"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Ordinary Means: The Word and Baptism

There are countless definitions that have been given of baptism. We may, however, categorize them as one of two varieties. One defines baptism as something like:

"Baptism is an act of faith and a testimony that one has been united with Christ in his death and resurrection, that one has experienced spiritual circumcision. It is a public indication of one's commitment to Christ." (Millard Erickson. Christian Theology. pg 1110)

The first way is how Erikson defines baptism, as an act done by the believer, confirming the believer's experience and publicly commiting to Christ.

The second variety, however, defines baptism quite differently:

"We don’t think of baptism as something we do, but rather as something God does–at least in the ultimate sense. While the recipient physically gets wet, God washes the elect too with the Holy Spirit unto regeneration in effectual calling." (Preston Graham, pastor)

The second way is how Graham defines baptism, as something God does to the believer. But how does the Bible speak of baptism? I would like to here argue (and though it should be clear, argue I must) that Ephesians 5:26 gives us a picture of the Scriptural understanding of baptism:

Ephesians 5:25b-27: Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

So how does Christ wash his Bride?

Paul gives husbands a rich object lesson for their love for their brides in Ephesians 5, saying they must love their wives as Christ loved the church. Yet, when Paul gives this picture, he includes “washing of water with the word.” What does this washing refer to?

John Gill emphatically says it is “not baptism, which is never expressed by washing” but is “the blood of Christ.” This answer has a huge problem reconciling that fact that Paul here specifically mentions “water” not blood. Images exist for washing in Christ’s blood in Heb 9 and Rev 7:14, but these will specifically mention blood and not water. To eliminate any thought of baptism is bold but unfounded. Also, Gill’s comments that baptism is “never expressed by washing” defies the way Scripture uses the word “baptism,” which is used to mean “washing,” in both Luke 11:38 and Mark 7:4 where the disciples are reprimanded by Pharisees for not washing (baptizing) before eating.

Another possibility that has recently been posited is that Paul means an ancient form of “bridal washing.” Commentator Harold Hoehner cites an occasionally practiced rite of washing that a bride performs before a wedding in Greek culture. This, however, would be a poor metaphor, as the husband is said to do the washing in Ephesians 5:26, but the ancient marriage rite would not be done by the husband, for the bride does this to herself before the wedding. (S. Safrai “Home and Family” in The Jewish People in the First Century. Historical Geography, Political History, Social Cultural and Religious Life. Ed S. Safrai and M. Stern. 1987 Volume 2, pg 758)

I would submit that the washing in Ephesians 5:26 is baptism, and even credo-baptists need not react immediately against such a proposition. Indeed not all credo-baptists do, as John Piper to his credit comments on the verse saying, “The water of baptism is a representation of that spiritual washing. Notice that the cleansing from sin in verse 26 comes from the self-sacrifice of Christ in verse 25. So it is with baptism.”

The commentators Gill and Hoehner share a common prejudice they bring to the text. Hoehner explicitly states he rejects that Ephesians 5:26 refers to baptism because “the rite of baptism does not cleanse one from sin.” (Hoehner, Ephesians. 753) Both Gill and Hoehner bring to the text an assumption about baptism, rather than letting the Scriptures tell them whether “the rite of baptism” cleanses from sin, and in what sense it would do so. If we can recognize the washing in Ephesians 5:26 is baptism, we can learn a great truth about baptism from the text.

The word used for washing in 5:26 is “λουτρῷ”. The only other time the word λουτρῷ is used is used is in Titus 3:5, in refering to the washing of regeneration. However there is a variation used 1 Cor 6:11 and Acts 22:16, which uses the variation ἀπελούσασθε. This variation is also used in regards to baptism in Acts 22:16, where the command is given to be “baptized and wash away your sins.” The word λουτρῷ would also come to have a variant that would be used for a baptismal fount, letting us know how the church received Paul’s use of that word (if the explicit connection by early church writers Cyprian and Marius Victorinus aren’t enough.). But just thinking logically, where is the one place where water would be associated with any member of the church? The only time a church member would come in contact with water in a religious context would be in baptism.

How are we to understand Baptism as washing then? Does the physical act of baptism cleanse the church of sin? This is where careful attention to Paul’s wording of “washing of water with the word” becomes very important. The sacrament is only effective by means of the word. No word = no sacrament. This is not because the words become an incantation where a magic act occurs, but because the outward sign points to and teaches with the word the inward reality that accompanies the sign.

Scripture makes a distinction between the inward reality and the outward sign. Paul had already mentioned the inward reality of “sanctification” in 5:26, so the outward reality of washing with water is natural. As Calvin says: “Having mentioned the inward and hidden sanctification, he now adds the outward symbol…that pledge of that sanctification is held out to us by baptism.” (John Calvin on Ephesians 5:26 in Commentaries, on Galatians and Ephesians. pg 319)

If one were to ask Peter what baptism does, we see his answer in 1 Peter 3:21, that yes “Baptism saves,” but, “not as a removal of dirt from the body.” It is not the waters that cleanse, but the spirit through the word. In other words, the mere act of water touching skin does nothing of itself, but baptism is effectual “as an appeal to God.” The appeal is to the promises of God made in baptism that create a good conscience, not an appeal to God in a self-created good conscience. The washing is something God in Christ through the Spirit does, God is the Effecter, baptism is Christ washing the bride, not the bride washing herself.

Paul so richly tells us the relationship between sign and reality in Romans 2:28-29, when speaking about circumcision, the sign under the old covenant: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” There were many times when the Israelites confused sign and reality, yet, throughout the Old Testament, never was the physical act of circumcision resended. The physical was important, necessary and commanded, yet the inward that accompanies the outward was the reality.

In Ephesians 5:26, the image of washing points to baptism. The wording of washing and the use of water as a symbol that points to the reality, as well as sealing that reality by action. To divorce the two completely tells more of an attempted reading of one’s own theology into the passage than what the passage actually means. The reference is not an acknowledgment of some magical power in the water of baptism, but a testament to the sanctifying nature of the love of a husband for a wife, and of Christ for his church which is figured, exhibited, and conferred when accepted by faith in baptism. Baptism ultimately is something God does for the benefit of the baptized, not something the baptized does for the benefit of other people.

In such a way, baptism is a means of grace for the church. In it, the word is made visible, and the act that the word promises is displayed. Baptism is the place of washing, where Christ washes His bride, those receiving (and not giving something) in faith, in the word of His promise.

[But this may still leave questions as to specifically what Baptism does...]

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