Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge. (Proverbs 23:12)
Thinking About Baptism?
In the years following the fifteenth century Protestant Reformation a number of divisions erupted within the Protestant and Radical Reformation Churches. While there were various issues of varied degree of importance including a struggle for understanding the essential nature of the Church. It is a sad reality that one of the most visible signs of division was seen in the practice of Baptism; an ordinance which is to serve as a symbol of Christian unity (1Corinthians 12:13).
On the one hand the Anabaptists and later the Baptists practiced Believer’s baptism; while Luther Calvin and those in the Magisterial Reformation Tradition held to a Pedo-baptist (i.e. Infant Baptism) position. It is true that, the Magisterial Reformers shifted their theological understanding of Baptism in respect to God’s covenant dealings with humanity. Yet, in practice it mirrored the Roman tradition. In spite of Persecution and even death the radical reformers held to their practice of believers’ baptism. This was so because of their firm conviction in the authority of the scripture as the rule of faith and practice for believers. So intense have been historical arguments and division about baptism that one Christian Denomination, the Salvation Army doesn’t even practice the ordinance. The decision regarding baptism is to be a profoundly personal one, at the heart of the issue is the nature of Christian discipleship. Each of us brings our own spiritual and cultural baggage with us as we live in our world. Yet for the Christian believer, the Bible alone must be our guide.
The purpose of this short essay is to guide the reader into an understanding of the Scriptural teaching on the issue of baptism. It is only a guide to aid believers as they grapple with the issues involved.
I, for one, am keenly aware of the struggle involved in deciding about baptism. As one raised in the Ang1ican tradition, I was as is their practice Christened as an infant and confirmed at the age of twelve (the latter step taken largely to appease my mother). Yet not until seventeen years of age after an absence of five years from the Church was I to know and experience for myself the salvation that comes from a knowledge of Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Worshipping in a Baptist Church brought me face to face with the issue. Six months of heart searching study of the scripture led me to believe that the heart. of the issue was obedience to Christ. The scriptures are sufficiently clear. In January of 1977, 1 followed my Lord through the waters of baptism.
May God bless us as you search and. grapple with the issue.
We see that although the practice of Christian baptism has precedent in the Baptism of John (Acts 19:3), in Jewish proselyte Baptism and in the Baptism of Jesus, Christian Baptism is a unique and central fixture in the emerging early Christian Community.
The Baptism of Jesus.
In Matthew 3:13-17 we have the record of Jesus’ own baptism. John’s ministry included the practice of administering the rite of baptism of repentance and confession; and secondly, it carried with it an expectation of the coming Messiah (Matthew 3:3, 11; Is. 40:3) The question then is why was Jesus baptized? He had no sin to confess. John’s bewilderment is natural “I have need to he baptized by You, and do You come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). Jesus answer is revealing, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Jesus underwent baptism not because He needed to repent and confess, sinless as He is, but rather, the baptism of Jesus has both the aspects of vocation and identification. Vocationally it identifies Him as the Messiah, yet it also serves as an identification with us as sinners. In His baptism we see Christ for us. Jesus was fully aware of what He was doing when He was baptized and set for us an example. The challenge to us is simply, “If Jesus was willing to identify with us through baptism, are we willing to identify with Him through baptism?”
The New Testament Practice of Baptism
Jesus speaks of His authority, in commissioning His disciples with the words “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, BAPTIZING them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:l9). He then assured them of his continual presence with them. Baptism is, therefore, an ordinance instituted by the expressed command of Christ Himself. As such it cannot be ignored.
As their Lord had commanded them, so the New Testament church practiced baptism (Acts 2:30,41 also Acts 8:12,36-38; 9:18; 10:47; 16:14,15,33; 18:8; 19:5) Its prominence in the New Testament is obvious, yet it remained nevertheless subordinate to the gospel itself (1Cor. 1:14-17) since it is a proclamation of a reality which is meaningless apart from faith in Jesus as Saviour.
The root meaning of the word Baptize (greek Baptidzo) is to immerse, A second century Christian writing known as the Diciache (the teaching) tells us that immersion was the common and preferable mode of baptism in the early Church, with other methods used where water was scarce. Immersion was practiced until well into the thirteenth century. This is understandable when you realize that part of the significance of baptism is found in the participant being identified with Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:4).
It stands to reason then that since the person is so identified with Christ in His death and resurrection that baptism was (and is) rightfully to be administered to believers only (Acts 2:30). In baptism both God and the participant speak, The ordinance proclaims the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the believer who has been justified by faith (Romans 5:1) proclaims before the church and the world his/her union with Christ in His death and resurrection.
Faith in Christ is the only requirement for baptism as the Philadelphia (Baptist) Confession written in 1720 put it: “They who do actually profess (Mark 16:16, Acts 8:36,37) repentance towards God, faith in and obedience to our Lord Jesus, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance” (Article 20:3) The New Testament never conceives of a non-baptized believer, but rather upon profession of faith it was immediately administered (Acts 8:36- 38) and as such it serves as an outward sign of an inward reality. Many of Paul’s theological arguments assume a baptized church membership (Romans 6:3, Colossians 2:12, 1 Corinthians 12:13).
Perhaps the best illustration of baptism is marriage. The marriage ceremony is a public declaration of the love of the bride and groom for one another. The love commitment does not ideally begin at or after marriage but is something private and personal between two people prior to marriage. The ceremony does not create the relationship but rather proclaims it.
And so it is with us in baptism.
ACTS 8: 36-38
36. And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, Water! What prevents me from being baptized?”
37. And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
38, And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him.