What are we to make of this?
We could explain it away.
Or we could do what presbyterian pastor and theologian Peter Leithart does, and take what the Bible says about baptism at face value. "Baptism" is baptism, as he puts it.
I've just finished reading his excellent little book, The Baptized Body. You can read the first pages, or some articles on which the book was based (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10), or a recent post by Leithart on the topic. Or read on, and I'll try to articulate his position. I have to say I find it quite persuasive.
For Leithart, baptism is a rite, involving symbols. Rites (and symbols) can be astonishingly powerful. All of our human relationships are conducted by means of symbols (words and meaningful actions). Some symbolic rites can have a real and deep effect on our identity. It might be a marriage rite, or a rite of inauguration into some office (president, barrister). Once the rite has been performed, the person has a new identity. So it is with baptism: it is a rite through which God (really and truly) gives us a new identity (and without recourse to any "supernatural" intervention).
More specifically, baptism is "the water rite of entry into the church" (p.32).
What then is the church? Clearly it is the historical (or "visible") church on earth into which one is admitted by baptism. But it is this same historical church on earth which is described as "the body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12; see Romans 12; Ephesians 4; Colossians 3). Fundamental for Leithart is that this doesn't need to be explained away: "Without qualification or hedging, the church is the body of Christ" (p.ix). "The body of Christ" is the body of Christ, as he puts it.
So the water rite of baptism really admits someone to the body of Christ, which means that the baptised person, as a member of the Church, becomes a partaker of all the benefits of being part of Christ's body.
Does this mean that the rite of baptism will guarantee eternal salvation? No, because apostasy happens (chapter 4). "There are hypocrites and false sons and temporary members within the body of Christ, and they will slip away, be cut off, or be denounced at the final judgment" (p.59). It is essential that the baptised person responds with faith (belief and obedience).
What about believers who (for whatever reason) are not admitted to the church through baptism? Will they be eternally lost? No. These people will be "eventually united to the body of believers in the eschaton" (p.78n11).
But if genuine members of the church can fall away, what about assurance? It is no different to the mainstream Reformed view. We are sustained until the end through God's grace, as we continue to trust in him. God knows (and chooses) who will persevere and have a place in the eschatological (or "invisible") church, but that information is not available to us now.
And I think that's the basic idea. I need to mull it over a bit more, but I'm liking it so far. Any thoughts? Compared with other (Protestant) views of baptism, this approach gives much greater significance to the historical church on earth, which resonates with my recent thinking (see my previous post). And it does seem to make good sense of the biblical material.