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The Case for Covenantal Continuity in the Sacramental Life of the Church
Baptism is a welcome party to martyrs
In many debates over the nature of baptism, there is a genuine struggle with the concept and hermeneutic of biblical continuity. This may be at the root of many Baptistic conversions to covenant theology in these last few years. Once continuity is ingrained, it is hard not to take it to its logical conclusion.
Regulatariansbegin rationalizing with the New Testament text principally while dismissing the language or liturgy of the old. Therefore, from our perception, they impose unnecessary breaks in the Bible, which shape their liturgical practices, and in many cases, even their political theology. They put commas when God has put a period. The same takes place in matters of sacramental importance.
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Rituals and Rites
The Scriptures are a place full of rituals and rites. These rituals and rites have intentionality in Israel’s liturgy. They shape the humanity of the Israel of God. Israel becomes a people because they participate in these essential initiatory experiences. The same can be applied to the Church today. We are all shaped by ritual experiences, whether a wedding, funeral, birthday or the basic dinner rhythms. These experiences in the context of the Church make us who we are. They identify us with a specific community and a particular God.
In ancient Israel, the Hebrews were identified by their bloody signs. These signs connected us with a bloody religion; the religion of our forefathers. These signs were to be identity markers stamped into the very fabric of their humanity as image-bearers.
As God’s people transitioned through periods of obedience and disobedience, wilderness wondering, these rituals remained as promises because God works most ordinarily through means and tangible signs of his faithfulness.
But when the new creation emerged in the resurrection of Messiah Jesus, the Church was organically joined with the Gentiles, and Israel’s rituals changed and took on new meaning. They were glorified rituals under a glorified Christ whose entire life was submitted to the liturgy of Israel’’s religion—from circumcision to his crucifixion.
The once bloody identity markers were replaced with cleansing markers. The New Creation now becomes marked by waters surrounding the narratives of the Gospel (fishermen as disciples) and the geography of Paul’s epistles (seaports). Ultimately the seas no longer cause harm as in Jonah but bring forth tranquility as in John’s abundance (Jn. 21). The New Covenant is filled with cleansing rituals.
This natural shift in creation happens because Jesus’ humanity changes and cleanses the world. Even at the end of Mark, we see a distinct reference to Mary Magdelene, whom Mark goes out of his way to reference as a recipient of Jesus’ exorcism ministry. The resurrected Messiah is a cleanser of bodies and souls.
His blood sacrifice is a cleansing for the nations (Is. 52:15). Jesus’ humanity humanifies the world. The presence of Messiah in word and deed pushes back the dirt and corruption, demonic presence and darkness, and the incompleteness of the Old Covenant rituals. There is a temporary nature to particular rituals, but the rituals/markers continue for a thousand generations. God does not change.
Continuity of Rites
The issue of continuity is a fundamental aspect of this ritual-laden world. The rituals continue, changed by times and places, but the object/recipients of these rituals never decrease; they only increase. In the New Creation, entire households are brought forth for this cleansing ritual called baptism. Every Gentile and Jew, male and female, are made explicit recipients and are called to partake of this new sign. The New Creation is inclusive, bringing the nations to Zion city of our God (Is. 2; Matt. 28:18-20).
The New Covenant is a covenant of abundant life, which means blessings to the nations. Baptism saves to the uttermost (I Pet. 3:21) because Christ saves to the uttermost. You cannot separate the abundant life Christ gives from the abundant life of the means Christ provides for His own.
The individualized language of modern sacramental and evangelical theology is a departure from the type of language the Bible has trained us to use when referring to rituals. Rituals have always been communal activities. The glory of the many in the Old Creation is not substituted by the radical commitment of the one in the New Covenant. To borrow Carl Trueman’s language, we do not move from society to expressive individualism in the Bible. Jesus is always and perpetually connected to a body in His ascension work. Thus, to divorce Christ from the body is an act of covenantal treason (WCF XXVIII). Continuity is key to understanding this process.
It is not as some assume that the sacrament of baptism needs to depart from the Old Creation. The sacrament of baptism is so inextricably tied to the bloody rites of the Old Creation that it cannot be divorced from it in any way, shape, or form. Blood makes room for water. Bloody-martyr-servants make room for cleansed-martyred servants—still, One Lord, one faith, one baptism.
Baptism is a welcome party for martyrs. In baptism, the noble army of God is equipped to serve and battle, even to the point of death. They do not begin a new war but continue the ancient battle begun in Genesis 3:15. They add their powerful voices and armor to the battle. They are consecrated in water, their swords are sharpened, and their helmets are strengthened. In the heat of the battle, while the enemies find no place to call home, Yahweh prepares a table in the presence of His enemies.
Baptism is preparation for a life-long war. Christ leads the baptized saints. He washed them with great care and equipped them to do the work. This community of faith directs their love to the One who adopted them in love. Baptism is loyalty to Messiah. Baptism cleanses, restores, and adorns those who undergo the great cleansing. To deny a continuity of rituals is to deny the war on the serpent. All God’s children need to be ritualized so that they can war. Baptism initiates that calling formally, and we are initiated into a life of ritual warfare.
Those who affirm that everything must have explicit biblical grounds for its applications. Nevertheless, most who uphold the regulative principle of worship reject the Old Testament precedent for worship.