The word “evangelical” may be misleading, so permit me to start with a brief clarification.
- evangel = “the good news” or Gospel, the message of salvation in Christ
- evangelize = to proclaim or present the Gospel (to an unbeliever)
- evangelization = the process of presenting the Gospel over time
- evangelist = someone who presents or proclaims the Gospel
- evangelistic = something (usually an event) that inherently presents or proclaims the Gospel
- evangelical = someone or something inherently Gospel-centered
- evangelicalism = a category of Christianity that puts the Gospel at the center of its identity
So when I say that Baptism is evangelical, I mean that it is a gospel-filled thing. It itself is not the gospel, nor is it something geared towards those in need of evangelization. Rather, the act of Baptism is a Gospel-filled act. Everything about it reflects or portrays the Gospel. Not that the entirety of the Gospel is necessarily represented in whole, but nothing about Baptism is wasted.
Baptism is, first of all, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This has multiple levels of significance. At the most basic level, these words identify the God whom Christianity proclaims and worships. We’re not baptized into a denomination or by the authority of any human leader, but into the name of the Triune God. Another key level is the name of God. Throughout the Bible, God’s Name is a sort of token of His presence. (For example, throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses writes that God has made his name to dwell in the Tabernacle. King Darius also recognized this reality, centuries later.) Thus, when we’re baptized in the name (or more precisely, into the name) of God, there is a real presence of God described.
This is thoroughly evangelical because it brings about a long-awaited landmark in the biblical narrative. The Old Testament relates the long drawn-out struggle of God’s people to seek and maintain God’s presence in their midst – the closeness of God is the key to their salvation. Yet their own sin keep them apart from Him; they’re stuck. But finally, in Baptism, God breaks through to His people in a whole new way – rather than being present in the Ark of the Covenant hidden inside the Holy of Holies inside the inner court of the Temple inside the Temple walls inside the city of Jerusalem in northern frontier of the province (and later, kingdom) of Judah, God now draws us into His presence. The age of the mediated limited presence ended with Christ; the age of the indwelling of the Spirit has begun!
This, incidentally, is a big part of why John the Baptist’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” was not enough for a Christian’s baptism. Yes, Christian baptism does have real implications towards the forgiveness of sins, but there’s more to it than that: the imparting of the presence of God!
The second chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Colossians has something valuable to add at this juncture.
See to it that no one takes you captive … not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 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. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
There are a lot of dynamics at work here which could exhaust entire books, so I’ll just point out some highlights. It starts off Christology: Jesus was a human who was also fully divine, and thus he’s the rightful ruler of all creation. In baptism we were buried with him and raised with him, thus sharing in his life, or, being “filled in him.” St. Paul describes this as “the circumcision of Christ.” Just as physical circumcision in the Old Covenant bound the Israelites to the Law, so too does “the circumcision of Christ” bind us to Christ. Then we read on to see how this results in our forgiveness “by canceling the record of debt,” but this filling with Christ is the primary concern. Dealing with sin is a resulting consequence. In other words, baptism links us to Christ, and Christ, in turn, deals with our sin.
A new line of thought is now in order: who is the primary actor in Christ’s Baptism? First clue: nobody baptizes himself or herself! It’s not a self-proclamation. Who, then, “does” the baptizing? The pastor? No, Jesus does it. Sure, Jesus told his disciples to carry out this ministry of baptism, but as John the Baptist prophesied, Jesus is the one who makes stuff happen. He sent the Holy Spirit to indwell the hearts of God’s people, and that’s how God’s presence manifests in Baptism. As with the entirety of the salvation process, it’s God’s work first; we’re just following along. Thus Baptism is still evangelical: it portrays God’s work of salvation, not a mere human ritual.
With this in mind, we can take our first peak at infant baptism. When an infant or young child is baptized, the previous point is even more clear: God is the one at work, not this kid. We’re all like infants before God; he is wiser, smarter, holier, more just, more loving, and more powerful than any of us. When we baptize infants, this gospel truth is made all the more visually clear!
Two big questions arise from this discussion: 1) what is the nature of the bond to Christ that Baptism is claimed to establish? 2) What is the role of the individual’s faith in Baptism? This second question is where infant baptism will be the most clearly addressed, but I first want to set down an answer to question 1 before proceeding. So stay tuned!