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Allow me to begin by sharing my own personal pilgrimage of thought concerning the rite of water baptism. I have traveled through the "camps" which seem to be at both ends of the theological spectrum in reference to baptism, and have settled into a position between the two extremes. Perhaps this gives me some insight that will be of value to others.
My initial theological training was in the context of what is called "The Restoration Movement," sometimes referred to as "Campbellism" based on the founding activity of Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander Campbell. These churches are today called "Disciples of Christ Churches," "Christian Churches," or "Churches of Christ," having divided on certain theological variances. When I was twelve years of age I attended the "pastor's class" for young people who wanted to become Christians and members of the Christian Church. We were taught the "five finger exercise" of that which was required for salvation: "Hear, Believe, Repent, Confess, and Be baptized." After attending the class we were considered qualified for church membership, contingent on our walking down the aisle in a public service, repeating a confession of faith, and being immersed in the baptistry during the morning service the following week. As an immature young man of twelve, I followed through on the expected responses. I can still remember being thrilled that in the intervening week between my "confession of faith" and "baptism," the Lord saw fit to "bless" me with a new three-speed English bicycle, which I took to be a confirmation of His pleasure at my obedience to His expectations. Prior to the baptism ceremony on the following Sunday, we were advised not to smile during the ceremony lest those watching might think that we were not taking this event seriously. Following the ceremony those who were baptized were treated to their first legitimate partaking of the Lord's Supper, which was observed every week within those churches.
After graduating from high school I attended a Bible College sponsored by the Christian Churches. There I was taught that baptism was the foremost distinctive of "The Restoration Movement," which was regarded as having "restored" the New Testament Church, particularly by insisting that "baptism is essential to salvation." In the homiletics class where young preachers were taught the art of preaching, we were advised to conclude every message with an appeal for people to get baptized and thus become Christians. Though they would deny that saying "baptism is essential for salvation" was a form of "baptismal regeneration," the explanation was untenable. The basic message was that salvation and the forgiveness of sins was effected and enacted in the rite of baptism. So in essence their theology of baptism was a form of sacramentalism somewhat unique among Protestant churches, but with definite likenesses to Roman Catholic theology. A Church of Christ minister once explained that "a person contacts the blood of Christ when he is submerged in the water of baptism." This is akin to the transubstantiation explanations in the sacramental theology of Roman Catholicism.
After attending Bible College I traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland to attend seminary at New College. The school was affiliated with the Church of Scotland, which is essentially Presbyterian in its church polity and Calvinistic in its theology. The theology of baptism presented there was still quite sacramentalistic, but the primary emphasis was on the justification of "paedo-baptism" or the baptism of infants. Infants or children who were baptized by aspersion were regarded as thereby being a part of God's covenant community, which was a core concept of their Reformed theology.
Not convinced by the Reformed theology of baptism but certainly less convinced of the Restoration theology of baptism, I returned to the United States to study with the Quakers, also known as the "Friends Church." Theirs is a theology of quietism which seeks to avoid all externalities of sacramentalism. They explain that since "God is Spirit," our Christian activities should be internal and "spiritual." Ritualistic external rites are eschewed. The Lord's Supper is not observed with tangible emblems, but is observed as a quiet internal, spiritual "communion" with God. Baptism is likewise regarded as a figurative overwhelming by the Spirit of God, and not observed as a rite employing water. This theology was obviously the very antithesis of that which I had initially been taught.
Somewhere between the extremes of the external sacramentalism of "baptismal regeneration" and the internal subjectivism of "quietism," there would seem to be a Biblical balance. We must avoid the inordinate externalism that becomes a ritualism demanding such "works" to effect salvation. We must also avoid an inordinate internalism that can become a mystic subjectivism with no objective criteria. A Biblically moderating theology of baptism will be sought as we attempt to answer some common questions concerning baptism:
The theology of Campbellism indicates that water baptism is necessary for forgiveness of sins and salvation. The theology of Quakerism indicates that water baptism is not necessary at all for any purpose. So the first clarification must be to inquire about the object of the necessity. A necessity involves something that is required, compulsory and indispensable to a certain objective.
Is water baptism required to win God's favor or to earn His acceptance? Such would make the performance of the rite of baptism into a "work" that purchases God's favor. We are not "justified by works" (Rom. 4:2-5), for if God's activity is "on the basis of works, grace is no longer grace" (Rom. 11:6). It is "by grace...not a result of works" (Eph. 2:8,9; II Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5) that God acts on our behalf.
Is water baptism necessary for spiritual regeneration or salvation? Some would use John 3:5 to advocate that "unless one is born of water-baptism and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God," assuming the connection of water with water-baptism. Water is used in many contexts other than baptism throughout the Scriptures, and Jesus' comments to Nicodemus seem better suited contextually to an interpretation that indicates that both physical birth ("born of water" when "the water breaks") and spiritual birth are necessitated in order to function within God's kingdom.
The Bible does not indicate any transubstantiatory effects of contacting the blood of Christ within the water of baptism. Water baptism is not a magical rite that effects regeneration, forgiveness of sins, justification or salvation.
Is water baptism compulsory to becoming a Christian? A Christian is one in whom the Spirit of Christ has come to dwell spiritually. "If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him" (Rom. 8:9). Water baptism does not effect such spiritual indwelling.
Is water baptism indispensable to identifying with the church? Although some institutional church organizations require water baptism to identify with their "church," the universal Church, the "Body of Christ," is comprised of all Christians who have received the Spirit of Christ by faith. Water baptism is not the means of identifying with the Body of Christ.
Are we implying by the foregoing arguments that the action of water baptism is completely dispensable, as the Quakers seem to indicate? Or is there some sense of necessity inherent in the mandate of Jesus to "go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19)? Imbued with the Holy Spirit of Christ on Pentecost, Peter declares, "Let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38). Some sense of necessity seems to be implied by these imperative commands, but what is the objective of that necessity? It appears that our best course of action in order to maintain consistency with Biblical statements is to leave the necessity to each individual Christian's personal obedience before God. Obedience involves "listening under" God's directive guidance by His Spirit in order to discern how He wants us to respond. Jesus indicated that He wanted to be baptized of John "to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15). Peter indicates that water baptism is "an appeal to God for a good conscience" (I Peter 3:21). James explains that "faith without the consequential out-working thereof is dead" (James 2:17,26); it is devoid of any receptivity of God's activity.
Water baptism is therefore necessary for an obedient walk with God when the individual Christian senses the compulsion of God's Spirit to respond by participating in such an external action.
We have already noted that the purpose of water baptism is not to earn God's favor or coerce Him into accepting us by our performance thereof. We are not "saved by works" (Eph. 2:8,9; II Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5), and baptism is not a performance that effects God's action.
Water baptism is not an initiation rite whereby one is inducted into church membership or into a particular "standing" as a Christian in the covenant community of God. There is no Biblical evidence that water baptism is necessarily an ecclesiastical rite, even though it has certainly become such through the ritualism of religion. Other than the inner peace of a "good conscience" by responding in obedience to God, the act of water baptism does not effect any spiritual reality within the Christian. What, then, is the purpose of water baptism?
When a person receives the Spirit of Christ and becomes a Christian an invisible and internal spiritual reality takes place. No one can see or observe the Spirit of Christ taking up His abode in the spirit of an individual. The new Christian knows what has happened because "the Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Rom. 8:16), and there is an inner assurance of that new identity. Those hearing the testimony of the Christian may perceive such to be mere subjective mysticism and emotional experientialism. Water baptism serves as an objective external act of public proclamation to declare the reality of one's spiritual union with Christ. This is why some have suggested that the act of water baptism should not take place within baptistries inside of church buildings, but should be conducted in public places as a public declaration of identification with Jesus Christ. It is an announcement that proclaims, "Hey world, I want you to know that I am a Christian!" Adherents of religions such as Judaism, Islam and Hinduism will often overlook one of their own who alleges that a spiritual reality has taken place within them by the receipt of the Spirit of Christ, for they know that internal experiences can be interpreted in so many ways, but when that person submits to the public act of water baptism in order to declare identification with Jesus Christ, then that person is often disowned, disinherited, excommunicated and declared dead as a member of their family. The purpose of water baptism as an objective, public proclamation of identification with Jesus Christ is readily understood by these religions.
In the public proclamation of water baptism is a symbolic pictorialization that will be understood only by the Christian being baptized and by other Christians. Water baptism is an external physical act that represents an internal spiritual reality. In regeneration the Spirit of Christ comes to dwell within and thereby "overwhelms" the spirit of the individual who is receiving Him. This reality is often referred to as the "baptism of the Spirit," and is probably the "one baptism" that Paul identifies as the basis of Christian unity (Eph. 4:5). To the Corinthians Paul explained that "all Christians have been baptized into one Body by one Spirit" (I Cor. 12:13). Water baptism is the overt pictorialization which expresses that the overwhelming of one's body with water is symbolically indicative of how the Spirit of Christ has overwhelmed that person's spirit.
Also pictured in the action of water baptism is the semblance of identification with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul explains to the Romans that "all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death. We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead..., so we might walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:3,4). Likewise to the Colossians he writes that "having been buried with Him in baptism,...you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God" (Col. 2:12). In the overwhelming baptism of the Spirit the new convert is overwhelmed in the death of his or her old identity as an "old man" and resurrected spiritually as a "new man" in Christ; all in identification with the physical and historical death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That spiritual identification is then pictorially portrayed in water baptism as the Christian is overwhelmed by water symbolizing the death of the "old man" and the newness of life that we have as a "new man" in Christ.
Perhaps the most apt analogies of the purpose of water baptism are to be found in the imagery of a funeral and a wedding:
A funeral is a public event enacted at one's death. Does the funeral make the person dead? No, the person has already died, and the funeral is a public "putting away" of the body of that person. Likewise, water baptism does not effect the death of the "old man," nor does it effect the newness of life of the "new man" in Christ. Water baptism is a public remembrance and visualization of our "death to sin," the burial of that old identity which deserved to die, as well as the portrayal of our resurrection unto spiritual life. It is interesting that when a person from one of the world's religions becomes a Christian and is publicly baptized, the family of that person will often regard him as dead, going so far as to conduct a public funeral to indicate his demise and severance of any relationship with them.
The analogy of water baptism with a wedding ceremony can be seen in the public enactment of a union of lives, but the illustration of the wedding ring serves best to picture the purpose of water baptism. Does the public wearing of a wedding ring make a person married? No, a person can wear a wedding band and not be married. Likewise, baptism does not make a person a Christian. A wedding ring is an outward symbol worn by married persons to publicly declare that they are married united and identified with their spouse and unashamed to express such by the wearing of a ring. It does not effect their marriage union. Water baptism does not effect our spiritual union with Jesus Christ, but can serve as a public act to proclaim that we have unashamedly identified with Jesus Christ.
So the purpose of water baptism is best explained as a symbolic expression of our being overwhelmed by the Spirit of Christ, enacted as a public proclamation to unashamedly declare such to those around us.
This question must be asked in light of the varied opinions held by different theological groups today. Should an infant be baptized with water, or is this a freely chosen act by one who has made a cognitive determination to receive Jesus Christ? Are there certain criteria of response that should precede water baptism, and to what extent can another Christian determine the validity of such?
A quick perusal of the Biblical literature of the New Testament indicates that those Christians who were baptized had first evidenced faith and repentance. This would seem to preclude infants who are not cognitively capable of responding in volitional receptivity to what God has made available in His Son Jesus Christ. The argument of those who practice "paedo-baptism" that the "baptism of their households" (Acts 16:15; 33) included the children in the home is not at all conclusive, for such a reference may refer only to the adult members of the household, inclusive of extended family members, servants and hired helpers, especially since children were not regarded as viable members of the household in those days.
The criteria of prior response for those being baptized is explained by Luke in the book of Acts and the history of the early church which he reports therein. On Pentecost Peter declared, "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38). Those who "received the word" of Peter's preaching were baptized (Acts 2:41). Those in Samaria who "believed the good news were baptized" (Acts 8:12). Concerning Cornelius and his family and friends, Peter acceded that "no one could refuse water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit" (Acts 10:47). Jesus had previously commissioned Christians to "make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19).
What has happened through the centuries is that Christians have instituted comprehensive man-made criteria of "genuine" conversion, "spirituality" and "maturity," which have been imposed upon those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and desire to be baptized. Some have defined "disciples" as those who have arrived at a particular disciplined conformity to ecclesiastic practice and behavior. Others have demanded "repentance" from all visible uncharacteristic behaviors. Many have argued over what it means to "receive the Holy Spirit" and the criteria by which to determine such. Still others have concluded that to "believe" is to understand and assent to all the major doctrines of the Church, and that a prescribed period of time is necessary to be thus instructed and able to articulate those "beliefs." These accretions to the simple receptivity of faith and repentant attitude inculcated by Scripture are to be rejected as prior criteria for candidates of water baptism. It is not man's responsibility to dictate such requirements which then become "works" necessary for baptism.
Those who profess repentance from sin and the receptivity of faith in Jesus Christ are to be regarded as candidates for Christian baptism in water. Should someone seek and receive Christian baptism who has not been spiritually regenerated, then the act of baptism does not express the spiritual reality, and such will become evident in the subsequent "fruit" of their behavior. The hesitancy of some to offer Christian baptism upon a simple faith response to Jesus Christ only evidences that they probably believe that baptism conveys some spiritual reality or benefit inherent in the act.
Various modes of water baptism have developed throughout Christian history. The particular manner of performing water baptism has become a divisive issue leading to separate denominations who insist that their mode is the only acceptable method. Baptist denominations have traditionally insisted on water baptism by immersion, and will not recognize any other form. Although most denominations will accept baptism by immersion, there are some who demand that it be performed only by sprinkling or pouring. Some Baptist groups will only recognize a water baptism that has been performed by one of their pastors in one of their church services with the proper and acceptable incantations of explanation. Some immersionists submerge the candidate only once, while others demand "triple immersion" in "the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." Obviously there are differences of opinions as to how water baptism should be performed.
Numerous books have been written trying to prove that the Greek words, bapto, baptizmos and baptizo mean only to dip, submerge or immerse. These have been countered by lengthy tomes arguing that these words do not necessarily mean such. Lexical evidence seems to indicate that the direct action implied by these Greek words did originally refer to dipping, submerging or immersing. It must be recognized, though, that the same Greek words were employed at the same time with the figurative meaning of "overwhelm." Moses was overwhelmed "in the cloud" (I Cor. 10:2). Plato was "overwhelmed with questions." Jesus was overwhelmed in suffering and death (Luke 12:50). Honesty demands that we recognize that both usages are utilized even in the Bible.
If the various modes of applying the water in Christian baptism can illustrate the overwhelming of one's spirit by the Spirit of Christ, then the mode of performance should not be made an issue. The mode of water baptism is not the important thing before God, but the spiritual reality that is being signified. Our concern should be whether the Spirit of God has overwhelmed the spirit of an individual in regeneration, and the dynamic life of the risen Lord Jesus has come to dwell in them in order to be lived out through them. Water baptism symbolically expresses that spiritual reality before men, and the particular mode of its performance should not be our primary concern.
Why do you ask? Do you still believe that water baptism conveys some spiritual reality? If this be the case, then the question will not adequately be answered for you until you engage in further Biblical and theological studies. But perhaps the question is asked on a personal level by one who suffers from hydrophobia (fear of water) and believes that the only acceptable mode of water baptism is immersion. Then again, the question might be asked by a Christian who is being "led of the Spirit" to be obedient in this public expression of baptism, and is trying to avoid such on theological or social grounds. Some have sought to avoid water baptism because it was inconvenient and humiliating, for it is indeed somewhat humiliating to be overwhelmed by water and appear before others dripping wet. Such a person might need to remember that it was inconvenient and humiliating for Jesus to do what He did for us, overwhelmed in death on a cross, dying the ignominious death of a criminal in order that we might have His life. Part of a Christian's identifying with Jesus Christ is the identification with His humiliation, and such might be enacted in water baptism.
To answer the question posed above about a believer not baptized in water, I would reiterate what has been explained earlier in reference to the necessity of water baptism. Water baptism is not a necessary requirement for, nor does it convey or effect, regeneration, forgiveness of sins, justification or salvation. It is not the means whereby one becomes a Christian, and therefore does not determine one's eternal destiny. The failure or refusal to be baptized in water may disallow a Christian to be a member of some church organizations, but it does not forestall one's being a member of the Body of Christ. So if a believer is not baptized in water, he is no less of a Christian and no less "spiritual," for these are determined solely by the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ, which is not dependent on water baptism.
Our emphasis should not be on the external act of water baptism, but on the spiritual reality of Christ's indwelling presence received by faith. Scripture is very clear that believing into Christ, receiving His Spirit into our spirit, is the basis of salvation, not water baptism. Paul said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31). "The gospel is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16). "Having believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise" (Eph. 1:13). John noted that "as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name" (John 1:12).
No Christian has a right to judge another believer who has not been baptized in water as not being a fellow Christian. "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matt. 7:1). Neither do I want to be guilty of refraining from encouraging what Jesus advocated, when He spoke of "baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19).
Every Christian is responsible before God to follow the inner prompting of the Spirit in his life. This is particularly true in reference to water baptism.