We love celebrating baptism in The Hallows Church! Each time we do so, we declare that salvation comes by grace through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
In college, I learned that verbs have voices. Usually, a verb’s voice is either active or passive. The distinction between the two is whether the verb’s subject acts or is acted upon. An example of the active voice would be, “I punched the bully.” The subject “I” performs the verb “punch.” An example of the passive voice would be, “I was punched by the bully.” The subject “I” was acted upon or “was punched.” My English professor often chided me for using the passive voice too much in my writing. She thought it represented a poor technique. That may be so. Passive verbs may represent poor writing but they represent great theology. The passive voice is the voice of salvation. We do not save ourselves by what we do and how well we do it; we are saved by God’s gracious activity towards us and for us in Christ.
In Romans 6, Paul draws an analogy between salvation and baptism. As he does so, he writes in the passive voice. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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” (Rm. 6:3-4). Paul might have failed an English writing course but he would have aced his theology exams.
Salvation, therefore, is received not achieved. God’s voice is active in salvation; our voice is passive. He saves; we are saved. We are saved by grace through faith in the work of another. Baptism illustrates this dynamic. A person is not qualified to baptize his or her self. Instead, every disciple is expected to be baptized by another.
In 1997, Robert Duval starred in a film titled The Apostle. In it, he plays the role of an eccentric Pentecostal preacher. One of the more memorable scenes occurred when Duval’s character found a nearby river and tried to baptize himself, but all he did was go for a swim. We do not baptize ourselves each time we jump off a diving board or take a bath. If you are into sprinkling, you are not baptized each time you step outside in Seattle. Baptism signifies—among other things—our passive role in salvation. Salvation begins when we despair of trying to save ourselves and defer the work of salvation to God.
In addition to signifying salvation by grace, we love celebrating baptism because it portrays a stunning picture of our solidarity with Christ. Consider Paul’s words again: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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” (Rm. 6:3-4). Paul uses similar language in Galatians 3:27, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
The term baptism literally means to immerse, which conveys a rather violent image. The Greek term was used often to describe people drowning or ships sinking to the bottom of the sea. A Jewish historian named Josephus used the term metaphorically of crowds that flooded into Jerusalem during a major festival and wrecking the city. Think New Orleans after Mardi Gras.This helps us understand why Jesus would refer to his death on the cross as his baptism: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Lk. 12:50). Jesus was wrecked violently on the cross.
Likewise, when a person becomes a Christian—they receive salvation by grace—their old way of life is wrecked. It is crucified. A new life of spiritual solidarity with Christ is given to them. Being baptized publicly affirms this new reality for the new disciple. When someone is baptized in The Hallows Church, as they are submerged, we declare that their “old life has been buried in the likeness of Christ.” As they are raised out of the water, we then declare that they “have been raised to walk in newness of life.”
Moreover, as we celebrate baptism in the context of community, we are reminded that what’s true for the new disciple is true for all disciples. Life in Christ is a shared life. Christ was crucified and risen not just to save a person but a people, to recreate a community not just an individual. Although baptism is not salvific, it is spiritually significant. It provides an opportunity for disciples to publically identify with Christ and to powerfully illustrate what Christ has done. In so doing, baptism is an act of worshipful obedience capable of encouraging and edifying everyone involved.
I am sometimes asked, “If baptism isn’t salvific, then what’s the point in being baptized.” I often ask in reply, “If loving your neighbor isn’t salvific, then what’s the point in loving your neighbor?” Usually, the conversation then moves towards affirming how our love for neighbor flows from the love God has shed abroad in our hearts. Loving our neighbors signifies the spiritually significant transformation that now characterizes a disciple’s new life in Christ. In a similar—albeit, unique—way, baptism does so as well. Baptism signifies the spiritually significant transformation currently characterizing our new life in Christ.
Acts 8:26-40 tells the story of how the gospel took root in the life of an Ethiopian eunuch. As Philip shared the gospel story, he apparently discussed the role of baptism in discipleship. In verses 36-37, we read, “And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.” I find it interesting that Philip did not have to convince the new disciple to be baptized. In fact, the new disciple insisted upon being baptized in response to the gospel.
We recently celebrated the baptism of a new disciple in a very similar fashion. He woke up one Sunday and, seemingly at random, he read Ephesians 2, which makes the message of salvation by grace through faith in Christ explicit. As he did so, a light bulb switched on in his soul. He repented and believed the gospel. The young man was not raised in a Christian family nor was he a part of any Christian sub-culture. In fact, he was fully engaged in some intensely dark, hedonistic habits. A college roommate had shared the gospel with him multiple times and committed to praying for him. Yet, when things clicked for him, he was no longer in immediate fellowship with his roommate. Soon, the new disciple found his way to our church and connected with a few of our leaders. Much like the eunuch, he insisted upon being baptized not because he viewed it as salvific but because the more he read the Scriptures the more he recognized it as significant. His desire to be baptized increased. Our leaders gladly took him to a nearby canal off of Lake Union where he was baptized. It was a Christ-honoring, soul-edifying moment of enthusiastic, submissive, and joyful obedience that edified everyone involved.
Every person who trusts in the gospel should be baptized, not out of necessity, but in compliance with the new life being wrought within them as a result of what Christ has done for them. Why wouldn’t a disciple want to be baptized?
If you live in or near the city of Seattle and are interested in learning more about baptism, please join me for a meal and discussion about baptism following either The Hallows Church’s morning worship gathering in West Seattle or after our evening gathering in Fremont on Sunday, October 9th. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.