Note: This post is written from the Believer’s or Credo Baptism point of view. For a more exhaustive treatment of this subject I would recommend the following book; Believer’s Baptism by Thomas Shreiner & Shawn Wright.
I have recently had the opportunity to address the subject of local church membership in a Sunday School series within the context of the local church which I serve, Stansbury Park Baptist Church. In the process there have been one or two “back to basics” type lessons we have had and one of those was concerning baptism; so I thought that if this was an issue that was important to a local church filled with faithful followers of Christ, then it might make for a good post here at Parking Space 23. Of course by baptism I want to be clear that I do mean Christian baptism; therefore, I would like to address the subject by providing a brief overview of baptism within the church at large, who should be baptized, the function of baptism, and why I believe in baptism as an ordinance of the church.
Though we find descriptions of Jesus’ baptism in all of the Gospels, I do not believe that Jesus was the recipient of the baptism which He would command of His followers. References to the first baptisms in the Church Age are instead recorded for us in Acts which provides the earliest history of the Church. That is not to say, however, that Jesus did not model for us the method and means of the baptism which He would command (more on that later). In the age known as the Patristic Era, one of the Church Fathers named Tertullian taught that baptism brought about the actual remission of sins. His belief was shared by Clement of Alexandria. Another Church Father, Methodius of Olympus, believed that baptism brought about regeneration in the life of the one baptized. These beliefs would contribute the development of a sacramental theology which would call for the baptism of infants, moving from the Patristic Age to the Middle Ages. Because baptism came to be viewed as a means of grace infants were baptized in order that they could be forgiven of their sins and saved, of course it was the view of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) that it alone was the agent by which this salvific act could be performed.
The practice of the RCC was unchallenged until the time of the Protestant Reformation. However, even some within that movement from which we draw our heritage still believed in and practiced infant baptism. The difference was the purpose of the practice. Whereas the RCC taught and believed that baptism brought with it salvation, the Reformers who practiced infant baptism saw this ordinance as a replacement for the Old Testament sign of the Abrahamic Covenant, circumcision. In other words, instead of only the males of God’s People receiving the sign of the covenant all of God’s People would participate by being baptized with water.
As Protestants, we naturally disagree with the RCC position of baptismal regeneration though there are some non-RCC groups which do hold to this understanding. But the question is do we (practitioners of credo-baptism) agree with those Protestant Christians who practice infant baptism or its more formal name, paedobaptism? In a word, no, we do not agree with those Christians who practice infant baptism. This is because as Credo-Baptists we do not believe that the New Testament provides support for the practice of baptizing non-Believers nor do we believe that baptism has replaced circumcision as a sign of God’s covenant with His people. But if infants are not the target of the act and ordinance of baptism then who is?
I believe that Scripture clearly marks out Christians as the only recipients of the ordinance of baptism within the Church. I find support for this understanding in the first Christian baptisms recorded in Scripture. In Acts chapter two we find the inauguration of the Church at the Day of Pentecost. At the conclusion of Peter’s sermon, “those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:41-42). A second occurrence of Believer’s baptism is found in Acts chapter eight in the account of the Ethiopian’s conversion and subsequent baptism by Philip. I am firmly convinced that these accounts of baptism as well as the multitude of others found in Acts are significant in that in each case baptism followed conversion. Therefore, I am of the conviction that baptism within the Christian Church is for those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Furthermore, I am convinced that the method of Jesus’ own baptism by immersion in water is the model for the church to follow today.
Since baptism as an ordinance of the Church is for believers and them alone, what does it accomplish on their behalf or how does it function? Baptism signifies a number of things in the life of the Christian, for instance it identifies the believer with Christ as Lord and Saviour (Acts 2:38). It also signifies the washing away of the believer’s sins (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor 6:11) as well as dying to his or her life and being resurrected as a new creature in Christ (Rom 6:4; Col 2:12). Lastly, it is representative of incorporation into the New Covenant community of the Church (1 Cor 12:13). One way to say all of this is that baptism is the outward sign of the inward change in the heart and life of the believer.
The final issue to address is why we believe that baptism is an ordinance of the church. I believe there are two reasons why we practice baptism as an ordinance. The first is that Christ commanded it be done in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). Secondly, we find throughout the New Testament the practice of believer’s baptism in the life of the church as commanded by Christ. Therefore, if those who were closest to the command took Christ at His Word and submitted to baptism how are we able to do any different?