One baptism (Nicene Creed #12)

In this post we continue looking at the marks (identifying characteristics) of the Church as defined by the Nicene Creed. For other posts in this series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 456, 7, 8, 9, 10, 1113.

We come now to the final clause of the Creed:

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

In this post, we'll address the first part, one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

One baptism
The framers of the Creed apparently took the phrase one baptism from Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus (Eph 4:4-5). Paul exhorts that congregation to a unity grounded firmly in the fact that there is but "one body and one Lord, one faith [and], one baptism."

Why do Paul and the Creed highlight baptism but not the Eucharist? According to Thomas F. Torrance (in The Trinitarian Faith), it is because of the important "inner connection between baptism and the wholeness of the apostolic and catholic faith." Indeed, "the whole substance of the Gospel of grace...[is] concentrated in one baptism for the remission of sins" (p290). In making this point, T.F. references Athanasius' understanding that the "fullness of the mystery" (the gospel) is found in baptism, which "is given in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit" (p290). Like other early church fathers, Athanasius regarded baptism as....
...The great seal... the all-embracing sacrament bound up with one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, and one God and Father while the Eucharist was regarded as celebrated only within the Church's participation in the great mystery of baptism and as properly included within it (p. 290).
One baptism thus points directly to Jesus as the one Lord of the church. Indeed, it was through Jesus' vicarious life, death and resurrection that the church came into being. According to T.F., "baptism in his name signified incorporation of the baptized into Christ as members of his Body" (p291).

T.F. then shows that one baptism also points to the Holy Spirit...
For it is in one Spirit as well as through Christ that the Church has access to the Father. It is through the koinonia [communion/fellowship] of the Holy Spirit that the Church shares in the incarnate mystery of Christ, and through the power and operation within it that the unity of the Church as the Body of Christ is progressively actualized among the people of God. The Church is thus respected as the Temple of God in which he dwells through his Spirit (p291).
For the forgiveness of sins
Why does the Creed declare one baptism for the forgiveness of sins? Does baptism bring about that forgiveness? Torrance answers that "baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit initiates people into the sphere in which all the divine blessings [including forgiveness of sins]...are bestowed and become effective" (p292). In saying this, Torrance is not suggesting that we are forgiven (and thus saved) by baptism (or at the time of baptism). Rather he is noting that in the rite of baptism we experience subjectively (personally) all that Jesus accomplished for humanity objectively, including what he accomplished through his baptism in the Jordan. What is true objectively, becomes personally experienced (or actualized) in our baptism. It's one thing to be forgiven, it's another to experience that forgiveness, and thus have it become effective in our personal lives.

But what is personally (subjectively) experienced is grounded in a greater objective reality. It is to this reality that Torrance points. In doing so he notes that Athanasius (like other of the Greek church fathers) regarded Jesus' baptism as a vicarious baptism, which was "a decisive point" for all humanity. Torrance explains:
In his baptism in the Jordan, the incarnate Son of God received the Spirit upon the humanity he had taken from us, not for his own sake, but for our sake. That is to say, it was our humanity that was baptized, anointed, sanctified and sealed in him. Thus when he was baptized for us we were baptized in him. Our baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity, therefore, is to be understood as a partaking through the Spirit in the one unrepeatable baptism of Christ which he underwent, not just in the Jordan river, but throughout his life and in his death [and] resurrection on our behalf. That vicarious baptism was the objective truth behind the one baptism of the Creed in which its depth of meaning was grounded....We are [thus] directed through the rite of baptism to its objective ground and reality, [which is] Christ clothed with the saving truth of his vicarious life, death and resurrection (pp292-3). 
T.F. continues:
Baptism is the sacrament of that reconciling and atoning exchange in the incarnate Savior. When we understand baptism in that objective depth, we are directed away from ourselves to what took place in Christ in God (p293).
Thus we understand that it is the objective sense of baptism that is addressed in the Creed's declaration of one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. This phrase then points to the Creed's related phrase concerning eschatology: the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We will address this when we next pick up this series on the Nicene Creed.

For a related Surprising God blog post on Gospel-Centered baptism click here.