Normally this blog contains my vague ramblings. However, this week I wanted to post a document that the church elders here at Woody Road put together. It is on the topic of baptism. The intention is not to launch an internet discussion on the subject so much as to help church regulars understand our convictions as to what Scripture teaches. Hopefully it will be helpful.
Shortly before He ascended to heaven, the risen Jesus said this to His disciples:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:18-19
From the outset, baptising people was part of the ministry of the church. For that reason, we want to understand the Bible’s teaching and carry out our practice in line with that. One of the dangers is of reducing the Bible’s teaching on baptism- making it simply an opportunity to give a testimony or demonstrate one’s faith. It is far more than that.
A command for disciples
Recently I asked somebody why they wanted to be baptized. “Because Jesus commands it,” they replied. It was a good answer. The command is implied in Matthew 28 as indicated above. Those who identify as disciples are to be baptized. The expectation is that they will then be committed to obeying what Jesus teaches.
It is no surprise that the first disciples then practise what Jesus commands. At Pentecost Peter urges the crowd to respond to the message of the risen Lord Jesus. How are they to respond?
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Acts 2:38
Peter is calling people to turn and become disciples of the Lord Jesus. They are to receive the mark of that discipleship which is baptism. This becomes the pattern through Acts with those such as the Ethiopian eunuch, the Philippian jailer and his household being baptised as they came to believe.
That has implications for how we conduct ourselves as a church. We encourage all those who identify as disciples to be baptised as believers. That includes those who are relatively young. We don’t believe it is right to persuade young people who have a credible profession of faith to delay their baptism until adulthood because we refuse to leave them in a biblically weird position of being unbaptised disciples.
The route into membership of the church
It is worth reflecting on what happened at Pentecost:
“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Acts 2:41-42
Those who repented and were baptised formed a church community where they were devoted to the teaching of God’s Word, prayer, caring for each other and so on. In other words, baptism as a believer becomes the normal route into the membership of the church.
Our normal practice as a church is to accept into membership those who have been baptised as believers. We do make an exception where people are convinced from their study of the Scriptures (as opposed simply to their upbringing) that their baptism as a child was a genuine baptism. However, it seems clear to us that the Biblical pattern is to repent and believe the Gospel, be baptised and join the church.
The symbol of our union with Christ
This is perhaps the area of New Testament teaching about baptism that is most neglected. Critical to this is Paul’s teaching in his letter to the Galatians:
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Galatians 3:26-27
There are a few points worth noting here. For Paul, those who are children of God through faith and those who have been baptized are synonomous. Those who are baptized are those who have come to faith in Christ not those who may or may not come to a position of faith in the future. It is worth noting in this connection that there is a significant difference between the old covenant and the new covenant in this regard. It was possible for people to come under the terms of the old covenant simply by being a physical descendant of Abraham and receiving circumcision. However, that thinking is absent under the new covenant. It is those who have faith who are the true children of Abraham. People enter the new covenant by faith not through their physical family.
Whilst the proper recipients of baptism are those with faith in Christ, it is far more than a demonstration of my faith. It is supremely a picture of what God has done in our lives. Paul describes baptism as a picture of being clothed with Christ. Christians are those who are made one with Christ- He is in us and we are in Him. The picture is further elaborated in Romans 6:
“Don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Jesus Christ were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Romans 6:3-4
The very act of baptism by immersion is in line with this symbolism. Going under water speaks of dying with Jesus. If one pressed pause on the baptism (not literally- that would be disturbing) the person being baptised thinks to themselves- “My old life is dead. I have been crucified with Christ.” In coming out of the water the person thinks to themselves- “I am living a new life with Jesus.” In Romans 6 Paul clearly sees baptism as something to which we can look back. When tempted by old patterns of sin I am to think to myself- “No. I’ve been baptised. I am living a new life with Jesus now.”
We are united with Jesus as we put our faith in Him. Baptism is the powerful symbol that affirms that reality in our hearts and minds. The symbolism is intentional and important. Expressions of faith in other church cultures (e.g. confirmation in an Anglican setting) may be meaningful and important for the person concerned- we wouldn’t want to deny that. However, they fall short in failing to express the biblical picture of being united with Christ. That is why we would still encourage people to be baptised even if they have demonstrated their faith in other ways because baptism is far more than demonstration of faith. It is a picture that we are intended to look back on of God uniting us with Christ as we trusted in Him.
For the above reasons we regard baptism as significant- Jesus taught it in the Great Commission, it is the usual route into being part of the church and it is the primary picture of our central identity as Christians as those who are united with Christ. Therefore we want to encourage those who have faith in Christ to obey His call to be baptised as a believer.