Issues, Etc. Journal - Spring 1997 - Vol. 2 No. 3

Baptism and Faith:

Just Whose Work Is It?

by Dr. Richard Shuta

Jesus says, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14: 6). But how do we come to see Jesus as God’s Truth, our only path to eternal life? How do we get on that path?

The answer typically given among Christians is faith. To talk about faith in relationship to salvation is biblical. When the jailer of ancient Philippi asked the Apostle Paul, "What must I do to be saved?" Paul replied, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved" (Acts 16: 31).

But is faith something we produce with a little outside help from God? Or, is it totally God’s creation? Paul reminds us, "For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive?" (I Corinthians 4: 7). Moreover, "No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit" (I Corinthians 12: 3).

What is the relationship between faith and Baptism? Those who advocate only a "Believer’s Baptism" (and therefore limited to adults) understand Baptism as an outward sign of an inward faith that is in existence prior to coming to Baptism. To those who hold this view, emphasis falls upon both Baptism and faith as man’s act.

But should this be the emphasis? Is it not too narrow? Is it not a dangerous focus upon man? The Scriptures emphasize that salvation, which includes the gift of saving faith, is due solely to the Holy Spirit’s creative initiative. The gift of a new spiritual life is the objective gift prepared, purchased and delivered solely by God Himself. He brings the lost back to himself through His Word delivered to sinners in many ways (Hebrews 1: 1-2). From its beginning, to its completion for us in eternity, salvation, as theologians remind us, is monergistic, that is, the result only of God’s power.

Faith, our reception of God’s gift and response to His Word is itself the work of God, born out of His self-giving love. To affirm otherwise would be to make the human response a "work" meriting salvation. Such an affirmation is a direct contradiction of the nature of saving grace (Ephesians 2: 8-9). After all, it is the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep, it is not the sheep who are searching for the shepherd. Salvation, therefore, is not dependent on the subjective response of the person.

The New Testament indicates that saving faith in any individual (regardless of age) is there not on the basis of any human power that generates it, but exists because God has grasped the heart, surrounded it, filled it with His self-giving love. God’s divine action always precedes and empowers human reaction. Like our physical life is a gift, something we did not create, so is our spiritual rebirth.

To what then can we compare saving faith? It is like the darkness of a closed room that is suddenly lit; the darkness has no other capacity than to receive the light. It contributes nothing to the light but is simply there to be illuminated by the light.

Saving faith is also like the silence that is filled with just one sound. It is only there for the sound to fill. When the sound occurs, the silence itself is transformed into what it was not. The silence is not itself the sound, but participates wholly in the quality and nature of the sound that has come to fill it.

Thus, saving faith is the echo in the human heart created by the sound of the Word of Christ, the Light of the world, displacing all spiritual darkness.

Faith and Baptism A Unity

To the New Testament writers there is no contradiction between personal faith and Baptism. When Peter was asked on the day of Pentecost, "Brethren, what shall we do?" Peter did not reply, "Repent and believe." Rather he announced, "Repent and be baptized" (Acts 2: 37-39). When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he did not write, "By one Spirit we were all received by affirmation of faith into one body," but he wrote, "By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (I Corinthians 12: 13). When Peter wrote to a group of Christians who probably were about to be baptized or had just been baptized, he did not write, "Faith saves you," but rather "Baptism ... saves you" (I Peter 3: 21).

Baptism both creates and presupposes faith. Faith does not constitute Baptism but receives its blessings. Through Baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to create and to strengthen saving faith. The waters of Baptism receive unique power to bestow His blessings through it. This is similar to the blessing promised the Syrian General Naaman when he was commanded to enter the Jordan River’s water to be healed of his leprosy (2 Kings 5: 6-10). The Jordan River did not have any power to normally cure leprosy but the command to the General to go into the water, on the basis of God’s command and promise, produced the cleansing result.

The water of Baptism is tied to God’s Word of promise. That Word brings the entrance of God’s Holy Spirit into the life of the person properly, baptized (John 3: 5; Acts 2: 38; 1 Corinthians 12: 13; Titus 3: 5). Just as the Second Person of the Trinity took upon himself flesh to become the Savior Jesus of Nazareth, so God the Holy Spirit has graciously enveloped himself in the word and water of Baptism to be operative for our salvation.

The Holy Spirit comes through Baptism in the life of the baptized for the express purpose of connecting him to the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6: 3-4; Galatians 3: 27). To be connected to Christ the Redeemer is to receive the removal of all penalties of sin.

Christ gave to his church a great commission to share his blessings with all the world (Matthew 28:19-20). The Greek text, regarding making disciples of all nations, uses two coordinate participles, "baptizing. teaching" without any reference to the time sequence in which this is done. When an infant is baptized, it is expected to be in an environment in which the person is to grow in grace and knowledge of the truth. Christian discipleship is life-long learning under the instruction of the Holy Spirit through His Word.

When an adult is baptized, it is usually after a period of instruction on the nature of church membership, and the adult’s request to be baptized. The baptism of an adult believer becomes the occasion for a public confession of faith to the Christian community.

But infant Baptism, on the other hand, vividly captures the offense and scandal of the Gospel as God’s unmerited gift. Infant Baptism bears living testimony that each of us are Christians only because of what God has done first for us. He alone makes us family members at a point in our lives when we have done absolutely nothing to deserve that adoption.

Why doesn’t the Bible expressly say, "Baptize infants"? What is assumed need not be expressed! Jesus tells his adult disciples that to be converted, they must "become like children" (Matthew 18: 3). He didn’t say the reverse to children. From the moment we are brought into the community of the saved, the church on earth, until the moment we enter into the Church "triumphant" in eternity, our journey is lived in total dependence upon God.

We have not become members of His redeemed creation by acts and deeds of our own (Ephesians 2: 8-9). While we were yet helpless captives of sin, God reached out in His grace to embrace us, to kiss us with His Spirit, to call us by His name. The motion of redemption is always from God toward helpless humanity. Paul reminds the adult believer, "While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for us" (Romans 5: 6).

A rejection of infant Baptism is symptomatic of the virus of synergism always lurking in the wings of God’s church to infect it is a man-centered focus. So long as it is God who is the "actor" in Baptism, and so long as salvation is by grace alone, any question of age or intellectual qualifications on the part of the person to be baptized will inevitably compromise the scriptural doctrine of salvation by grace alone, and lead to some form of theological synergism. But to affirm the validity of the Baptism of infants is to acknowledge the objective nature of saving Grace.

The Gospel Word connected to the waters of infant Baptism proclaim God the Seeker. We don’t seek Him. Jesus says, "You did not choose Me, but I chose you." To stress the fact that even in Baptism the action is that of God upon the undeserving, the Apostle Paul almost always uses the Greek passive voice of the verb "to baptize".

What about the objection to infant Baptism on the basis of the child’s inability to verbalize why he or she is at the baptismal font? But does an infant know when the parent is planting a kiss upon it, and all that is involved in that kiss? Yet, the kiss is still given, and the love conveyed! What Baptism is the matters in redemptive love and mercy of God, whether or not we as adults or infants can comprehend that amazing grace. Reason, both unregenerate and regenerated, is called upon to submit to the sure word of God’s promise of redemption in Christ for all. The only qualification for Baptism is membership in sinful humanity that Christ made atonement for (2 Corinthians 5: 19). Infants, as much as adults, are so qualified.

God our heavenly Father is not a racist, nor is He a sexist. Neither is He a chronological snob who will have nothing to do with us until we are a certain age. His Holy Spirit comes to offer to everyone the redemption obtained for all sinners at Jesus’ cross.

The Blessings of Baptism

As Noah was saved through the water by the ark God Himself built and sealed for Noah’s deliverance, so today God’s people joyfully remember the ark in the water of Baptism (I Peter 3: 20-21). How wonderful a sign Christian baptism is, in that it also seals and delivers to us the blessings of Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 6: 3-4).

When an infant is presented to God at the baptismal font, a mighty sermon is being visualized to all of us who behold that baptism. It reminds us that we as sinners are as helpless as the infant. In the sight of God, if we were apart from Christ, we would only be seen as being in the dirty diapers of sin. Therefore, we acknowledge our continual need, whether as infants or adults, to be connected to Jesus Christ and to be cleansed (Hebrews 10: 22) by the "flowing water of the Holy Spirit" (John 7: 37-39), through the living water of God’s Word of Promise, and connected to and applied in the water of Baptism.

Whether baptized as infants or adults, each of us is to celebrate the continuing significance of having been baptized. Like a wedding, the act of Baptism does not end after the ceremony. Those connected by the Holy Spirit to Jesus Christ (Colossians 2: 12; Galatians 3: 27) have become new people, no longer under divine wrath, but truly members of God’s family with royal status (Ephesians 2: 12). Now we have citizenship in the coming eternal world of the blessed resurrected (I Corinthians 6: 11). What a comfort it is to know that by connecting us to Jesus Christ, God has made us members of His royal family (Ephesians 4: 5).

God is committed to giving us ultimate victory as we are challenged by a world that would throw mud upon our crown or seek to seize it from us. We can face the challenges of life He gives us with confidence. The power of the Holy Spirit, first given to many of us as infants in our baptism, still remains with us. Therefore, "Hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds" (Hebrews 10: 22-24).

Dr. Richard Shuta is Chairman of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Tapes on: Baptism

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