Baptism: God’s Work and Ours

Crossing the Red Sea-S


The difference between separation and preparation…

In a post on Kuyperian Commentary entitled Baptism Is God’s Work, my friend Steve Jeffery writes:

My friend Fred Thompson made a tremendously illuminating comment about baptism recently. With his permission (thanks Fred) I wanted to say a few words about it. Here’s what he said:

“I keep thinking of the Red Sea baptism, a baptism of a nation, a mixed multitude, a nation that did not know where she was going, a nation that did not understand baptism. It was a new nation that left Egypt and she needed grace above all else, grace given through water and manna to all.”

Fred has in mind the well-known typological connection between baptism and the crossing of the Red Sea during the exodus (e.g. 1 Cor 10). Pressing this point, it becomes obvious that many evangelical assumptions about baptism are at best only a part of the biblical picture.

For example, we readily treat baptism as an expression of our faith towards God, part of our response to him. But baptism is in the first instance an act of God’s grace towards us. Though of course Israel was called to trust the LORD, it would be a strange reading of the Red Sea crossing that placed the emphasis on the faithfulness of the Israelites’ response to God.

Steve makes some good points about the over-emphasis on baptism as a human act. But over-emphasising God’s work in baptism is simply falling off the other side of the horse.

As a “credobaptist” I believe the Bible clearly teaches that baptism involves both God’s work and the work of the baptizand (the one being baptised). It is a combination of both the subjective (credo) and the objective (baptism). I believe that baptism is a lay ordination. This means that pitting the objective and subjective against each other is going to minimise the scope of the rite as something which is not only a legal relationship (objective) but also a loving relationship (subjective). To help us understand Christian baptism we could consider the rites of marriage and knighthood. Do getting married or being knighted actually do anything? Most certainly! Must the ones being married or knighted have some idea of what is going on? Most certainly. That is the whole point. In the New Testament, baptism is presented to us as a vow which has similarities with marriage and with knighthood, and indeed with the Nazarite vow (which both men and women could take). All of these vows were (or are) taken voluntarily (subjective), yet each vow bestows some form of authority for service (objective). In each case, one submits to authority that one might receive authority. This is not rocket science. Even a centurion can understand a rite that requires both the work of God and the work of Man (Matthew 8:5-13).

So, what did Israel’s passing through the Red Sea have to do with authority? Paedobaptists love to quote 1 Corinthians 10:2 as evidence for paedobaptism, but not one of them stops to ask why Israel needed baptism. Just like Roman Catholics, they have a rite to defend, and as soon as they see something which looks like proof, they stop thinking. They fail to ask a number of crucial questions.

Firstly, “How did Israel’s baptism relate to Israel’s circumcision?” The events at the Red Sea and the Jordan River were not Israel’s circumcision. Passover was certainly a corporate vindication of the circumcision (all Israel as God’s firstborn), but baptism prepared Israel for ministry as a sacrificial nation. Separation is not preparation any more than choosing a “son of the herd” was the same as cutting it up according to the Levitical requirements. Circumcision and baptism were part of a sacrificial process which culminated in the offering of Christ. When Christ died, the “separation” of circumcision finally became meaningless. But what about Israel’s baptism? Did that also become meaningless? The answer is found in another question which paedobaptists fail to ask.

So, secondly, “Why was Israel baptised all at once, yet Christians are not?” Christians are not baptised “corporately” but one by one, and we must ask why there is this difference under the New Covenant. When reading the Bible, in all cases, we must observe not only what is the same, but also what is different. This is something we must do even within the first book of the Bible, let alone in our comparison between the various historical covenants. Dry land rose up out of the waters twice in Genesis, but there are differences as well as similarities. There is repetition but also development and maturity. The same goes for Israel’s baptism. After the “national baptism” came the Levitical ordinances and the establishment of the priesthood. The “one baptism into Moses” was expressed in a “many” baptism as the Mosaic law was administered. Christian baptism in the Gospels and the book of Acts resembles the individual baptisms of the Levite priests who had to wash their bodies and their clothes as mediators between God and men.

The overall question is this: What makes the Church less like national Israel and more like the Levites? The answer would be that the “national” division (circumcision) was torn down by Christ, and all that remains is ministry among all nations. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul is not claiming that the Christians had escaped either nationally or geographically from a physical nation like Egypt. He is simply claiming that just as Israel’s preparation for ministry involved personal faith and accountability to a Covenant oath, so also does Christian baptism. Did those whose bodies fell in the wilderness understand the Covenant oath when they took it? Most certainly. This is why their children were spared.1The fact that my friend Tim Gallant sees the sparing of the children as evidence for a continued focus on children through baptism reveals how distorted our thinking can become when we make the Scriptures fit our agenda: we begin to see the opposite of what is actually there.

Reading too much into our baptism from Israel’s Red Sea baptism can lead us into error. Paedobaptism is a confusion of circumcision and baptism which was not even found in Old Testament Israel. Baptism is a delegation of Christ’s prophetic authority with accountability to Him. It is neither God’s work nor Man’s work, since in the regenerate, these become as indistinguishable as they are in the incarnate Christ.

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1. The fact that my friend Tim Gallant sees the sparing of the children as evidence for a continued focus on children through baptism reveals how distorted our thinking can become when we make the Scriptures fit our agenda: we begin to see the opposite of what is actually there.

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