The toughest doctrinal issue with which I had to wrestle as a teenager was the matter of water baptism in relation to salvation. The joy of discovering Christ was rapturous. The daily access to him through Scripture, prayer, meditation, and conversation was the prime business of life and its central activity. The compulsion to share the discovery and spread the joy was irresistible. First through R. A. Torrey, and then C.H. Spurgeon and Robert Murray M’Cheyne, the understanding of the gospel became more clear and the advocacy of it more vigorous. Nothing was more wonderful than the knowledge of immediate friendship with God through the cross of Christ. The very instant that trust was placed in him an eternal relationship with the Father had begun. Through Spurgeon, his lectures and sermons, the sheer wonder of free grace was apprehended, and from M’Cheyne the conviction as to the warmth and charm of electing love was imparted, so winsomely. My happy soul bathed in the sunshine of God’s favour and counted on a close walk with God whenever the mind could consciously turn to him. Contact with God through the Lord Jesus as encountered in Scripture was the most treasured possession and privilege available in this life. John’s gospel was especially appealing and eyes were glued to its pages as often as opportunity afforded. The red biro was busy underlining verse after verse. For many months there was the new convert’s delight in an uninterrupted experience of the Lord. Life was sweeter than one could ever have imagined. God was real and at any moment of desire he was there to satisfy the soul. That was the vital point. Without any mediation, or any other instrument than faith alone, contact and communion with God was gained. The atonement, and confidence in it, secured that inestimable blessing. What was real for oneself was possible for others also, the very moment they looked to Christ and believed. What an incentive to spread the message of Christ. Every obstruction removed. No other action required - a clear way to the Lord through the cross of his Son. In this truth was glorious liberty to speak of the Redeemer without embarrassment and inhibition. Whatever the hearer might think, this was news that was wholly good and brimful of blessing to any soul that received it.
This mirthful, exuberant approach to Christian life was eventually blighted by the arrival of the first theological conundrum to be worked through. It was suggested by proponents of baptismal regeneration, both Anglo-catholic and Campbellite, and one of the key biblical texts they wielded was cited from the life-giving, ever-enthralling, personally favourite, Gospel of John: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (3:5). The effect was disturbing. To narrow the experience of new birth and entrance of the kingdom to an absolutely necessary sacramental actseemed contrary to the spirituality of the gospel, restrictive of divine action and human response at any moment, and dangerously superstitious. Surely faith grasped the Lord Jesus in all his fullness the moment it came into being, and the existence of faith as a gift of God was proof already of new birth and entitlement to the kingdom. The notion of baptismal regeneration was immediately perceived as a distortion of the gospel that jeopardized the message of grace, placing souls in bondage to forms of ordained ministry and material means of spiritual benefit that was never intended. Baptism was not apersonal problem in terms of its omission: it had already been administered on profession of faith. But that spiritual well being, the gaining of salvation, urgently sought by an awakenedsinner, was suspended until the administration of an external ritual act was decidedly odious and seemingly contrary to the tenor of the New Testament. It became imperative to seek the mind of the Saviour whatever the personal reaction or preference. It affected the presentation of the gospel and as to how immediate was access to Christ and the possession and enjoyment of him. Surely, the quickening of the soul dead in sin was an instantaneous act of the Spirit, and new life found its expression in repentance and faith. Beyond that, baptism was a powerful, precious and confirmatory sign of a God-wrought inner reality. Sacramentalism seemed a concession to magical religion, or a desire for automatic certainty of the kingdom without proper self-examination or evidences of a work of grace. Under much pressure and plausible presentation of the sacramentalist point of view the process of investigation and comparison began with the awareness and conscientious stipulation that it must not be swayed by any prejudice or bias whatsoever.
Every commentary available was consulted for its interpretation of John 3:5 and similar verses. It is true that it is the conclusion of many worthy scholars of the Scriptures that the words of the Lord Jesus do associate baptism and regeneration, but not in the sense that baptism is necessary to regeneration. The former is a vivid symbol of the latter addressing both sense and faith in a profound and reassuring way. Everyone concedes that regeneration may occur at any stage in the life of God’s chosen ones – before, during, or after baptism, but not because of it through any inherent efficacy: “Yet, while so distinctively a supernatural work, it is made equally clear that it (regeneration) is not a magical work; not a work bound up with rites and words, so that when these rites and ceremonies are performed, regeneration is ipso facto effected. This is the error of sacerdotalism, which binds up the spiritual change with the rite of baptism. It would be wrong to say that baptism has no connection with the change for it is often brought into the most intimate relation with it, perhaps even in Christ’s words, Jn 3:5. Baptism is connected with regeneration as outwardly representing it, and being a symbol of it; as connected with profession, and pledging the spiritual blessing to faith; but it neither operates the blessing, nor is indispensable to it, nor has any virtue at all apart from the inward susceptibility in the subjects of it” (James Orr). A simpler alternative reading of John 3:5, however, is to see it as Christ’s allusion to Ezekiel’s prophesy (36:25) that the Lord will sprinkle his people with clean water, an emblem of the Holy Spirit and his purifying of the heart. Jesus is saying that people must be born of water, even the Spirit in the same sense that the Baptist says the people of God will be baptised by the Spirit and fire (Matt 3:11). The image and the reality are closely linked in each verbal expression.
The ongoing trend to the over-evaluation of baptism is sad and dangerously confusing. It began early with certain of the Fathers who, “Lost the biblical understanding of the sacraments as signs to stir up faith and seals to confirm believers in possession of the blessings signified, and so came to regard baptism as conveying the regeneration which it signified” (J.I. Packer). So strong is the Reformational objection to sacramentalism within Anglicanism that Bishop Ryle records his spiritual crisis and conversion in these words: “Nothing to this day appeared to me so clear and distinct as my own sinfulness, Christ’s presence, the value of the bible, the absolute necessity of coming out of the world, the need of being born again, and the enormous folly of the whole doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration”.