The Apostle Paul prioritized the gospel not baptism. In writing to the Church at Corinth he sought to dissuade his readers from making their personal baptism experience and doctrine central to their identity as followers of Jesus. In his opening remarks he told his readers, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor 1:17). Later in that same letter Paul makes clear the gospel’s primacy when he wrote, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). In distinguishing the priority of the gospel Paul challenges the misappropriation of the Corinthians’ Christian identity and allegiance.
Sign & Seal
Baptism is the sign and seal of the fulfilled promise of circumcision. Water baptism is an ordinance for Christ’s Church in the new covenant. The language of communal blessing is announced immediately at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fills the Church. Peter says, “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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38-39, emphasis added). The new covenant—and particularly the call to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ—was introduced to the very first Christians as a promise for them and their children. The New Testament follows the pattern of the Old Testament in speaking about God’s covenant being for “you and your offspring” (Gen 9:9).
Remembering that God himself is the covenant maker and keeper, and that Jesus is the good news and fulfillment of the covenant, we see circumcision (as baptism is often described) as a visible display of this inward reality of identity (Rom 4:11). Not only so, but in Colossians Paul makes a clear connection between these markers of faith, “ In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:11-12). Circumcision prepared us for baptism and therefore in the new covenant baptism replaces the demonstrative responsibilities of circumcision. This means even in infancy a child born into a covenant family should be baptized. If a child is not born into a covenant family then they should be baptized as soon as they believe in Christ. In either case baptism is a way we display the gospel within the Church, God’s family.
All of this to say, baptism is no more salvific than circumcision. As Old to New Testament covenant families were instructed to raise up their children in the Lord, so too covenant families today must teach their children to obey the Lord so that they will not depart from the covenant (Pro 22:6, Eph 6:1-3). Ultimately redemption, or becoming a Christian, requires a confession of sin and trusting in the gospel—the good news that Jesus is Lord as evidenced by his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension (Rom 10:8-10, 1 Cor 15:1-5). Therefore it is only as a Christian that one enjoys the filling of the Holy Spirit and eternal life with God in the age to come.