Faith-based Bathing What role does baptism play in faith and salvation? By Timothy George
What is the role of baptism in faith and salvation? —John F. Walker, Greenwich, Connecticut
Your question deals with one of the most important, yet debatable, issues within the Christian family. We receive many wonderful gifts through baptism, but the most important role of baptism is to identify us with Jesus and with other believers who follow him. Baptism is our profession of faith.
This is why the first Christians declared their faith in Christ at baptism by saying, "Jesus is Lord." The Apostles' Creed and other statements of faith were also associated with baptism. Baptism involved more than correct belief, though. It was an induction into a new way of life. It signaled a lifelong process of learning and living according to the gospel of Christ.
During the Reformation, Huldrych Zwingli compared baptism to the white cross sewn onto the uniform of a Swiss soldier (we see this same symbol on the Swiss flag today). Combatants bearing this symbol identified with the Swiss cause. Just so, baptism marks us off as militia christi, soldiers of Christ who wield the spiritual weapons Paul described in Ephesians 6.
Second, baptism is closely related to personal faith and repentance. This is the primary reason why many Christians (and I am among them) think baptism should be administered only to those persons who have repented of their sins and believed the gospel. Baptism may confirm the faith of believers, but it does not create faith in those who have never trusted in Christ.
Yes, God's covenant of grace is broader than baptism and may well embrace those who have not yet come to personal faith in Christ, such as infants, young children, and the mentally incompetent, among others. Still, like the Lord's Supper, baptism signifies an earnest pledging of ourselves to God (1 Peter 3:21) and thus presupposes a living faith in Jesus.
But what about the many Christians who practice infant baptism? How do they understand its relationship to faith? Among Protestants, there are two broad answers to this question. In different ways both seek to preserve the connection between faith and baptism.
Luther taught that baptism effects (or "works") forgiveness of sins, but he was clear that the water alone did not do this, but rather faith and the Word of God which is "with and in" the water. Baptized babies are not void of faith, he said, for God grants a certain kind of "infant faith" to them. Still, it is not baptism that creates faith, but God himself who gives faith to the child.
The Reformed tradition stemming from Zwingli and John Calvin, though, answered the question of infant baptism and faith in a different way. This tradition emphasized the covenant faith of the church, especially the personal faith of Christian parents. While Calvin could speak of the "seed" of repentance and faith that the Holy Spirit gave to infants in baptism, clearly he had future repentance and faith in mind. That future faith is when the baptized child would "own" the covenant and receive the new birth promised in baptism.
For all their differences, evangelicals agree in opposing the indiscriminate, careless use of baptism. Baptism is not a rite of initiation by which one joins a holy club or a certain social or political order. Baptism must take place in the context of faith, and it must connect to the central events of the gospel—Jesus' cross and resurrection.
The relation of baptism to salvation has also been disputed. In medieval theology, infants who died without benefit of baptism were consigned to limbo—a sort of air-conditioned compartment of hell in which there was little suffering but from which there was no escape. But the idea that all who die without baptism are eternally lost is just as false as its converse: the teaching that baptism automatically conveys eternal life.
God is sovereign, and his mercy is not bound to the ordinary means of grace, including baptism and the Lord's Supper, which he has given to the church. The Spirit blows where it wills. Who knows how many deathbed penitents, like the thief on the cross, we will see in heaven?
We must not abuse this principle, however, to relegate baptism to a minor place in the Christian life. While God is not bound, we are! The Great Commission is still in effect, and Peter's Pentecost sermon is still the message we proclaim: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and an executive editor of Christianity Today.
Gray Matter and the Soul What is the difference between the brain and the soul? By Dallas Willard
It is said that the soul is the seat of emotions, intellect, and will, but the brain is involved in each of these functions. What is the difference between the brain and the soul? David O'Connor, Yonkers, New York
First it will be helpful to look at where both soul and brain stand in relation to personhood. It is a mistake to confuse the soul and the person; nor is the soul merely that which is "personal" in us. But the soul is such a fundamental dimension of the person that in Scripture, poetry, and in common life, soul often means the person. Soul in the Bible sometimes—perhaps most of the time—refers to the whole person, precisely because it represents a deep dimension of the person.
The relation of the brain to personhood, too, is frequently misstated. Because scientists tend to take the brain as central to life, people often construe it as identical with life. This is because the scientific community generally assumes, in practice if not in theory, that only that which is physical is knowable. Scientists often believe they can treat the personal side of life only if it is physical.
Clearly there is in human beings a profoundly important connection between the states and events of the brain and those of personal existence. But the person is not identical with the brain (or the DNA or the body as a whole). Why? Because there are thousands upon thousands of truths about the person that are not truths about the body. And there are many kinds of truths about persons that are not the kinds of truths that apply to the body or any part thereof. Inspect the brain in any way you will; you will not find these truths or even know that they exist from what you do find there. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) pointed this out long ago, and no satisfactory way around it has ever been found.
On the other hand, people's bodies are essential to their identity and life. Through them we have an inner world and become the person we become—forever. The body is not just a container. That is why, in Christian thought, there is to be a resurrection.
While the brain has its role in emotions, intellect, and will, and while people's bodies are essential, we must always remember that the person is the ultimate unit of analysis: you, me. Thought, feeling, action (involving the body, as well as relations to others) are ultimately dimensions of the person. And it is the soul that combines all the dimensions of the person to form one life. It is like a computer system that runs an entire commercial operation.
When it is broken, you have to attend to it—and in fact, only God can repair it. "He restoreth my soul" (Psalm 23:3). Law and disciplines can also help heal the soul, but grace—God doing in my life what I cannot do for myself—is the first and last word. And yet law and disciplines are inseparable from grace as they do their part.
So it is the person that ultimately is "the seat of the emotions, the intellect, and the will"—not the brain, as scientists would say, nor the soul, ultimately. The person is the seat of the soul if we mean by seat that in which the soul is located. The soul is, arguably, the deepest dimension of the person or, as we often say today, of the "self." But it is not the person.
To sum up: The soul is one nonphysical dimension of the person. A human person is a nonphysical (spiritual) entity that has an essential involvement with a particular physical body. The brain, then—a piece of meat that is of more than usual interest—is one part of the embodied dimension of the human person. It too is integrated by the soul into one life, along with all of the dimensions of the person (at least when all is well).
These matters are especially important as Christians often treat the soul as the recipient of salvation, and leave out the other dimensions of human life—especially the bodily and the social, but also thought and feeling.
The soul is not some separable part of us that eventually gets to go to heaven while everything else about us is left out. Redemption in Christ is a retrieving of the entire person from alienation from God and opposition to God.
Dallas Willard is professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His latest book is Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (NavPress).