Several months ago, I wrote two posts about the connection of the outward signs of circumcision and baptism to their respective inward realities: circumcision of the heart and baptism of the Spirit. You can read those posts here: Part 1 and Part 2.
In the first post, I discussed the Bible does not speak of circumcision and baptism as ends in themselves, but as signs and seals that point to inward spiritual realities; thus, there is an important link between between the sacraments and regeneration. In the second post, I wrote about the fact that there is not a causal relationship between the outward signs and the inward realities–that is, just as being physically circumcised by itself did not save anyone, neither does water baptism by itself save anyone. So, one big question remains: How, then, do the outward signs correspond to the inward realities?
Let me begin this issue by referring to one of John Piper’s arguments against infant baptism. In fact, in the sermon that he discusses these things, he notes that this particular argument has become one of the most important reasons that he is still a Baptist. He argues:
When the New Testament church debated in Acts 15 whether circumcision should still be required of believers as part of becoming a Christian, it is astonishing that not once in that entire debate did anyone say anything about baptism standing in the place of circumcision. If baptism is the simple replacement of circumcision as a sign of the new covenant, and thus valid for children as well as for adults, as circumcision was, surely this would have been the time to develop the argument and so show that circumcision was no longer necessary. But it is not even mentioned.
Now, I should first note that Piper is one of my heroes, and I think that he is one of the most godly men living. His unbridled passion for Jesus Christ humbles and encourages me every time I hear him speak or read something that he wrote. Still, he and I disagree about the nature of baptism. So, allow me to respectfully disagree with the reasoning behind this argument.
I would say that the reason the Jerusalem Council did not bring up baptism as “the simple replacement of circumcision” is that to do so would have given the completely wrong impression to those who believed that a person must become Jewish first, and then a Christian, in order to be saved. The big theological problem behind this dispute was that many Jewish converts to Christianity were understanding their salvation as being rooted in Jewish identity (especially in regard to their being circumcised) and merely continued by Christ. Paul argued vehemently against this reasoning, declaring that Christ is not only the capstone of a Jew’s salvation for being Jewish, but the foundation and the capstone (and everything in between) for salvation on the basis of faith.
So, to tell these confused Jewish Christians that baptism was “the simple replacement of circumcision” would have been extremely misleading. It would have confirmed their presuppositions that salvation comes on the basis of being Jewish (with Christ as the capstone of Jewishness), and it would have simply given them a different means of being Jewish–baptism instead of circumcision. Instead, the Jerusalem Council had to proclaim that Jesus Christ alone is the ground of salvation.
(By the way, Piper’s whole sermon from which I am quoting is intended to demonstrate that there is not a definite link between circumcision and baptism. I believe that there is, and I have discussed this elsewhere, but I cannot spend too much time defending that point now. I already have enough to say.)
So, why do I bring this up when I said that I intended to write about what baptism actually does do? Mainly, I want my terms to be clear in how I describe the sacraments: Christ alone saves, so the sacraments cannot be more than the means through which Christ saves, rather than the basis of salvation.
This is the thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 4: Abraham was counted righteous by faith before he had received circumcision, partially to show that salvation comes by faith alone, and partially to “make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” (Rom 4:11-12) Abraham’s salvation by faith became the example of how all who followed him would be saved.
So, what role is left for the sacraments to play in salvation? Since this post has already become quite lengthy (this perhaps should have been two posts), I will suggest only one idea about how to think about the relationship of the baptism to the Christian’s salvation: I think that it would be helpful to think of baptism as a seed planted in our hearts, along the lines of Jesus’ parable of the sower.
A seed by itself is nothing, and until the seed can find a home in the rich soil of faith (rather than being snatched up or falling on rocky or weedy soil), it cannot produce any fruit. But, because God actually makes use of the outward sign of our baptism in order to cause the inward reality to blossom, baptism is extremely important. I simply think that there is too strong of a link in Scripture between water baptism and Spirit baptism to argue that water baptism is merely symbolic of salvation, but I think that the Scripture too clearly delineates between the two for there to be a absolute causal link. In my judgment, using the metaphor of a seed is a very helpful way to steer clear of these two extremes.
Now, a couple of clarifications for thinking about this metaphor. First, God does not need a seed to cause something to grow. Is God not able to raise up children of Abraham from mere stones? (Matt. 3:9) God normally uses a seed, but in certain cases he can certainly save someone without their being baptized. Salvation is found in Christ alone, even if God generally uses baptism as a means of communicating that salvation.
Second, baptism is often not the first seed planted in someone’s life. I grew up in a Christian family, but I was not baptized as an infant. Furthermore, there are plenty of believers who did not even grow up in Christian families. Therefore, the first seed sowed in such lives was the word of God. (Presbyterians understand the grace communicated through the sacraments as being the same grace communicated through the word.) In that case, where the word of God was the seed planted, baptism would not be a second kind of seed, but would be the watering (pardon the pun!) on the seed. In cases where children of believers are indeed baptized after birth, the word that they hear read and preached as they grow up would water their seed of baptism.
In any case, no matter who plants and who waters, “God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:6-7). In the end, all glory goes to the Father who chose us, to the Son who died and rose again for us, and to the Spirit who enlivens our souls to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. All glory be to the Triune God!
So, I hope that you find this metaphor helpful because I think that it communicates an important truth: we are not saved by baptism per se, but by Jesus Christ. Still, God’s ordaining the ends of salvation does not mean that he did not ordain the means of communicating that salvation, and among those means (e.g., the proclamation of the word) would be the sacrament of baptism.