Baptism, Servanthood, and Sonship -- By: Allen Mawhinney

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 49:1 (Spring 1987)
Article: Baptism, Servanthood, and Sonship
Author: Allen Mawhinney


Baptism, Servanthood, and Sonship

Allen Mawhinney

Baptism is a “sign and seal.” What, however, is signified in baptism? The most innovative and stimulating study of baptism to which the readers of WTJ have been treated over the last two decades came from the pen of Meredith G. Kline. Professor Kline challenged the notion that circumcision and baptism “are primarily if not exclusively signs of divine grace and blessing.”1 In contrast, his detailed and in many instances pioneering studies led to the conclusion, “Christian baptism is a sign of the eschatological ordeal…of coming under the jurisdiction of the covenant and particularly under the covenantal dominion of the Lord. Christian baptism is thus the New Covenant sign of consecration or discipleship.”2 Professor Kline’s insights have enriched the baptismal theology of many in Reformed circles. Recently Paul Gardner suggested that one ought to go yet further.3 He rejected Kline’s conclusion that baptism is a sign of the “spiritual death and resurrection of believers”4 and concluded that it is a sign only of “spiritual death,” which of course does make possible the resurrection of the believer, although that is not signified by baptism.5

The purpose of this article is to focus attention on the breadth of the signification of baptism. Baptism is a sign of the death of Christ and the death of the believer with Christ. It is a sign of eschatological ordeal, of coming under the Lordship of the Great King, and of the initiate’s consecration.

Baptism, however, is also a sign of divine grace, a sign of blessing. One way in which the NT expresses this notion is with the idea of sonship. Baptism proclaims God’s fatherhood as well as his kingship; and the initiate’s sonship as well as his ser-vanthood.

I. God Is King. God Is Father.

At first glance it might seem surprising that these two motifs would be expressed together in baptism. A servant and a son don’t seem to have much in common. However, a brief look at the earlier union of these themes in the OT and in other literature of the ancient Near East completely puts to rest any feelings of surprise.

In the ancient Near East a king such as Hammurabi could be called, in the epilogue to his law code, “a true father [literally, ‘a begetting father’] to the people.”6 Light is shed on the connotation of the word by the de...

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