What Ritual Can Do

Baptism in water can be a complicated subject—and yet the author of Hebrews treats it as one of the Christian “basics.” This should make us wary because the evangelical Christian world doesn’t have this sorted out yet, and yet it should also make us eager to sort it out—to grow up into maturity as our text is urging.

“Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this will we do, if God permit” (Heb. 6:1-3).

The various particular doctrines mentioned here are repentance from dead work (v. 1), faith in God (v. 1), baptisms and washings (v. 2), laying on of hands (v. 2), resurrection of the dead (v. 2), and eternal judgment (v. 2). These are the particulars, but what would the general heading for all these be? He describes them as “the principles of the doctrine of Christ” (v. 1). The word for principles is arches—the basics, the integration point, the beginning, the foundation. The writer wants to get past this, which he will do, God willing (v. 3). We too should get past it, which is not the same thing as outgrowing it — you don’t ever outgrow the root, but rather you grow on the root.

The point of this is not so much to emphasize where paedos and credos differ, but rather to highlight what it is in our church that has enabled us to function together in surprising agreement. And that is a shared understanding of the covenant meaning of baptism. And when this is understood, it is a key that unlocks many difficult passages in the book of Hebrews. Our text is right at the beginning of the sixth chapter, a chapter famous for giving heartburn to Calvinists. If God has decreed (before the foundation of the world) that Smith is going to be saved, then what on earth can “falling away” (v. 6) possibly refer to?

We have to understand the necessity of a two-fold connection to Christ. In this fallen world, the Church will always struggle with the tension between true and false profession of faith in Christ. That is because, until the resurrection, it will always be possible to talk one way and live another. This is a dilemma that surfaced in the first generation of the Church, and has been present with us ever since. This is what happens when the first and second items on the list of “basics” are missing, but a baptism, third on the list, is not missing. Now what?

Baptism in water is a covenant bond, and, as such, it can easily be compared to putting on the wedding ring in a wedding ceremony. Now nobody thinks that the metals of gold and silver have magic transformative powers — mystically changing the couple in the ceremony into husband and wife. Intention is important, which is why a wedding ceremony on a movie set doesn’t do anything of the kind, even if all the right words are said. In a similar way, a baptism performed on a movie set doesn’t accomplish anything. And yet, at the same time, the ritual of placing water on someone in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not “just water.” The ritual transforms, but not by any kind of magic. The ritual transforms a person’s status because that is what rituals do. One moment you have a civilian, the next moment, after the ritual, you have a soldier. One moment you have a bachelor, the next moment, after the ritual, you have a husband. Before the ritual he is morally obligated to keep his hands to himself. After the ritual he is morally obligated not to. Before the ritual of water baptism, you have someone who has yet been inducted into the visible church. After the ritual, you do.

And so, we believe that when someone has been baptized in this way, that person is covenantally bound to God. He is obligated. Obligated to do what? To fulfill the terms of the new covenant, which is to repent of all his sins and to believe in Jesus. Nothing more, and nothing less, and even that is a gift of God, lest any man should boast.

Instead of being confused by baptism, we should learn to see it as one of the great illuminating features of our lives. Now . . . let’s use an illustration, where I trust we will all have no problem grasping the distinctions. Suppose a husband is unfaithful to his wife, chronically and flagrantly. Now, is he a “true” husband? The answer, easily, is yes and no. Yes, he is a true husband — the papers are filed at the county courthouse, and the vows were said in the presence of God and these witnesses. No, he is not a true husband because you can’t be a true husband unless you are a true man. This is an easy distinction for us to grasp. If he confessed his adulteries to his wife, seeking her forgiveness, and she extended it, and said, “Finally, tonight you have become my husband,” what would we think if he responded with, “Really? That means I wasn’t your husband before, which means I wasn’t committing adultery. Yay.” To play with words that way would be evidence he was not really repentant at all. He was a true husband, and greatly to be condemned because he was an untrue husband. And no, this is not a contradiction.

Now another man is baptized, but he lives like the devil and always has. Is he a true Christian? In the same way, yes and no. Yes, you were there when he was baptized. Of course he is a Christian. No, he is untrue to the truth of the gospel and has an unconverted and rotten heart. Of course he is not a Christian.

Now some do not feel comfortable applying a sign with this much significance to infants. Others of us are just fine with that. But where we agree is in the propriety of calling all baptized individuals to their covenant obligations to trust in Jesus alone for their salvation — and to treat those who will not do so as “adulterers,” and not just “fornicators.”

And this helps us make sense of some of the exhortations found in the rest of the book of Hebrews. “Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29). “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift . . . if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance” (Heb. 6:4,6). “Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it” (Heb. 4:1).

In short, connection to Christ today is not an “all or nothing” affair. It will be one way or the other at the last day, of course, but today if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart.

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