What is Christian Baptism?

The man who once denied Christ three times, Peter the apostle, teaches about Christian baptism at 1 Peter 3:20, 21. He first refers to the Great Flood in the days of Noah. "Eight souls were saved through water", he writes. He continues with these words:

"There is also an antitype which now saves us - baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ..."

Is Peter teaching that the Christian sacrament of baptism with water in the name of the blessed Trinity saves souls in a way that is sort of automatic? That is, does the sacrament - in and of itself - communicate saving grace to the person baptized?

It is the understanding of this writer that the Roman Church answers YES, while we who are called Protestants answer NO.

This brief introductory argument in support of the Protestant position will proceed from the general to the specific.

The general aspect of our argument deals with mankind's ULTIMATE AUTHORITY. This was the central issue in the spiritual battle that erupted in Eden. The Fall of Man in that battle resulted in untold misery and sorrow - ultimately, it brought forth ALL human misery and sorrow. God told our first parents not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or they would die. Satan replaced God's word with a subsitute authority. "Has God said this?", he questioned. "You will NOT die!", he lied (Genesis 3:1-5).

Satan's temptation was accompanied by a deceitful kind of false wisdom that made disobedience to God's word appear attractive - as if it were the way of truth and goodness. (Consider Genesis 3:6 with James 3:15)

This battle over baptism is fought in the same spiritual arena, so to speak, in which Eden's battle was fought: what is mankind's ULTIMATE AUTHORITY? This paper was occasioned when its author listened to, and publically challenged the magisterial instruction given during a Roman baptism. The administrator of the sacrament answered the challenge by an appeal to extra-Biblical authority. He did not deny, but even affirmed vigorously that his position was based on Tradition, not Scripture!

(The term TRADITION is used stipulatively here; it refers to ancient religious writings which neither Romanists nor Protestants recognize as part of the Bible.)

Hence, as in Eden, another authority has been introduced. Not surprisingly, the instruction of Tradition can SEEM attractive, wise, and good. Yet, to regard the word of another - the human "Tradition" writer(s) - as on a par with the word of God Himself is really to despise the word of God. That can only result in misery and sorrow, as it did in the primeval Garden.

The specific dimension of our argument depends upon the general. We must allow God's word and ONLY God's word to be the basis for what we believe about God's sacrament of baptism. If Tradition conflicts with Scripture, Tradition is in error and the temptation to believe and act upon it is to be rejected!

Some modern Evangelicals assert that only converts of a responsible age (?) are candidates for baptism. However, it stands in Scripture that baptism is the Divinely instituted New Covenant sign that replaces God's Old Covenant sign of circumcision. Hence, believers and their children are to be baptized, (Matthew 28:19,20; Acts 2:38,39; Acts 16:15; 1 Corinthians 1:16)

Also according to the apostolic teaching and example found in the Bible, baptism is to be administered with water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, usually by pouring or sprinkling the water.

Because it fulfills these Biblical requirements, Protestants have historically regarded Roman baptism as valid, although the two religious realms diverge so widely otherwise. The great contrast in that divergence appears as we come to the heart of this debate. What does baptism mean? What are its effects?

Protestants affirm that God's sovereign grace ALONE, working through faith, saves human beings, all of us being born sinners, justly under God's wrath. (See, for example, Romans 3:21-26.) Water baptism in the name of the blessed Trinity is the outward sign of an inward reality. It is a sign and seal of God's own saving work.

With Peter's statements quoted at the outset, we must take other, interlimiting statements found in Scripture. That is, we need to consider the whole counsel of God on the matter. Paul the apostle wrote -

"For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect." (1 Corinthians 1:17)

This powerful statement shows where the apostolic emphasis was. As Paul wrote in Romans 1:16, it is the GOSPEL which is the power of God unto salvation, not baptism! This is not to make water baptism is insignificant. It IS very significant; it is God's own appointed sign and seal. Nevertheless, it is secondary to the proclamation of the word of the Gospel, the power of God to salvation.

In the example of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), Philip told the man he could be baptized with water IF he believed. In Philip's mind, was it water baptism which regenerates a sinner? Why then did Philip not first baptize the man, and afterwards explain the Gospel to the man's renewed mind? The Bible gives an answer -

"So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)

Let us revisit the apostolic teaching at 1 Peter 3:20, 21 in light of these Biblical considerations (there are others that could be brought forth, in a more exhaustive treatment). The intent of Peter's statement that "baptism now saves" is now seen more clearly. As Peter plainly writes, baptism is the "answer of a good conscience...through the resurrection of Jesus Christ".

Speaking of the Holy Savior, Paul the apostle wrote -

"...Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification." (Romans 4:25)

Christ's resurrection, after He had made an offering of His body once for all (Hebrews10:10), is the basis of the Christian's clear conscience! Water baptism is God's sign and seal of a Christian's union with Christ, and his participation in the benefits of the salvation which Christ procured by His sinless life, vicarious death, and justifying resurrection.

Peter, writing under the Holy Spirit's inspiration, regards the Flood waters that saved Noah and his family as a TYPE (a foreshadowing pattern) of Christian water baptism. It was not the Flood waters operating "automatically" that saved eight souls by floating the ark above destruction. It was the grace of God (see Genesis 6:8) which saved Noah and his family! So it is with Peter's ANTITYPE (that toward which the TYPE points), Christian water baptism itself.

Christian baptism is not a watery ritual which saves automatically. The grace of God in Christ alone saves! Adult converts should be baptized. The infant child of a Christian parent should be baptized, and the children of those children to perpetual generations, IF the faith is kept among them. Apart from genuine Christian faith, baptism is an empty ceremony. It is Divine grace alone, working through that faith, which brings salvation (Ephesians 2:8,9; Titus 3:4-7).

Pastor Keith Graham, January 1998
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