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What is Baptism?

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

The Ritual Unbeknownst to Us:

Pragmatism has marked the fabric of Hmong evangelicalism (and maybe even throughout evangelicalism herself) in such a way as to garner a functional approach to our ecclesial life without containing any true substance to undergird our ministerial approach. Meaning, we engage in the skeletal structure of church-life without truly having any theological nor doctrinal conviction anchoring our cultic practices. The guise of church growth movements, 40 Day Purposes, and cultural/emotional relativism have hijacked our notion of community-life and, as a result, hampered our people’s resemblance of any notion toward biblical worship. We do without knowing. We participate without understanding. We partake without any real awareness of the trajectory to our engagement. We go-with-the-flow of church attendance and, then, wonder why young people “leave” the assembly of saints and turn away from the faith altogether. Was there ever any true conversion and, hence, true understanding of the faith to begin with? Did our sheer practical engagement produce any real veneer of biblical Christianity? Did we baptize and disciple truly and/or faithfully (cf. Matt. 28:18-20)?


The sacraments/ordinances are elements that can easily fall prey to the ritualistic notion of evangelical pragmatism while simultaneously holding a mountain’s worth of Gospel-truth. If held to its mere phenomenological nature, the rouse of, let’s say, baptism can be seen as a “good luck charm”; a ceremonial praxis deemed to provoke the gods of our liking. Yet on the other hand if taken deeper into its covenantal depths, can produce Gospel affections that not only warrant embrace and assurance upon the beholder, but devotion and commitment toward the One who has commissioned such endeavors.


The Markers of Baptism:


Thus, in laying a foundational platform to spring forth from, I hope to assist in the learning toward faithful disciple-making within the local body of Christ. This entails, then, the necessity of definition and its larger implication. Though this article will not suffice to cover the colossal depths that would do honor to such doctrinal pillars (i.e., doctrine of baptism), I hope to produce a fundamental axiom for future laboring of the sort. First things first, baptism can be understood, according to the 1689 Baptist Confession, as “a sign of their fellowship with Him in His death and resurrection, of their being grafted into Him, of remission of sins, and of submitting themselves to God through Jesus Christ to live and walk in newness of life.”[1] In pursuit of articulating what baptism is, there will be two central components to uncover: (1) the believer’s union with Christ and (2) their covenantal inclusion into the people of God.


Covenantal Union with Christ. As believers embrace the act of baptism, not only do they cling to the outward ordinance itself but envelop the very death and resurrection of Christ. Bobby Jamieson supports this notion by saying “[baptism] publicly pictures someone’s union with this death, burial, and resurrection.”[2] This is taken as an outward expression to their inward confession to Christ made through the vehicle of faith (cf. Col. 2:11-12). Thus, baptism—the immersion into water—signifies our union with Him; our union with His death (cf. Rom. 6:3). This death, then, bespeaks of the impotence of sin brought about through the overwhelming reality and power in Christ Jesus. Meaning, the power and dominion of sin no longer has hold over the regenerate believer’s life (cf. Col. 1:13). “We know that our old self,” according to the Apostle Paul, “was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6; italics mine) Hence, baptism signifies the remission of sin through Christ Jesus Himself. It speaks, fundamentally, of the radical nature of conversion.


Nevertheless, death is not the only adherence here but, in addition, His conquering life in and through the resurrection. The apostle notes that death is the necessary requisite to bring about the glorious new life in Christ. “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death,” says Paul, “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” (Rom. 6:4). This newness of life, then, grants us the privilege and (spiritual) ability to pursue righteousness in accords to God’s created intent (cf. Rom. 6:17-18, 22-23; Col. 3:3). Resurrection life, furthermore, is not solely a reality for the “afterlife.” Rather it is a spiritual truism in the already/not yet paradigm in which the church resides. Paul asserts that “if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom. 8:10). The Spirit, which indwells believers in the New Covenant era, empowers the saints to live in accords with God’s command because His Word (and Spirit) abides in them (cf. Ezk. 36:26-27; Jer. 31:31-33; Jn. 14:17; 15:1-11; Rom. 8:1-11; 1 Jn. 5:1-3). Therefore, baptism embodies not only a ceremonial obligation, but a spiritual phenomenon that encompasses our union with Christ.[3]


Covenantal Inclusion into the Body of Christ. Since we have been baptized into Christ, we have also been baptized into His people. Baptism, according to the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, connotes “that it is [a] prerequisite to the privileges of a church relation.”[4] The act itself speaks of one’s commitment to the Lord Jesus and, consequently, their inclusion into the New Covenant people of God.[5] Hence, the necessity and exigency of baptism within the membership role of the church is significant. If the local assembly of saints is expressive of the universal church amid any/all geographical setting, believers who are baptized should seek to unite themselves to a formal/organic gathering.[6] Jamieson rightly concludes,

It is a solemn, symbolic vow that ratifies one’s entrance into the new covenant. In baptism we appeal to God to accept us on the terms of His new covenant (1 Pet. 3:21), and we pledge ourselves to fulfill, by grace, all that His new covenant requires of us (Matt. 28:19). In baptism we own God as our God, and He owns us as His people. In baptism we swear the vow, “Do you take this Jesus to be your Lord and Savior?” “I do.”[7]

The Gospel Made Visible:


In the movie Jerry Maguire, the highly touted draft prospect—Frank “Cush” Cushman—was the prized stallion in the import factory of the NFL. Maguire, who was played by Tom Cruise, worked long and hard to sign the once-in-a-lifetime draftee to a representative deal. In one scene, Cush’s father promises to sign with the ailing sports agent through a sheer shake of the hand. He infamously conveyed, “My word is as strong as oak!” Unfortunately—as the movie goes—Cush signs with Maguire’s former employer, led by Bob Sugar, and leaves him to his middle-of-the-pack prospect Rod Tidwell (“show me the money!”).


In similar fashion, our notion of commitment toward an oath is indicative of what is seen by Mr. Cushman and his mighty grip of an oak. It reminds us that a man’s pledge is only as good as his character. And when dealing with broken and depraved people, there is not much to hang our hat on. Fortunately, baptism is not merely about our human commitment to the covenantal Lord of the universe (though minimally it is that), but rather it conveys His loyalty to Himself and, consequently, His pledge and fulfillment to His people in accomplishing His redemptive decree through the work and Person of Jesus Christ (cf. Eph. 1:9-10). Thus, the ordinance of baptism, as Michael S. Horton articulates, “cannot be treated as human works, much less as attempts to attain righteousness before God.”[8] Rather, it is the sheer surrender that salvation belongs to the Lord and we are here to receive it (cf. Ps. 3:8; 62:1). To this end, John Calvin asserts this trinitarian and soteriological inference upon the beauty of baptism:

For He [Christ] dedicated and sanctified baptism in His own body in order that He might have it in common with us as the firmest possible bond of the union and fellowship which He has deigned to form with us. . . . All the gifts of God displayed in baptism are found in Christ alone. Yet this cannot take place unless he who baptizes in Christ invoke also the names of the Father and the Spirit. . . . For this reason we obtain and, so to speak, clearly discern in the Father the cause [causa], in the Son the matter [materia], and in the Spirit the effect [effectio] of our purgation and our regeneration.[9]
 

***footnotes***


[1] Confessing the Faith: The 1689 Baptist Confession for the 21st Century. Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2012.

[2] Bobby Jamieson, Understanding Baptism, Church Basics (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2016), 9. [3] See Marcus Peter Johnson. One in Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.; Michael S. Horton. Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.; and J. Todd Billings. Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011. [4] New Hampshire Confession of Faith. [5] See Stephen J. Wellum, “Relationship Between the Covenants,” Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2006), 153-160. Wellum notes that, yes, baptism is the covenantal sign for the New Covenant, but this truism is not in continuity with circumcision of the Old Testament. It speaks to a new covenant with a new epoch. [6] Mark E. Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012), 7. See also Abraham Kuyper. Rooted & Grounded: The Church as Organism and Institution. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library Press, 2013. [7] Jamieson, Understanding Baptism, 45.

[8] Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 790. [9] Quoted from Horton, The Christian Faith, 792. See also Calvin, Institutes, 4.15.6.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie and the father to McCayden (12), McCoy (10), McColsen (8), and DeYoung (5).  He is one of the Teaching Pastors at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.


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