N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.
Baptism as story [JFG]
Baptism demonstrates that God can and does act through the physical — and so it contradicts dualism. The Creation is very good, and so water — a vital element of the Creation — is not foreign to God but can be a means to a holy end.
Of course, now that we’ve read the prophets on the Holy Spirit, we see the Spirit symbolism in the waters of baptism. The Prophets refer to the Spirit as outpoured — like water. They also speak of God bringing salvation like a “fountain.”
(Jer. 17:13 NET) 13 You are the one in whom Israel may find hope. All who leave you will suffer shame. Those who turn away from you will be consigned to the nether world. For they have rejected you, the LORD, the fountain of life.
(Zech. 13:1 NET) “In that day there will be a fountain opened up for the dynasty of David and the people of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”
We also see the allusions back to the Jewish mikveh washings to cleanse the Jew so he could enter the Temple and offer sacrifice. We see the Living Water of John 4 and 7. We might even see the primordial waters of Gen 1:1-2 from which God created the present Creation. The Christian as “new creation” is birthed in waters just as was the first Creation —
(Gen. 1:1-3 NET) In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water. 3 God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light!
Paul, of course, also sees in baptism the story of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus — but as a story in which we live. We don’t just gain the benefits of these events; we live into them. Jesus’ story becomes our story as we are baptized into his death and his resurrection. We become resurrected people.
(Gal. 2:20 NET) 20 I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
We really want to see baptism as a commercial or legal transaction. We meet certain conditions and we receive certain benefits. It’s a contract — to us. But Paul never speaks of baptism this way. Rather, he sees us participating in the very death of Jesus. We die with him in the waters.
Another of the stories baptism tells is the story of submission. After all, unlike the Jewish mikveh washings, we do not walk into the baptistry to baptize ourselves. It’s always in the passive voice, and so it is something received. Someone else — a representative of Christ’s church — immerses us — and as we go under the water, our lives are literally in the hands of the immerser. We become utterly vulnerable, laying backwards in the waters at the hands of the officiant. If he or she does not lift us up out of the water, we die. And that fact should give us just a hint of how Jesus felt on the cross. He died, but he had faith in God to resurrect him — which is truly astounding faith, even for a being both fully God and fully human. And we should experience some of that fear and that faith as we submit to immersion.
I mean, if we had even the slightest hint of a Poet in our souls, baptism would make so much sense without regard to exactly at what moment we are saved. The Bible is, after all, narrative — and so is baptism. Baptism tells a story. Many, many stories, in fact.
And what modern thinkers are realizing — and what ancient thinkers have always known — is that stories shape us in profound ways. They create our worldviews and hence our cultures as communities. And baptism (like the Lord’s Supper) was designed as a story the constant re-telling of which should shape our hearts and hence our relationship with God. And this is why Paul can confidently refer to baptism as teaching lessons about how to live as a Christian. It’s the story of our salvation!
I’m NOT saying it’s JUST a story. But if you miss the story elements, you’ve missed a lot of that it’s about. I mean, God gave us baptism, not as a test, but as a reminder and remembrance. After all, this is how Paul uses baptism in Rom 6 and 1 Cor 10 — as a reminder of what it means to be a part of God’s Jesus community. If we turn it into a mere test — worse yet, just another “step” — then we frustrate the purposes of God.
Baptism and justification
Let’s review Wright’s view of “justification.” In most Protestant churches, Churches of Christ included, “justification” just means “get saved” or “get saved so you’ll go to heaven when you die.” And this is not right.
The Greek term is legal — “forensic” the commentaries say — for a judge declaring the accused innocent of charges.
But the word has the same Greek root as “righteousness” and hence has to also refer to covenant faithfulness in Romans — as by the time Paul finally talks about “justification,” he’s written extensively about God’s covenant faithfulness using the word “righteousness.” And so we should take “justification” to mean “righteous-ification” or “to declare righteous” or “to declare covenant faithful.” And in context, the whole point of individuals’ being declared covenant faithful by God is God has formed the Kingdom entirely out of people deemed faithful to the covenant by God’s grace thanks to faith in Jesus. Hence, to be justified is to be declared covenant faithful and hence a member of the faithful covenant community.
Now, Wright’s arguments are much longer and more elaborate, and if you doubt me, I refer you to his library of writings on this point, particularly his Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. But the argument makes sense. It’s not about being declared “just” — but faithful to the covenant. After all, the Jews were in Exile because they were not faithful to the covenant. To end the Exile, they desperately needed to be righteous-ified by God. Without being declared faithful to the covenant by grace, they were in effect outside the community of the faithful — and so lost.
Now, Wright takes that seed thought and asks, “When does God justify the sinner?” Not when does he forgive the sinner or save the sinner, but when does he announce his verdict? And where does this happen? Is it a heavenly declaration heard only by the angels? Or has God come up with a method of declaring his Jesus-people as covenant faithful and a part of the community in the community itself?
In his monumental Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright adds some additional thoughts regarding baptism and justification —
Baptism does, outwardly and visibly (as the sacramental textbooks say), what justification says. Justification is the declaration made by the one God himself; baptism makes that divine word tangible and visible.
Baptism, like justification, points back firmly to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the ground and means of the single divine saving action.
Baptism, like justification, is inextricably linked with the work of the [Holy Spirit] through whom the whole church, now incorporating new believers, confess that Jesus is lord, affirm that the one God raised him from the dead and commit themselves to living under that lordship and trusting themselves entirely to his saving accomplishment.
Baptism, like justification, brings people from every background into the single family whose incorporative name is Christos, providing the basis for their common life.
In justification the covenant God ‘reckons’ that all who believe are ‘righteous’; in baptism, Paul tells the Romans to ‘reckon’ that what is true of the Messiah is true to them — specifically, his death to sin and his coming alive to the one God.
Justification provides the solid platform, the new status of ‘righteousness’ as a pure gift, on which the entire edifice of Christian living is constructed; baptism reminds the whole church, and tells the new candidates, that they stand on resurrection ground.
Justification brings the future verdict into the present; baptism brings the future resurrection into the present — and the future ‘verdict’ is of the future resurrection into the present — and the future ‘verdict’ is of course the ‘forensic’ dimension precisely of that future resurrection.
Both ensure, when properly understood, that the entire Christian life is known to be ‘in the Messiah,’ planted and rooted in his death and resurrection, and enabled by the [Holy Spirit].
Both are subject to the same problems: an over-concentration on the ‘objectivity’ and the ‘extra nos‘ [the belief that humans contribute nothing at all to salvation] of justification can lead to a carelessness about actual faith, never mind actual moral life, and an over-concentration on the ‘objectivity’ of baptism can lead to a similar casual or careless approach to actual Christian obligations. …
… Baptism is as it were the public celebration of justification by faith, the active and visible summoning up of the Exodus events which were themselves freshly encoded in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the constitution of the believing community as the Exodus people who have firmly decisively left Egypt behind and are being led by the [Holy Spirit] to their inheritance.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:962–963.