Homo Liturgicus: Baptized to Death

Posted by on September 15, 2010 in Baptism, Exegesis, Homo Liturgicus, Sacrificial Anthropology | 15 comments

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).

The way God fulfills this sacrificial telos is by re-creating from Jew and Gentile “one new man” who, with Christ as the Head and we the members of his Body, is now indwelt by the Spirit and enabled to accomplish our priestly duty to offer acceptable sacrifice. In short, our sacrificial telos is fulfilled through what Paul calls “the mystery of the gospel.”

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).

Baptismnow 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.

15 Comments

  1. RE: “Calvin, following the teaching of the early church fathers, understood Jesus’ words as a reference to the sacrament of baptism
    So far as relates to this passage, I cannot bring myself to believe that Christ speaks of baptism; for it would have been inappropriate.”

    Are you sure about that?

    “So far as relates to this passage, I cannot bring myself to believe that Christ speaks of baptism; for it would have been inappropriate.”
    (John Calvin, Commentaries, John 3:5)

    Dr. J. C. Ryle (an Anglican) made the following observation:

    “[Among] those who hold that baptism is not referred to in this text…will be found Calvin, Zwingle, Bullinger, Gualter, Archbishop Whitgift, Bishop Prideaux, Whitaker, Fulke, Poole, Hutcheson, Charnock, Gill, Cartwright, Grotius, Cocceius, Gomarus, Piscator, Rivetus, Chamier, Witsius, Mastricht, Turretin, Lampe, Burkitt, A. Clarke, and, according to Lampe, Wycliffe, Dailly, and Parsaeus. I do not assert this on second hand information. I have verified the assertion by examining with my own eyes the works of all the authors above named, exepting the three referred to by Lampe.” (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels; on John, [1879], Vol. 1, p.131)

  2. Whoops. Sorry about inadvertently including Calvin's remark in my citation of your statement. Obviously it should read,

    RE [JJS]: “Calvin, following the teaching of the early church fathers, understood Jesus’ words as a reference to the sacrament of baptism”

    Are you sure about that?

    etc. etc.

  3. Great job, Jason, my favorite in this series (so far!):

    The function of a sign is to point beyond itself to something greater

    I offer you the new pair of catechism questions I made for my kids:

    What is a sign? It points to something else.
    What is a thing signified? It's what the sign points to.
    (What sign do you see? What is it pointing to? — this works also for street signs vs. streets, restaurant signs vs. food, name tags vs. people, etc.)

    Great title, by the way (much better than mine), but your point here seems to be more about “baptized to life”, no?

  4. Charles,

    You're right.

    In Calvin's commentary on John he at first seems to grant that it is baptism that is being spoken of, but goes on to caution us against trusting in the bare sign. But then he continues and argues that by “water and Spirit” Jesus just means “Spirit,” with water only being epexegetical of Spirit.

    Thanks for pointing that out, and please forgive the carelessness on my part!

  5. Rube,

    … your point here seems to be more about “baptized to life”, no?

    No, because I am trying to show that it is by baptism (at least in part) that we come to share in Jesus' sacrificial death, hence the title.

  6. JJS:

    You said above: 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.

    Acknowledging your intent to be in harmony with the teaching of the Reformed confessions and catechisms, I have this question: what are your thoughts on how your statement cited above compares or contrasts with this statement from WCF 27.3: “The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments, rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them”?

  7. Hi Fowler,

    You ask, What are your thoughts on how your statement cited above compares or contrasts with this statement from WCF 27.3: “The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments, rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them”?

    I would point to WCF 28.6, which says, “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost….”

    If we put these two statements together, we find that the sacraments in and of themselves have no power to accomplish anything, and even when saving faith is exercised we still do not consider the sacraments to confer saving blessings apart from the work of the Spirit.

    But when the elements of sign, faith, and the Spirit are at work, we can rightly say that by the sacrament the grace is in fact conferred by the Holy Spirit.

    But we're systematizing here, of course. My point is not so much HOW exactly these things work, but how we are permitted by Scripture to talk about them (thus my statement that we can “attribute” to baptism x or y, which is how the NT often speaks). My understanding of doctrines like the sacramental union or the communicatio idiomatum is such that these ideas give us a way to talk, while still leaving a lot unsaid.

    Does that help clarify?

  8. JJS:

    Yes, it does help, but there is more work to do, in my opinion. I genuinely appreciate the point you were attempting to make: not so much HOW exactly these things work, but how we are permitted by Scripture to talk about them. Your point notwithstanding, your original statement did describe “how these things work,” and it was necessary to clarify how your statement harmonized with the WCF, because, as you know, WCF 27.3 and 28.6 attribute the power to confer the blessings of the age to come to the Spirit, not the sacraments, and that explicitly.

  9. All,

    I will be traveling all day on Thursday, and will not respond to comments until mid-day on Friday, Central European Time.

  10. Don't forget WCF 27.2: There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.

  11. RubeRad: Yes, WCF 27.2 needs to be kept in mind too, that is, along with 27.3 and 28.6.

  12. JJS:

    In light of RubeRad's reminder that we should keep WCF 27.2 in mind along with 27.3 and 28.6, it might help for me to clarify my interest in pursuing the point I did above. I want to urge that it's important to say clearly with Calvin (and others) that in some texts the apostles figuratively attributed to the sacraments effects that literally belong to God (especially the Spirit; see the commentaries on the texts mentioned in your lead post). You may intend to make that point, but, as far as I can tell, you don’t clearly say it.

  13. Fowler,

    Do you mean that in the post itself I fail to clarify that it is the Spirit by whom the saving effects are being accomplished, and not the sacraments themselves?

    If that's the case, I guess my question is this: Why do I need to go out of my way to say that it is NOT baptism that accomplished these things? In other words, as long as I believe that the sacraments don't have their own power, then is it really necessary to say it? I mean, don't we think that the apostles themselves both attributed to sacraments saving power while not really believing they had any? If so, then why can't we just follow their example?

    Bending over backwards to highlight what the sacraments don't do just doesn't seem like the best approach to me, especially if I do indeed affirm baptism's inability to save or regenerate anyone.

  14. JJS:

    You asked: Why do I need to go out of my way to say …? In other words, as long as I believe that …, then is it really necessary to say it? I mean, don't we think that the apostles themselves both attributed to sacraments saving power while not really believing they had any? If so, then why can't we just follow their example?

    A few thoughts …

    1. One reason we “need to go out of [our] way” to say certain things is because “there are some things in [certain Scriptures] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (to adapt 2 Peter 3.16).

    2. We would both agree that none of this is about what “I believe” or what “I do indeed affirm”; it's about what my hearers and readers believe (or do) as a result of what I say or write. Better to “bend over backwards to highlight what the sacraments don't do” than to find that my hearers and readers have backed into sacerdotalism because I didn't want to go out of my way.

    3. What “we think the apostles attributed to sacraments” is (or should be) a product of our reflections on the whole counsel of what they said as that is provided to us in the canon; it is not a product of our reflections on a part of what the canon says in isolation from the whole. Moreover, in the relevant passages and their contexts, the apostles frequently anticipate objections to perversions of their assertions. That's an example worth following. When reviewing Calvin's commentary on the texts you cite, it's interesting to notice how the Reformer followed the apostles' example by refuting the arguments of those who misused the text on which he was commenting.

  15. Romans 6 says as many of 'us' as were baptized. Who is the 'us'? Those in Romans 5:1 who were justified by faith.

    Paul says in Eph 1:13-14
    13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee [4] of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, [5] to the praise of his glory.

    When one trusts in Christ, the Holy SPirit 'baptizes' that person, sealing them, and placing them into the body of Christ.

    Peter in recounting His experience with Cornelius relates it thus.
    Acts 11:15-16
    As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?”
    Those who declare there is no Spirit baptism or it and water baptism are one in the same are mistaken.. There is one water baptism Eph 4, but that is indicative of the previous Spirit baptism when the sinner trusts in Christ.
    So these texts like 1 cor 12:13 speak of the SPirits work just like Peter spoke of it. He even quoted John the baptist's prophetic distinction between one who uses water and one the Spirit. The watery ritual then is all the more profound as it sacramentally points to the truth of the SPirit. It is of great comfort to the struggling soul who cannot always discern the invisible, but can with great consolation look to his physical baptism, which itself looks to the SPirit's baptism. Ah, a sweet confirming grace is baptism.

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