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The importance of baptism

John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentanceMark 1:4.

THE church of today lives in an ethically debilitating climate. Where did we go wrong?

Was it the urbane self-centredness of Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking and its therapeutic successors? Was it the liberal, civic-club mentality of the heirs to the Social Gospel?

Now we waver between evangelical TV triumphalism with its Madison Avenue values or live-and-let-live pluralism which urges open-mindedness as the supreme virtue. And so a recent series of radio sermons on “The Protestant Hour” urged us to “Be Good to Yourself.” This was followed by an even more innocuous series on “Christianity as Conflict Management.” Whatever the Gospel means, we tell ourselves, it could not mean death. Love, divine or human, could never exact something so costly. After all, our culture is at least vestigially Christian. Isn’t that enough?

Not according to John, the first proponent of baptism. His sermons could not be entitled “Be Good to Yourself.” This prophetic “voice crying in the wilderness” appears “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). He is not the Christ. John is the one who gets us ready. How does one prepare for this new age? Repent, change your ways, and get washed.

Like the prophets of old, John’s word strikes abrasively against the easy certainties of the religious Establishment. He will let us take no comfort in our rites, tradition, or ancestry. Everybody must submit to be made over. Everybody must descend into the waters, especially the religiously secure and the morally sophisticated. God is able to raise up children even from stones if the Chosen fail to turn and repent.

How shocked was the church to see its Lord appear on the banks of the Jordan asking John to wash him too (Matt. 3:14-15). How can it be that the Holy One of God should be rubbing shoulders with naked sinners on their way into the waters? The church struggled with this truth. Why must our Lord be in this repenting bath? When Jesus was baptised, His baptism was not only the inauguration of His mission, but also a revelation of the shockingly unexpected nature of His mission. His baptism becomes a vignette of His own ministry. Why so shocking? On two occasions, Jesus uses “baptism” to refer to His own impending death. He asks His half-hearted disciples, “Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I must be baptised?” (Mark 10:38).

As He submits to John’s bath of repentance, Jesus shows the radical way He will confront the sin that enslaves humanity. Jesus’ “baptism”, begun in the Jordan and completed on Golgotha, is repentance, self-denial, metanoia to the fullest. John presents his baptism as a washing from sin, a turning from self to God. Jesus seeks even more radical metanoia.

His message is not the simple one of the Baptist, “Be clean.” Jesus’ word is more painful – “Be killed.” The washing of this prophetic baptism is not cheap. “You also must consider yourselves dead,” Paul tells the Romans (Rom. 6:11). In baptism, the “old Adam” is drowned. “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3).

To be baptised “into Christ” and “in the name of Christ” means to be incorporated into the way of life which characterised His life, the life of the empty one, the servant, the humble one, the obedient one, obedient even unto death (Phil. 2:6-11).

That day at the Jordan, knee deep in cold water, with old John drenching him, the Anointed One began His journey down the via crucis. His baptism intimated where He would finally end. His whole life was caught up in this single sign. Our baptism does the same.

The chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but the flood that drowns. Discipleship is more than turning over a new leaf. It is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation. Nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death will do. So Paul seems to know not whether to call what happened to him on the Damascus Road “birth” or “death” – it felt like both at the same time.

In all this I hear the simple assertion that we must submit to change if we would be formed into this cruciform faith. We may come singing “Just as I Am”, but we will not stay by being our same old selves. The needs of the world are too great, the suffering and pain too extensive, the lures of the world too seductive for us to begin to change the world unless we are changed, unless conversion of life and morals becomes our pattern.

The status quo is too alluring. It is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the 6.30 news, our institutions, theologies, and politics. The only way we shall break its hold on us is to be transferred to another dominion, to be cut loose from our old certainties, to be thrust under the flood and then pulled forth fresh and newborn. Baptism takes us there.

On the bank of some dark river, as we are thrust backward, onlookers will remark, “They could kill somebody like that.” To which old John might say, “Good, you’re finally catching on.”

William Willimon, “Repent”, from On a Wild and Windy Mountain, by William H. Willimon, copyright 1984 by Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. Used by permission.