Baptism and Discipleship

J. V. Fesko
Thursday, June 30th 2011
Jul/Aug 2011

One of the more common questions I have heard over the years from my Baptist friends is, "How can an infant benefit from baptism?" The common assumption is that an infant has no capacity for faith, and therefore the child has no concept of what is occurring in his or her baptism; hence, baptism cannot benefit the child. Another assumption that lies behind this common question is that the abiding value of baptism rests in the moment of its administration. In other words, baptism is of little lasting value in the life of a Christian because it serves only as a memory of one moment where a person professed his or her faith. Despite the popularity of these ideas and the question it generates, a full-orbed understanding of the sacrament of baptism has the strongest of links with discipleship. To demonstrate the vital bond between baptism and discipleship, we will briefly survey the nature and character of baptism and then examine how this theology bears upon our lives as Christ's disciples.

The Nature and Character of Baptism

Chances are if you ask someone why they were baptized they will tell you that it is commanded in the Bible, or Jesus was baptized and set an example for us, or perhaps they will simply shrug and defer to tradition. I suspect, however, that few can give a solid biblically grounded answer as to why the church baptizes new converts and their children. We must begin, not with the baptism of Christ, or the baptism of John, or Pentecost, but with the opening chapters of the Bible. In Genesis 1:2 we read of the Spirit of God hovering over the waters like a bird (cf. Deut. 32:11). This same imagery appears in Genesis 8:1 as the author uses a double entendre when he writes that God sent a wind (ruach), the same word for "spirit," which caused the floodwaters to subside. In many ways, the flood was a re-creation of the earth, and the author wanted his readers to recall the Spirit's presence and involvement in the initial creation. Water and the Spirit are intimately connected throughout the Scriptures and appear in other passages that relate to baptism.

The Flood

Things get interesting when we note how the apostle Peter characterizes the Noahic flood. Peter explains that eight people, Noah and his family, were saved through the flood, but that there is now "an antitype which now saves us’baptism" (1 Pet. 3:21 NKJV). That Peter invokes the term "antitype" in his explanation of the relationship between the flood and baptism is important. A type is a person, place, or thing that foreshadows or anticipates a person, place, or thing in the New Testament. The counterpart of a type is its antitype. In this case, the Noahic flood is a type (or foreshadow) of the antitype of baptism. What Peter means, therefore, is that the flood anticipates the realities that stand behind baptism.

The Red Sea Crossing

Water and Spirit appear again in the biblical narrative in one of Israel's most formative moments’the Red Sea crossing. We can place the presence of the Holy Spirit at the Red Sea crossing from the words of Haggai the prophet: "Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst" (Hag. 2:4b-5). Most readers of the biblical narrative are more familiar with the Spirit's presence as he is described as the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Exod. 13:21). Once again, when we turn to the New Testament's interpretation of this event, we find the apostle Paul characterizing the Red Sea crossing as a baptism: "For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea" (1 Cor. 10:1-2). We find the presence of water and Spirit associated with an act of new creation, as the exodus marked Israel's birth as a nation. Israel, God's son, came up out of the waters of the Red Sea and was guided into the wilderness by the Spirit (Exod. 4.23).

The Baptism of Christ

The culmination of these Old Testament events arrives in the baptism of Jesus when he comes out of the water, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove. Recall that Noah released a dove over the waters of the flood (Gen 8:8-11), and the Spirit hovered over the waters of creation like a bird (Gen 1:2; Deut. 32:11). And the voice of God thundered from the clouds, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17). The Spirit, like Israel of old, led God's Son into the wilderness to be tested. But unlike Israel, Jesus was faithful in his wilderness probation (Matt. 4:1-11). The creation, the flood, and the Red Sea crossing, however, were anticipating not only the person and work of Christ but also the work of the Holy Spirit. When John was asked what he was doing by baptizing people in the Jordan River, he responded: "I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matt. 3:11).


John baptized with water but clearly stated that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Christ's baptism did not arise de novo with John's proclamation on the banks of the Jordan, but from a number of Old Testament prophecies, such as Ezekiel's promise that God would sprinkle his people with water, remove their sins, and place his Spirit within them (Ezek. 36:26-27). Note that once again we find the mention of both water and Spirit. Another prophecy comes from the end of Ezekiel where he has a vision of a perfect temple, and from under its threshold flows a stream of water that eventually fills the whole earth (Ezek. 47:1-9). Perhaps one of the best-known prophecies is the utterance of Joel: "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh" (Joel 2:28a). The baptism, then, of which John prophesied was the outpouring of the Spirit that Christ would perform upon the church. The apostle Peter confirms this conclusion when he preached at Pentecost: "This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he [Jesus] has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing" (Acts 2.32-33).

Putting It All Together

This collage of biblical events and imagery informs our understanding of baptism. We baptize converts and their children with water not only because this rite has been commanded by Christ in his Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), but because, like the Word of God, baptism as the visible Word of God proclaims that Christ has come and poured out the Spirit. Through the work of the outpoured Spirit, the people of God are gathered from the four corners of the earth, are given faith, are cleansed of their sin, and are being renewed, transformed, and conformed to the perfect image of Jesus Christ (John 1:12-13; 3:3-8; Ezek. 36:24-27). Moreover, baptism continues to proclaim that Christ's outpouring of the Spirit will reach epic proportions: the Spirit will eventually flood the creation just as the waters of the Noahic flood once covered the earth. Echoing Ezekiel's prophecy of the water that flows from beneath the threshold of the final temple (cf. Ezek. 47; Rev. 22:1-2; John 7:38-39), the apostle Peter compares the Noahic flood to the fire of the Spirit that will flood the earth (cf. Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:16):

For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (2 Pet. 3:5-7)

This baptism of the Spirit is not one that is restricted to isolated individuals or simply the church, but indeed will cover the whole creation. The baptism of the Spirit is not restricted to the one-time event of a person's profession of faith. Far from it, Christ's outpouring of the Spirit is a present ongoing reality, one that began at Pentecost and will continue until the consummation of all things.

In other words, baptism is not primarily about a person's personal faith, but rather about what God has done and continues to do through Christ and the Spirit. In common theological parlance, God proclaims the gospel of Christ through ministers who herald the gospel through Word and Sacrament. What the Word is to the ears, the sacraments’baptism in this case’are to the other senses. The sacraments never stand alone but always require the preaching of the Word; one can have the Word alone but never the sacraments alone. Understanding these basic scriptural and theological points about baptism is of the utmost importance in grasping the relationship between baptism and discipleship.

The Bond between Baptism and Discipleship

When the church baptizes a new convert with water, it does so in obedience to the Great Commission of Christ. The church baptizes with a view to discipleship: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:19-20). This life of discipleship is true not only for the adult convert but also for the infant.

Catechetical Instruction about Who God Is

For infants baptized into the church, make no mistake, they are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:1-4). To this end, they should be catechized and instructed in the faith. Infants will hopefully grow up to be children who are taught, among many other things, the Lord's Prayer. They should be taught to call upon God as Father and be reminded that they have been given their Father's covenantal sign and seal. The covenantal sign and seal of baptism is no guarantee of a person's salvation, whether for the infant or the adult convert. Just as circumcision did not save but was a sign and seal of the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:11), so too baptism points to the one who saves, to Christ who has poured out the Spirit upon the whole church, young and old, male and female.

Ideally, infants who receive the sign and grow up within the covenant community should be instructed not only from the Word and the message of the gospel, but also in the rites of the covenant, such as baptism. They should be instructed and taught of the Old Testament baptisms, the creation, the flood, and the Red Sea crossing. They should be taught of the double-edged nature of God's revelation’namely, there are no neutral encounters with the living God. One does not encounter the living God and walk away unchanged. A person is either blessed or cursed in his or her encounter with the one true living God. In the baptism-flood, Noah and his family were saved through this typical baptism, but the unbelieving world was drowned in judgment. In the baptism-Red Sea crossing, Israel was saved, but Pharaoh and his army were drowned in judgment in the very waters that delivered Israel. Just as the gospel is the aroma of life for those who are being saved and the aroma of death for those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:15-16), so the sacrament of baptism echoes this message.

Equipped with this information about baptism, whenever young children observe the baptism of others, the minister should explain to his congregation, especially the children, that the whole church benefits from the sacrament of baptism. Far too often people believe that the only one to benefit from baptism is the one who gets wet. But if we realize that the one who is being baptized is simply one among many who have been a part of Christ's baptism of the Spirit upon the church, then we understand that we are part of a covenantal community. Those who look to Christ by faith alone are part of the inaugurated new creation Christ has brought about through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. But at the same time, while the new creation has been inaugurated, it has not been consummated. We live between the two great epochs of redemptive history, this present evil age and the age to come (Matt. 12:32; Gal. 1:4).

Subject to the Discipline of Christ's Church

As those who have been baptized into Christ, whether adult or infant, we are all subject to the rule of the enthroned Messiah who reigns over his people. We are accountable as baptized members of his church to the discipline of the Christ. Recall that the church is supposed to instruct the church in everything Christ has commanded (Matt. 28:20). Discipline, of course, does not begin with formal church discipline, whether in censure or excommunication. Rather, discipline begins with discipleship, accountability, and instruction. For those who stray from the faith in which they have been baptized and catechized, they must be put under some form of church discipline. It is under church discipline that they are reminded of the double-edged nature of God's revelation, of the double-edged nature of the sacraments, and of the double-edged nature of Christ's rule. Christ is either the rock upon whom we must fall or the rock that will fall upon us in judgment.

The Lifelong Echo of Baptism

In all of these things we are reminded of the lifelong echo of baptism. Baptism is not one punctuated moment in our lives in which we declared our faithfulness to Christ. Rather, our one baptism is a small part of a greater baptism that has been poured out upon the church by Christ and that continues until the consummation of the age. This is one of the key missing dimensions for the church's understanding of baptism’namely, baptism is the visible Word of God and therefore nourishes the body of Christ and is part of the church's corporate and individual discipleship.

Herman Witsius (1636-1738), a Dutch Reformed theologian, recounts the lifelong value of infant baptism in the following:

Here certainly appears the extraordinary love of our God, in that as soon as we are born, and just as we come from our mother, he has commanded us to be solemnly brought from her bosom, as it were into his own arms, that he should bestow upon us, in the very cradle, the tokens of our dignity and future kingdom; that he should put that song in our mouth, "thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother's breast: I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother's belly" (Psa 22.9-10) that, in a word, he should join us to himself in the most solemn covenant from our most tender years: the remembrance of which, as it is glorious and full of consolation to us, so in like manner it tends to promote Christian virtues, and the strictest holiness, through the whole course of our lives.

Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (Phillipsburg: The Den Dulk Foundation, 1990), 4.16.47 (emphasis added).

In other words, when we were in our most helpless of states, incapable of reaching out to God, he reached out to us by marking us with the sign and seal of the gospel’a lifelong signpost of God's grace in Christ.


So then, how does baptism benefit an infant? Since baptism is first and foremost the sign and seal of God's covenant with his people, it is the visible Word of God's promise. As an infant grows up within the bosom of the church, and as her parents raise her in the fear and admonition of the Lord, the child learns who God is, learns into whose name she has been baptized, watches other baptisms, and hears the gospel of Christ preached to her ears and sees the gospel preached to her eyes. The child grows up to learn that she is part of a covenant community, the body of Christ, which has been redeemed through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. And in his ascension, Christ has poured out the life-giving Holy Spirit to redeem a bride for himself and to present her spotless and without blemish before our heavenly Father on the last day. A person's baptism, therefore, echoes throughout her life and continues to preach the gospel to her long after the day she was given the rite. What has baptism to do with discipleship in the life of a covenant child? In a word, everything.

Thursday, June 30th 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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