One of the most profound works I have read in the past few years is a small book by the late Gerhard Forde called "Where God Meets Man." Truly, there are some things in that book I still disagree with and which cause me to scratch my head, but some of the concepts in that little book helped complete some significant change in regards to my view on many things, including the Gospel and the Christian life in general.
There was one chapter entitled, "Treasure in earthen vessels." It was about how God delivers grace to us through physical, tangible things -the Lord's Supper being the essential example and goal of the chapter. A few years ago, that idea would have been utterly foreign to me. But what I realized is that the entire Gospel bears witness to this fact. For, what is the Gospel other than the fact that God delivers His grace to us in a tangible, earthen Vessel named Jesus of Nazareth? The whole Gospel is about God coming down to earth, beyond the veil, and doing our salvation here, in our midst, in the tangible, earthen, real, natural. That, after all, is where "God meets man" -He meets him right here, on earth, and that is where He saves him. It is we who have the problem with that, constantly trying to climb our ladder to heaven, to insert ourselves or our knowledge and understanding or spirituality into the equation and to over-spiritualize everything.
Therefore, it is not a strange idea to think that the elements of the Lord's Supper actually do something or convey something of supernatural weight or effect and are therefore not merely symbols. Truly, it is not mere bread or wine or juice that do something but those physical, tangible elements in conjunction with the word of the Gospel that bear the treasure, forgiveness, God Himself coming to us in simple, earthen things.
So, why not with Baptism? To tell you the truth, I still could not reconcile many things, and I still can't. For example, I still can't really embrace infant baptism. However, the more this broader concept sinks in the more I have been receptive to the idea that Baptism, like the Lord's Supper, is not merely symbolism. Could it be that water baptism, through the Word of the Gospel, is the earthen vessel through which
God does something?
There are two texts that I can't get out of my head, which are making me think and think. The first is Acts 2:38.
37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:37-41)Peter does at least two things here. First, he links repentance and water baptism to the forgiveness of sins. Second, he links the reception of the Holy Spirit with the preceding (i.e. with baptism). Rather than seeing the "baptism with the Holy Spirit" as some kind of existential spiritual experience that comes later, and although the Holy Spirit had been working up a storm all during Pentecost, he connects receiving the Holy Spirit with repentance and water baptism, though I believe specifically with water baptism. (After all, wasn't it at Jesus' water baptism that the Holy Spirit descended upon Him?) I realize this leaves a ton of questions unanswered, but in my old age I admit that I get more used to living with unanswered questions and just looking at what the text says.
The other text that I want to look at is in the beginning of Romans 6.
1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried 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. 5 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.(Rom 6:1-5)This text has perplexed me for years. I've read countless commentaries on this passage of Scripture so as to try and reconcile what seems to be the obvious conclusion from the text with what the rest of my theological system (ie. what I believed the broader context of the New Testament) taught. I even remember reading one commentator suggest that "baptism" here must mean the actual Baptism with the Holy Spirit rather than mere water Baptism, even though that would be perhaps the only New Testament use of the Greek word that did not refer to water baptism. Looking back, I notice the strained need to differentiate betwee the two, to split the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and water Baptism into separate things, with water baptism only being the symbol of it.
But look at it. Paul's answer as to why free justification by grace alone through faith alone, as expounded in the preceding chapters, does not lead us to just sin more so that grace can do its job and abound more is that we died to sin and now live in identification with Christ in His resurrection. And how? Through what? Water Baptism. It seems to me, putting all the questions and objections aside, that the simplest reading of the text locates our supernatural union with Jesus, with the old man dying and a new man being raised, in Baptism. Paul is not saying that the reason we can't live unto sin any more is because we partook of some symbol. He does not distinguish between the alleged symbol and the actual means because, as it seems to me, he understands that Baptism is the actual means. It seems to Paul that Baptism places you into Christ, not merely symbolically but actually.
Why won't we continue to sin so that grace may abound? It is because we have been united with Christ in His death through Baptism. So what? Well, as Paul reasons in verse 5, if we have been actually united with Him in His death we are surely also united with Him in His resurrection. In other words, through Baptism there is a new man walking and breathing in us. Through that tangible, real act, we are not the same.
"It can't be... what about..." Yes, I know. There are many questions that come up. But to me, those can be answered in time, too. I'm not saying I am 100% convinced of this view. I am saying, however, that I am more open to it, that it makes sense of a lot of texts that I could not understand before, and I am not averse to the idea that God does things through physical, tangible things and means.