Like the Matthias Gruenewald portrait of John the Baptist of which he was so fond, for Barth the act of water baptism can only point away from itself, towards the twisted body of the Crucified. Like John the Baptist standing and pointing at Jesus in the Isenheim Altarpiece, baptism’s goal rests not in its elemental washing of a person with water, nor in the characteristics or virtues of those participating in it, but rather in its ability to both witness to the reality of Jesus as well as its ability to follow him in his submission to John’s baptism.
“What John and those baptized by him in the Jordan had in view was the future in which John proclaimed to be directly imminent, the coming kingdom, the coming judgment, the coming grace of God in the form of the remission of sins, the ‘mightier’ than John who was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit. The demanded conversion, and baptism in the Jordan as its concrete form, had reference to this future. There could be no question of any presenting or materializing of this coming One either openly or secretly immanent in, or brought about by, the human action of the Baptist and those baptized by him. What was preached was not the bringing or representing of this coming One, but conversion towards him” (69-70).
In my experience, one pitfall of both paedobaptists as well as those who practice adult baptism is a decoupling of baptism from conversion, albeit in two different ways. For adult baptizing groups, conversion is something which happens in the heart in a moment in time in which one decides to follow after the way of Jesus. To be sure, for many of these folks, their conversion experience already contains what Barth terms the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” so necessary for one to participate in the life of the Kingdom of God. But water baptism, which Barth terms a necessary first step in following Jesus in a life of discipleship, is often seen as a secondary, unnecessary, and relatively unimportant step in one’s life of discipleship. For these folks, baptism can turn into a ritual which only detracts from a heart relationship with God. I have seen both relatively young children (e.g. 6-8 years old) baptized with minimal preparation or faith formation by adult baptisting groups, just as I have had students training for vocational ministry at the Pentecostal college in which I teach who were not baptized because no one had ever told them that baptism was an important step in their discipleship.
For paedobaptists, conversion gets decoupled from baptism in a different direction. Since many people in infant-baptizing communities are themselves baptized as infants, there is no possibility for conscious conversion prior to baptism. In many instances, this infant baptism is undertaken with either a non-existent or very weak confirmation curriculum while the infant baptized are in junior high or high school. At its worst, this sort of confirmation essentially consists of memorization of certain facts or doctrines with little practical connection, and concludes with a “graduation from church”.
Suffice it to say that Barth had neither of these in mind here.