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Discipleship—7: Christ and the Sacrament of Baptism


This is the seventh post in a nine-part series for Spectrum’s 2014 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You can view the reading/posting schedule here

The two assigned chapters for this week are excellent. More importantly, they are not separable. Chapter 9 is about baptism, and Chapter 8 is excitingly titled “Preliminary Questions.” However, without grasping the central point of Chapter 8, Bonhoeffer’s claims about baptism will be incomprehensible. 

Bonhoeffer begins Chapter 8 by describing what he calls a false problem: “How are we who live today to know that Christ calls us as his disciples?” “Surely,” asks the false question, “it was simpler for those who walked with Christ on earth than it is for us who do not see him, is it not?”  

No, not at all.

According to Bonhoeffer (and, incidentally, the New Testament), the first disciples had no advantage whatsoever just because they walked with Jesus, because they still had to apprehend that Jesus was Christ, and such an apprehension was possible only by faith. They submitted themselves as disciples to Jesus as Christ the Lord by faith and not by sight. 

Christ’s human, embodied presence was to be taken as a sign of God’s activity among them, and therefore they were to receive his bodily presence as an embodied symbol of his word, which they had to trust, and such trust demanded obedience, for his word to them was that they were his disciples, and he, their Lord.

So also with us, says Bonhoeffer. Just as the very first disciples had to receive Christ by faith, apprehending his unitary presence in his body and word, we too must submit ourselves to the call of Christ as he is present to us in sacrament and word, in the embodied signs of the word of promise that is preached to us.

This word, if we are to read Bonhoeffer correctly, mustn’t be confused with the Bible (which is surely central and authoritative, but is simply a different matter than what we are concerned with at the moment). The word, for Bonhoeffer, is the living, speaking voice of God, who confronts us with the fact that we are sinful creatures and that he is our righteous and merciful Lord. This word comes directly from the self-same Jesus who walked 2,000 years ago, and just as this Jesus came in the flesh, so also this word never comes to us without its embodiment in the sacraments.

The church is not a magical grace dispensary, and the sacraments aren’t little boosts of extra grace to help us along the way. They are God’s act among us, just as the word preached is Christ’s very word to us. Our difficulty with this matter, says Bonhoeffer, is our refusal to believe that Christ is really alive and really present; we constantly fall back into the belief that the sacraments are our own activities of remembrance or sentiment, and that preaching is just our own words of religious advice. But in fact Jesus is risen, is alive, is present, is active, and, most importantly, is Lord. Therefore his word spoken in our preaching is his word and holds his authority, and the embodied signs that accompany his preached word are truly his acts on our behalf, his grace to us which we suffer unto death and new life.

The living Jesus confronts us in baptism. The word is preached: 

Christ has died for all, and so today, you who read these words, know this, that though your heart beats and there is breath in your lungs, you have in fact died, and this is not a death that you could have inflicted on yourself, but one that only God could inflict. And he has done this because of your sin. Yet God is merciful, and has raised Christ from the dead, and so you too are brought to life in him. This you could not do for yourself; God alone has done it. You, yes, you out there, wherever you are, this is true of you. Because Christ has died and risen again, you have died and risen with him, and who you once were is dead, and you are now alive in Christ. Repent, believe the good news, and receive baptism into Christ’s name, as the embodied sign by which God makes this promise to you.

For Bonhoeffer, baptism is “paradoxically passive” (207). You receive it, but in fact it is Christ who is receiving you into his once for all death and resurrection. In baptism, you suffer death, and are thereby freed from sin, and you are raised with Christ into newness of life. This is God’s word of promise in baptism, and as a promise it must be trusted, apprehended by faith.

For this reason, it is to take place only once. Christ died once, and was raised only once, and he speaks his one word of promise. If a person is baptized, she need not ever be baptized again, for, as I said, in baptism God (not the minister, not the congregation, not the baptized) puts to death the old humanity and unites the baptized to Christ in his new life. This actually happens. If a person falls away and comes back to faith, there is no need for rebaptism, because the return to faith is itself evidence that God truly acted the first time,  that God was faithful to his promise.

This also has implications for the baptism of children. Bonhoeffer advocates infant baptism — a practice that I am personally inclined to affirm — and while Adventists do not, and will not likely ever, the reality is that Adventists do regularly baptize children and young adolescents, and regularly re-baptize lapsed believers who return to faith. 

Without entering into exegetical debate about whether there is rebaptism described in the Bible, I will only say that it is my personal belief that this practice is inherently contradictory. Either baptism is sacramentally efficacious, as Bonhoeffer suggests, and therefore only needs to happen once, or it is merely an outward sign of an invisible spiritual reality that reenacts Christ’s death and resurrection, in which case the repetition of the sign contradicts the very once-for-all act that it claims to symbolize. Moreover, the practice, most problematically, says that God’s faithfulness fluctuates with our faithfulness; the reality is that we will be faithless at times, and the word that is preached and accompanied in the sacraments is that God’s promise is sure, that God is faithful when we are faithless, for his has claimed us as his own.

I think a worthwhile consideration for Adventist church practice, in conversation with Bonhoeffer on this matter, is to emphatically tell baptismal candidates that what God has done in Christ they could not and cannot do for themselves, that they are preparing to receive an embodied sign that confirms this fact, and that no matter what happens in the future, God has claimed them. And to those who seek rebaptism, simply assure them that their very desire to share in God’s life anew is evidence of the efficacy of their first baptism — that God did truly act in them and was truly faithful.

Matt Burdette is a graduate of La Sierra University, and is currently a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at the University of Aberdeen. He blogs with Shane Akerman and Yi Shen Ma at Interlocutors: A Theological Dialogue.

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