A Review of Dr. John Fesko’s Lecture on Word, Water and Spirit, part 3

Read parts 1 and 2.

In Part II of Dr. John Fesko’s book, Word, Water and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (2010, Reformation Heritage Books), he, in 3 chapters deals with the Biblical data related to baptism as “New Creation” (chapter 8), “Covenant Judgment” (9) and as “Eschatalogical Judgment” (10). The following is my summary of his remarks on this material at the Christ Reformed Church Friday Night Author’s Forum in Anaheim, California last Friday, January 21, 2011.

When you look at New Testament texts that teach about baptism, not merely the occurrences of the event, but which present the theology behind the event, the passages tend to point back to Old Testament passages and concepts. In 1Peter 3, the apostle shows the correspondence between the flood and baptism:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.(1 Peter 3:18-22).

Elsewhere, the apostle Paul mentions the Israelites were baptized while crossing the Red Sea.

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1-5).

Notice that not only did the adults of the nation of Israel cross the sea and so become baptized into Moses, but so did the entire households of those adults, which necessarily includes any and all infants that were present at the time. Even the cloud, we learn, typifies the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 10, says Dr. Fesko (see Isaiah 63:10-14).

Colossians 2:11-12 has been the field of a pitched battle between credobaptists and paedobaptists:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:11-12).

Critical of the paedobaptist appeal to such a correspondence between circumcision and baptism based on this text, some Baptists argue that circumcision is a physical, national rite–the “Jewish passport,” if you will–whereas baptism is entirely spiritual. To this, Fesko responds by pointing out that water of baptism is physical. Old Testament circumcision had spiritual connotations as well as baptism. For example, in Deuteronomy 10:16, the Israelites are commanded to circumcise their hearts. “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:16). Later, we find that in chapter 30, this command becomes a promise, when Moses proclaims that the LORD will circumcise their hearts. “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). Paul in Romans 2:28-29 says the true Jew has had his heart circumcised.

“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God (Romans 2:28-29).

Thus Fesko describes the spiritual referent of circumcision.

But why was the act of circumcision chosen to serve as the sign of the covenant in the first place? Remember the first gospel promise in Genesis 3:15?

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel” (Genesis 3:15 NASB).

It is the seed of the woman who will bruise the serpent’s head. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, it is the seed of Abraham who will be “cut off.” The prophets applies the terminology of circumcision to the cross of Christ. Consider Isaiah’s great 53rd chapter alludes to circumcision in the sacrificial death of the Servant of the LORD: “By oppression and judgment he was taken away;       and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?” (Isaiah 53:8)

In Genesis 17, those who are circumcised are included in the covenant, and those who are not are said to be “cut off” from covenantal relationship with the LORD.

He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:12-14).

Finally, the sex of the recipient of circumcision was significant in its allusion to the fact that the Seed of Abraham to come, who would be cut off for his people, would be a male—the Lord Jesus Christ. These are some of the reasons that the act of circumcision is the appropriate sign of the Covenant of Grace. Therefore it makes sense that when we go to the New Testament, we find in Colossians 2 that when Paul makes reference to the “circumcision of Christ,” it is to his crucifixion, when Christ was cut off for his people, that he refers.

But why is it, then, that circumcision is replaced as the sign of the Covenant of Grace by a rite such as water baptism? What is it about the application of water that so well fulfills in the New Testament the significance of Old Testament circumcision? In the opening of the Gospels, John the Baptist announces:

“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” (Matthew 3:11-12).

Did John simply pull this ceremony out of thin air? Did he appropriate the immersion ceremonies of the Qumran community with whom he is considered to have possibly resided for a time? Was he simply applying Jewish proselyte baptism to repentant Jews? In the case of Jewish proselyte baptism, Dr. Fesko’s research seemed to indicate that, in fact, this baptism may have been devised only sometime after Christians began baptizing in the name of Jesus, and it may have been that they did so in imitation of Christian baptism. Instead, Dr. Fesko affirms that the true point of origin of John’s baptism is found in the Old Testament itself.

Joel refers to an outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 2:28); again, the Genesis flood corresponds to baptism in Peter (1 Peter 3:18-22); Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple features water flowing out from underneath it which makes fruitful everything it touches (Ezekiel 47:1-12); in Isaiah, the Spirit is poured out, making the desert bloom like the garden of Eden (Isaiah 51:3; cf. 35:5-7). John, then, would have concluded from passages like these that the Messiah would come and would baptize his people in the Spirit. Therefore, now, under the New Covenant, we baptize young and old, male and female to testify to the fact that the Christ has come and fulfilled circumcision by being cut off for his people and he has baptized his people in the Spirit.

For the most part, baptism is presented as a blessing, but what about the baptized who apostatize? Is baptism somehow neutralized, or rendered ineffective? Dr. Fesko declares that there are no neutral encounters with the living God, according to the Word of God. You do not enter God’s presence and leave unchanged. The professing believer, and his household, receives the visible sign of the baptism of the Spirit either to their blessing or to their cursing. When Christ was crucified between two thieves, was the thief who asked him to remember him the only one affected by his encounter with the Son of God? No, the other thief, who mocked Christ, went to his doom. Scripture identifies Christ either as the Rock on which the believing fall upon, or he is the Rock which crushes those on whom it falls (Matthew 21:44). Thus, the revelation of Christ is double-edged.

Ministers often fear that when they see no tangible results to their preaching in terms of conversion, that perhaps the preaching of the Word is an ineffective enterprise. But the faithful minister who sees no results isn’t a failure, for the unresponsive will be judged.  Just as the Old Testament prophets preached with no prospect of positive response. Isaiah was called to preach a message of judgment. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 says that ministers are either the fragrance of life to some, and the fragrance of death to others. Consider the warnings for unworthy reception of the Lord’s Supper—Paul indicated that for this reason, some were sick and dead among the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). Likewise, water baptism is either the water of new creation, or it is the water of judgment. Again, during the flood, those sealed in the ark were saved through the waters (1 Peter 3:20), while those outside of the ark were lost in judgment. Similarly, the Israelites in the exodus were saved through their Red Sea baptism, while their Egyptian pursuers were drowned (Exodus 14:26-29).

Subjecting the New Testament doctrine of baptism to the classical Protestant hermeneutic of the analogy of faith, by interpreting unclear passages in light of the clear parallel passages, demonstrates how it corresponds in many of its particulars to circumcision. I find it especially helpful to see how the connection between the two is found ultimately in the Lord Jesus Christ himself. The Great Seed of Abraham has been cut off from the covenant for the transgressions of his people, and he now baptizes his redeemed with cleansing influence of the Holy Spirit, but false professors who receive the sign of the Spirit’s cleansing will instead be burned with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:11b-12).


6 responses

  1. John,

    Good Summary of John’s background and book. Still struggling though – your Baptist Brother 🙂 David Jacks

    1. Thanks, David, that means a lot coming from you.

      Now, repeat after me, “The covenants have essential continuity, and only administrative discontinuity.”

      There, that didn’t hurt, did it? 😉 Write it out 100 times on a sheet of paper if that will help.

  2. hahahhahahaha— John and I were best friends at SWBTS and we still catch up with each other via phone each month. I love that guy – a lot. I do not think it is the discontinuity issue for me. It is: what does “baptism” mean each time you see it in context. For the Prsbys, more times then not, it means water baptism. But I see especially, in Colossians, not water Baptism, but Baptism into Christ via the Holy Spirit (i.e. regeneration, circumcision of the heart – not made with human hands and salvation: mystical and invisible “baptism”). This is the crux for me.

    So I will keep reading and thinking. I am at the point (as an Elder), where according to conscience, I will not re-baptize a person who now professes Christ and was baptized as an infant, but I (myself) will not baptize an infant. This just makes the Baptists and the Presbys BOTH mad at me 🙂

    1. And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
      (Mark 12:34 ESV)

      A guy’s got to admire your spunk, though!

      1. Presbys…. saying the love the regulatory principle, but when it comes to the administration of baptism, throw it out the window. Even the dispys get it!

        Reformed Baptists understand, that essential continuity of the covenant of grace, DEMANDS, we do NOT baptize infants. The ***sign and seal*** is, to the extent the is church enabled by grace and the witness of the Word, and Holy Spirit filled believers, to be given only to those who are in the Body of Christ, adopted chilidren of God. As circumcision was prescriptively given to the ‘household of Abraham’ alone; so too, baptism is given prescriptively to the ‘household of Christ’. How dare we presume who that is, simply because we have a physical lineage. An un-professing infant is no more, to our knowledge, Christ’s than those whose parents are outside of the church. Essential continuity: True Israel is never determined by physical lineage but rather, are the elect of God. RCA, DRC/CRC/OPC/’ETC’ are guilty of using rhetoric to hide the truth that their doctrines are based on the administrations, and not the essential continuity. Semper Reformanda.

        The Particular Baptists recognized this and other issues left over from the Magisterial Reformers. Hopefully the Reformed Churches will remember, their covenant is not with the Three Forms of Unity, or the Westminster Confession of Faith, and keep conforming their confession in accordance to the witness of Scripture. The London Baptist Confession 1689 (while not as personal as the Heidelberg (great for new believers/kids), should suffice.

        Bless and be blessed

  3. appreciate all you do to keep us informed and laughing. Keep up the good work

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