The doctrine and practice of baptism is one of the cornerstones of Christian ecclesiology. In the Great Commission, Jesus tells his church to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Triune God (Matt. 28:19). Jesus could have prescribed any number of things in his final charge to his disciples, but He included baptism. This places baptism high on the Christian’s priority list. Despite its significance, the church at large has not come to an agreement on what precisely baptism is and how precisely we are to perform it.
“What is baptism?”
“What are the key differences between major denominations in their views of baptism?”
“Is there a possibility of denominations coming together in agreement on this doctrine?”
Such questions are at the heart of this study. I wish to navigate between three different positions on baptism (Memorial Sign, Regenerative Sacrament, and Covenantal Sacrament), and show how baptism is both a sign and sacrament.
View 1: Baptism as a Memorial Sign
The first position is Baptism as a Memorial Sign. In this view, baptism is done by immersion, once, to a believer, joining them to a local church. The immersion into water is viewed as merely a symbol of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those who take this sign upon themselves are part of the visible church. This view is most commonly associated with the Baptist traditions. It is usually termed Believers’ Baptism because it occurs when one believes, and not as an infant. The Baptist Abstract of Principles puts it succinctly:
Baptism is an ordinance of the Lord Jesus, obligatory upon every believer, wherein he is immersed in water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as a sign of his fellowship with the death and resurrection of Christ, of remission of sins, and of his giving himself up to God, to live and walk in newness of life. It is prerequisite to church fellowship and to participation in the Lord’s Supper.
One key principle for those who hold this view is that the Greek word baptizo means full submersion into water. The only valid mode of baptism, then, is full submersion. Also, only those who have made a profession of faith and are eligible for baptism.
So baptism in, say Romans 6, is the outward demonstration of the burial and resurrection one already underwent in union with Christ on Calvary. It is purely a memorial sign, a symbolic act, an initiation rite that signifies the reality of what has already taken place inside.
Theologically, this view sees baptism as a sign of the New Covenant, distinguished from circumcision in the Old. In other words, circumcision was an ethnic identity marker that pointed forward to the reality of inner regeneration promised in the new covenant. Now that Christ has effected the new covenant, circumcision is no longer valid as a covenant sign. Regeneration and its fruits are the only markers of the new covenant. Baptism is the outward sign of that inward reality.
View 2: Baptism as a Regenerative Sacrament
The second view is that of baptism as a regenerative sacrament. This view is distinguished by the close relation it draws between regeneration and baptism. Generally, this is the view of the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Anglican Church, and the Methodist church. There are a few points we will consider which distinguish them from the other two major views of baptism.
First, this position holds that baptism is a sacrament, from the Latin sacramentum. The word carries with it the notion of a sign, but it goes beyond mere symbolism. A sacrament is a sign with mystical or mysterious elements that cannot be explained through reason.
Second, baptism in this view is closely connected to—or sometimes equivalent to—regeneration. Thomas Aquinas, the Roman Catholic Doctor of the Faith, taught that the inward renewal of an individual happens at baptism. Many Lutheran theologians would say the same. However, many traditions who hold to this view would argue that regeneration can occur apart from baptism, thus not contradicting Sola Fide.
View 3: Baptism as a Covenantal Sacrament
The third (Reformed) view, is similar in that both positions see baptism as a sacrament, not just a memorial. However, there are two major distinctions between this and the Regenerative Sacrament view. First, regeneration is distinguished as a separate event. In other words, baptism is what God uses to “nourish and sustain” (Belgic Confession) the faith of a regenerate believer, confirming and adding to his reception of divine grace. Second, it is covenantally parallel with circumcision, being the sign of the new covenant in the same way that circumcision was the sign of the Mosaic covenant.
Concerning regeneration, Reformed theologians have consistently separated baptism from regeneration. Discussing John 3, Louis Berkhof takes being born of water and of the Spirit to be the same—regeneration is the new birth. The baptismal waters are indeed a vehicle of divine grace, but they are not the same as the divine gift of regeneration. Rather, the promise of baptism is conditioned upon faith and repentance.
This position holds that baptism replaces circumcision as the sign for the people of God. This position presupposes covenant theology. The covenant of grace, administered first to the people of Israel by Moses and second to the church by Christ, always has a sign. In the first administration, it was circumcision; in the second, baptism. This overlap means that baptism in the NT corresponds to circumcision in the OT, just like the Lord’s Supper corresponds to the Passover. They get this idea from Colossians 2:11-12: “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” The closeness of baptism and circumcision here leads many to see a continuation.
Explaining and Defining the Potential Sacrament View of Baptism
The observations made by adherents of all three positions are commendable. For 2000 years, various theologians have pondered the same texts. By defining this position, therefore, I am simply taking the observations made by theologians and commentators from every camp and reframing them so that they can better account for the biblical data. Undoubtedly, adherents of the three views of baptism above all saw the same data, and articulated very similar realities. In this way, the Potential Sacrament position can be a middle ground, comfortably embraced by those from all three different positions.
By Potential Sacrament, therefore, we mean that baptism can be a sacrament in the same way that it is in the Regenerative Sacrament and Covenantal Sacrament positions. It is a mysterious vehicle of divine grace. It is a means by which God mystically meets with humanity. At the same time, it is also only a symbol like in the Memorial Sign position. It is, by itself, an outward proclamation of what may or not be an inner reality. These two ideas, however, ought not to be contrasted against each other. Rather, the memorial aspect ought to be understood as causative for the sacramental aspect. Put more simply, the symbolism inherent in baptism is what kindles the faith which receives the mystery of grace.
In this sense, baptism is only potentially a sacrament. It is not a formula by which an unqualified man can gain divine grace by mere participation. This demands a bigger perception of what we consider “sacraments.” Sacrament should not be confined to only baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as is traditionally understood. In fact, creation might be understood as a realm in which there is a myriad of potential sacraments, baptism being one of two crowning sacraments for the church. The universe is replete with various symbols designed to point humanity to God, that they may receive His grace. When an individual grasps after God (Acts 17:27) by faith and finds the gospel of Jesus Christ from a symbol within creation, there the symbol is actualized as a sacrament.Creation has a myriad of potential sacraments, baptism being one of the crowning two. Click To Tweet
Therefore, what actualizes baptism as a sacrament is faith. Baptism, as one of two chief symbols of the gospel, becomes a sacrament when a man finds Jesus Christ therein and feeds upon him in faith. Hence, baptism is both a sacrament and a memorial sign, conferring grace upon an already regenerate man through the ceremonial act. This must by necessity exclude infants who are not capable of faith which regenerates.
Historically, there is much to support this position. In fact, the observations made by the theologians and commentators in the three main positions outlined above might all be taken as good evidence for this position. The same observations from all camps made regarding Titus 3:5; Acts 16:33; 22:16; Romans 6:3, and other baptism passages are valid in this position. To place the symbol as causative for the sacrament, however, and to understand sacramental blessings as being actualized by faith, reorients how we see these texts and allows for harmonization between the differing interpretations.
John Calvin (Covenantal Sacrament) explains in his comments on Acts 22 that one profits from baptism only insofar as it causes them to look to Christ. Basil the Great (Regenerative Sacrament) in his book on the Holy Spirit argues that the water is only effectual because of the Spirit’s presence, who is the one who gives faith. Chrysostom argues in his homily on Matthew 26:26-28 (the Last Supper) that if we were spirit only, then God’s grace would come to us in spirit only, but since we have a body too, he gives us signs in physical form too.
Conclusion: Take a middle view on baptism
Taken together, all three positions on baptism might be understood as puzzle pieces to the whole. It is better, however, to understand baptism as a potential sacrament. It is a memorial sign that pictures the gospel, allowing men to perceive and grasp the gospel by faith. It is by that faith that God imparts grace. As such, when an individual grasps the gospel in baptism, there it becomes a sacrament for that person. Much more could be said, for this position opens up room for a deeper grasp of the gospel not only in baptism but in every area of a believer’s life.
 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1963). 465.