Talk about baptism, and you’re immediately plunged into arguments. Whom should we baptize—professing converts or infants? How should we baptize—by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling? Why do we baptize—as a sign of God’s claim or as a convert’s public confession of faith? What does baptism do—nothing, something, everything? If it does something, how long does it last—for a moment, forever?
All Christians use water to baptize. All invoke the Triune name. Beyond that, there’s little consensus. Quarrels over baptism are a travesty. The church has one baptism, as it is one body with one Spirit, one Lord, one hope, one faith, and one Father (Eph 4:4–6). Yet God’s sign of unity is a spring of division. We’re Corinthians, acting as if we were baptized into the name of Thomas or Calvin or Luther or John Piper (1 Cor 1:10–18). Paul’s outrage echoes down the centuries: “Is Christ divided?”
This book is a small contribution to the effort to reunite a church divided by baptism. My approach is oblique. I don’t offer any nice knock-down arguments. As currently framed, the controversies are insoluble anyway. To arrive at unity, we need to recover the baptismal imagination of earlier generations. We need to start at the foundation and work our way up. The building blocks of that foundation are neatly laid out by Luther’s Great Flood Prayer, which I’ve long used whenever I perform a baptism:
Almighty and eternal God, who through the flood, according to your righteous judgment, condemned the unfaithful world, and according to your great mercy, saved faithful Noah, even eight persons, and has drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh with all his army in the Red Sea, and has led your people Israel dry through it, thereby prefiguring this bath of your holy baptism, and through the baptism of your dear child, our Lord Jesus Christ, has sanctified and set apart the Jordan and all water for a saving flood, and an ample washing away of sins: we pray that through your same infinite mercy you would graciously look down upon this your child, and bless her with a right faith in the spirit, so that through this saving flood all that was born in her from Adam and all which she has added thereto might be drowned and submerged; and that she may be separated from the unfaithful, and preserved in the holy ark of Christendom dry and safe, and may be ever fervent in spirit and joyful in hope to serve your name, so that she with all the faithful may be worthy to inherit your promise of eternal life, through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
For biblical breadth, Luther’s prayer is hard to match. He links baptism with Adam’s sin, the flood, the exodus, and Jesus’ baptism. According to Luther, baptism does an awful lot: it separates us from the unfaithful and preserves us in the church; it washes, delivers, judges, and saves.
Some Christians will be dismayed at the power Luther attributes to baptism, taking it as evidence that the great German Reformer didn’t quite purge Catholicism from his soul. But Luther’s prayer expresses the mainstream convictions of two millennia of Christian tradition. Western Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestants say exactly these things about baptism.
The church says these things because Scripture does. The Bible speaks of baptism as an effective rite: baptism brands us with the Triune name (Matt 28:18–20); washes sin (Acts 2:38a); confers the Spirit (Acts 2:39b); grafts us into Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6:1–14); justifies (Rom 6:7); sanctifies (1 Cor 6:11); joins us with the Spirit-filled body (1 Cor 12:12–13); clothes us with Christ (Gal 3:27–29); regenerates (Titus 3:5); and saves (1 Pet 3:21). By baptism, we are anointed as priests and kings and join the Pentecostal company of prophets (Acts 2:15–21, 37–42). Baptized into one name, we become members of one another (1 Cor 1:10–18; Eph 4:4–6). The Bible never portrays baptism as a picture of some more important event that happens without baptism. What baptism pictures happens—at baptism. Baptism works.
Baptism is a doorway
The church is the family of the Father, the body of the Son, and the temple of the Spirit because it shares in the new creation that has begun in Jesus. And the church shares in that new creation by hearing the word, confessing sin, assembling at the Lord’s Table, passing through the waters of baptism.
Keep this in mind as we move ahead. Baptism is the doorway into membership in the church. Big things happen at baptism, but baptism’s energy doesn’t sputter to a halt as soon as we dry off. Baptism is powerful because it places us in the church where pastors, friends, and mentors train us and pray for us—where God corrects and feeds us by his word at his table. Baptism does what it does because Jesus authorizes it. Baptism works because the church works, and the church works because it’s the body of Christ, enlivened by the Spirit.
If the church is what the New Testament says it is and if baptism is the doorway to the church, then certain things necessarily follow: baptism is adoption into the Father’s family, union with Christ in his body, installation as a living stone in the temple of the Spirit. If the church is what the New Testament claims, baptism gives us a share in the resurrection life of the Son and his Spirit. If the church is as the New Testament describes it, baptism is the gift of a future, propelling us toward the unending joys of a new heaven and a new earth. It is indeed, a “saving flood.”
This post is adapted from Baptism: A Guide to Life from Death by Peter J. Leithart (Lexham Press, 2021).