Baptism is a normative redemptive act
I believe a conversation about baptism begins with humility. As we wrestle with the function and importance of baptism we should regard ourselves as finite interpretive beings led by the communal work of the Spirit. I cannot know perfectly the mind of God but I can faithfully and humbly approach His word. As a part of the Christian community we can all grow together as we share the Spirit’s work in us.
In discussing baptism, two questions come to mind, how do we frame the activity of baptism (anthropocentrically or theocentrically), and how does baptism participate in the larger theodrama (the action of God reconciling the world to Himself). Christians often look at baptism through the way they participate in its activity, “I decided to be baptized”. Equally important, if not more so, is the activity of God through baptism (Col. 2:13). The activity of God, I believe, is the transforming work of His grace through Jesus that gives baptism its significance (Rom. 8:29, 2 Cor. 3:18). This transforming activity fits into the grand-narrative of God’s work through history by conforming us to the image of His Son. God desires to dwell among His people (Rev. 21:3 and Gen. 2:2) so he achieves this through our transformation.
Thinking about baptism as a transforming activity and ritual (an activity that brings us into God’s presence) moves us away from a bordered (you’re in and you’re out) framework of baptism. Instead we recognize the conforming process that goes on in a person as they move from unbelief to belief. As a part of God’s redemptive process they follow Jesus into the waters of baptism.
For much of the last two thousand years debate has surrounded baptism. The mode, function, requirement, and type of baptism have been questioned from every angle. We ask questions like, “what happens when an elbow or a part of their clothes doesn’t enter into the waters?” or “If they are walking to the waters and die are they saved?” or “What if they say the wrong thing?” or “What if it wasn’t exactly as they did in the Bible? For most of these questions I think we rely on the fact that God is the transforming power through Jesus behind the activity of baptism we can trust the working of His grace. In issues of mode, for example pouring, I believe first we must recognize the faithfulness of the one who was baptized in this way, and then we can offer encouragement for them to continue their faith journey (process) by doing as Jesus did and being baptized as he was. We should in no way discount the faithfulness of their past actions. Instead we look to Scripture that shows God to be merciful when we choose to act faithfully (Acts 19:1-6). The reign of Hezekiah is a wonderful example of God’s choice of mercy over ritual. Hezekiah gives the Passover to unclean people during the wrong month. He knowingly acts contrary to law but receives mercy from God in his attempt to faithfully worship (2 Chron. 30:18-20).
In the end, our transforming process in baptism should result in our growing likeness to the one who died for us. We are buried with Jesus through a baptism into death so we might be raised, as he was, into a new life (Romans 6:3-4). We continue to be transformed until that eschatological future where we are sown imperishable.