Beckett: Baptism – The Beginning and Centre of Evangelism and Human Identity

Jesus is the first to connect Christian witness (i.e., evangelism) and Baptism together. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). His disciples do this not of their own authority but of Christ’s authority. Immediately before this, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18). Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, He says; therefore, go and baptise by whose authority? Christ’s.

Hundreds—probably thousands—of books have been written on evangelism, or what we can also call making disciples. Some focus on what evangelism means while others emphasise practical methods in making disciples. Many of them are missing the key component to evangelism: Baptism.

This is largely due to the Anglo-American understanding of Baptism as a mere symbol—that it’s simply a “public declaration of inner faith” and whenever you begin to fail as a Christian, you can just get rebaptised to start over again. Such a view commits two errors: it robs the Christian of the hope and assurance they have of salvation in Christ Jesus and it fails to see Baptism as the anchor of all evangelism/disciple making.

I won’t be spending much time in this article pedantically dismantling the above Sacramentarian view of Baptism but rather to express my strong belief that Baptism both the starting point and the continuing anchor of evangelism/discipleship. Baptism is where discipleship begins and Baptism is where it continues.

In a short book, Rev. Dr. Robert Kolb writes that this is because Baptism expresses “God’s good news for his people most fully, and it serves as a most potent form of his Word which brings others to Jesus Christ and to the peace which he promises” (Kolb, 12). Furthermore, because discipleship both begins and continues in Baptism, all human identity is to be based on baptismal identity.

I stress identity because of the role that identity ideology has taken in today’s culture. Too many people are basing their identity in trivial, transient things: gender, “race,” sexual orientation, political affiliation, sports teams, and so on. All of these and more are insufficient to provide a stable sense of identity. As Kolb writes, “Baptism is the goal of evangelism because our good news is shared with others that they might have the identity transplant which Baptism is and gives. Baptism is a tool for evangelism because it is God’s instrument of bestowing death to sin and new birth in Christ” (Kolb, 63).

What Baptism Does

To draw out the eternal significance of Baptism, I’d like to put forth two illustrations. The first is from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and the second is from my personal experience of Baptism.

Whenever I teach difficult theological concents to parishioners, I like to use illustrations as often as possible because images and metaphors are very teachable whereas dictionary definitions tend to complicate understanding in teaching. This is why I like to use Oliver Twist as an example.

In the play, Oliver is an orphan. His status as an orphan is further brought out in that he’s an outcast, he’s dirty, he wears ragged clothes, and he has no inner worth. To make matters worse, he is essentially enslaved to Fagin, a career criminal he uses orphan boys like Oliver to pick pockets for him.

Enter Mr. Brownlow. Events eventually lead to Mr. Brownlow adopting Oliver. Suddenly, in his adoption, Oliver is freed from the clutches of Fagin (who is hanged for his crimes). Oliver is no longer dirty; he becomes clean, he wears new clothes, and he has worth. Most importantly, he is now a son.

Oliver Twist is a baptismal story. Once upon a time, you and I were dirty and ragged in our sins. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). Being sinners, we have no inner worth. “The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:2-3; cf. Romans 3:10-12).

We are outcasts—outside God’s grace. We are slaves to the Devil. “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the Devil, for the Devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness” (Romans 6:16)?

Enter Christ. Through Baptism—baptised in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we receive adoption. “In love He predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us” (Ephesians 1:5-8).

We all have become sons of God, and like Oliver, no longer slaves, but sons. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

We have been freed from the clutches of the Devil. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). In Baptism, Christ puts off our ragged, dirty clothes of sin and clothes us in His robe of righteousness. “…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27). “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for He has clothed me with the garment of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Isaiah 61:10).

And your identity is no longer in worldly things like gender and social status, but Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29). Your worth is found in Christ. As Luther said, “God doesn’t love us because of our worth; we are of worth because God loves us.”


My second illustration comes from my own Baptism experience. In our Lutheran tradition, we rightly baptise babies according to, in short, our understanding of God’s monergistic work of faith. I did not grow up Lutheran but in a non-denominational (i.e., closet Baptist) tradition. As such, I wasn’t baptised until much later in life when I was eighteen. Being baptised as an adult, I have the luxury of remembering my Baptism versus many Lutheran brothers and sisters who can only be told of their Baptism since the large majority of them were baptised as infants.

It took me several years to appreciate my adult perspective of Baptism. I used to envy not having been baptised as an infant, but the Lord does His work even in places where His Word is taught in error. The Lord enables me to use my adult baptism experience to teach another aspect of Baptism: death and life.

Baptism as death and life is not a metaphor; it actually happens. Paul teaches this quite explicitly, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? We were baptised, therefore, with Him by baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him,” etc. (Romans 6:3-8).

The luxury I have of being baptised as an adult is that I remember what it’s like to die to sin. Up to my Baptism, I was terrified. I knew that when I was baptised, this would mean becoming someone completely new—not only inwardly but also outwardly. It’s as if my “old self,” as Paul puts it (or “old Adam” in Luther’s words in the Large Catechism) was clinging to life. Yet Christ prevailed. When I was baptised, my old self/old Adam went down into the waters screaming (I was fully immersed), and I came up a totally new person in Christ: a son of God, newly and fully clothed in Christ’s righteousness, freed from sin and alive to Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a person, he bids him come and die,” which he wrote in the context of Baptism where he writes, “every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, means both death and life” (Bonhoeffer, 79).

On this same quote, Kolb comments, “Sinners must die. Death is what they have earned and deserve (Rom. 6:23). They will die in one way or another. They will die forever in hell, or they will die with Christ in their Baptism (Rom. 6:5-6). From Baptism, however, sinners emerge as liberated people of God, resurrected with Christ to new life” (Kolb, 11).

Beginning with (Baptismal) Identity in Evangelism

Adoption, death to the old and former things, and new life are Baptism’s major themes. All of these are wrapped up in the new identity God gives us in Christ: sons of God. (Daughters become sons too, which is to receive all the rights belonging to the son, a truly remarkable and gracious gift to be given.)

It is my strong belief that future evangelism/discipleship efforts should begin with conversations surrounding identity. By doing so, we directly confront postmodernity’s ideology of identity. Postmodernity says identity comes from within—you can be whomever you want to be, whether that’s any gender you make up, your preferred sexual orientation, political ideologies, “race,” and so on. Everyone is trying to discover who they are and postmodernity is preaching to them and teaching them to look within themselves.

Evangelism ought to begin with Baptism, therefore, because Baptism comes not from within but from without. Instead of trying to create your own transient, unstable identity, in Baptism you receive a foundational identity from God in Christ Jesus, our rock and fortress (Psalm 18; 46). To create an identity from within is to build a house on sand whereas baptismal identity is a house built on rock (cf. Matthew 7:24-27). Baptism is not even a house you build; it is a house built for you with an indestructible cornerstone, which is Christ Jesus our Lord.

To speak personally again, my identity is not wrapped up in my “race” (there is only one human race). I’m mulatto—I have a biracial mother (Puerto Rican and African American) and a Caucasian father. Being Black/Hispanic is not who I am; it’s what I am. Who I am is a child of God because I have been baptised into Christ. Hence the beloved hymn:

God’s own child, I gladly say it:
I am baptised into Christ!
He, because I could not pay it,
Gave my full redemption price.
Do I need earth’s treasures many?
I have one worth more than any
That brought me salvation free
Lasting to eternity!

Sin, disturb my soul no longer:
I am baptised into Christ!
I have comfort even stronger:
Jesus’ cleansing sacrifice.
Should a guilty conscience seize me
Since my Baptism did release me
In a dear forgiving flood,
Sprinkling me with Jesus’ blood!

Satan, hear this proclamation:
I am baptised into Christ!
Drop your ugly accusation,
I am not so soon enticed.
Now that to the font I’ve traveled.
All your might has come unraveled,
And, against your tyranny,
God, my Lord, unites with me!

Death, you cannot end my gladness:
I am baptised into Christ!
When I die, I leave all sadness
To inherit paradise!
Though I lie in dust and ashes
Faith’s assurance brightly flashes:
Baptism has the strength divine
To make life immortal mine.

There is nothing worth comparing
To this lifelong comfort sure!
Open-eyed my grave is staring:
Even there I’ll sleep secure.
Though my flesh awaits its raising,
Still my soul continues praising:
I am baptised into Christ;
I’m a child of paradise!

LSB #594 God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It

And to quote from Kolb again:

Therefore, the gift of this baptismal death in Christ means new life. It may not completely alter all the old structures of life. It will not solve every problem and wipe away every tear. Nonetheless, God’s definition of us as his child gives us a new sense of identity. The baptized child of God has received the promise that he or she is not determined by the past, nor by the hate and envy and cruelty of others. Our identity as the children of God is not determined by wind and weather, by fate or luck, or the likes and dislikes of even the most important people in our lives. When Christians share all this with those who have begun to express interest in what the church has to offer and what Jesus Christ can mean for them, they give a concrete sense of God’s intervention in our lives. For the feel of the water and the sound of the words which God places together in Baptism gives a concrete and substantial expression to the change that he makes as he brings us into his family and incorporates us into his kingdom.

p. 71

What Does It Mean to Be Baptised into Christ?

As the conversation takes place, you can talk about what this means exactly: what it means to be God’s son, to die to sin, to live life anew in Christ, and to be clothed in His righteousness. An entire book could be written on what this means, but a few short sayings should suffice for now.

To be God’s son means you have a new relationship with God. Before Baptism, you were God’s enemy; now you have been made His son. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10). To be God’s son also means to receive discipline and to be obedient, not to acquire His favour since you already have it in Christ, but simply because that’s what sons do.

To die to sin and live life anew means to die to your former sinful ways—which also means to reject them—and to live differently. A baptised racist ceases to be racist. A baptised adulterer ceases to cheat on his spouse. A baptised homosexual ceases to practice homosexual deeds. A baptised Chicago Blackhawks fan ceases to like the Blackhawks. (Just kidding. On a serious note, though, a baptised sports enthusiast ceases to place Sunday sports over the Sabbath, lest they violate the 3rd Commandment.) It is as Paul begins his baptismal discourse in Romans 6, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may abound? By no means!” (vv. 1-2).

To be clothed in Christ’s robe of righteousness means your unrighteousness has been removed and replaced with Christ’s own righteousness (i.e., justification by faith). This also means you live differently (sanctification). Yet most importantly, it also means that upon Judgement Day, God sees you clothed in Christ’s righteousness rather than your dirty and ragged unrighteous clothing.

To be sure, such baptismal conversations will not take place or end upon the first initial conversation. As Kolb warns, “‘Baptism’ is a foreign word to those outside the faith. It is not a word they will readily understand, and the concept behind it—dying and rising through Word and water—is tougher yet. ‘Baptism’ is, therefore, not the first word we utter in Christian witness. ‘Baptism’ is a word of gospel, and so we do not utter it at all in the first stage of our bringing God’s Word into the life of someone outside the faith. [Kolb says in the first stage of witness we use the Law to help people outside the faith realise they are dead in sin and that their false gods are also dead before we move on to the second stage, which is the Gospel that brings people to new life.] This stage, in which we help another person see the inadequacy of his or her old false gods, may last a few hours or a few years” (Kolb, 64).

After Baptism

Discipleship does not end with Baptism. Neither does it end at Confirmation. Discipleship is an ongoing journey. It is appropriate that Jesus likens Baptism to birth, that is, a second birth (John 3:1-6). Baptism is like entering the womb and coming out with a new life, this time one that is righteous in Christ. Baptism, then, is from the womb to the tomb; discipleship is from the womb to the tomb.

No one ever stops being a disciple of Christ. “Disciple” is not a state of achievement a Christian ascends to. Being a disciple is who you are since your Baptism up to your death. Being a disciple, then, means to constantly live as God’s son, rising from death to life (“daily Baptism,” or daily repentance, in Luther’s words from the Large Catechism), and always clothed in Christ’s righteousness. “Baptism sets the pattern for the entire life of repentance which the believer experiences daily, for Baptism has established the fundamental fact and form of the believer’s life” (Kolb, 63).

To be a disciple of Christ means to follow Jesus. One never stops following Jesus. If a disciple never stops following Jesus, this means one never stops being a disciple. Just as you never stop being a son of God, so you never stop being a disciple of Christ. The two are one and the same, as Baptism makes you both a son of God and a disciple of Christ, “make disciples of all nations, baptising…”

Bibliography

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1959.

Kolb, Robert. Make Disciples Baptizing: God’s Gift of New Life and Christian Witness. Saint Louis: Concordia Seminary, 1997.

Categories Christian Living

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