The sacrament of baptism is a holy mystery of the Church whereby we are engrafted into the body of Christ. The new covenant is the Abrahamic covenant fully realized and filled-full by Christ. In baptism we are immersed into the whole life of the Church with all of its history and thereby made priests after passing through the water. We now partake in the new creation, being united to the Church, which is the body of Christ, where all the promises are poured out in full measure (2 Cor. 1:20). Baptism does not guarantee final salvation or infuse righteousness ex opera operato, but places us in covenant with the One who is salvation, life, and righteousness. Salvation is by grace through faith; not of works but solely through Christ’s death, burial and resurrection (Eph. 2:8-9). Baptism effectively brings people into the place of salvation; this is the true grace of baptism. To speak of baptism as that which “confers grace” is to muddy the waters; baptism is itself a grace—it is the gift of God whereby he brings helpless sinners into the world of the regeneration (Tit. 3:5).
The Old Testament must serve as the foundation for our baptismal theology. Baptism can be understood properly only against the background of Hebrew images, rites, and rituals. As opposed to scholastic theology of Thomas Aquinas, baptism should be viewed from a Hebraic worldview of the Flood, Exodus, and ceremonial washings, not Aristotelian categories of causation. Bypassing hellenistic tendencies and working from a Hebraic model will help us to avoid exegetical monkeyshines.
In Eden, Adam dwelt with God as priest in the garden. He was called to guard it and tend it and ultimately called to grow into maturity as a king, but his sin brought death and perverted God’s original design. The flood was the judgment upon the world for the fall of Adam and the subsequent fall of his foolish sons. Just as the flood washed the original creation in judgment, ushering in a renewed creation, the baptism of the cross of Christ and the deluge of the Spirit poured out at Pentecost satisfied God’s judgment on sin and ushered in the ‘regeneration’ through the Second Adam.
After Adam’s fall there was another “fall” at Babel. Man’s fellowship with God was lost at the tree and man’s fellowship with man was lost at the tower. After the judgment at Babel, Abraham was called out of gentile paganism to answer man’s double dilemma and restore man’s relationship to God and the world. Abraham’s call was a call to fulfill God’s original purpose for creation. Pentecost was the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise which served as the basis for gentile inclusion into the covenant. Through the cross, Christ ended the estrangement of nations and proclaimed that the Babelic barriers were now broken down; he established a new household, a new humanity, and new temple to serve as a dwelling for the Spirit (Eph. 2:11:-22).
After Abraham came Moses. Intent on saving his people, God put an ark in the water once again. At the Exodus, the Red Sea brought judgment upon the Egyptians and “saved” those in Moses. Over and over again, water and Spirit were the means by which God created and recreated the world. The original creation of the world was effected as the Spirit brooded over the primal deep, then on day six God breathed life into his prized creation. The flood was a baptism that saved the elect who responded to the call of the Spirit through the preaching of Christ in Noah. Thus, the recreation of Noah’s world the work of water and the Spirit (Gen. 8:2-11). The Exodus was also a deliverance by water and Spirit as God sealed his people in baptism and drowned his adversaries. The work of the Spirit was present too as God breathed upon the waters. This was effectively the rebirth of Israel as the nation of slaves was born again as a kingdom of priests.
Through the long years of exile, the people of God looked for the day in which God would come to his people once again in deliverance. They saw this as a day of rebirth and resurrection; a regeneration by water and Spirit (Eze. 36:24-26; 37:1-11). When that day finally arrived, those who knew the Scriptures best were still in the dark (Jn. 3:1-10). The advent of Christ was the inauguration of the long-awaited “new creation.” His baptism, marked by water and Spirit, identified him as both the locus and instrument through which the regeneration would be realized. From his riven side flowed the waters of new creation, from his resurrected mouth came the breath of life upon his disciples—a preview of the Pentecostal flood. Christ’s death and resurrection fully ushered in the new creation for all of those who are in union with him (1 Cor. 5:17). In Christ, the eschatological new creation has broken in upon the whole world.
The New Testament’s use of the Old Testament is fundamental to understanding what the apostles concerning about baptism. The typology of Romans 5, I Corinthians 10, and I Peter 3 serve as three key examples for how we should approach the subject. The manifold imagery of New Creation, New Israel, and New Adam confirm that the climax of the Abrahamic promises are realized in Christ by virtue of water and Spirit.
In Romans 5-6 Paul makes an analogy between the two Adams and baptism. In baptism we are engrafted into Christ (new creation) and are covenantally dead to the old creation in Adam. Baptism transfers our covenantal relationship from Adam to Christ and thereby establishes us in a ‘new world order’.
In I Corinthians 10 Paul addresses both Jews and gentiles as brethren and connects them to ‘our fathers’ in the wilderness. The church is being viewed as the New Israel, Jews and gentiles form the one people of God (Gal. 6:16; Phil 3:3; Rom. 2:26-29). The error Paul is correcting was problem of covenantal presumption. Israel was baptized into Moses through the Red Sea and cloud, but most did not enter the Promised Land because of their unbelief. The true understanding of the covenant relationship with God requires faithfulness to his word. Though salvation us by grace through faith, is is through a faith that is alive. The Exodus is viewed by Paul as a prefiguring of the redemption of Christ which brings those in Adam into the new order in Christ. For Paul, baptism effectually brings one out of the old creation under Adam, and changes our relationship to the world and God, covenantally connecting us to Christ.
In I Peter 3:18-23 the image of a new creation through baptism is displayed through the event of the Flood. The baptismal waters are the waters of judgment. They consign those outside of the promises of the covenant to wrath. Baptism is as much about exclusion as it is about inclusion. For Peter, baptism serves as the line of demarcation between those who are marked for wrath and those who are marked for blessing. In one of the most striking statements in his epistle, he follows this picture with a potent proclamation, “Baptism now saves you (1 Pet. 3:21). The apostle is not arguing the point, he is assuming it. But just how does Peter imagine that baptism saves? Here, Peter seems to move from the historical to the ritual. He alludes to the several OT baptisms, or washing, performed under the Levitical administration. The distinction between New Covenant baptism and Old Covenant baptisms hinged upon their effect upon the conscience. The ritual washings under Moses could “remove dirt from the body” so that those washed could stand ceremonially clean, but they could do nothing for the conscience. Whereas, Christian Baptism does what the old water-washings could never do—effect the conscience. The writer of Hebrews argues on the same grounds and refers to these washings as “baptisms” (Heb. 9:9-10; 10:19-25).
Only as we first understand that baptism is cosmic, covenantal, and corporate will we be able to reckon with its individual, subjective, and particular implications. As Peter Leithart says in The Priesthood of the Plebs, “Sacraments are not ‘outside’ redemption pointing ‘inward’ but make up the reality of the totus Christus in its earthly manifestation, which is salvation promised and now, though pre-eschatologically, fulfilled.” We are changed in our relationship from Adam to Christ through Baptism by being engrafted into his Body.
Baptism irreversibly plants our story in the story of the Church, for even if we renounce her, our renunciation is part of her history. In this sense we are engrafted into Christ’s Body, but this means more than just being a part of a social network, it means that we are actually a part of Christ by being a part of the Church. We are the baptized body of the Second Adam, a new creation lead out of exile—reborn through water and Spirit. This is the regeneration.