As the idol of post-modern tolerance is increasingly flirted with in American, evangelical churches, there is a growing call to simply focus on what unites us, the gospel, and to deemphasize our distinctives on “small matters” like baptism. In this paper, I hope to offer a counter position to that of the “essentialists”. I hope to hold up a picture of baptism that shows how it, along with the Lord’s Supper, pictures, promotes, and preserves the gospel “by building gospel people into a gospel polity” (Jamieson 223). One ought not to pit a love of the gospel and other Christians over and against a concern over baptism. Love the gospel and gospel people by being steadfast and sure on the Scriptural instruction on baptism, whether in Timberville, Virginia or Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
In what follows you will find an identification and summary of sources from which I have read on baptism for the writing of this paper, and discussion of the meaning and significance of baptism, the practice of baptism in the New Testament, the relationship of baptism to circumcision in the Old Testament, the relationship of baptism to participation in the Lord’s Supper and church membership, whether it is really necessary to adopt a specific position on baptism in the context of a local church, and lastly, whether it is appropriate to delay baptism due to the young age of the candidate.
SOURCES AND SUMMARY
In researching for this paper, the extra-canonical sources for which I owe gratitude are Part 2 of Baptist Foundations, “The Ordinances”, by Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright, chapters by Schreiner, Wright, Stephen Wellum, and Mark Dever in Believer’s Baptism, Going Public by Bobby Jamieson, and “The Baptism of Children at CHBC” by the CHBC Elder Board. Anything I may write that is contrary to Scripture is my own fault, and not theirs, yet I am glad to have sat under the teaching of these godly men. There may be a few points where I assert things contrary to all of these writers, but I commend each of these sources to the reader for better teaching and a fuller understanding of God’s Word on this matter. I am a man of no account who simply hopes to be clear and faithful to Scripture.
In preparing to write this paper I also read “Spontaneous Baptisms How-To Guide” by the staff at “Elevation Church”. Spontaneous baptism is becoming more widely practiced. A reader is served by reading a practical guide for practicing spontaneous baptism “well”, for in so doing he or she will get good insight into the beliefs, assumptions, and desires of those doing it.
In “The Ordinances” in Baptist Foundations, which is quite simply a spectacular section, Chapter 3 addresses “5 preliminary issues for understanding the ordinances”, namely, that Jesus is the head of and gets to regulate the church, that the gospel is central to our understanding of the church and the ordinances, that there is more Biblical data on the ordinances as theological truths than may be immediately, exegetically apparent, that church history is not authoritative but is important when considering the ordinances, as men have thought about our Bibles for a really long time before us, and that it is best to refer to baptism and the Lord’s Supper as ordinances instead of sacraments in order to avoid theological confusion. Schreiner follows in the next chapter with a succinct survey of baptism in the Bible, which Wright follows up with a survey of Baptism in history, theology and the church, which is helpful in orienting Christians on why we are where we are. Schreiner and Wright take the same approach in the next two chapters regarding the Lord’s Supper.
Believer’s Baptism is a volume mainly dedicated to establishing the credobaptist position over and against the paedobaptist position. In Chapter 3, Schreiner examines the epistolary teaching on baptism in the New Testament. In Chapter 4, Wellum unleashes a theological atomic bomb on the paedobaptist position, explaining the relationship of the covenants throughout the Bible and it’s bearing on our understanding of baptism. In Chapter 7, Wright seeks to illuminate the evangelical paedobaptist position by explaining the teachings of John Calvin, John Murray, and Pierre Marcel on the topic, which he then evaluates against the true standard of Scripture, showing the theological error of these dearly beloved brothers. In Chapter 10, Dever provides practical instructions for the practice of baptism in the local church.
Going Public, one of 9Marks’ finest publications, makes the basic argument that baptism is indeed non-negotiably necessary for church membership. But in this straightforward assertion, one that rubs raw many “baptist” churches today, Jamieson actually provides much instruction on the nature and charter of the church, the theological meaning and purpose of both ordinances, and generally speaking, the Christian life. To give the skeleton of his own summary, Jamieson asserts that “baptism is how a church publicly identifies someone as a Christian” and is a “necessary criterion by which a church recognizes who is a Christian” (Jamieson 168). Baptism “identifies Christians so the church can recognize them” (Jamieson 168). “Jesus has bound the church’s judgement to baptism. [He] gave us baptism, in part, so we can tell one another apart from the world” (Jamieson 168). “Church membership is a statement by the church, not by an individual Christian” (Jamieson 168). “The church may extend membership only to those whom Jesus has authorized to be members. And baptism is among the criteria Jesus has given the church for recognizing and affirming Christians” (Jamieson 168).
In “The Baptism of Children at CHBC”, the CHBC Elders state and briefly defend their position, which is clearly articulated as, “We believe that the normal age of baptism should be when the credibility of one’s conversion becomes naturally evident to the church community…The kind of maturity that we feel it is wise to expect is the maturity which would allow that son or daughter to deal directly with the church as a whole, and not, fundamentally, to be under their parents’ authority” (CHBC 1).
What is the meaning and significance of baptism? To use Bobby Jamieson terminology, baptism is the initiatory oath-sign of the new covenant. Throughout the Bible, God has related to a people through covenants; each major covenant had a corresponding sign (the sign of the Noahic covenant is the rainbow; the sign of the Mosaic covenant was the Passover meal, etc.). The sign by which someone is brought into the new covenant community is water baptism. Thus Jesus says in Matthew 28:18-20, “ And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” By saying “oath-sign” what do I mean? I mean that baptism both symbolizes and speaks, you might even say swears.
Baptism symbolizes union with Christ. This is a union with both his Person and work, his death, burial, and resurrection from the grave. Paul writes in Romans 6:3-4, “ Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Notice his language of union. “Baptized into Christ…into his death…buried with him by baptism into death…just as Christ was raised…we too.” When someone enters the baptismal waters, the gospel, that Jesus Christ acted as a substitute for and representative of that individual and all his people when he died on the cross, was buried in the tomb, and rose in resurrection life, is put on display. As Christ was crucified, so has this person been crucified. Paul, having been baptized into Christ, could truly say, “I have been crucified with Christ.” This same idea of baptism symbolizing union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection is restated by Paul in Colossians 2:11-12. “ In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,  having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead”.
Baptism symbolizes what is part of union with Christ as well, particularly the believer’s cleansing from sin. Schreiner helpfully points this connection out in 1 Corinthians 6:11, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” This idea comes out clearly when Paul, who wrote the letter to the Corinthian church, recounts his own conversion in Acts 22:16 as well. “And now why do you, [Paul], wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”
What is said in baptism? As Jonathan Leeman and Bobby Jamieson will helpfully say, in baptism, both the individual believer and the local church speak.
What does the believer say? He says, “I believe!” It is in baptism that one professes faith in Christ—baptism is the Christ prescribed way of professing faith in his name. Today evangelicals don’t hesitate to affirm that one must call on the name of the Lord to be saved. “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Romans 10:13). “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). What many evangelicals in America fail to do is connect with this profession, this calling on the name of the Lord, with baptism. While the Bible makes clear that one is justified by faith in Christ alone, and therefore can go to heaven in Christ apart from water baptism (see the thief on the cross), the normal and formal declaration of faith, where faith is seen and “heard” is baptism. That’s why Peter can write in 1 Peter 3:21-22, “ Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” An important observation to make here is that baptism serves as a synecdoche, the part representing the whole. Conversion involves regeneration, repentance, faith, indwelling of the Spirit, and baptism; but these are all seen in the New Testament as so closely connected as parts of the wide-zoom thing we call conversion, and thus any one part can be seen to reference the whole. Here Peter, speaking of the Christian’s conversion, identifies water baptism “as an appeal to God for a good conscience”, as an acted out calling upon him for salvation according to the terms of the new covenant.
In this calling upon the Lord for salvation we see the the New Testament viewing baptism as a swearing of allegiance to Christ as King and to Christ’s people. In Acts 2, having heard the gospel of Jesus and believed, people had to walk out of the crowd that had so recently lynched him and pledge allegiance to this resurrected Lord, and to his people, in baptism. Balthasar Hubmaier writes well of the allegiance swearing nature of baptism.
“It is a commitment made to God publicly and orally before the congregation in which the baptized persons renounces Satan and all his imaginations and works. He also vows that he will henceforth set his faith, hope, and trust solely in God and regulate his life according to the divine Word, in the strength of Jesus Christ our Lord, and if he should fail to do so, he thereby promises the church that he would dutifully accept brotherly discipline from it and its members” (Jamieson 72).
So in Matthew 28:19, when people are baptized into the Trinitarian name, they are pledging allegiance to God Almighty and taking upon themselves the obligation to obey what they are instructed to obey, God’s Word, by the church.
Jamieson, writing on this baptismal pledge of allegiance, explains: “Baptism both symbolizes our new life in the new covenant and commits us to fulfill its demands, through faith in Christ and by the power of the Spirit…It is the enacted word by which we formally, publicly ratify our entrance into God’s covenant of peace (Ezekiel 37:26)” (73).
What is said by the church in baptism? In baptizing someone, the church is declaring that they are indeed a follower of Christ, one who is born again and has believed the true gospel. They are declaring to the world, “Look, if you want to know what a servant of the King lives like and believes, you can look to this person.” So in baptism the church is identifying and affirming someone as a Christian—baptism is thus the way someone is visibly marked as belonging to Jesus. They are additionally owning the obligation the oversee this person’s discipleship.
All this can be seen in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 16, King Jesus authoritatively declares that Peter and the apostles are true confessors of the true gospel confession. He then authorizes the apostles in Matthew 16:19 to do the same thing, with heaven’s authority, acting on behalf of the King, to declare what is the truth of the Kingdom and who belongs to the Kingdom. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This apostolic, heaven representing authority is then, just two chapters later, given by Jesus to the local church. “ Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:18-20). The local church, tasked with representing heaven on earth, has the authority to identify people as belonging to Jesus and to teach its members, and announce to unbelievers, what God says in his Word. Jesus gives further detail to this charter, namely the well known commission found in Matthew 28:18-20. The church is to identify those who believe the gospel and belong to Christ by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit. And then it is the obligation of local church to teach that now baptized one to obey all that the Lord has instructed.
So baptism symbolizes the gospel, the believers union with Christ, and cleansing from sin. In baptism a believer professes faith in Christ, declaring him to be Lord, swearing allegiance to him and to his people. And in baptism the church affirms the baptized as a true gospel confessor, identifies him publicly as one who belongs to Christ, and takes upon itself the responsibility of overseeing his discipleship.
What is the practice of baptism in the New Testament? Baptism is of those who credibly believe the gospel. Luke records in Acts 2:41, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” It was those who received the word that were baptized. This is a consistent pattern in the New Testament. Those who are baptized are those who receive the word about Christ, those who repent of their sins and trust in Christ for salvation and Lordship (Acts 16:31-33; 16:14-15).
Baptism is by the local church. In the New Testament it is the apostles, and local churches with the same apostolic authority, who baptize new believers. Someone may object to this point, saying they do not see local churches doing this in Acts. In answer, I would say firstly that in Acts 2 we actually do see a local church of 120 members baptizing 3,000 new believers. But also, from what we have already seen in Matthew, we know that the apostles and local churches share in the baptizing responsibility. They are the two entities with any legitimate authority to mark people off as being Kingdom citizens. When you see this in Matthew, it actually changes the way you read the rest of Acts. When you see Paul going into new places and baptizing believers, you are seeing him do the very same thing local churches are to be doing (unlike how many may read those accounts, seeing it as authorization for individuals to go out and baptize upon their own authority). The local church is to assess the credibility of someone’s confession, and baptize those whom it discerns have been truly blessed by the Father in the Son.
Baptism is with water, by immersion. In Matthew 3:16 we read, “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water…” Obviously, Jesus was baptized with water. But notice that he came up from the water. He had to come up from it, for he had gone down into it, in the Jordan River. The Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 also is immersed in water. “ And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’  And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.” This man who most assuredly traveled with drinking water, specifically stopped where he did to be baptized, for it was at that location that there was sufficient water to actually be immersed in it. Why would Jesus and the eunuch need to go to all the trouble of getting fully immersed in water? The mode is necessitated by what is signified. Nothing less than the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is symbolized and pictured in baptism. This is made clear in Romans 6 and Colossians 2; and it is immersion alone that puts this on display.
Baptism is into membership of a local church. You could say that it effectively confers membership—which is directly connected to it being by a local church. Turning back to Acts 2, where we witness the first Christian sermon of a local church, delivered by the apostle Peter, what do we see? “ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” By baptism, 3,000 individuals were added to the Jerusalem church as members. Again, this is perfectly consistent with what we have learned from Matthew and the connection of the local church and baptism, both in identifying and affirming one as a Christian, and in taking the responsibility of oversight of that Christian’s discipleship (Matthew 28:19).
“What about the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8? He was not baptized into membership of a local church! There was not even a church for him to join!” Precisely! God in his kindness has answered an important question for us. If an agent acting from the decision of a local church is to baptize a believer into membership of that local church, what do we do where there is no local church? In that context, the first believer is to be baptized, being given the seed of a local church. This convert will assuredly evangelize others, and in God’s perfect timing, when another believes the true gospel, he or she will be baptized and a new local church will be constituted. As Bobby Jamieson says, the gospel always outpaces the local church by a factor of one or two believers.
What is the relationship of baptism to the circumcision in the Old Testament? There is similarity and dissimilarity between baptism and circumcision. Both are initiatory signs of covenants between God and man. Both mark off a people visibly as God’s own. Yet the differences are important. Circumcision signifies a lesser covenant. Baptism, the sign of the new covenant, signifies something far greater. What was only promised in covenants past has now been fulfilled in Jesus, Lord of the New Covenant. For someone to belong to the old covenant community, they had to become a Jew by being circumcised. The mark was given to males who belonged to the covenant and the males in their families. It pointed to the curse that would fall upon any who broke the covenant, being cut off from God. Circumcision was given to male infants, for it marked off a physical nation. Baptism is given to Jew, Greek, male, female, slave, or free, all who credibly believe the gospel. It is not given to infants, as it marks off a spiritual nation, a heavenly people of the gospel. It is for all the people of the new covenant, but Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 10 make clear that the new covenant is comprised entirely of people who truly know God and have had his law written upon their hearts. Baptism does not point to a future curse that will befall someone, but rather points back to the curse taken by Jesus himself! Christ took the covenant-breaker’s curse on the cross. He was cut off from the land of the living, as is written in Isaiah 53. Baptism celebrates that God has satisfied his wrath at the cross of Christ for all the members of the new covenant. There is no more punishment for them. The debt is paid.
What is the relationship of baptism to participation in the Lord’s Supper and church membership? Church membership is the theological label for the covenantal relationship created and renewed by the ordinances. “Church membership is (1) a covenant of union between a particular church and a Christian, a covenant whose effective signs are baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and that consists of (2) the church’s affirmation of the Christian’s gospel profession, (3) the church’s promise to give oversight to the Christian, and (4) the Christian’s promise to gather with the church and submit to its oversight” (Jamieson 148). This definition found in Going Public is simply a concise statement of the theological assertions previously made in this paper. And the observations we see in the New Testament fit this exactly. Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are covenantal signs. We have already seen this about baptism in Matthew 28. And in Matthew 26:27-28 we see the same about communion. “ And [Jesus] took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you,  for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Both ordinances are oaths, in that to take either one is to take upon oneself the obligations of the new covenant (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2-4, 1 Corinthians 10-11). While baptism is a one time event, communion is to be observed regularly, when the church is gathered. In baptism, one is joined to many (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:41). In the Lord’s Supper, many are joined as one. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). In light of this, baptism always precedes the Lord’s Supper. There is not a Scriptural instance of an unbaptized, one-not-identified-as-a-Christian individual taking of the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is the initiatory oath-sign of the new covenant. The Lord’s Supper is the renewing oath-sign of the new covenant. Baptism confers membership (normally). The Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper confirms membership (normally, with the exception of a visitor who is qualified). The right practice of the ordinances is church membership.
One implication of this is that, as there is no church without church membership, so there is no church without the ordinances. This is why since the time of the Reformation the true church has been defined as the assembly of believers with true gospel preaching and true gospel ordinances. Jamieson repeatedly makes this point in Going Public. What is interesting is that, though Jamieson is clear that baptism is required for church membership and thus church existence, and that “infant baptism” is no baptism, he actually seems to contradict himself by affirming paedo-baptist congregations as true but irregular churches. While I love and admire my paedo-baptist brothers, if Jamieson is correct in his assertion regarding the vital connection of believer’s baptism and membership, and I think he is correct, then paedo-baptist congregations are gatherings of those with whom we will hopefully spend eternity, where the gospel is proclaimed with faithfulness and the Scriptures expounded with commendable clarity. But they are not gatherings that can be biblically labeled as “church”, unless they have within their respective memberships at least two baptized (as defined in this paper) members. The church gets its church-ness from the gospel informed ordinances, where people take the oaths that are baptism and the Lord’s Supper and live them out together.
Is it really necessary to adopt a specific position on baptism in the context of a local church? Of course it is. As Christians, we have submitted to the Lordship of Christ. The church is his own possession. He has full kingly authority to regulate his church by his Word. Since he has spoken on this matter, taking a position on it is not optional. It is obedience. Authority is Christ’s, through the Word, to the church. The individual does not rule supreme in Jesus’ kingdom, no matter how many participation trophies he received in rec-league soccer.
Is it appropriate to delay baptism due to the young age of the candidate? It is in fact appropriate to delay baptism due to the young age of a candidate. While God is able to give new birth to the youngest of souls, the church, not just someone’s parents, must be able to credibly discern someone’s repentance and faith in order to extend baptism. By God’s grace, children are wired to please and imitate their parents. The church must be able to assess that an individual, to please God and not simply man, has decided to follow Jesus, knowing and believing the gospel. How then ought parents and mentors encourage young people who the church is not yet ready to publicly affirm in baptism? They ought to encourage them to trust Jesus. They ought to teach them about the church and the weighty responsibilities they may soon have. As young men ought to be taught about marriage prior to making their vows, young men ought to be taught about baptism prior to going into the waters.
It has been my goal in the writing of this paper to lay out plainly Christ’s instruction to his churches on baptism. I am primarily writing against those who teach in word or practice that baptism is not sufficiently important to divide Christians in their association in church membership; but that agreement in the gospel is fundamentally all that matters for such fellowship. May God bring congregations who are uncertain on baptism, or who practice both infant and believer’s baptism, or who have the baptized and unbaptized in their membership, to the right path of confident obedience to His Word. I pray also that God would use this to cause those who only see baptism in its connection to the individual, as I once did, to now understand its relationship to the local church. Lastly, may the good, all-wise Father of evangelical baptists and evangelical presbyterians use these simple words to bring paedobaptist brothers and sisters to repentance, a changing of their minds on this matter.
Soli deo gloria.