The Radical Politics of Baptism

Reading Time: 7 mins

Jesus is the ultimate, endearing, and definitive answer to the world’s problems, not any political party or ideology, nor any religion or the combination of the two.

For many people, political identity has supplanted their Christian identity. Baptized into this holy faith, catechesis goes neglected or gives way to competing values; usually the ideals of secularism, where government provides the solutions to all the world’s problems. Party affiliation becomes religious identity.[1] While some are “splash and dash” Christians from the start, the better part received God’s grace only then to be overwhelmed by “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches” (Mark 4:19), thinking such cares are best addressed by the “doing” of their politics, where each person contributes to real-world solutions as a “sovereign voter.” The antidote to this cooling of faith and identity displacement is preaching the radical politics of baptism.

Luke’s Gospel and Paul’s epistles uniquely present themselves to Gentiles within the Roman Empire. The Gentiles bore a political-religious identity and lived in a world where the modern (and confected) “separation of church and state” did not exist. Religion was political. Politics was religious. Being a Gentile, therefore, meant having a religion with political allegiance and devotion to Caesar. One was born into a world in which Augustus Caesar, the son of god (that is, the son of the divine Julius Caesar), was the deity king. This is what it meant to be a citizen or denizen of the Empire: Enslavement to political idolatry.

The idols of old are back and so are its Caesars. Political affiliation is more highly prized, pursued, and discussed than faith. So much so, that political identity (usually the first public identity marker for Americans) has collapsed into religious identity in which the gospel is allegiance to party leadership and policy. Indeed, prime candidates are touted as “messiahs” and “saviors,” with their policies purposed to “save the world” and “rescue humanity.” Yes, the Caesars have returned as lords over hearts and minds, eliciting and receiving voluntary religious allegiance.

As a jolting disruption to such idolatry, both ancient and present, the apostles’ Gospel proclaims a different deity king, one who rules as the world’s rightful Lord and true savior: The once crucified, now resurrected Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus is the “only begotten [Son] of the Father” (John 1:14). Augustus, then, stands as an impostor. Political-religious allegiance to Jesus means liberation from the machinations of Caesars old and new, but also a fundamentally new identity as a citizen within the Kingdom of God. Yes, all that and so much more, including pardon and peace through a blood atonement, eternal life, and the Holy Spirit’s gift of Christ Himself (Acts 2:38). Baptism signals a radical change of one’s body politic. Indeed, it is a radical change of citizenship and religion. Jesus is Lord. Caesar is not. The Kingdom of God is home, not the kingdoms of this world.

Baptism signals a radical change of one’s body politic. Indeed, it is a radical change of citizenship and religion. Jesus is Lord. Caesar is not.

All the metaphors attached to baptism placarded this reality. Adoption: Being brought into a new family with a new name placed upon us (“the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit). Regeneration through death and resurrection: Passing from one domain into another. Baptism serves as a portal from one kingdom into another, one state of being into another. Justification: We are given a new status and standing before the King and His Kingdom as pardoned and innocent. Clothed and cleansed: Washed in the blood of Christ (who is present in the water with the Word). We are clothed in Christ and declared righteous and united to Him who is our righteousness. Therefore, the sacrament of baptism is a totalizing identity-maker and needs to be preached as such, especially given how personal identity looms as the human crisis of our age.[2]

The word sacrament was not originally a Christian word. It was borrowed from the Latin sacramentum, in use among the Romans with its own meaning. Originally, sacramentum was a legal term, but Julius Caesar appropriated it for a military context. He described it as a voluntary oath taken by soldiers entering his legions. Livy (59 BC—17 AD), the Roman historian, confirms it was an oath of obedience, for a soldier to obey his superiors with religious fervor. The verbalized ritual thus served as a covenant or agreement between officers and soldiers. Through the reign of Tiberius Caesar (14-37), soldiers were required to take the sacrament only once during their career. This was the foundation of the cult of Caesar. Because the oath was sacred and taken before human and divine witnesses, it could not be revoked. The sacramentum covenanted the man to Caesar. The direction was one way: Oath to Caesar.

In short, the Roman Empire’s concept of sacrament was a single act of oath-taking by subjects of Caesar to be irrevocably duty-bound to Caesar under the pains of death. It was all about duty of obligation. It was something man did. But it also conferred one’s fundamental political and religious identity: Servant of Caesar.

In an evocative way, but also as a stunning political and religious reversal, Christ’s institution of baptism consists in irrevocable public oath-giving, not so much by the recipient, but by the world’s rightful King, Jesus Himself. In baptism, King Jesus acts. In baptism, Jesus does the baptizing (Ezekiel 36:25-27; Ephesians 5:25-27). In baptism, King Jesus speaks. His Word creates a new reality and establishes a new state of affairs for the baptized person, age notwithstanding. His Word accomplishes what it says. And in baptism, Jesus the Son makes a one-time declaration as the God-man based on the perfection of His obedience, the atonement blood of His death, and the surety of His resurrection. Because His crucifixion and resurrection constitute the covenantal reality to which the catechumen is called, and through their calling Jesus bestows faith, His Word elicits their oath-taking to the Lord of the Gospel which entails, among other things, the renunciation of all other politico-religious oaths and loyalties. This is the radical politics of baptism: It confers the enduring reality and elicits the singular confession of allegiance that “Jesus Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

That is the double helix fused to Holy Baptism. Christ performs His oath in baptism stating He, in fact, baptizes into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. He brings about the reality of the forgiveness of sins and the donum of Himself, constituting the sacrament as such and, resultantly, the baptized confess the creed which is the King’s Gospel. In other words, they testify to the King’s oath-making, oath-keeping. That is their testimony, namely the Creed. The most basic creed confessed is Christos Kyrios; not Kaiser Kyrios. Thus, Christ constitutes the sacrament, not the recipient. He effectuates the covenant, not the subject. His speaking, His doing objectifies the reality of the Kingdom of God. The subject serves to instantiate the Gospel of Christ by confessing the creed of Christ. The oath is the promise of His Word. The Creed is the confession of Gospel as attestation to His word, work, and covenant. That is the radical theology of baptism, and it yields a radical political-religious allegiance.

Christ constitutes the sacrament, not the recipient. He effectuates the covenant, not the subject. His speaking, His doing objectifies the reality of the Kingdom of God.

Note the crucial order of salvation. First, Jesus accomplishes salvation at Golgotha. Then Jesus applies His accomplishment in baptism and the heralding of the Gospel. It is His oath-taking that He will never leave us nor forsake us, that He cleanses us by His blood in the font. Resultantly, the baptized confess their citizenship and allegiance to the Savior who saved them. The radical politics of baptism has Jesus as the One who, in the first instant, serves us and “oaths” His for-us-covenant-with-the-Father. His speaking and doing redo us, creating us anew within the Kingdom of Christ, which is the Church, to oath-take in return as servants of the Son of God.

So, far from baptism being one’s first “act of obedience,” which would make it akin to the sacrament of the Roman Empire and a mere human event, pure law, it actually is a double expression of God’s promise-making, promise-keeping in Christ Jesus. The result of which is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God amidst the kingdoms of this world. That is how hotly political baptism is. Indeed, what could be more subversive to the nations of human governments and political oaths of allegiance? Each baptism instantiates a sleeper cell of the last true rebellion, where the confession is Christos Kyrios, Christ is Lord, and not Caesar or anyone or anything else for that matter. Jesus is the ultimate, endearing, and definitive answer to the world’s problems, not any political party or ideology, nor any religion or the combination of the two. Each baptism gives manifestation to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, the expressed domain of Jesus’ kingship, within which His Spirit has dominion.

Baptism touted Jesus as the destroyer of the gods, the emancipator from the Caesars and pantheons, and thus the supreme liberator. Baptism gives instance, location, presence, and a universe of biblical meaning to the Kingdom of God come and the will of God being done on Earth as it is in Heaven; with both dimensions overlapping in the watery sacrament publicly showing that “all authority in Heaven and Earth” belongs to Jesus. Jesus is the world’s rightful King. Baptism says, this time, this place, this person, and these people belong to King Jesus. He has put His mark on them. He has put the divine name on them. By this rite they are members of the Church, with all the rights, privileges, and protection conferred by the King. He gives it. They do not take it. He oath-gives (Hebrews 6.17-18), they do not oath-take, no, not in the first instance. Rather, they confess. They affirm the reality. Baptismal vows pertain more to confirmation, not chrismation.

Contemporary preaching of the radical politics of baptism necessarily entails calls for repentance for today’s idolatry, for allowing the idol of parties and polices to be our confession and basic identity. Indeed, for allowing the idol of our age into our churches to foster division and sectarianism. Preach repentance and contrition with a true turning away from the deceit that humanity is going to save the planet. Parishioners must loose on identity politics and political allegiance. Put such idolatries into their proper place, usually one of perfunctory citizenship and patriotism. Let all Christians be given to radical devotion to Christ, not radical politics.

Baptism thus solicits the creedal confession of the catechumen as a repudiation of allegiances to any and all governors who might claim lordship over the Christian himself. It is a confession which states what is in fact the true state of affairs: Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. Life flows from unition to Christ (Romans 6.3-11). Death flows from allegiance to the Caesars. Consequently, baptism eviscerates all previous political and religious rites and oaths, rendering them nothing. They mean nothing. They are nothing. This truth is upheld when every former Mormon, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, Bahai, Buddhist, Daoist, Hindi, and Secularist receive the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. In it their previous so-called “baptisms” (whatever religious rites or oaths undertaken) are erased, repudiated, and ified. At the same time, Christ’s Baptism into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, cannot be undone. There is no rite of un-baptism, not even for the apostate who returns to the true faith. For, ultimately, salvation is not about the recipient’s oath (again, the covenant is not dependent upon the individual or made with individuals), but about the oath of Christ and the unbreakability of His promise-keeping. The covenant is between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Creed confesses it.