A NEW BOOK ON BAPTISM: A REVIEW

I really like this book! It is arguably the best book on baptism (except my Baptism: A Biblical Study, of course!) since George R. Beasley-Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament appeared in 1962.

The book is called Recovering the Evangelical Sacrament: Baptisma Semper Reformandum (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013; 403p., pb.), written by Anthony R. Cross. Like Beasley-Murray, Cross is a British Baptist. A member of the faculty of theology and religion at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England, Cross is an expert in Baptist history and doctrine and in the theology and practice of baptism. This work is directed especially toward his Baptist brethren, but also to the Evangelical world in general.

Cross is extremely familiar with the literature on the subject, and interacts thoroughly with it throughout the work. His study is written on a very scholarly level and is loaded with footnotes.

In many ways we can say that Cross picks up where Beasley-Murray left off. He presents what he calls a “sacramentalist” view of baptism. Though many of us prefer not to use this term, what he means by it is that the New Testament teaches that baptism is a salvation event, an essential part of the conversion process. He describes baptism as conversion-baptism, as faith-baptism, and sometimes as mission-baptism.

In almost every way this book is true to the NT teaching on baptism. It is one of the most honest, straightforward, free-from-presuppositions, hermeneutically-sound studies of baptism that I have seen. The author is self-consciously free from the monstrous Zwinglian parody of baptism that has engulfed most of Protestantism since about A.D. 1525. He rightly describes this parody thus: “Among Baptists the dominant understanding of baptism is that it is a symbol, a public act which witnesses to what God has already done in a believer’s life, a testimony to an already existing faith from which it is separated in time (often by a considerable length of time, sometimes by decades), an act of obedience, and a following of Christ’s example” (31). Such a view has robbed baptism of most of its meaning.

Thus Cross sees a need for his study, which he says “comes from the conviction that the diminution of baptism and its comparative absence from Evangelical theological discussion is a weakness and inconsistency in Evangelical life and thought that seriously needs to be addressed” (33). “My intention, then, is to build a cumulative and coherent case for the reintroduction of conversion-baptism/faith-baptism/mission-baptism into contemporary theology and practice” (39).

In chapter two (40ff.) Cross explains in more detail why he uses the term conversion-baptism. He says the NT presents baptism as a part of the gospel (40), and as an essential part of conversion (42). But he does not see conversion as occurring in a single point of time; rather, he sees it as a process that includes faith, repentance, baptism, the laying on of hands, forgiveness, the receiving of the Holy Spirit, and speaking in tongues—not always in the same order, according to the Book of Acts (47-49).

In any case faith and baptism are always together; they are the outside and inside of the same thing (citing James Denney and following Beasley-Murray, 51ff.). Why, then, is baptism often mentioned without a reference to faith or to the other elements of conversion, e.g., 1 Peter 3:21; Eph. 5:26; Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27; Titus 3:5; Col. 2:12? The answer is that in such cases it is used as a figure of speech called a synecdoche, a figure where a part of something is used to stand for the whole (75-76).

In chapter three (96ff.) Cross discusses the concept of “one baptism” as it appears in Ephesians 4:5. He rightly sees this text as strongly supporting his concept of conversion-baptism, and as refuting the common idea that somehow Spirit-baptism is an event distinct from water-baptism. He notes that most Zwinglian explanations of this Pauline affirmation are quite superficial (97). He discusses further the idea that “baptism” is used here as a synecdoche (107ff.)

In chapter four (130ff.) the author discusses the relation between Spirit-baptism and water-baptism in the light of 1 Cor. 12:13. He asks whether these are two separate baptisms, as many argue (129), and rightly answers that they are not. Again echoing Beasley-Murray he affirms that water-baptism is the place where the Holy Spirit is received (131ff.). Again, he says, synecdoche is the key; the part is used for the whole (147ff.).

In chapter five Cross discusses the relations among the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, and the material world (155ff.). In this context, he says, we often see two extremes: “mechanical efficacy, ex opere operato, on the one hand, and, on the other, seeing baptism as nothing more than a profession of a faith already received” (156). Most Evangelicalism has embraced the latter extreme because of an aversion to outward, physical elements as connected with spiritual events (180ff).

Cross recognizes that this imagined conflict between the spiritual and the physical can be traced especially to Zwingli’s mild metaphysical dualism—a point that I uncovered and documented in my essay, “Baptism According to the Reformed Tradition” (pp. 64-68) in a book edited by David W. Fletcher called Baptism and the Remission of Sins, first published by College Press in 1990. (Cross mentions my work [182], but I suspect he did not read it, since he mostly cites some later works by Clark Pinnock as the main source of the idea [182ff.].) In any case Cross shows that matter and spirit are not in any kind of conflict; the very fact of creation refutes that idea. Thus we can affirm that “God uses this baptism in water as the place where grace meets faith” (184).

Chapter six is devoted to the subject of baptismal regeneration (194ff.). Cross sees this term as having two connotations, one Biblical and one not. The unacceptable concept of baptismal regeneration is found as early as Augustine, who is largely responsible for developing an ex opere operato view of baptism as required by his doctrine of infant baptism and original sin (205). This view says that when applied correctly, baptism accomplishes its saving purposes apart from a believing participation by the one being baptized (as in the case of infants).

Though he rejects this idea, Cross still applies the term “baptismal regeneration” to the Biblical view, i.e., to conversion-baptism or faith-baptism. The main idea here (with which I agree) is that baptism is the place where or time when the Holy Spirit works the work of regeneration in the sinner’s heart. Historically this understanding can be found as early as Justin Martyr (198), and “it is present in the New Testament,” as Beasley-Murray has already shown (205ff.). Cross notes again that it was Zwingli who severed baptism from both faith and regeneration (204).

In chapter seven (214ff.) Cross sets forth the connection between baptism and the church. He notes that the NT uses the word “church” not just for the gathered community or local congregations but also for the universal church, the body of Christ in general, whether gathered or not (219ff.). Drawing on Matthew 28:19 and 1 Corinthians 12:13, he shows how we are baptized into the latter.

Cross has a good discussion of how baptism relates to the New Covenant, refuting the common appeal to circumcision as parallel with baptism and as a line of defense for infant baptism (223ff.). He explains Colossians 2:11-12 very well, showing that the OT circumcision that foreshadowed what goes on in baptism was not physical circumcision but the prophetic references to spiritual circumcision (236ff.). He rightly affirms that in Matthew 28:19, baptism and teaching are the means by which disciples are made (244).

Almost all of my reactions to this book by Cross are positive, as the above comments would suggest. Here I will mention one thing that I think could have been dealt with more clearly. On page 66 he asks the question, “whether the claim that seeing baptism as an integral part of becoming a Christian is to deny the Evangelical conviction that we are saved sola fidei, by faith alone. In short, whether it is to adopt [a] version of works salvation.” His answer to his own question here is not bad, but it could have been better. (I will recommend my own works on this issue, especially my book, Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace [College Press, 2009]; and my three-part essay in The Christian Standard, “The Tyranny of the Paradigm” [July 18-25, 2010; Dec. 12 & Dec. 19-26, 2010]. In the latter the paradigm is sola fidei.)

There is another area where I think the author’s case could have been made stronger. I certainly agree with the main thesis, that baptism is a conversion or salvation event. I believe, however, that Cross has focused almost altogether on the saving (regenerating) action of the Holy Spirit that occurs in baptism and has not given enough attention to the baptismal application of the blood of Christ for the purpose of justification or forgiveness of sins. He recognizes that the latter is connected with baptism (48, 60), but twice he describes the gift of the Spirit as the sine qua non of the conversion experience and the Christian life (150, 217). His discussion is simply too one-sided; grace is a “double cure.”

Finally, I will mention two areas where I have strong disagreement with Cross. One is related to his basic thesis that conversion is a process involving several discrete events rather than a single point in time. Now, a person can define a term as he chooses. If Cross wants to count faith, repentance, baptism, reception of the Spirit, forgiveness, laying on of hands, and tongue-speaking as “conversion,” that is his privilege. I prefer to use this word, however, for the single point of time when a sinner leaves the lost state and enters the saved state.

But disagreement over how the word “conversion” should be used is not my main point. The issue I strongly disagree with is the rather common idea that the various items associated with conversion (named above) may all occur in a different order with different individuals. Thus the actual lost-to-saved moment may be baptism for some, or faith for some, or tongue-speaking for some. There simply is no “normative order of becoming a Christian” (81). (The instrument of synecdoche allows us to say it is always “baptism,” but it really may be at some other “conversion” moment.”) Here is Cross’ statement: “As I have argued already, the exact order in which the various elements in conversion occur become less significant when we take into account that ‘becoming a Christian’ is a process, and the order in which the various elements occur, or are manifested, is less important than is often assumed” (156, note 8).

I disagree strongly with this approach. I believe the order of salvation is always the same, and that the Bible presents it as such. The alternative view, represented by Cross, arises from a failure to recognize that in the Book of Acts, the “reception of the Holy Spirit” is not always for the same purpose; it is not always a conversion experience (contra Cross, 48-49, 80-81). Sometimes it is for the purpose of bestowing miraculous powers, e.g., to speak in tongues or to prophesy. In these cases the Spirit is received, but not to save or regenerate. This applies especially in Acts 8 and Acts 10. Confusing these different ways of and purposes for receiving the Spirit leads to unnecessary and spiritually-dangerous conclusions regarding how one is saved. (See my treatment of this issue on my website, www.jackcottrell.com ,“The Holy Spirit and Acts 8,” published July 5, 2013.)

The other point I strongly disagree with (and I have the same problem with Beasley-Murray) is the idea that even though the Bible teaches a strong “sacramentalist” view of believer’s baptism as a conversion-baptism, we really do not have to hold other Christian groups to this view. We can still recognize the validity of the myriad of “baptisms” that are constantly being applied in Christendom. We can maintain conversion-baptism “as the norm, while recognizing the freedom of God in his dealings with people and the complex situation we live in” (320-321). “Other forms of initiation” can “be regarded as exceptions to the norm” (320, note 62). My question is, who are we to make exceptions to God’s revealed way? Also, the reference to “the freedom of God” seems to express an assumption that God’s allowing the complex baptismal situation to exist somehow indicates divine approval of it. Such an interpretation of God’s providence is extremely presumptuous.

I certainly agree with Cross’ concluding thought, that “baptism should be more central to our life and thought, as conversion-baptism was in the New Testament” (326). This is a position that many of us in the Restoration Movement churches have been strongly defending for a couple of centuries now. We are happy to see the Crosses and the Beasley-Murrays and others joining with us.

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Comments

A NEW BOOK ON BAPTISM: A REVIEW — 8 Comments

  1. Hey, Jack Cottrell, hope all is well with you and family there in Cincinnati. I noticed on your Baptism course syllabus, online, for Spring 2015 that you required students to read several chapters, including 10, out of “Baptism and the Remission of Sins.” My chapter is available online at and is a better format/read, I think, than the book version, if students would like to view it there. It was nice that Sam Hester reprinted it for us, but unfortunately he left a lot of little errors in the reprint. Take care.

  2. I have read Beasley-Murray’s “Baptism in the New Testament” and indeed Dr. Cottrell’s “Baptism: A Biblical Study.” I would definitely recommend Dr. Cottrell’s work over Beasley-Murray’s. However, until one has read the recent comprehensive work by Everett Ferguson, “Baptism In The Early Church,” that person has not seen the best book on the subject of Baptism. This book with Dr. Cottrell’s are two books that look at Baptism from the vantage point of the Bible.

  3. Professor,

    Thank you for observations and comments about this book. I look forward to reading and sharing it with others.

  4. Jack,
    I really enjoyed the analysis of this book and the contrast and comparisons of views. Thanks for the review and all the careful documentation.
    Steve

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