Few topics generate more theological debate with less productivity than baptism. I observed recently a reignition on social media of the baptist-paedobaptist dispute; and as nearly always, it included unnecessary heat and very little light. I’ve been on both sides of that debate in my life, and I’ve rarely seen a different, more gracious and successful, conclusion. I’m convinced this issue won’t be solved entirely by appeal to specific biblical texts, because the theological and interpretive assumptions one brings to the texts will influence how he understands them. I’m not suggesting that extensive discussion of the baptist-paedobaptist disagreements is unwarranted, only that public debate might not be the best way to arrive at a defensible conclusion.
But a crucial point on which all Christians should agree is that baptism is (among other things) a visible, public declaration of allegiance to Jesus Christ. The reason this is necessary is simple: the Gospel necessitates allegiance to our Lord, and baptism is the initial public testimony to the reception of the Gospel. We speak of salvation by faith alone, but this is equivalent to salvation by allegiance alone, because faith at root is allegiance. Faith in the Bible is a wholehearted, surrendering trust to Jesus Christ. It’s not identical to belief, when defined as intellectual assent. The devils believe and tremble (Jas. 2:19). A criterion for baptism is “[i]f you believe with all your heart” (Ac. 8:37) i.e., cast yourself on Jesus Christ in full submission.
We are baptized into the name of Jesus or the names of the members of the Trinity. This doesn’t require the administrator’s language “I baptize you in the name of….” Rather it means “under the authority of.” This is why in the great commission, baptism is identified as a chief step in discipling the nations. Similarly in Galatians 3:27 Paul writes:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
At baptism we are identified with Jesus Christ and his people and his kingdom. To be baptized into the Lord’s name is to be baptized into his/their authority. We swear allegiance.
God takes the initiative in baptism just as he does in salvation. But also just as in salvation, man is not inert. Salvation by grace doesn’t mean salvation without obligation. When we trust Christ, we transfer allegiance to a new king (Col. 1:13), but at baptism, we swear this allegiance publicly. This is true whether one affirms infant baptism or adult baptism. The covenant representative pledges allegiance for the infant, and the adult pledges allegiance for himself.
Another fact lends weight to this allegiance. Meredith Kline draws attention to 1 Peter 3:20–22, where Christian baptism is likened to the Noahic flood. The floodwaters were the world’s judgment, which Noah and his family escaped only by God’s graceful provision. They went through the waters of divine judgment because they cast faith in ( = were allegiant to) God (Heb. 11:7). The waters of baptism signify not just cleansing, but cleansing by judgment. We are baptized into Christ’s death (Rom. 6:3). He bore God’s judgment for us. The condition for God’s deliverance, according to Hebrews, was faith, an act of allegiance.
Baptism, therefore, implies an oath of allegiance, and often it is required of the convert at its administration, such as: “Have you trusted Christ, and do you purpose to follow him all the days of your life?” That this latter provision is heard less and less at today’s baptisms shows the increasing antinomianism (anti-allegiance) of our churches.
Christians who deny baptismal regeneration (the idea that water baptism spiritually regenerates) wonder at those numerous biblical texts like Acts 22:16 (“Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord’”) that tie baptism inextricably to cleansing from sin. While other texts are incompatible with baptismal regeneration (notably those that make repentance a condition for baptism), a principal truth to grasp is that baptism is the visible component of invisible regeneration. That’s the intimate connection.
Paul writes in Romans 6:4 —
Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
We might have thought that Paul would mention justification, or adoption, or regeneration as the path by which we’re raised to walk in obedience, but his accent is on visibility. Just as Christ was raised from the dead visibly from a tomb, so we are raised from sin visibly at our baptism.
Many of us have baptismal certificates. None of us has a born-again certificate. This isn’t because baptism is more important than the new birth, but because baptism is a datable, documentable, visible reality to which one (and others) can point. Allegiance to Jesus Christ begins in the heart but never ends there.
The postmodern world is high on inflamed hearts and low on sustained obedience. This is a fruit of 19th century Romanticism, which for the first time in human history replaced objective standards with subjective intentions as the criteria for valid choices (“Darling, I don’t agree with the terrorists, but at least I can admire their well-intentioned hearts”). Christian baptism is an inherent repudiation of any attempt to reduce the Faith to our hearts. Baptism says, “I am now a child of the King, a follower of the Lamb, and you may judge my profession by my visible adherence to the King and Lamb’s Word.”
A leading reason for the futility of today’s church is its severance of allegiance from the Gospel. Christ died, it is thought, to take away our sins and give us hope and assure our eternal bliss with him. Correspondingly baptism is treated as a celebration of a saved sinner or a new church member. It is these, for sure.
But the meaning of baptism is at once more glorious and more severe. Glorious, because it signals a lifelong covenant devotion to Jesus Christ as risen Lord, and severe, because it’s a self-maledictory oath calling down new covenant curses if we turn our back on him (Heb. 10:29).
As a covenant, baptism is bilateral. God has a part, and we have a part. God’s part in the covenant is always more important and always comes first. At baptism he visibly pledges his love and care and protection, the blanketing blessings of his Lordship.
In response, we pledge our faith and fidelity (allegiance), acknowledging the never-ending claims of his Lordship. He tattoos us with his loving mark of ownership, and we bear that mark our entire lives.
Christianity is a serious faith that demands serious allegiance. Baptism is the vestibular, visible testimony to that allegiance.