In part 1 of this series I outlined various positions on this question, including the historic Baptist position that affirms that the Word and the sacraments/ordinances are not simply variant forms of the same thing. Instead, we should understand the ordinances as God-ordained human acts that represent faith responses to the preaching of the Word. We do receive blessings through them, but they are the blessings of obedience, not passive reception.
Is this view of the ordinances biblically defensible? I believe that it is.
For starters, I would point to the fact that Paul makes a clear distinction between the preaching of the Word and baptism in 1 Corinthians 1:17:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Paul does not argue here that the preaching of the gospel and baptism are utterly divorced from one another, but he does indicate that they are conceptually distinct, and that his primary calling was to the former, not the latter. It would be a very odd statement for him to make if he held that baptism is simply another means by which the Word comes to us, i.e., as a “visible proclamation” of the gospel.
Of course, Paul does closely connect baptism and conversion in Romans 6:1-4, identifying baptism as a union with Christ’s death and the hope of resurrection. But that argument only indicates that baptism is an element normally associated with Christian conversion-initiation; it does not claim that it is the means of conversion. Colossians 2:11-12 makes a similar connection, but Paul specifically mentions in that text that believers were raised “through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised [Christ] from the dead.” Faith is the substance of baptism; baptism presupposes it and is empty without it.
We see the same truth presented in 1 Peter 3:21:
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as the pledge of a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Of course, we should acknowledge that Peter explicitly says here that baptism saves. But in doing so, we must also go on to note how it does so: “not as a removal of dirt from the body,” or not as an external act of washing, but rather “as the pledge of a good conscience.” I take the latter phrase to mean “as a sincere pledge [i.e., a pledge that comes from a good conscience].” Some translations speak of an “appeal to God for a good conscience,” which is also a possible, though less likely, meaning of the Greek. But either way, the point is that baptism saves as an act of faith on the part of the one being baptized. Peter, in other words, identifies the one being baptized as the primary actor in the ordinance, expressing his or her faith in the act, much the same way Paul speaks of confessing with one’s mouth (as an expression of the heart) in Romans 10:9.
Under normal circumstances, baptism is one element of Christian conversion. As such, I would even say that it is necessary for salvation (in the same sense that faithful obedience to Christ is necessary as the evidence of saving faith). But it is not itself a means by which grace is communicated to us, resulting in conversion/faith. It is the act by which we express faith, which is invisible, in a visible, public manner.
In the next installment in this series, I will look at the biblical teaching on the Lord’s Supper as an act of faith.