A Trinitarian view of baptism

In this post we'll look at how three Trinitarian theologians address the sacrament of baptism. All three understand baptism to be a proclamation that we have been saved by Jesus Christ alone and not through our own repentance and faith. All three view baptism as a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus, in which our old selves have been crucified and renounced in Christ and we have been freed from the shackles of the past and given new being through his resurrection. For all three, baptism proclaims the good news that Jesus has made us his own, and that it is only in him that our new life of faith and obedience emerges.

Baptism of Christ (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Migliore on baptism

In Faith Seeking Understanding, Daniel Migliore calls baptism "the sacrament of initiation into life in Christ," noting that "it marks the beginning of the journey of faith and discipleship that lasts throughout one’s life" (p. 282). He finds authorization to baptize in a couple of places in Scripture:
  1. Jesus’ great commission, which includes the command to baptize (Matt. 28:18-20, NRSV). 
  2. Jesus’ own baptism as he began his public ministry (Luke 3:21-22, NRSV). 
Migliore explains that for Jesus, baptism was a way to mark his entrance into a life of costly love and service that eventually led to his suffering, death and resurrection. For us, baptism is “the beginning of our participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It signals one’s death to an old way of life and one’s birth to the new life in Christ” (p. 283). Migliore unpacks this idea by reviewing five primary images the New Testament uses in explicating the meaning of baptism.

1. Baptism pictures dying and rising with Christ

This image is prominent in Romans 6:3-4 NRSV:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
When Paul says “buried with him” (rather than “died” with him), he probably is referring to a person’s descent below the water. A person being baptized acknowledges the ancient Christian confession that “Christ died for us,” that he “died for our sins.” Baptism thus signifies identification with Jesus’ death, either (from his perspective) that he died for us, or (from our perspective) that our “old self” died with him. The symbolism here could focus on a) the fact that Jesus did this for us, and we commemorate it, or b) that we acknowledge our need for his death as the solution to our sins as well as believing in what he did. Rising from the water would then correspond to rising with Christ to “a new life.” The focus could be on the fact that Jesus gives us a new identity, that he is the second Adam for all humanity (Romans 5) and/or on the fact that we are to respond to our new identity with new behavior (Romans 6).

Jesus used baptism figuratively in Luke 12:50 (NRSV): “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” He told James and John, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Mark 10:39 NRSV). Our baptism might then be viewed as an imitation death ritual. This figurative meaning could have come from Jewish practices such as proselyte baptism. Crucifixion and resurrection was a pivotal time in Jesus’ life—the end of one life and the beginning of another—thus constituting the real baptism that gives meaning to and so makes possible our baptism in identification with Christ.

I should note here that some conclude that baptism is the mechanism by which a person is born again—that the physical ritual is necessary for the spiritual reality to occur. This is the idea of baptismal regeneration, which Grace Communion International sees as conflicting with the biblical teaching concerning salvation by grace. Though GCI teaches that baptism is commanded by Christ, and is thus vital and expected for all believers, GCI does not view it as a requirement for salvation.

2. Baptism pictures the washing away of a sin-stained life 

In referring to “washing” 1 Cor. 6:11 (NRSV) seems to be alluding to baptism: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” Baptism signifies the removal of guilt [justification] and that the person has been sanctified (made holy)—set apart for God’s use. Note that the verbs in 1 Cor. 6:11(NRSV) are passive, focusing on what Christ had done already. However, the context includes a person’s response. 1 Pet. 3:20-21 (NRSV) makes a similar point, saying that baptism, which was prefigured by the flood in Noah’s day, “now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The implication is that baptism pictures spiritual cleansing (forgiveness) by which our consciences are cleared.

3. Baptism pictures rebirth through receiving the gift of the Spirit

Baptism is not only associated with new life, it is also connected with new birth. Jesus may be referring to baptism when he says that a person must be “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5, NRSV). Titus 3:5 (NRSV) refers to “the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Similarly, Acts 2:38 (NRSV) connects baptism with “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” These images connect baptism with the beginning of Christian life when the Spirit begins a new work in the person’s life that unites them to Christ in what GCI refers to as "the spiritual union" (as distinct from the "hypostatic union" by which the eternal Son of God, through the Incarnation, has united himself to all humans by assuming our human nature).

4. Baptism pictures being incorporated into the body of Christ

In being united to Christ by the Spirit, the person being baptized is also united to the body of Christ, the church. In this way, baptism is a rite of initiation into the church. Through baptism we become part of a new family and citizens of a new society (Eph. 2:19, NRSV). In Col. 2:11-12 (NRSV), Paul connects baptism with circumcision, which was the old covenant’s rite of initiation:
In him [Christ] you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 
Paul is thus saying that a person is spiritually circumcised (initiated) when they are baptized. In keeping with this idea of baptism as an initiation rite, the early church emphasized that baptism was being done on behalf of the community of faith. Baptism was thus not seen as an individualistic ceremony.

5. Baptism pictures God’s coming reign

Baptism not only looks back to what Christ has done, but also forward to what he will yet do in reaping the harvest yet to come (implied by Romans 8:23, NRSV, which says we are the “first fruits”). The person being baptized is thus acknowledged as being in solidarity with all people, and the whole of creation, which continues to groan awaiting the consummation. This is also a reminder that we are baptized into the body of Christ, which has been formed by the Holy Spirit for the mission of God, which benefits and blesses all humanity.

TF Torrance on baptism

Thomas F. (TF) Torrance speaks of baptism along the lines of Migliore’s presentation. In "The One Baptism Common to Christ and His Church," an essay in Theology in Reconciliation, TF writes this:
On the ground of what Christ has done for us and in accordance with his promise, we are presented before God as subjects of his saving activity, and are initiated into a mutual relation between the act of the Spirit and the response of faith. Faith arises as the gift of the Spirit, while it is through faith that we may continue to receive the Spirit, and it is in the Spirit that God continues to act creatively upon us, uniting us to Christ so that his atoning reconciliation bears fruit in us, and lifting us up to share in the very life and love of God, in the communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 
Baptism is thus not a sacrament of what we do but of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, in whom he has bound himself to us and bound us to himself, before ever we could respond to him. But it is also the sacrament of what God now does in us by his Spirit, uniting us with Christ in his faithfulness and obedience to the Father and making that the ground of our faith. As an act done to us, baptism tells us that it is not upon our act of faith or on our own faithfulness that we rely, but upon Christ alone and his vicarious faithfulness; it also tells us that in the freedom of his Spirit God makes himself present to us and binds us creatively to himself in such marvelous ways that not only is faith called forth from us as our own spontaneous response to the grace of God in Christ, but it is undergirded and supported by Christ and enclosed with his own faithfulness, and thus grounded in the mutual relation between the incarnate Son and the heavenly Father. (p. 103)
TF points out that the New Testament uses the unusual Greek word baptisma rather than the more common baptismos in speaking about Christian baptism. While the latter is regularly used in Greek to refer to a repeatable rite of ceremonial cleansing, the former refers principally to the reality signified by the rite—the not-to-be-repeated saving event in Christ on which the rite rests.

In that respect, baptisma is like kerygma, which refers not to the act of proclaiming the gospel, but to the reality to which the proclamation points. It is not the proclamation that saves, but the one being proclaimed, Jesus Christ. In similar fashion, baptisma directs us beyond 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. In the case of both kerygma and baptisma, the primary reference is to the mystery of Christ as God manifest in the flesh, while the secondary reference is to the church’s activity in preaching and baptizing. Thus, baptisma does not refer merely to the baptizing of an individual, but rather to
the baptism with which Jesus Christ himself was baptized for our sakes in the whole course of his redemptive life from his birth to his resurrection, the one baptism which he continues by his Spirit to apply to us in our baptism into him, thereby making himself both its material content and its active agent. (p. 83)
These insights help us understand that while baptism is both the act of Christ and of the church in Christ’s name, it is to be understood finally not in terms of what the church does but in terms of what God in Christ has done, is doing, and will yet do for us by and through his Spirit. The meaning of baptism thus does not lie in the rite itself and its performance by the church, nor in the attitude of the person being baptized and their obedience of faith, but in Christ who was baptized for us. We are saved, not by the rite of baptism, but by the reality to which the rite points. Keeping that in mind helps diminish arguments about the manner of baptism (immersion, sprinkling, pouring), or the age of the one being baptized (infant or believing adolescent or believing adult).

TF sees great beauty, power and efficacy in baptism, for it points to our Lord Jesus and his work on our behalf—a work applied to us by the Holy Spirit within the community of the church into which, through baptism, we are initiated, and within which we participate in the life and ministry of Christ. This community nature of baptism is emphasized by the fact that we do not baptize ourselves.
Baptism by the church proclaims that we are not our own, but Christ’s, and that we don’t stand with Christ on our own, but within and with the assistance of the community of faith, the church.

The baptism of individual persons is thus their “initiation” into the vicarious baptisma of Jesus Christ, whereby they, through the Spirit, receive a share in his righteousness and are sanctified in him as members of the one Body of Christ, the church. Through our obedience to the command to be baptized, we are receiving what Christ has done for us, knowing that we add nothing to his finished work. By his Spirit, poured out on us figuratively in baptism, Christ acts upon us, engrafting us into himself and so adopting us into the family of God as a child of the Father and a brother of Jesus.

TF follows Athanasius in declaring that in his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus received the Spirit upon the humanity he assumed through the Incarnation, not for his own sake, but for ours. In Jesus, our representative and substitute, our humanity was baptized, anointed, sanctified and sealed in him. Thus when Jesus was baptized for us, we were baptized in him. Therefore, our baptism in the name of the Trinity is to be understood as a partaking through the Holy Spirit in the one unrepeatable baptism of Christ which he underwent, not just in the Jordan, but throughout his life and in his death and resurrection on our behalf. Like Athanasius, TF argues that Jesus’ vicarious baptism on our behalf is the objective truth to which the “one baptism” of Ephesians 4:4-6 and the Nicene Creed point.

Jesus underwent this “one baptism” vicariously as our Redeemer. By uniting us to himself by the Holy Spirit, he makes us participate “receptively” in his one baptism as those whom he has redeemed. Thus, according to Torrance, the central truth of baptism is lodged in Jesus Christ himself and all he has done for us within the humanity he took from us and made his own, sharing to the full what we are, so that we may share to the full what he is. Baptism is thus the sacrament of the reconciling and atoning “wonderful exchange” in the incarnate Savior.

Note that TF is saying that through baptism we participate in a pre-existing reality. Our adoption, sanctification and redemption have already taken place in Christ, but in our baptism we are “realizing” or “actualizing” (TF uses both terms) what has happened already to our humanity in and through Christ. This is why Christian baptism is to be understood in terms of the objective reality that underlies it, that is, the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. In baptism we partake of the redemption that has already been accomplished for us in Christ.

For TF, in the sacrament of baptism we look away from ourselves, seeing beyond the church’s activity in the administration of the rite, toward the crucified and risen Christ and what he, in his flesh, did on our behalf. Having that perspective on baptism answers a lot of questions that arise about the administration of baptism in the church—questions about its mode, the age and/or mental ability of the ones being baptized, whether or not a person should be re-baptized, etc.

Colin Gunton on baptism

In his essay, “Baptism and the Christian Community” in Incarnational Ministry, Trinitarian theologian Colin Gunton writes against an individualistic approach to baptism:
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 from the life of the community of faith. (p. 100)
For Gunton, whether one is baptizing infant children of believers, or believing adolescents and adults, it is vital that the practice be centered in "the logic of the gospel" (p. 100). 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" (p. 102).

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 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" (p. 102). The early church baptized with this truth in mind, and in obedience to Jesus' command to baptize (Matt. 28:16-20, NASB). 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, NASB)—a death that includes all humanity (2 Cor. 5:14. NASB).
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" (p. 103). Because baptism pictures the death and resurrection of Jesus for all, Gunton notes that 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 be only one baptism into his death…. 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. (pp. 103-104)

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 (see p. 105). 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" (p. 106). Continuing to speak of the Holy 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. (p. 107)
Gunton then offers three implications for pastoral practice related to infant baptism (p. 108):
  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 church.
  2. We should not baptize any child whom we do not expect to enter into a living relationship with the church [I suppose Gunton would make an exception here for a dying baby].
  3. We should actively encourage the baptism of the infant children of active Christian adults.
I would add to Gunton’s observations that the baptism of an infant can be an occasion to help people see that it is not our own faith that is being celebrated in baptism, but the faith of Christ who was baptized, crucified and raised from the dead on our behalf.
Note: this post is adapted from a lecture in Ted Johnston's Practice of Ministry course at Grace Communion Seminary.