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What does baptism signify?

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7 minutes to read Is it membership in the covenant? Or just membership in the covenant community?

This is a companion post to my previous article, ‘Who is baptism for?’ It’s largely motivated by a particular line of response I’ve received from pedobaptists; a line of response well represented in Steve Hays’ post here.

The main point of contention is:

What kind of membership does baptism signify?

  • Does it signify membership in the new covenant?
  • Or does it signify membership in the new covenant community?

The argument I forwarded in my previous post requires that baptism signifies membership in the covenant. I took this for granted. I’ll explain why in a moment.

First, an aside on the concept of covenant community

One of the differences in perspective that clouds discussions between credobaptists and pedobaptists is with respect to the nature of membership in the community versus membership in the covenant. For instance, many pedobaptists argue that children of covenant members are themselves covenant members, or should at least be taken as such, until they are old enough to explicitly repudiate that membership. Credobaptists argue, as I did, that children of covenant members cannot be known to be covenant members themselves—even though they may be—until they are old enough to explicitly affirm that membership.

So pedobaptists take a “loose, implicit” approach to membership. Members of the community and members of the covenant seem broadly conterminous in their view. Moreover, because of this loose view, they treat the community itself as having the duty of inducting members into the covenant through baptism.

Conversely, credobaptists take a “tight, explicit” approach. There are many members of the community (children, unbelieving spouses, etc) who are not members of the covenant. And because of this tight view, they don’t see the community as having any kind of duty to induct members through baptism. That might sound strange, but they believe the duty falls on individual covenant members. When you become aware that you are a member of the new covenant, then it is your duty to be baptized. The person baptizing you should obviously not do so if you appear to be mistaken about your profession; but it isn’t up to him to determine that you are a covenant member, as many pedobaptists seem to assume.

I mention this because these differences are so ingrained that it seems difficult for both parties to frame arguments about the opposing position without accidentally strawmanning them. They unintentionally impute their own model to them—as when pedobaptists object that credobaptists may well baptize unregenerate people and thus their view of baptism as being only for covenant members is obviously silly. The credobaptist finds this response simply puzzling, because it trades on the assumption that responsibility for determining who is a covenant member falls on the person doing the baptizing, rather than on the person being baptized.

For my own part, I think pedobaptism is the natural position to take if the new covenant is basically the same as the old, and we are applying its signs in the same way; and if baptism merely signifies membership in the covenant community, or a kind of “implicit” membership in the covenant. Unfortunately, as I argued last time, the new covenant is markedly different to the old in precisely the way that changes who qualifies as a member (and therefore calls into question who should receive its sign); and as I will argue now, baptism itself does not signify membership in the covenant community but rather membership in the covenant.

Why baptism signifies membership in the new covenant

Simply put, because that’s what the Bible rather plainly says. The reason I took this for granted in my previous post is because of how plain it is. Christian baptism is modeled on the baptism of John; John’s baptism laid a foundation for and prefigured ours. But John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance (Acts 19:4). Those baptized were adults; they were baptized as a symbol of their subjection to God and his coming Anointed. The water represented the washing away of sin. And of course, the washing away of sin under the new covenant is directly linked to regeneration.

So absent any contrary evidence, we should expect our baptism to signify washing and regeneration. In other words, we should expect our baptism to signify membership in the new covenant—not in the new covenant community. Even more directly, it signifies membership in Jesus. This is exactly how Scripture frames it. Here are the relevant passages that I’m aware of:

Baptism signifies regeneration

Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Anointed Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Anointed was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. Romans 6:1–4

For in Jesus the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Anointed, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. Colossians 2:9–14

What does it mean to be baptized into Jesus’ death, to be buried with him, if not to be joined to Jesus himself? It is by his death and resurrection that we are saved. Baptism represents this; it corresponds to our becoming, as Paul says elsewhere, a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17); having been “made alive” when we were previously dead (Ephesians 2:5). Baptism in Paul’s thinking signifies membership in the covenant because it signifies being made alive in Jesus—something reserved exclusively for covenant members.

Baptism is a symbol of regeneration. Thus it symbolizes covenant membership; not mere membership in the covenant community.

Baptism signifies justification by faith

Baptism, which corresponds to [Noah’s family being brought safely through the flood on the ark], 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 Anointed… 1 Peter 3:21

Notice that baptism saves here. How? Not by removing spiritual dirt as water removes physical dirt, but by signifying our appeal or pledge to God, through which are justified (Romans 5:1).

This reinforces my somewhat incidental point that Baptists don’t see baptism as something “imposed” by the covenant community, but rather as something solicited by the believer. It is the believer who appeals to God through baptism and pledges his allegiance to Jesus—not the covenant community. Faith is not something that can be exercised by proxy. I feel a little silly pointing out something so obvious, but since infants cannot appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus, infants are not proper subjects of baptism.

Baptism signifies membership in Anointed’s body through faith and the indwelling Spirit

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:1–6

This one is a little less obvious until you examine the immediate context in chapter 3:16–19. Here, Paul prays that God would grant the Ephesians “to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Anointed may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Anointed that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16–19).

It is in this context that Paul speaks of the various “components” of our covenant relationship to God and each other. We are one body because we are connected through one Spirit, with one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God. Baptism sits at the middle of this relationship. How could it be, then, that baptism signifies membership in a mere community which includes those who are not connected by the Spirit through faith to the Lord?

I suppose more could be said, but I would only end up repeating myself. Baptism does not signify membership in a community—it signifies membership in the new covenant itself, because it signifies regeneration, justification, the indwelling Spirit, and membership in Jesus’ own body.

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