Chalcedon Position Paper No. 37, February 1983
Churchmen have long discussed, debated, and analyzed the meaning of baptism in terms of the church. They have called attention to its meaning in terms of regeneration, purification, and more. All these emphases are important, and it is not our intention to displace or downgrade them in calling attention to another and central meaning.
Baptism is an act of citizenship. In the early church, it was not only an act of citizenship in Christ’s Kingdom, but it involved what was in the eyes of the Roman Empire a treasonable affirmation. The New Testament tells us that baptism is “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:16; 19:5; 1 Cor. 6:11). The name stands for the person, authority, and power, so that baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus is into citizenship or membership in His person, authority, and power, and hence Christians face the world as citizens of the Kingdom of God and as ambassadors thereof.
In the early church, Christians faced the requirement of Rome to be a licensed religion, with an imperial certificate in their meeting place. To gain that certificate meant an affirmation of subjection to the Empire; the required confession was, “Caesar is Lord.” As Polycarp faced martyrdom for refusing that confession, the imperial magistrate, doing his best to persuade the aged Christian, asked him, “What harm is there in saying Caesar is Lord?” As the historian J. N. D. Kelly commented, “The acclamation Kurios Kaiser would seem to have been a popular one in the civic cult of the Roman empire, and Christians were no doubt conscious of the implicit denial of it contained in their own Kurios Iesous” (Early Christian Creeds, p. 15). In fact, the confession, Jesus Christ is Lord, was the baptismal confession of the early church (Acts 8:36–38; Phil. 2:9–11).
Rome boasted of being the conqueror of the world, and its emperors were gods. The early church countered this. 1 John 4:15 declares, “Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.” Every believer was given a higher status than the emperor! As against the emperor as the world conqueror, John declares, “Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:5). Since one meaning of Lord is God, the implications of the baptismal confession are obvious. Every believer confessed a greater and higher citizenship in a Kingdom which would overcome and outlast all others. In terms of his faith, he held, “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). The joy of Pentecost is inseparable from this faith. So intense was this faith in the Lord and subjection to the great King of kings, that Ignatius wrote in a letter (Trall. 9), “Be deaf when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ.” The horror of Rome in facing these Christians can be seen in part by the irritation of modern statists as they face American Christians on trial for refusing statist controls.
Rome recognized no power and no loyalty beyond itself. Even the gods of Rome were made gods by resolution of the Senate and were thus subordinate to the Empire. The idea of a power greater than and over the Roman Empire was anathema. This, however, was precisely the faith of the early church. Jesus Christ, they held, is the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15). It is difficult to imagine a faith which was more an affront to Rome. Christians declared to one and all that Jesus Christ is the universal and cosmic Lord. He is Lord not only over the church, the individual, and the family, but over the state, the arts and sciences, economics, education, and all things else. All things must either serve Christ the Lord or be judged by Him. So great is His overlordship, that He will not only judge all things in time as lord and ruler, but, at the last, in the general resurrection of the dead, “he will judge the world” (Acts 17:31). When Paul spoke of this, the Athenians on Mars Hill turned away; the idea of such a lord was too much for them.
It should now be apparent what baptism meant to the early church, and to Rome. It was an act of membership, of citizenship, in the Lord Jesus Christ. It was the public declaration of a higher loyalty and a higher obedience. It was baptism into Christ and His Kingdom, of which the local church was a visible outpost. It is thus a seriously misplaced emphasis to speak of being baptized into the church; this is a secondary aspect. Baptism is essentially into Christ and His Kingdom. After baptism, a person was regarded as being “in Christ,” or “in the Lord.”
Citizenship in the Roman Empire, in the New Testament era, was a privilege highly prized; most people were subjects, not citizens. When the Roman chief captain in Jerusalem learned that Paul was a Roman citizen, he said, “With a great sum obtained I this freedom” (i.e., Roman citizenship), and Paul answered, “But I was free born” (i.e., born a citizen, Acts 22:28). To lay hands on a Roman citizen could be dangerous: he was a privileged person. But now these Christians were claiming a higher citizenship, with greater powers, and one which was open to every man!
Paul in Philippians 3:20 declares, “For our conversation is in heaven: from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” The word conversation is a translation for the Greek politeuma which means citizenship or commonwealth. The word conversation is an aspect of its meaning. Members of a family have a common life, conversation, and citizenship. To be a citizen of heaven and the Kingdom of God is to have a conversation with the Lord and with fellow members in Him, to be members of Him and of one another, and to be together a commonwealth and kingdom and citizens thereof.
Hence, the call to baptism is a call to regeneration and to citizenship in Christ and His Kingdom. Peter in Acts 2:38 declares, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ . . .” Name meant person. To be baptized into the name of Jesus means to be baptized into His body, His life, into citizenship and membership in His Kingdom.
This tells us, too, what it meant to confess “Caesar is Lord,” Kurios Kaisar. It meant confessing that Caesar is god, and that our highest allegiance is to Caesar. This is a confession which some pastors and churches are making; in so doing, they are implicitly denying that Jesus Christ is their Lord. Then, and until recently, the invocation of a name was the invocation of one’s lord. We have an echo of this in the old expression, “Open, in the name of the law,” i.e., in the name of the ruling power.
To invoke the name was to swear allegiance to one’s king and Lord. It also invoked aid and protection, and the king’s servants could claim the immunities of the king by declaring that they acted in the name of the king. Hence, the Christian prays in Jesus’ name, the name of power at the throne; he calls himself a Christian and so claims the protection of the name and citizenship in the Lord’s Kingdom.
Truly to say that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” is to reveal our faithfulness and obedience to Him. It means that our conversation or citizenship is manifest in all our being in words, thought, and deed. Moreover, as Paul makes clear, “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 12:3); it is the revelation of the power of the Kingdom in and through him. The life of all such is a manifestation of the Lord, and they are like men “having his (the Lamb’s) Father’s name written in their foreheads” (Rev. 14:1). The baptized confessed their citizenship in the name, in the Lord, in all their being.
Citizenship requires allegiance and loyalty, faithfulness to the lord of the realm, who in turn confesses, knows, and protects them. Paul thus says, “Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2:19). The Didache, before giving instructions about baptism, spoke at length of the two ways, the way of obedience to the every word of God (Matt. 4:4), the way of life, as against the way of death, and then said: “Now concerning baptism: Baptize as follows, when you have rehearsed the aforesaid teaching.” In other words, baptism is into a way of life as set forth in the Person of Christ and the righteousness of God, His law. Peter speaks of this in 1 Peter 3:21, when he writes, baptism is “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh,” i.e., not merely an external cleansing of the body like a bath, but a new life in Christ, “the answer of a good conscience toward God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Christ having made atonement for us, gives us also the new life of the resurrection; therefore, as the faithful and obedient people of the Lord, we have a good conscience, because we manifest God’s righteousness as set forth in his law-word and thereby follow Christ as members of His new humanity.
The old humanity of the first Adam has a common life, conversation, and citizenship in sin and death. The new humanity of the last Adam has a common life, conversation, and citizenship in Jesus Christ. The rulers of the old humanity recognize only one loyalty and one citizenship, to themselves. All men, says John, are summoned by this old world power to acknowledge its power and to be marked or branded as the possession of this humanistic power. This old power seeks total control over humanity, an exclusive control, to the point that “no man might buy or sell,” or have a church or Christian school, except under its control (Rev. 13:16–18).
However, the early church saw all men as God’s creation and therefore under God and His law, and hence under God’s judgment. For them, the Word of God was clear on this matter: “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). Hence, says John, the rejoicing in heaven: the triumph of the Lord is assured.
This means that all Christians are by baptism members of Christ and citizens of the Kingdom of God; they are therefore “more than conquerors” in Christ (Rom. 8:37).
In antiquity, men wore the garb of their rank, i.e., their clothing was a badge indicating who they were, and what their status was. Sumptuary laws required the same kind of identification well into the modern era and made it illegal for a man or woman to dress above his rank. St. Paul has an amazing reference to this practice. In Galatians 3:27, he writes, “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” This means we wear the marks of membership, citizenship, in the royal household of the King of kings and Lord of lords! The parable of the wedding feast tells us the same thing (Matt. 22:1–14). No man has any place in the royal court unless he is one who puts on the raiment of the king, i.e., is a member of the family of the king in word, thought, and deed. Baptism is thus the act of citizenship, of membership.
As citizens of the great Kingdom of God, we pay our tax, the tithe, to the king and His work, and, above and over the tax, we bring our gifts and offerings. Because we belong to the king, our children too must be offered to Him, as His to take and use with us, and this is the true meaning of infant circumcision and then baptism. As citizens of the Lord’s realm, we place all other allegiances under our duty to the Lord. Thus, we obey rulers in civil government, not because they require it, but because the Lord requires it and only as far as His Word permits. Our obedience is thus not for the state’s sake, but “for conscience sake” (Rom. 13:5), as a part of our baptismal requirement of obedience unto “a good conscience toward God” (1 Pet. 3:21).
As we have seen, in antiquity, very few men were citizens of a country. Only a privileged few had that status, and the power and wealth that marked citizenship. Paul tells us that the mark of baptism is the gift of the Spirit and all the wealth and power which the king gives to the royal family. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles” (1 Cor. 12:13). So great was the early Christian sense of wealth, power, and joy in their Savior-King that Paul could say to King Agrippa, “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds (or chains)” (Acts 26:29)! It was this recognition of power that made the early Christians “more than conquerors.” Only the same faith and citizenship can triumph today.