New Creation and Baptism

In Genesis 1, we see that the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters of creation. It was out of this water that the dry land of the new earth was brought forth on the third day. The waters were separated, and dry land appeared (Gen. 1:9-10). On the sixth day when man was created out of the dust of the ground, which corresponds to the filling of that which was formed on the third day, we see that there was a mist coming up from the ground and watered the whole land from which man was created.Thus man was created from the dust that was covered in water (Gen. 2:6-7).

After the flood, we see a similar picture, with the dove, like the Spirit of God hovering over the flood waters, looking for a place to rest its feet (8:6-9).  Later, during the Exodus, when Israel was brought out of Egypt, a similar picture is given in the crossing of the Red Sea. “And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to the on their right and on their left” (Ex. 14:22). St. Paul looks back to this account in 1 Corinthians 10:2 and says that Israel was ‘baptized in to Moses.’ Deut. 32:11 even pictures God as a fluttering eagle over Israel when He brought them out through the water. This is a striking resemblance to the creation and flood accounts, when the Spirit was hovering over the waters of creation and ‘new creation.’ A similar account is recorded for us in Joshua 3:15-17 when the Israelites went into the land and the water from the Jordan River was overflowing. The Priests who bore the Ark of the Covenant went into the water, and the water ceased to flow, and Israel went over into Canaan on dry land. We might possibly see the Cherubim with their wings spread out over the Ark, which was placed in the hands of the priests who were “in the midst” of the water, as picture of the Spirit of God hovering over the water here also.

Skipping ahead to Jesus, we see the one who is the True Israel going into the water for baptism, when the Spirit of God descends upon Him in the form of a dove. This is an obvious recapitulation of all those Old Testament types, all of which find their fulfillment in Christ. Then on Pentecost, when the Spirit of God came to the Church, there was a sound like a mighty rushing wind (Acts 2:2), which might be a veiled reference to the sound of hovering fluttering wings of the Holy Spirit, since  Jesus in Acts 1:5 does refer to the coming of the Spirit as a‘baptism.’

Directly connected to these water “baptisms” is the doctrine of the eschaton. Jesus Himself speaks of the “times of restoration” that come by the hand of Elijah (John the Baptist) in Matt. 17:11; He also speaks of the time of the “regeneration” in Matt. 19:28[1]; Peter and John in Acts 3 exhort the people to repent so that the “times of refreshing” and “the time of restoring all things” can come about; Hebrews talks about “the time of reformation” (9:10); Peter in his first epistle says that their salvation is ready to be revealed in this ‘last time’ (1:5). This grace of salvation will be brought to them at the “revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ.” When this revelation occurs, “the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise, we are waiting for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:12-13). Peter looks for that day of wrath when the old covenant would be brought to a close. This day of wrath finds comparison with the destruction of the flood of Noah, and the manner in which they were saved from that wrath. The wrath that God indeed did pour out ended the old covenant “heavens and earth” was in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Peter thus concludes that “Baptism, which corresponds to this [the ark which saved them from the destruction of the old world and which brought them into the new] now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).

How is it that Baptism saves? In just that way that Peter said. The Ark was the vessel that saved people from God’s wrath which destroyed the old “heavens and earth” and brought them into “a new heavens and earth.”  Paul tells us if anyone be in Christ, “new creation.” The old has passed away, the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17). The question then is; how does one participate in this new creation? Answer: By being “in Christ.” How does a person come to be, “in Christ”? By Baptism. For Paul says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:27-28).  Paralleling that statement, Paul says at the end of his Galatians epistle, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor un-circumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). Paul therefore seems to equate being “in Christ” with “new creation.”  He also says in Titus 3:5 that we are saved “by the washing of regeneration.”

Though this passage has been debated, I believe that the proper rendering of the text should be understood as: we are saved by the washing [baptism] that brings about the new birth (i.e., new creation). ‘Regeneration’ literally means “New Birth” and so we are born anew through the waters of baptism, not by any internal “regeneration” as classic reformed theology has understood the term, but in the external objective sense. Baptism brings us into the regeneration, the eschatological kingdom of God on earth. Connecting this Jesus Himself said that a man cannot see the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the spirit. It is not just the spirit, but it is also the water, that is, the waters of baptism.

Thus, from a biblical theological perspective, Christ Himself is the New Creation, and it is baptism which then brings us into this new creation, i.e. Christ. All of those Old Testament types find their significance in baptism, which was the means whereby a person came into the “New Creation.” It is the not only the same in the New Covenant, but it is here where the fulfillment is.


[1] See R.T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 287-288.

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3 thoughts on “New Creation and Baptism

    • Yes Leithart, but also Rich Lusk and James Jordan. Thanks for commenting. It is not everyday that someone comments. Actually it is like never. I appreciate it.

  1. Mike,

    Love your treatment of the symbolism. My only question would be this: are we so certain that the reformed emphasis upon the “inner” dimension of regeneration is per se problematic? I know it has become a sort of sport to beat up on certain reformed emphases, but let me play devil’s advocate for a moment.

    Calvin’s whole purpose in making the “inner” versus “outer” distinction is to ward off a theology that dangerously identifies sacraments with “magic.” The later medieval tendency was to take the ex opere operato principle in the direction of talismanic magic. People came to the mass to experience the miracle of transubstantiation — them moment when the body and blood were mystically transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. But they were also denied the elements because they were considered “too holy.” A notion of causal mechanical efficacy had emerged, which made people treat grace as some quantum of “stuff” that was causally distributed through various sacramental totems. Every wealthy person had a reliquary because it gave them access to a quantum of grace that could be distributed (and received) through the sacrament.

    Ex opere operato descended, then, into a mechanization of grace that focused almost exclusively upon the “outer” causality of the totem in question. It’s attractive for us, living in a world that is so devoid of “magic,” to romantically incline to the talismanic view.

    The reaction of the high reformers was to the tendency of the later medieval church to focus upon “outward causality.” But this betrays what a sacrament is in the first place. A sacrament of is an outward sign that points to a reality beyond it. The nature of the causal efficacy is somewhat mysterious. In other words, there is a mystery in the relationship between the “outer” and “inner” dimension of sacramental reality.

    Instructive, here, is Calvin’s use of John Chrysostom. Chrysostom emphasizes that spiritual things reside under the sign of visible things. But his understanding of the “under” is extremely important. He doesn’t choose “in” as his preposition, and he does so because the “in” is God himself. The sacrament, in other words, is never identical with God’s causal agency, rather, it is a sign and seal of something that occurs “under” it. Chrysostom’s point is that that which is “under” the Sacrament is God himself — and his grace — and the sacrament is a real sign and seal of this spiritual reality. But we should never see God’s gift of himself as “in” the sacrament, whereby we mean “contained within.” The point is that God’s spiritual life isn’t “contained within” or “constrained within” the material container that points to it. In this sense, we can see the theology of the Tabernacle/Temple as reflecting this sacramental view. God isn’t synonymous with the Temple (in the way that pagans thought that their gods resided in idols), and the Temple points beyond itself to the heavenly tabernacle (which Hebrews tells us is Christ). The earthly Temple, then, has a sacramental quality in that it points to a heavenly reality that it is merely a copy of (again, Hebrews).

    The chief point as concerns “inner” regeneration, then, is to notice that the Spirit comes to reside in the person — himself. And the sacrament merely points to that which occurs “under” it. As the honorable Mr. Cline recently suggested, the Spirit really takes up residence.

    So Calvin’s emphasis upon the “inner” is to identify the location of that to which the sacramental action points. The location of the action is the “inner” (read: real life) of the person receiving the sacramental action. Put more clearly, it signifies the “inner work” of the Holy Spirit upon the person. And by “inner work” we are referring to the mysterious union of a person with Christ.

    That this incorporation has both an “outer” and an “inner” dimension is extremely important for the reformers because it signifies their desire to move away from the tendency towards “sacramental adoration.” Sacramental adoration involved what they considered to be an improper idolizing of “the-power-in” the sacrament, which became equivalent to the Sacrament, rather than “the-power-under” the Sacrament, the divine and mysterious life of God. Sacramental idolatry was such a massive problem in the church that ultimately it led to the Church denying the eucharist to the laity (except possibly once a year) because of the totemic power “in” the sacrament, which was believed to be somehow sullied or dirtied by its contact with unclean people. This “sacramental adoration” is, I think, a clear violation of the “under” versus “in” aspect of a Sacrament. And it’s very easy to see how it would be abused.

    On the other hand, I agree that it’s easy to abuse the “inner” versus “outer” distinction. We must be very careful with it. What I want is to walk the extremely fine line between totemic sacramental adoration (on the one hand) and an anabaptist denial of sacramental efficacy (on the other). I think, for the most part, the reformers did a fairly decent job of doing that.

    In the peace of Christ,

    Graham

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