The Christian sacrament of initiation, Baptism, was instituted by Christ and reinforced by his disciples as a way Christians enter the new covenant with him. As the Early Church Father Tertullian writes, “Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life” (Baptism 1). This happy sacrament is the manner of entrance into the new covenant, in the same way that Circumcision marked the entrance into the Jewish people. Baptism is so significant that Christ tells us, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Thus begins the long-lasting disagreement between Christians as to whether Baptism, ‘of the Spirit’ is merely a sign of conversion or brings the Holy Spirit upon the baptized in actuality.
Matthew 3:11 seems to address this issue with clarity when John the Baptist preached, “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” So, the Baptism of Christ is efficacious, clearly! Well, it is not that simple, as critics will point out. Some believe in Baptism by fire in conversion. Yet this understanding of Baptism takes place before the symbolic Baptism of water, and not within the sacrament. In either case there is clearly, at least, a symbolic importance to Baptism, and the sacrament should be carried out on believers regardless of its efficacious ability.
A look towards the Old Testament may prove useful when thinking through the matter of Baptism and its efficacy. Paul connects Circumcision and Baptism in the second letter to the Colossians (11-12) where he writes, “in Him [God] you were also circumcised with a Circumcision made without hands… having been buried with Him [Christ] in Baptism, in which you were also raised up with him.” Both Baptism and Circumcision are processes of entrance into the people of God. If Circumcision is efficacious it would seem counter intuitive that Baptism, which is one of the only ceremonies passed down from Christ directly, would be symbolic and without effect.
In Genesis 17:9-14, God tells Abraham after giving him his covenant, “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.” God does not stop there but continues, “For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised.” At this point we understand that Circumcision is of some importance to God, perhaps because it is a sign of the Chosen people. Surely if there was someone who was not circumcised it would matter little, because there is nothing efficacious about Circumcision. Yet God continues, “My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” As distastefully carnal this may sound to Westerners of the twenty-first century, it displays the very real impact a physical action has on the importance of a sacrament.
Is this all to say that I think God can’t make exceptions? That there may be a convert in a desert who is the holiest of men but dies without the water of Baptism? No; God can do what God will do. Despite that, Scripture shows us the importance of physical actions to the efficacy of God’s commands throughout the Bible. Exceptions may exist, but they do not make the rule. In Acts Peter commands:
“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
We should take Peter’s words as seriously as Abraham took God. Christ is the King of kings, the ultimate sacrifice for a sinful humanity, the Word become Flesh. When Peter speaks of Baptism as a death and rebirth in Christ in which we Christians receive the Holy Spirit, we should remember Abraham and pause before we jump to assume Baptism is but a sign, and not the Circumcision of the New Covenant.