[Note: I’m going to do an aside this week from the Journey series. The final installment is slated for next Friday. As always, thanks very much for reading.]
In my “Journey” series, I mentioned wrestling with the question: Do catholic and biblical go together?
When I use the word ‘catholic’ I mean the ancient and continuing, shared and historic practices and theology of churches that claim to be catholic. I don’ t mean particular Roman practices or theologies. Many people are used to ‘catholic’ being the same thing as ‘Roman’. But as Anglicans, we use it to mean historic, universal, and apostolic. I’ll use it here in that sense. I’m not trying to defend everything the Roman church believes here. Just the ancient, catholic basic beliefs of Christians.
Let me start with Baptism, because that’s such a key issue.
The catholic faith has seen baptism as the means God uses to wash away sin. To bring about new birth, regeneration, and to seal a person with the Holy Spirit. To bring a person into the Body of Christ in the new covenant, and to bring about the death, burial and new life of the person in Christ.
Lots of folks immediately see all of that as “unbiblical.” And yet almost all of these phrases are taken directly from the New Testament.
For example, Peter wrote, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Many pastors today would not stand up during a baptism and say “Baptism now saves you.” And yet that is exactly what Peter wrote.
Does he mean that baptism without faith (just pouring water on the head) saves us? No. But in some sense, he believed that God uses Baptism to save people.
Peter also preached that one purpose of Baptism is for the forgiveness of our sins and filling with the Holy Spirit. “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Again, there are many churches in which folks would be pretty uncomfortable if the Pastor quoted those words, “be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins” and you will “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” For some reason, people have decided that baptism just can’t be the way God has chosen to apply the forgiveness of our sins and to give us the gift of the Holy Spirit. Why not? Peter believed that.
Actually, this has happened because many churches started teaching, a few hundred years ago, that Baptism is something we do. If that’s the case, then we’d be saving ourselves and forgiving our sins by receiving baptism. We would be sort of forcing God to send us the Holy Spirit. Baptism would be a choice I make, a good work that I do. If that were true, then Peter’s sermon on baptism would be pretty strange. In fact, the only way to read Peter’s views is to understand that he thinks baptism is something God does.
St Paul said that too. Its not something we do. It is something God does.
For Paul, baptism is the way that God makes us members of the Body of Christ and gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Since every Christian is baptized, it equalizes us. We all enter the Body of Christ in repentance. We’ve died to our old selves. We don’t bring our social status, our wealth, our privileges, or our sins. We leave those behind, and baptism is the place where God strips all that away. Baptism humbles us then lifts us up to new life. For Paul, if you have been baptized, God has done this, and you are called to live into it.
He also believed that it was in baptism itself that we are crucified with Christ,”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.” Baptism is not merely symbolic for Paul. The phrase “by baptism” means “through means of baptism.” Its an ‘instrumental’ word. Baptism is the instrument whereby God does those things. Scholars agree that Paul meant it that way. God uses baptism to bury us into Christ’s death, and to then raise us to new life in Christ. Paul didn’t write, “God raises you to new life, and then has you undergo baptism to symbolize what he’s already done in reality.” He says that God uses baptism to accomplish raising us to new life.
Peter and Paul both believed that baptism and being born again are one and the same thing. This is based on what Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3, ““Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Born of water in baptism, and born of the Spirit.
Of course we need to be converted in heart and mind to Jesus. Conversion is a process or sudden event that wakes us up to God in Christ. But being “born again” in the biblical sense is baptism itself. In other words, according to the New Testament, you are born again in your baptism. But you should also seek to be converted to Jesus. These aren’t opposites, they go together. Its just that today, many people have confused “born again” with “converted.”
Paul teaches that baptism is the sign of the new covenant, just as circumcision is the sign of the old covenant. In the old covenant, God looked at the heart of the people. He wanted them to love him and to have a covenant relationship with him. So he gave them an outward sign of that covenant. This sign sealed and delivered the blessings of the covenant. In other words, God used this sign to deliver his covenant blessings to the people. Paul says that baptism is our new circumcision. Here is what he wrote to the Colossians:
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Some folks are afraid of what Jesus, Paul, and Peter taught about baptism. They are afraid that if they say that same biblical stuff to their church, then people will get some wrong idea.
People will think that baptism is a good work I do to demand or earn salvation from God. Or people will think that the water is magic water that if poured on my head, will get me into heaven apart from faith. Or that if I can get my kid baptized, then I don’t have to raise him in the faith, because he is already saved. Or that I can get my sins forgiven in baptism, and then just sin it up for the rest of my life.
These are real dangers that are really possible if you teach what the New Testament teaches about baptism. And yet the solution is not to ignore Jesus, Peter and Paul’s actual teaching.
The solution is to simply help people see that Jesus, Peter, and Paul didn’t teach any of those legalistic or superstitious beliefs.
They told us that God uses baptism to wash away our sins, to bring us to new life, and to seal his covenant. That he gives us the gift of faith and he is the one who brings us to the baptismal font, not us. That its his work, his promise, his love, and his seal.
I know many folks disagree with this interpretation. But its hard to get around the fact that the Christian church interpreted the New Testament basically this way for about 1600 years. And even today about 2/3 of world Christians see baptism this way, including many reformational churches. In terms of history and modern Christianity, “believer’s baptism” is a minority interpretation. In other words, believer’s baptism is not “a plain reading of Scripture.”
I hope this is received in the spirit in which it is written. None of us are absolutely right about anything. What I’m trying to share is how I have personally wrestled with the New Testament, the catholic faith, and my heritage as a baptistic Christian.
I’m thankful for my heritage, and I respect my baptistic friends. But I hope that in sharing my thoughts, at the very least you will understand that catholic Anglicans are not ignoring Scripture, but are trying to be faithful to it. We may disagree on some of the points, but we share that same desire to be faithful to Jesus and the Apostles.
Thanks as always for reading, and your comments are welcomed.
Greg is the founder of Anglican Compass (previously known as Anglican Pastor). He is an Anglican Priest of the Anglican Church in North America. He served in a non-denominational church before being called into the Anglican church in 2003. He has served as an Associate Pastor, Parish Administrator, and Rector. He currently serves as the Canon to the Ordinary for the Anglican Diocese of the South.