Baptism the Sacrament of Faith, Memorial of the Covenant or Ordinance of Christ?

Baptism. Jesus did it. Should you? What does it mean if you do? What happens when you do an inductive study of Baptism in the New Testament? Does it stimulate you to take a more robust view of the ordinance? Does it cause you to see it as less important than it has been in for you? Does it affirm or challenge your default position?

Augustine called baptism sacramentum Fidei (sacrament of faith). This became the standard definition for over a thousand years. The Latin word sacramentum speaks of an oath of fidelity, such as is given by a soldier when inducted into the military, or a legal pledge.

Baptism was seen in early in Church history as the pledge of a clean conscience toward God, and an oath to submit to the Lord Jesus and follow him in the fellowship of his Church.

Augustine, however, defined a “sacrament” in Christian theology this way: “a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace.” Every sacrament came to be understood as having two components. First, there is the physical object, known as the sign (signum). Their is also the invisible reality (res) that is thereby signified and proclaimed. Thus, in baptism, the element of water signifies the res, which in this case is the word of justification (or participation in the church of Christ).

During the succeeding years, this evolved into a fuller sacerodotal, ex opera operato (by virtue of the thing done) view of Baptism, where salvation was seen to be granted in no other way but, and automatically to flow from baptism, and especially baptism of the infant variety.

The Reformers challenged this view calling the Church back to a strong “Justification by Faith Alone” position. But this did not mean they demeaned Baptism. Both Luther and Calvin largely followed Augustine, though developed their thoughts in different direction.

Luther argued that infants expressed real and actual saving faith and thus were the proper recipients of “a visible sign of an invisible grace”. Calvin argued that God’s sovereign election could and did choose infants of believers and thus they ought to be baptized.

Zwingli rejected the whole tradition and substituted a “mere sign” memorial view to both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which has come to predominate in evangelical circles of the 20th century. But that was not all he argued. Zwingli wanted to defend infant baptism, and based on a then novel approach, that the covenant of grace carried with it a “sign of the covenant” which was ciorcumsision in the Old Testament and Baptism in the New. But, these signs had nothing to do with initiation to salvation. Instead they marked the person as a member of the covenant, and under obligation to be a “covenant keeper”.

Anabaptists, such as Balthizar Hubmair argued vigorously that the New Testament commends sinners to “repent and be baptized” and that Jesus commission was to “make disciples, baptizing them”. He thus argued that while salvation was by grace alone, through faith alone, a faith that did not produce repentance and baptism was not a saving faith. This in his words, Baptism “must, must, must” accompany a profession of faith. This is very similar to the conclusions of the early English Baptists.

So, the early Church, Augustine, Luther and Calvin, linked Salvation and Baptism as the  “the sign (signum) and the invisible reality (res) that is thereby signified and proclaimed”. This they confidently asserted was properly applicable to the children of believers.

Second, Zwingli propounded the “pure memorial” view and the “covenant oath” view, wholly severing the ordinances from any association with justification. He believed that his covenant theology demanded infant baptism and it would be sinful to do otherwise.

Third the Anabaptist/Baptist tradition took the ancient definition to what was in their view its logical conclusion, and argued for confessors baptism. They argued that the Scriptures demanded/commanded baptism as part of the process of salvation and repentance (but not the grounds of salvation, that was preserved for faith alone).

Do you fall into any of these historical evangelical and reformed categories? Or, does your church have either a more minimalistic view of Baptism (some of the new seeker movement churches, Salvation Army type groups and hyper dispensationalists do not baptize), or a more sacerdotal view?


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