Evangelicalism, or at least the sort in which I was formed, has tended to view many important matters of faith in a polarizing manner. I’m thinking here, for example, of things like baptism, the Eucharist, and the Trinity. Generally, we tend to think of these things either moralistically or as optional. I’m more familiar with thinking of them as optional so, for example, baptism is not all that important. It is symbolic of an inner faith so that technically one could function as a Christian without being baptized. Or, the Eucharist is a meal of some importance but it really isn’t that important so we may only celebrate it once a month or so. Or, the Trinity is sort of complex and difficult to understand without falling into some heretical trap so we really won’t talk about it much (in this case we generally end up being functional Modalists, or maybe binitarians). On the other end of the spectrum is the moralizing of these things. Baptism becomes an ought. Without it there is no salvation. Christians should be baptized. The same could be said for other such practices.
I want to look at baptism (again!) here. A church I know of recently had someone leave the church community because when they tried to corner one of the pastors and force him to agree with them that baptism is necessary for salvation he was having none of it. The person figured that if you were not baptized then you were not saved. One of our pastors disagreed. So, they left. On the contrary, many Christians in the circles in which I was raised saw baptism as essentially optional. Sure, Jesus said we should do it and so we really should be baptized but if we’re not then it’s not really the end of the world and we can go on living as good Christians regardless. I think that both of these views are troubling and evidence of a lacking theological understanding of baptism.
I want to look at two passages in particular here. The first is Romans 6:3-6: “(3) Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (4) We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (5) If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (6) For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”
Within the Christian tradition an understanding of the death of Christ arose whereby Jesus’ death is expiatory. In other words, there is a trading of places. In his free and loving obedience to the Father Jesus represents us to God. This should not be understood simply in terms of Jesus taking on God’s wrath for us (there are theological problems with this) but rather that Jesus demonstrated his self-distinction from the Father in full obedience to him even to the point of death. In that Jesus was the man “for God” he was the man “for us” (ht Pannenberg). Without going much further here, the point is that our salvation is linked to Christ’s death. We are saved in that our death is linked to Christ’s death. This is what Paul means when he talks about being united with Jesus’ in his death so that, “we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” For Paul, this takes place in baptism. For Paul, the reconciliation of the world to God is not a closed event which ends with the death/resurrection of Jesus (although for Barth, this is the case, I think). Rather, Paul argues (and this seems to be the NT argument) that the reconciliation of the world to God in the death/resurrection of Christ is open to the world and thus requires some sort of response. So, Paul can argue elsewhere that we ought to “be reconciled” to God (2 Cor 5:20). So then, the linking of the death of the believer to the death of Christ which takes place in baptism is, for Paul, “the transition to the new life of the resurrection of the dead,” (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology vl. 2, 428).
The second passage is also from Paul and found in Colossians 2:11-12: “In [Jesus] you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
Here Paul argues much the same thing but extends the argument by saying that baptism replaces circumcision as initiation into the Body of Christ. This “circumcision done by Christ” is to be “buried with him in baptism.” The result is that while we are buried we are also raised with Christ to participate in resurrection life with God in the dawning of the new creation.
So then, to conclude, we cannot say that baptism is simply optional and of no real importance. Paul and the rest of the NT simply argue otherwise, and this is where we must begin. So, there is a sense then in which we must say that there is no salvation outside of baptism (insofar as in baptism our death is linked with Christ’s death and thus we are raised with him). Yet, Paul argues elsewhere that it wasn’t circumcision which made Abraham righteous but rather his faith which preceded circumcision (Rom. 4:10). So, baptism does not generate faith but rather is the response of faith as enabled by the Spirit, and it is a response which has real effects.