Gospel-centered baptism

This post was contributed by worship leader Mike Hale.

"Baptism of Christ" by Zelenka (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In an essay in Incarnational Ministry: The Presence of Christ in Church, Society, and Family: Essays in Honor of Ray S. Anderson, Colin Gunton writes against an individualistic approach to baptism and for a gospel-centered approach. In doing so, he addresses various pastoral concerns, including the practice of infant baptism.

Against an individualistic approach
Gunton decries an approach to baptism that emphasizes the individual person, thus separating baptism from the shared life of the church:
While baptism is in part the concern of the particular person, it is not primarily a matter for the person as individual but for the person in relation to other people in the community of salvation, the covenant people of God. Baptism cannot, and should not be treated in isolation form the life of the community of faith (p100).
Historically, individualistic approaches emerged from the idea (grounded largely in Platonic philosophy) that each person inherits, via descent from Adam, the stain of "original sin." According to this idea, the purpose of baptism is to remove this stain from the individual. Thus baptism is seen from a largely negative, and somewhat magical perspective. Gunton notes that this erroneous perspective undergirds some forms of infant baptism, though he notes that the problem is not in baptizing infants, but in holding an inadequate, individualistic theology of baptism.

For a gospel-centered approach
For Gunton, whether one is baptizing infant children of believers, or believing adults, it is vital that the practice be centered in "the logic of the gospel" (p100). A gospel-centered approach understands that, "baptism takes its reality from the death of Jesus on the cross. We baptize because Christ died on the cross for the sins of the world" (p102).

This gospel-centered approach views baptism not in individualistic terms, but in the context of Jesus Christ and what he has done for all humanity, apart from our knowledge and wishes, as our representative and substitute. Indeed, Jesus stood in for us and acted on our behalf when we were entirely "helpless" (Romans 5:6, NASB). This gospel truth points us to the true significance of baptism: "Before we can possibly be in a position to know or appropriate [baptism's] meaning, something has been done for us and for all the world" (p102). The early church baptized with this truth in mind, and in obedience to Jesus' command to baptize (Matthew 28:16-20). And they did so with glad hearts, having experienced the reality of Jesus' death and resurrection, which is the reality of the gospel.

Moreover, their perspective on baptism was informed by Jesus' own baptism. In being baptized by John the baptizer, Jesus was doing two things:
  1. Identifying himself with Israel as a people under God's judgment, in need of reconciliation. 
  2. Showing that he would soon die on behalf of Israel (and all humankind), accepting upon himself as their representative and substitute the judgment of God against their sin. Jesus' baptism thus anticipates his soon-coming death on the cross (Luke 12:50) - a death that includes all humanity (2Cor 5:14).
Gunton notes that "while the baptism of Jesus is an essential element of the theology of baptism, we do not baptize because Jesus [was] baptized, but because he went to the cross which was foreshadowed in his baptism" (p103).
    Baptism and the church
    Because baptism pictures the death and resurrection of Jesus for all, it should be seen as an event with  "communal significance" by which people are incorporated into the body of Christ, the church:
    Just as Jesus' baptism bound him up with Israel, and his death with the whole human race under judgment, so our baptism binds us to Christ and the covenant people of God reconstituted in him. That...is the primary significance of baptism. It is not first of all the expression of the faith of an individual or some invisible inner cleansing, but is public and communal: it is the means by which a person is brought into relation with Christ through the medium of his body, the church. The crucial link is between the once-for-all death of Christ on the cross and the baptism which appropriates that death for the member of his body. The logic is that as Christ died once, so can there by only one baptism into his death (p103).
    According to Gunton...
    Baptism is a churchly and public rite before it is an individual one. It is therefore not just for the "saved," and certainly not just for those alone who have been through a certain kind of experience, but for all who are called to share the life of those who are on the way to salvation (p104).
    Infant baptism
    On this basis, Gunton argues for the baptism of the infant children of believing adults, noting that children are full and essential members of the covenant community. Like adults, their entrance into that community comes through baptism (p105). In this context, he highlights the Holy Spirit's ministry who is the "agent of our incorporation into Christ through the medium of the community of faith" (p106). Continuing to speak of the Spirit he notes that...
    His is a churchly rather than an individual sphere of activity in the sense that particular gifts are given for the building up of the life of the people of God... This means that to baptize is not so much to confer a gift upon an individual as to bring a person into the sphere of the Spirit's working, into the place where his or her gifts may be exercised for the glory of God... Baptism, therefore, brings persons into relation with that community (p107).
    Pastoral implications
    Gunton concludes with three implications for pastoral practice (see p108):
    1. We should treat all who are baptized, no matter how they are baptized, and no matter at what age, as full members with us of the covenant community (the church).
    2. We should not baptize any child whom we do not expect to enter into a living relationship with the covenant community.
    3. We should actively encourage the baptism of the infant children of active Christian adults.
    To read the adult baptismal ceremony of Grace Communion International, click here. To read the infant baptismal ceremony, click here.