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Baptism – A Definition



I’ve been promising a Wednesday essay on baptism for almost two months now, and I made the foolhardy claim a month ago that March would be the baptism series month.  So much for that.

I started to write a post about all the ins and outs of baptism, but after hashing this out with Mrs. NatNav, I think I’m going to end up splitting this into a multi-part series as I initially intended: Definition, Debate, Deferral, Decision.  As I’m sure you’ve come to know all too well about me, I make no promises that these will roll out in successive weeks, though I’ll try.

What is baptism?

It is a Biblically ordained sacrament of the church.

Okay, what is a sacrament?

A sacrament is formally defined as ‘a rite in which God is uniquely active.’  Augustine defined it as ‘a visible sign of an invisible reality.’  Catholicism has seven,* and the Orthodox Church recognizes these same seven but less formally, saying that any action of the Church is in some sense sacramental.  Baptism and communion are the sacraments which survived as such† into the Protestant tradition.  We’ve covered communion here, but I’m sure we’ll come back to it some time in the future.

So, again, what is baptism?

In one sense, baptism is a public declaration of faith, the ‘initiation ceremony,’ if you will, that marks the entrance of a believer into the corporate body of Christ.  It serves thusly as a sort of test of sincerity (if you really mean this, you’ll declare it aloud‡).  It also blesses those in your fellowship by allowing them to take part in the salvation they have, presumably, been part of.  Lastly, baptism as a public declaration ideally sets up an accountability infrastructure hold you to your profession of faith.

However, this definition is ultimately unsatisfactory because there are situations where it doesn’t apply, yet baptism is still a command from Christ.  The proverbial man on a desert island could be saved but have no one to whom he makes a public declaration (and no one to baptize him).  We don’t doubt any more seriously the sincerity of professions made by those at the end of their lives when there is no time for baptism.  Lastly (and probably more relevantly), in the hyper-mobile culture in which we live, most of us have moved churches multiple times since our baptism, rendering our public declaration irrelevant and leaving us without that accountability mechanism.

The other, more essential defintion of baptism coheres with the definitions of sacrament above and can withstand the particularities of place and mobility.  It is the outward manifestation of the inward reality, a physical parallel to a spiritual change.  Like the Anglican view of communion (click the link above), this definition cuts a middle path between mere symbolism and overt causality. 

In other words, baptism is more than just a reenactment of the conversion process.  However, and this is crucial, it is not a required element of salvation.  Baptism does not confer salvation. 


* Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Confession, Last Rites, Holy Orders, Marriage

† Others, like marriage and confession, obviously have also survived, but have been stripped of their ‘sacramental’ or ‘ordinal’ status since they don’t carry a salvific function in the Protestant tradition.

‡ This is obviously not universally applicable, for some because of threat of persecution and for others because they are not yet old enough to speak.  Stay tuned…

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