What Happens in Baptism?
How God Finds, Surrounds, and Keeps Us
Water baptisms are joyful occasions for believers of all stripes. We delight in the sound of the water, the ritual motion of the participants, the sight of the glistening smiles, the oddity of the entire scene. Sacraments make the intangible tangible, and memorable. Baptism makes the gospel splashable.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism explains that baptism is one of the “ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption” (question 88). Unfortunately for many of us, baptism has become quite ordinary — and not in a Westminster Catechism kind of way. (I write this as a baptist, who can be some of the worst offenders!) Though the sight of a baptism may give us joy, we can fail to see the many redemptive benefits God gives through this ordinance — and to grasp them for ourselves again. The memory of our baptism may be fresh or may have faded, but this punctiliar event in the life of the believer should grow sweeter with time.
God’s past, present, and future grace awaits us at Jordan’s stormy banks, if we are willing to take the plunge (2 Kings 5:10–14).
Plunged into the Past
A teary sentimentality often accompanies a baptismal ceremony. Each one we witness reminds us of our own. Moreover, each one we witness reminds us of Christ’s. Baptism is backward-looking by nature — a proclamation of faith in God’s grace demonstrated to us in the past.
In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of an obvious but profound fact about the cross: Jesus has not died and been raised in the modern era. To find saving grace, we must look to the past: “I find no salvation in my life history, but only in the history of Jesus Christ” (54). Baptism makes us a participant in that history. Baptism puts us into the Jordan with the repentant sinners, where we watch a sinless man come down and join us in the water (Matthew 3:6, 13–17).
“As we are united with the Son, we hear the Father’s divine favor spoken over us.”
In God’s gracious providence, baptism is the place where our lives intersect the narrative of Scripture. Plunging beneath the water, we pass through the pages and become characters in its plot. At baptism, our lives are eclipsed by the life of Christ — his death and resurrection: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. . . . We have been united with him” (Romans 6:4–5).
As we are united with the Son, we hear the Father’s divine favor spoken over us: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). His pleasure in us is a past proclamation, resting on our identity in Christ — not on our present performance. Whether we waver, doubt, sin, succeed, overcome, do good, the Father’s grace echoes over the waters of time from the moment our lives were “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
Surrounded in the Present
Baptism is not always a lighthearted affair, especially in non-Western contexts. During Amy Carmichael’s ministry (1867–1951), Indians realized — rightly — that baptism was the end of supreme loyalty to caste or family. When she spoke with the brothers of a young lady who wished to be baptized, they responded, “Baptized! She shall burn in ashes first. She may go out dead if she likes. She shall go out living — never!”
While most of us may not face imminent death, following Christ does mean losing one’s former life (Mark 8:35). “But he gives more grace” (James 4:6); we are baptized into a people. This is part of God’s present grace: instant family! We receive mothers and fathers to carry us along in our discipleship and brothers and sisters to feast with along life’s pilgrim way (1 Timothy 5:1–3).
Paul reminds us that baptism also places us in the stream of orthodoxy: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). The cloud of witnesses encourages us to run today’s leg of the race with endurance (Hebrews 12:1–2). The writings of Athanasius, Augustine, and Cranmer; the hymns of Steele, Watts, and Crosby; and the orthodox creeds of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and the Apostles help us to faithfully “guard the good deposit” entrusted to us in the present (2 Timothy 1:14).
In the new covenant, we join a company of priests who have been baptized with the Spirit (Mark 1:8). And to borrow a line from Kendrick Lamar, the Spirit makes sure “the holy water don’t go dry.” In other words, baptism reminds us of the continual work of the Spirit today. James B. Torrance puts it this way in Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace: “The water exhibits not an absent Christ, but a Christ present according to his promise. The Christ who was baptized at Calvary in our place, as our substitute, is present today to baptize us by the Holy Spirit, in faithfulness to his promise: ‘Lo I am with you . . .’” (80).
Assured of the Future
For all baptism’s past and present grace, a not-yet element remains. Baptism is a public declaration of hope that grace awaits us on the final day.
“Baptism is a public declaration of hope that grace awaits us on the final day.”
Although God’s focus in the new covenant is more internal (compared to the external focus of the old), Christians do not abandon hope for the renewal of the outside. The author of Hebrews insists that baptism — the washing of our bodies with pure water — gives us great confidence as we see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:19–25). Why? Our salvation is not yet complete. Our union with Christ holds one final, eternal grace: “the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).
Christ’s baptism was a Trinitarian prophecy of his death and resurrection. Our baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is too. The Christian life begins with a bold proclamation about the end; baptism is a statement of faith in the future grace of resurrection, when all of God’s people will rise to receive a body like Christ’s (Philippians 3:20–21).
Our Passive Amen
Through baptism, God brings past grace near to contemporary believers, secures us in a state of abiding present grace, and excites in us hope for future grace at the resurrection from the dead. In baptism, we do nothing to add to God’s full acceptance of us in Christ. As Torrance reminds us, “There is nothing more passive than dying, being buried, being baptized” (77). As we wash in the water, we proclaim our passive amen of faith to God’s past, present, and future grace: Let it be so — I believe!