’ve accomplished, how moral I am, etc. The only readiness there is is the one where sinners have genuinely experienced the grace of God’s word in Christ. Read Acts 2:41. As soon as the apostle Peter finished preaching God’s word at Pentecost, those who encountered the grace of Christ were immediately baptized. Or, perhaps take a look at Acts 8:36-38, where the Ethiopian eunuch is struggling to understand the mysteries of God, veiled in the prophetic writings of Isaiah. God charges Philip to preach the good news, and the eunuch responds, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” The response is always initiated by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Many of my current students at the Calvary Baptist Church of New Haven have this dangerous notion that they have to be more than what they are – spiritually and otherwise – in order to become baptized. But apart from trying to convey why baptism is significant for believers, I want them to understand that baptism is about entrusting ourselves to Christ because he has shown himself to be faithful first. He alone is worthy of all our lives. So, we die to sin and are resurrected to the newness of life in imitating the patterns of Christ through the divine gift of baptism.
This is why it is improper/inappropriate to manipulate/coerce people who have not experienced – or, have not received the assurance of – God’s grace in their lives towards baptism, since this is something only God and God alone can do. With that said, Christian forerunners and spiritual advisors ought to help believers discern whether they should be baptized, and appropriately and gently encourage them to do so, especially when the church-community finds that they are unnecessarily delaying it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 210-211.
See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 4.15.1-6.