Baptism and the Unity of the Church

In dealing with the numerous struggles with fellow believers within the local church, I am constantly drawn to the same question that was raised by the apostle Paul regarding our sanctification:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Romans 6:3

Paul’s question in this passage appeals to both the reality of baptism and to the fundamental meaning of baptism in the Christian life. Because we have “been baptized into Christ Jesus”, this passage symbolizes what has been done for us. At a fundamental level, baptism points to Jesus Christ and to our union with Him by faith. As Sinclair Ferguson teaches, baptism functions as a type of “naming ceremony”

You are being named for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father has sent His Spirit to unite us to Jesus Christ. In Him, we are given the rich inheritance of all the gracious resources, we will ever need to be brought from sin to salvation, from death to life, and from earth to heaven. Devoted to God, p. 76

In this way, we are called to focus and look at what baptism means. Baptism is a visible sign of our union with Christ in His death and resurrection. It is a picture of our “ingrafting into Christ, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life” (2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith, 29.1). As faith clings to this truth of the gospel, we are called to remember what it tells us about who we are in Christ. This is why many Reformed catechisms instruct us on remembering or “improving upon” our baptism.

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In my early Christian days, I understood the truth of Christian baptism intellectually. In reflecting on my Christian life, I realized that it has taken many more years to grasp this truth emotionally and instinctively because baptism directly challenges all earthly conceptions of identity. This was not because I struggled with concepts of identity as a young Christian. To the contrary, I had a very firm and well-established identity in my mind as a young man. Before I was a Christian, when I described myself to others, I would identify myself with my ethnicity (Black), my nationality (American), my vocation (aspiring scientist), my political views (paleolibertarian), and my religious views (agnostic/atheist). When I was converted, those primary identification markers remained, except that I exchanged agnosticism for Christian. I was taught by my pastors that Christ must have preeminence over all, but honestly, in my early Christian life, my self-image could be pictured as a Venn diagram of various identification markers (with the Christian identity as one of them).

Over time, I’ve realized that reflecting on the meaning of baptism has a profound impact on matters of identity. Baptism does not create a new identity which exists alongside other earthly identities; rather baptism says that “you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (cf. Colossians 3:3). In other words, Christian baptism doesn’t create an identity crisis; baptism proclaims that the old life in Adam is gone and the new life in Christ has begun.

For many, the old man/new man dynamic is usually interpreted solely in the context of sin within individual Christians. However, the old man/new man dynamic has a wider context. The death of the old man occurs within the context of being severed from our union with Adam (cf. Romans 5:12-21) and of being delivered from this present evil age (cf. Galatians 1:4). Likewise, our new life in Christ occurs within the context of being united to Christ (cf. Romans 6:1-3) and of being delivered to the Kingdom of Christ (cf. Colossians 1:13). Thus, when one is in Christ, he is a “new creation” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). Our Christian baptism testifies that the new age (with its new powers and its new ways) has broken into this evil age to deliver us from the present evil age. This implies that the old lenses in which we view each other and view this world has ended.

How does this apply to identity? For many Americans, if we were honest with ourselves, we have been trained to view ourselves, not in light of our baptism but in light of all of these other identities. We currently live in a highly racialized, genderized, and politicized society, and much of the identity politics common in America has entered into local churches and denominations. This has led to unnecessary discord and division among Christians within the Church.

However, Christian baptism testifies that we are united to Christ and that we are united to each other. Baptism testifies that we have all been clothed in Christ. This is not an aspirational statement, but it is a fact because of what Christ has done. Within the scope of our union with Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free (i.e. class distinctions), neither male nor female (i.e. gender/sex distinctions), and neither Scythian nor barbarian (i.e. ethnic/national distinctions) [cf. Colossians 3:11, Galatians 3:28]. The lenses which our society has trained us to view each other and this world are not valid for those in union with Christ.

Because of the gospel, the Church is the place where those who were formally enemies (whether for social, historical, or political reasons) now genuinely love one another. This point cannot be emphasized enough because human history is truly a history of conflict. We see this in the biblical narrative starting from Genesis 4 and these various conflicts remain in the background through Old Testament history. In light of human history, the true question is NOT why nations and societies have conflicts; rather, the true question is how do nations and societies have peace with each other? In the gospel, not only has Christ removed the long-standing hostility between Jew and Gentile; Christ has broken down the hostility between people groups and has formed one new people – the Church (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22). This is why it is remarkable that the Church will be known for its love for one another, regardless of their history (cf. John 13:35).

Baptism points to all of these marvelous realities that form our identity and unite us together, but it is true that Christians live in the midst of two ages (“the present evil age” and “the age to come”). The powers of these two ages remain competitors for our lifestyle as Christians and our fellowship with one another in the Church. This is why we must constantly remember our baptism. It is known that when Martin Luther was fighting temptation, he would remind himself “I am baptized”. I believe that same exhortation is needed today.

When we are tempted to question our identity in Christ or to judge our brothers and sisters in Christ based on non-Christian criterion, we must constantly remind ourselves that we have been baptized into Christ. When we are tempted to be absorbed into conversations of race/ethnicity and to view ourselves and others through the lens of ethnic identity and culture, we must still constantly remind ourselves that we have been baptized into Christ. Thus, we are and belong to a different people. We must remember what we have been baptized into His most holy name and that we have been “renamed” in Christ as members of Christ’s body.

As we remember our baptism more and more, we will develop a visceral and gut reaction to anything that seeks to undermine the truth of our baptism and introduce schism and division within the Church. When we remember our baptism, we are spurred on to have our human relationships defined by holiness and righteousness, as is proper for those who have given up their names to Christ, and to walk with each other in brotherly love, as is proper for those baptized by the same Spirit into one body.

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