This morning I woke up and went to get one of our children (whom shall remain nameless for posterity’s sake) out of bed. As I went in, I saw him sitting up with a big grin and a bare bottom half, amid brown smears and an unmanned dirty diaper. If you are a parent, you know that these are the times when no amount of sprinkling, wiping, or rinsing is going to suffice. You just throw the kid (figuratively, of course) straight into the bathtub. Kids make messes; this one was certainly the foulest one my wife and I have had the displeasure of experiencing. There are some messes that can be cleaned with a little water and a paper towel. There are others that can only be cleaned up with the plunge of “bath-tism.”
In many ways, this morning’s experience was similar to the way God finds us. We are soiled to the core with our sin–enjoying it even–and no amount of spot treatment or sprinkling will remove the filthy stains. Our Father has to hit the reset button; that old man with all of his dirt, grime, and sin has to be put to death in order to raise up a fresh, clean and new man.
Baptists are so often accused of making too much of the mode of baptism. However, I find it interesting that my Presbyterian friends [and I really mean friends in the most congenial sense] are willing to allow sprinkling, when its symbolism undermines the concept of total depravity. Like my son this morning, the stains of sin sink so deep and wide into the heart and soul of a man that no amount of sprinkling or scrubbing can make him clean. He needs a bath.
Now, the waters of baptism are not about “the removal of dirt from the body”, as Peter says (1 Peter 4:21), but that’s just it: the amount of water does not matter, unless it is meant to symbolize more than the simple sprinkling away of original sin. Baptism is about identification–not identification with Jesus in his baptism, but in his death and resurrection: “Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). Jesus’ baptism was about his identification with sinners–but that’s another blogpost.
The reason we must baptize instead of sprinkle is because the old man is completely soiled from head to foot. He must be put to death in Christ and raised a new man, victorious over sin and death. As Paul puts it, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God, [and]…you have put off the old man with its practices and have put on the new man, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:3, 9-10). Only through identification with Jesus in his death, burial, and resurrection can we appeal to God with that clean conscience Peter talks about.
Now, does baptism save? No. Peter explains that as Noah’s family was saved by identifying with him, so we through baptism display that we are with Jesus. It is the symbolism of baptism that is important. In fact, I believe baptism was meant more for our sake, for the sake of Christians, than anything else. It shows us visibly what God has done invisibly. As we identify with Jesus in baptism, God looks down upon us and makes that same declaration, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).