Section 8: The Church
Week 4: Life in the Church
Day 1: Baptism
Baptism is obviously something important in the life of the Church. We find it, for example, at the heart of the Great Commission, and we read about it being performed throughout the New Testament. There are two questions that are typically raised in connection with baptism: 1) who should be baptized? and 2) how are we supposed to do it? Is it sufficient to sprinkle someone with water or do we need to do something more?
What is the Most Appropriate Method of Baptism?
As for the method, although no particular mode is mandated, immersion in water is the pattern we see in the New Testament. Jesus himself was baptized in this way (Mk. 1:4-11). And that method seems to have been carried over to baptisms performed in the early church as well. Immersion, for example, was the method Philip used with the Ethiopian eunuch after he accepted Christ:
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing (Acts 8:36-39).
As Wayne Grudem explains, “Apparently neither of them thought that sprinkling our pouring a handful of water from the container of drinking water that would have been carried in the chariot was enough to constitute baptism. Rather, they waited until there was a body of water near the road.”[i]
Why would immersion be the most appropriate method though? The answer is tied to baptism’s inherent meaning. When we baptize someone, we are symbolically representing what happened to them when they put their faith in Christ. One aspect of that symbolism is the spiritual cleansing we experience as a result our faith. Any amount of water could easily symbolize that. However, cleansing isn’t the only thing baptism is designed to represent. When we put our faith in Christ, we are united with him. As a result, his death becomes our death, and his resurrection becomes our resurrection. In baptism we symbolically share in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5). Immersion more powerfully represents that transition from death to life than the sprinkling or pouring of water.
Who Should Be Baptized?
The Catholic View
That leaves the question: who should be baptized? In most evangelical churches, baptism is reserved for those who have put their faith in Christ. Some, however, argue babies are appropriate candidates. Why is that? Well, in the Catholic tradition, baptism is seen as a requirement for salvation. If that’s true, then you have to baptize babies, otherwise they might not be saved. The Catholic view, thus, adds a requirement for salvation over and above faith. As we’ve seen though, salvation is by faith alone.
The Paedobaptist View
Catholics aren’t the only ones who believe it is appropriate to baptize infants though. Reformed and Presbyterian churches, for example, also do it. Even some evangelical churches do so as well. Their understanding of what happens in baptism, however, differs substantially from that of Catholics. In this view (often referred to as the paedobaptist view), baptism is considered the New Testament version of circumcision. Just as circumcision was a sign that a person had entered the Old Covenant community, baptism is a sign that a person has entered the New Covenant community – the Church.
In support for this position, they cite passages that draw a parallel between baptism and circumcision, such as Col. 2:11-12
In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self-ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Since babies were circumcised to show they were a part of the community, there is no reason babies shouldn’t be baptized to show that they are part of the Church family. The children of believers are heirs to God’s promises in much the same way that children in the Old Testament were.
Although these churches believe that the baptism of babies is appropriate, they make clear that baptism doesn’t save anyone. Only faith does.
The biblical pattern, however, suggests that only those who had taken the step of putting their faith in Christ were baptized. When Peter got done preaching to the crowd on Pentecost, for example “those who accepted his message were baptized” (Acts 2:41).
It was similar when Philip preached the gospel in Samaria:
Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
Why would this be the pattern? Because we aren’t born into the New Covenant community. That only happens as the result of faith. This has important implications for baptism because baptism is a “symbol of the beginning of the Christian life.” It, therefore, it is only appropriate for those “who show evidence of having begun the Christian life.”[ii] That doesn’t happen apart from faith. As a result, baptism ought to be reserved for those who are old enough to have faith and who have affirmatively placed their faith in Christ.
Who should be baptized? What is your view on the proper mode of baptism? If baptism isn’t required for salvation, why bother?
If you haven’t done so already, commit to being baptized.
[i] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House (1994), 968.
[ii] Ibid, 970.