Is baptism a work of God or a work of man?
Evangelicals, Baptists, and just about everyone who denies baptist to children say: Baptism is a work of man. Here’s how the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) gives it to us:
Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper. (Baptist Faith and Message)
We should be on to this when the Baptists start calling baptism an “ordinance” instead of a “sacrament.” Baptism “is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour.”
(We’ll skip, for now, the silliness of baptism as a symbol. We’ll also skip, for now, the fact that the Faith and Message uses the British spelling of Saviour. That’s just strange. I have never heard a Southern Baptist with an English accent. In fact, I suspect that they teach you how to talk with a Texas accent in the Southern Baptist Bible College preaching classes. You know what I’m talking about. “And the Lawd said to Mos-sis, git yerself down to the people…” I have this picture in my head, 20 young men sitting at desks. “God,” they all say. “No, no, no,” says the professor, “it’s not ‘God,’ it’s ‘Ga-wd.’ Repeat after me, ‘Ga-wd'” “Ga-wd.” I think Texas accents are a matter of adiaphora.)
Ask your nearest Baptist (or Evangelical, if that’s the best you can do): “Is baptism a work of God or a work of man?” They will tell you: “Are you kidding? Baptism is a work of man, the first act of Christian obedience.”
For those of you keeping track of law and Gospel, this makes baptism law. This helps answer so many questions. For example, why are children forbidden baptism? And, why baptism can have absolutely nothing to do with salvation. Or why no baptists have ever purchased my fancy baptismal certificates. Baptism is a work of man, so it can have nothing to do with our forgiveness or salvation. Don’t you know that we’re saved by grace through faith?
The Lutherans, on the other hand, trust that baptism is a work of God. Why? Because that’s what the Bible says.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
This also explains how the Bible can talk about so many miraculous benefits of Baptism. Our Lord Jesus says, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved,” (Mark 16:16), so we know, at the very least, that baptism has something to do with salvation. But the Bible says so much more about the saving benefits of Baptism. Baptism is “new birth” (John 3:5), the “washing of regeneration,” (Titus 3:5), the “remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit,” (Acts 2:38), a “washing away of sins, (Acts 22:16), being “buried with Christ,” (Romans 6:3-4, Colossians 2:12), “putting on Christ,” (Galatians 3:27), and, last but not least, “salvation,” (1 Pete3r 3:21). This, if you’re keeping track of law and Gospel, is all Gospel.
Baptism, then, must be a work of God, a gift to us. And in this we greatly rejoice.
But there is still an unsolved mystery: Why does the American Evangelical understand baptism as a work of man, even in light of all the Scriptural evidence that baptism is God’s work to save us?
Two related theological axioms:
1. They have no means of grace. (Neither, by the way, do the Calvinists. I’m talking to you, Ben. That’s probably where the Baptists learned it. And the Evangelicals learned it from the Baptists.) This has lead to a second problem:
2. They have embraced a light gnosticism (that I like to call mysticism, that we called “enthusiasm” in the old days) that says that all spiritual action or motions are internal. God’s grace comes directly, unmediated (no means), into my heart. The Holy Spirit works on the inside. So the bad logic goes: if it’s on the outside, it’s not the Holy Spirit. The distinction between law and Gospel is, for the Evangelical, the distinction between internal and external. If there is something outside of me, it can’t have anything to do with the Gospel or my salvation.
This is bad, but very important to understand. The Evangelical operates with this basic theological distinction:
Internal = Work of the Spirit = Gospel (perhaps), Gospelish, Gospelly
External = Work of Man = Law
Because baptism is external it must be a work of man, and can have nothing to do with our salvation. The same logic [sic] applies to the Lord’s Supper: “External, work of man, we remember. Remembrance, remembrance, remembrance, never mind the other things Jesus says.” And on the other side, if you apply this logic to, say, worship, the result is Contemporary Mystical Praise Music with the explicit goal of producing internal motions, an emotional experience of the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit.
Mystery solved, Evangelicals are mystics (and mysticism is bad). But this is nothing new. Our friend Luther had to discuss these same theological misconceptions about baptism. (You’re not thinking about skipping the Luther quotation, are you?)
For it is of the greatest importance that we esteem Baptism excellent, glorious, and exalted, for which we contend and fight chiefly, because the world is now so full of sects clamoring that Baptism is an external thing, and that external things are of no benefit. But let it be ever so much an external thing, here stand God’s Word and command which institute, establish, and confirm Baptism. But what God institutes and commands cannot be a vain, but must be a most precious thing, though in appearance it were of less value than a straw. (Large Catechism, IV.7-8)
Let baptism be a purely external thing, that does not mean it cannot forgive sins and rescue from death and the devil. The Word of God, the Gospel, is an external thing, and it forgives sins. Indeed the blood of Jesus is an external thing, and through it the Lord has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in this life and the life to come. God always works through external things to deliver us from sin, death and the devil, and if that’s how the Lord wants to save us, so be it. We rejoice in these purely external things now and forever.
So remember: Baptism is a work of God.