Does baptism in water save?
Water is the central sign of baptism. Water appears at significant places in the Biblical story. Together, those references make water a very rich Biblical symbol of what God is doing for us and in us. And we don’t really have a choice about it. When Jesus commands us to baptize as the means of making disciples in Matthew 28 and Peter invites the crowd to be repent and be baptized in Acts 2, I think they were speaking of baptism in water.
Our understanding of baptism is not limited to a choice between pure sentimentality and mechanistic “baptismal regeneration.” Baptism that is disconnected from the story of Jesus, that is not built on God’s grace, that is not done in faith in God’s word, that doesn’t connect one in a real, living way to Christ’s church – is not baptism as I think the early church experienced it.
Baptism is an act of God’s grace received in faith. When Peter says, “Repent and be baptized” he calls it a promise. Just as I believe that Jesus lived, died and rose again to effect my salvation – and the salvation of the world – so I believe the promise given in Peter’s words. The New Testament story doesn’t end with an empty tomb; it proceeds through Jesus’ exaltation, the gift of the spirit and the building of the church through the proclamation of the gospel and the act of baptism. The story of the church, the Spirit and baptism are not just minor details tacked on to the really important story of Jesus life, death and resurrection. Both Luke and John both insist that this gift of the Holy Spirit is what the whole story of Jesus was leading to all along.
Does baptism save? Well, Jesus saves. But insofar as baptism is a part of the work of Jesus to which I respond in faith, it is a part of God’s saving acts in Christ. I believe – I have faith – that in my baptism God incorporated me into Christ’s church, forgave my sin, gave new birth to my spirit, set me apart for his holy purposes and destined me to be live in his eternal kingdom. I believe that not because I have a magical belief in the power of water, but because I have faith in God who keeps his promises. If I believe that God acted for me on the cross of Christ, then I also believe that he acted for me in the waters of my baptism. It’s all part of the same story of God’s grace made real in the world.
Does God save in his gift of baptism to the church? He promises that he does.