Homo Liturgicus: Baptized to Death
We saw in the last post in our series on the topic of Homo Liturgicus, Man the Worshiper, that our sacrificial telos—according to which man was created to offer himself to God in self-giving love—is ultimately fulfilled by Christ. His sacrifice of himself upon the cross is the supreme display of worship. Moreover, Jesus’ sacrifice was not offered for his own benefit, but for ours:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God (I Pet. 3:18).
But how exactly do we come to partake of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice?
We saw in our last post that it is by virtue of our union with Christ that we are re-created to be living sacrifices, but I’d like to unpack this idea in a bit more detail. I would propose that the way the New Testament explains our participation in Jesus’ sacrifice is by pointing us to the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
In this post we’ll consider Baptism.
At the end of John 2, we are told that many who saw the “signs” that Jesus performed believed in his Name, but Jesus “did not entrust himself to them” (vv. 23-25). The reason John gives for this is that “Jesus knew all people, and needed no one to testify about anthropos, for he knew what was in anthropos.” “Now,” chapter 3 begins, “there was an anthropos of the Pharisees named Nicodemus.” The threefold repetition of the Greek word for man seems to indicate that Nicodemus is functioning here as a typical example of the human problem. He comes to Jesus by night and immediately begins extolling him for the “signs” that he has been performing. It is important to note that, unlike the synoptic writers who refer to Jesus’ works as miracles, John always calls them signs. The function of a sign is to point beyond itself to something greater, which is why Jesus redirects the Pharisee’s attention from the outward signs and immediately speaks of the need to be born anothen. Nicodemus wrongly interprets Jesus statement in temporal terms, as being born “again,” asking how it would be possible for one to venture back into his mother’s womb and be reborn. By our Lord’s continued interaction it becomes clear that he used anothen not in its temporal sense, but in its spatial sense—man must be “born from above” (anothen in John always has this spatial sense, as in 3:31; 19:11, 23). Jesus then explains the meaning of being born from above by speaking of “being born of water and the Spirit.” Calvin, following the teaching of the early church fathers, understood Jesus’ words as a reference to the sacrament of baptism (which seems to fit the context, especially the verses immediately following this account in which we are told of Jesus, his disciples, and John all baptizing in the land of Judaea).
What we have here, then, is an example of Jesus insisting that the physical miracles that he wrought in the earthly realm are actually signs that point to heavenly realities that surpass them in importance. This is what he surely means when he says:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
Our Lord was obviously not promising his disciples that they, too, would do miracles, but that theirs would be even more miraculous than his were (neither does the book of Acts record any such miracles). Rather, he is referring to something that would occur once the Spirit has been poured out upon the church, namely, that the apostles would now be able to administer to God’s people the heavenly realities to which his earthly signs only pointed (which is exactly what we see in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples and 3,000 people are baptized for the forgiveness of their sins).
As I have argued before, the New Testament draws a strong connection between the outward sign of the sacrament and its inward reality, to the point where Paul can say:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death… (Rom. 6:3-4a).
Again, Calvin follows the early fathers in seeing this as a reference to water baptism, which should not surprise us since it is this very point that Jesus was trying to make to Nicodemus—physical miracles only illustrate the spiritual realities which, once the Spirit is given, the apostles will be empowered to convey by means of the sacraments.
Seeing the Johannine signs as pointing to sacramentally-conveyed heavenly realities should help us reckon with the difficult baptismal language of the New Testament:
He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5).
“And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).
Baptism… 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 (I Pet. 3:21).
Finally (and by way of anticipation of possible objections), I should point out that none of this is in conflict with the teaching of the Reformed confessions and catechisms, especially when we remember Calvin’s insistence that bare signs are of no value without faith on the part of the worshiper (which the writer to the Hebrews also highlights). But once saving faith is exercised, we are then free to attribute to the sacraments the power to confer the blessings of the age to come.
Baptism, then, is the washing of regeneration, the heavenly birth by water and Spirit without which no man can see the kingdom of God, and one of the means by which we participate in Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice.