A Christian's Pocket Guide to Baptism
April 15, 2013
Robert Letham, A Christian's Pocket Guide to Baptism: The Water that Unites. Fearn: Christian Focus, 2012. Paper. $7.99.
Baptism is one of the more regularly practiced rites in the church, but is likely one of the least understood. Though churches use water and baptize in the name of the triune God, I suspect that, if pressed, many in the pew would be unable to articulate the basic scriptural teaching about baptism. For this reason Robert Letham's book, A Christian's Pocket Guide to Baptism, is a welcome entry to the field of literature on the subject. Letham's book is part of Christian Focus's growing "pocket guide" series, and as advertised, the book does fit in my pocket. I checked! This series fits in between P & R's What Is series of pamphlet-sized books and other, larger, full-orbed doctrinal tomes. As such, this book is a terrific resource for churches looking for something more than a pamphlet to give to its members for further doctrinal study. This series would serve quite well as a supplement to Sunday school lectures on baptism, for example. A person could easily sit down and read a chapter in fifteen to twenty minutes. But the utility of this series does not mitigate the content of Letham's book.
Letham writes with a clear, concise, and engaging style. He handles the subject in three parts: Foundational Principles, What Baptism Signifies, and a Conclusion. In the first section he identifies key issues related to the interpretation of Scripture that set the stage for what comes later in the book. In particular, he explains the fundamental unity between the testaments, which has implications for how we understand God's covenantal interaction with his people. Another strength of the book, which is vital in our Western context, is Letham's emphasis upon corporate identity. He rightly demonstrates that salvation is corporate, we are either in Adam or in Christ, and that though we have an individual identity, it is irrefragably linked to one of these two epochal figures. In this respect, we are baptized into Christ.
In part two, he explains the meaning and significance of baptism, resting upon the ideas of cleansing from sin and union with Christ. But Letham is careful to avoid confusing the sign with the thing signified. In other words, baptism signifies our union with Christ, but as he writes: "We are not made a member of Christ, nor regenerated, because we have been baptized. From this it follows that grace is not given to a baptized person on the grounds of his baptism. Rather, it is due to the electing grace of God in Christ. That grace is given in baptism 'to those to whom it belongs'" (59). Letham delineates the Reformed position, where baptism is a means of grace, from the Roman Catholic view, where grace is automatically and immediately given upon the reception of the rite. Letham's engagement and respectful critique of other views is one of the strengths of this little book. Another positive element is the chapter on baptism in the Protestant confessions, where Letham surveys numerous Reformation confessions and catechisms to exposit what they say about the subject.
In part three Letham draws a number of conclusions based upon earlier chapters and addresses some practical matters, such as the place and status of children within the church. One of the important questions in the debate between credo-baptists (those who administer believer's-only baptism) and paedobaptists (those who administer believer's and infant baptism) is, What status do children have in the church? Are they pagans in our midst or, by virtue of the covenant of grace, members of the visible church and thereby legitimate recipients of baptism? Letham offers a sound answer to this question by stressing several key scriptural texts, such as Ephesians 6:1-4, where Paul instructs parents to raise children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. And if they are raised in the Lord, then they should also be baptized, and catechized. In our present context where dramatic conversion narratives are often touted as the norm, Letham offers an alternative, one where children are raised and nurtured within the bosom of the church. This quiet model of raising pint-sized disciples was the pattern for Timothy (2 Tim. 3:10f.) and John the Baptist (Luke 1:15, 2:39-45).
This book offers an entry point to the doctrine of baptism and is suitable for beginners, but the endnotes and the bibliography offer bread-crumb trails for those who want to dive deeper, if you pardon the pun, into the doctrinal waters of baptism.
Dr. John V. Fesko is academic dean and professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at
Westminster Seminary California. He is the author Water, Word, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).