If baptism yields a radical change in political allegiance, then through it, Christ Jesus actuates an irrevocable dissident identity in the believer. We are in the world but not of it. We are for Christ, not against him. The baptized are the possession of Jesus, citizens of his kingdom, and servants to his will and purposes. His spirit animates them as non-conformists to the status quo of fallen human nature and idolatry in all its ancient and modern forms. Baptism yields this dissident identity vis-á-vis the world of identity conformity. Being the baptized just may be the last, great resistance.
These facts are basic to what it means to be “Christian” and so should be a routine fixture in catechizing and preaching the implications of the gospel. Baptism brings justification, yes. But it also brings regeneration, and regeneration means a change of heart, a heart committed to a “good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12).
Important in “the pure preaching of the gospel” is rightly differentiating the sacrament of Holy Baptism instituted by our Lord Jesus from St. John’s “baptism of repentance” depicted in Matthew 1, Mark 1, and Luke 3. Setting the stage begins with appreciating John’s socio-political context. In Luke’s account, we read, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John” (3.1-2). This is a list of the power brokers, ranging from the emperor at the top of the pyramid to the strata of minions below. All were Roman officials doing the bidding of their lord, Caesar. Others like Annas and Caiaphas were Jewish subordinates — compromisers and opportunists serving as vassals to Rome. All conformed to the pattern of Caesar’s values and purposes. They swore vows of allegiance, and it gave them their basic identity.
John’s message about God’s kingdom, however, had profound political implications, recalling that politics and religion were one (just as they are today). John held an allegiance contrary to both Rome and the Sanhedrin, causing immediate suspicion of the authorities. This is why officials were sent to investigate (Matt. 3:7). A dissident voice sounded: “In the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord” (Is. 40:3). Repent. Repent of your wayward allegiances and realign them with the coming of Messiah’s governance. John’s spirit was one of disruption to the status quo — a prototype of Christian non-conformity to worldliness.
But the baptism of John was a temporary, preparatory act of “repentance,” unlike the enduring state of affairs that the Messiah would bring. John’s baptism signaled a renunciation of old loyalties, loyalties to how one thought the kingdom of God would come, what it would look like, and who would rule. Repent of all that and of lax interpretations of God’s law. Repent of compromise and conformity. Repent because, with the coming King, there is judgment:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:11-12).
John prepared the way by announcing that there will not be shared allegiances when God’s Messiah arrived. Vocational responsibility? Yes. Divided allegiances? No. Jesus would say as much himself in Mark 12:17: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” What, then, belonged to the God of Israel, that is, to the world’s rightful King? The Earth and the fullness thereof. Life, your life, itself belongs to the Lord. What belonged to Caesar was the things of the fallen world — an allegiance to money and power. Matters of allegiance were answered by Jesus with a deep line of demarcation: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). They follow Jesus for life, for salvation, for truth. They do not follow Caesar. That’s a dissident spirit, but it is at the same time a spirit motivated by love, not hate; motivated by compassion, not recalcitrant rebellion. But it is an attitude nonetheless. The Church needs more of that attitude.
Life, your life, itself belongs to the Lord.
It even applied to members of the military. There was a higher allegiance than “to the flag” or, as it was in the first century, to the Signa Romanum. In Luke 3, “soldiers” were present for John’s baptism of repentance. In a sense, John’s baptism dislodged their oaths to Rome… but not entirely. They were loosed for something, but that something had yet to be manifest and given, namely the actual “forgiveness of sins.”
The expression “forgiveness of sins” is a high-level phrase encapsulating a world of meaning. Jeremiah 31:31-34 indicates that when the forgiveness of sins is announced (“For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” Jer. 31:34), it simultaneously signals the advent of a new covenant with global implications (Jer 31:31-33), but also personal regeneration: “I will put my [Torah] within them, and I will write it not their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (v.33). All of it—divine vindication, the justification of sinners, new creation, and the arrival of God’s king and kingdom—was graphically bound to baptism, where the Word of God actuates an unveiled reality tantamount to the creation of the Earth in Genesis, the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, and a rebirth for humanity from their new head, the Last Adam — Jesus. John’s baptism prepared them for this. Jesus brought the reality of it. Ezekiel 36 puts it all together in one climatic prophecy:
“[T]he nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.
The identity of the baptized into Christ is settled and firm. We are the people of God.
Note the change of allegiance for those cleansed by God’s purifying water. This climatic proclamation and baptismal cleaning by God profoundly alter the world’s political-religious state of affairs. It tilts everything for the baptized in the direction of Christ. The proclamation of the “forgiveness of sins” entailed all of this, yielding a regenerated humanity that possessed and exercised a dissident spirit that pursued holiness and righteousness. Therefore, the identity of the baptized into Christ is settled and firm. We are the people of God.
Crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers were baptized for this, that is, to this end — the “forgiveness of sins.” But this reality would come when the Lamb of God, who actually bears for the taking away the sins of the world, was revealed; the one who baptized with the Holy Spirit. It would be he, God’s Messiah, that would baptize them into “the forgiveness of sins” as a kingdom reality (Matt. 29:18-20; Ezek. 36:25; Eph. 5:25). John’s baptism contained this gospel, but it wasn’t the gospel per se. Being ritually loosed from their oaths and allegiances depended on their own oath-keeping in their own strength to make straight the path of the Lord. In a sense, John’s baptism of repentance traded one law for another. The gospel had yet to be manifest, not as a policy, but as a person — Jesus the Son.
On the other hand, Holy Baptism, by way of the speaking and doing of God-in-Christ, this baptism constitutes an actual entry into the “Kingdom of God,” indeed, into the domain of the forgiveness of sins. The sacrament instituted by Jesus brings the alternative to the kingdom of Rome, indeed, a contrasting alternative to the kingdoms of this world. In Scripture, sin always includes a political dimension, traced to the treason in Eden, when our first parents sinned against God’s government and became vassals of the Evil One’s dominion. Christ destroys that dominion. The point of personal application for you is Holy Baptism. Jesus sacralizes baptism as pure gospel; He renders it holy, “set apart” from John’s legal baptism of repentance dependent upon human performance. It is holy by the performative power of his Word, but also his presence, which means his blood in “the water with the Word” (Eph. 5:25). We have no ability to make anything Christian. Only Jesus does. And so, Christian baptism is the action of Jesus, not man. Holy Baptism is gospel, not law.
Put simply, Holy Baptism is the prerogative of the King to bestow sonship and citizenship — over and above any and all competing legal standards, prior allegiances, or sworn oaths. Catechumens simply receive and confess the creed, that is to say, the gospel truth of the matter: Christos Kyrios, or Christ as Lord. To desire baptism emerges from the dissident Spirit. To receive baptism yields our dissident spirit to sin, death, and the devil. Such things are fundamental to the Christian’s identity as citizens and servants of the world’s rightful king.
Holy Baptism subverts the ungodly governing of this world by immersing our citizenship in God’s kingdom. The gates of hell or, put differently, the gates of Rome, Mecca, Brussels, or Washington DC cannot defend against it. For it is the work of God, not the work of man. Thus, it is the ultimate identity-maker — bestowing a dissident identity akin to Jesus himself, who came to serve, not to be served, and to do the will of the Father with grace, mercy, truth, peace, and love. This dissident spirit, yielding the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24), abides in you.