What is Christian Baptism?

It is no secret that many within the Church disagree on the nature and extent of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The disagreement surrounds the method of how these are carried out, who the recipients ought to be, and even on whether we should call them sacraments or ordinances. Let me state from the beginning that I highly doubt anything I have to say on these things will solve this historical, and often volatile, debate. But I continue nonetheless.

Speaking Generally

The word sacrament comes from the Latin word ‘sacramentum’ meaning a solemn or sacred oath. The Roman Catholics believe there to be seven sacraments, most Protestants only believe there to be two of them; baptism, given to us in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and the Lord’ Supper, given to us in Jesus’ teaching in the upper room (Matthew 26:26-29). Opposing the word sacrament is the word ordinance, which simply means a statute or command Jesus ordained for the Church. The difference between these two words comes down to what we believe is happening while engaging in these activities. To prefer the title ordinance over the title sacrament generally means one believes there is no grace communicated from God to those participating in the activities themselves. To prefer the title sacrament over the title ordinance generally means one believes there is grace communicated from God to those participating in the activities themselves.

It is now fitting to quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 92. It asks, “What is a Sacrament? A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.” Did you notice that both the word sacrament and ordinance are present in this definition? Though we find people rejecting one title in preference of the other, it’s good to use both in defining what they are.

We can also state generally that both sacraments function as signs and seals.

Signs, in that what the preaching of the gospel is to our ears, the sacraments are to our eyes. This means they visibly signify or show the invisible truth of God to us. In a very real sense the sacraments are a dramatized display of the gospel. But they are also seals. Just as a ruler in ancient times would seal a document with his royal seal to communicate that the message was from him and carried his authority, so too, the sacraments are visible seals from God promising that all who receive them truthfully participate in the grace given through them. Paul makes this point well in Romans 4:11-12 saying, “Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

Speaking Foundationally

There are two foundational issues we must cover when approaching baptism. The first one is simple and is usually welcomed by all believers, while the second needs some explaining.

First: we are commanded by God to embrace, believe, and teach not only what the Bible explicitly teaches, but also what the Bible implicitly teaches.

Second: while the New Testament authors assumed discontinuity with Moses, they always assumed continuity with Abraham.

Like I said, few Christians will disagree with the first fundamental principle. Let me explain the second principle. All over the New Testament, various authors place Moses and the law of God, in contrast to Christ and the gospel. For example, one could say the whole point of the book of Hebrews is to teach that Jesus is better than all that’s come before. Better than the angels, better than Moses, better than the law. The author even says that Jesus deserves greater glory than Moses because His blood can do what the blood of bulls and goats could never do. For this reason Heb. 10:1 says the law was just a shadow of the greater realities to come. We could also point to Paul where he mentions we’re no longer under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14) and that the law was only given by God to chase us to the cross, that we might be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24). Each time the Mosaic covenant is mentioned in the New Testament discontinuity is in view.

Now contrast that with how the New Testament authors speak of the Abrahamic covenant. Rather than discontinuity being in view, we only find continuity being spoken of. After Paul’s great explanation of justification by faith in Romans 3, who is his example of such faith in the very next chapter? Abraham. The largest place we see this reality is in Galatians 3 where Paul makes some marvelous statements linking Christians with Abraham. In Galatians 3:7-9 Paul says, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” Rather than being placed in opposition to the gospel, when Abraham is in view we see a continuity.

This principle leads to an implication in how we ought to interpret the New Testament in light of the Old Testament. Because the New Testament authors showed a consistent discontinuity with Moses and continuity with Abraham, we not only should read the New Testament in the same manner, we should understand that the New Testament is an inspired commentary on the Old Testament. Or to say it another way, we should never read the Old Testament apart from the New Testament.

Speaking Specifically

Now we are primed to see baptism, and no surprise we’ll begin with Abraham. Follow along as I read Genesis 17:1-14 (read). You may think this is a strange place to begin discussing baptism, but as you’ll see, it is very appropriate. In this passage we see God relating the details of His covenant with Abraham. This is where we learn of Abram’s name change to Abraham, where we learn that God will bring many nations and kings from him, and where we learn that the Abrahamic covenant also had to do with Abraham’s children. In 17:7 God said He would be God to Abraham and to his offspring after him. Then in 17:10 to confirm this covenant God commanded both Abraham and his children to be circumcised. Circumcision was thus, the sign of the Abrahamic covenant and from this point on in Scripture all Israelites had the sign of the covenant put on them as children to indicate that they were part of visible Israel.

Now, when Jesus came and inaugurated the New Covenant in the great commission He gave these instructions, “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.” Rather than giving the command to go into all the world, make disciples, and circumcise them, Jesus makes it crystal clear that the sign of the New Covenant is no longer circumcision, but baptism. Paul affirms this in Colossians 2:11-12 when he says, “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.”

So taking a look at the whole of Scripture we see a clear connection between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism. Just as circumcision was the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament, baptism is the fulfillment of it and is now the sign of the covenant in the New Testament.

Most everyone agree with this. Here’s the part where a large disagreement occurs.

Some end right here concluding that as Abraham was made righteous by his faith in God’s promise and then had the sign of the covenant put on him, that New Covenant believers are to do the same thing. Exercise faith and then and only then have the sign of the covenant put on us. That’s called credobaptism or believer’s baptism. It’s probably not an overstatement to say the majority of evangelicals believe this. This is the kind of church SonRise is and the view that the majority of our elders hold. I think the Bible takes us further than that. Just as God’s promise to Abraham was for him and his descendants and just as the sign of that promise was for him and his descendants, so too the New Covenant promise and its sign is given to believers and to their children as well. Thus, here we see more continuity from the Abrahamic Covenant in the New Covenant. This position is called paedobaptism or infant baptism.

Let’s take a moment to compare and contrast these two views.

First, the credo view says that infant baptism is that it’s not commanded anywhere in the New Testament, and that this is why we shouldn’t be doing it any longer today. The paedo view responds by saying the silence of any command against paedobaptism is actually a proof of it. If there were going to be such a drastic change in how the sign of the covenant is applied in the transition from Old to New Testaments, we would have a command to not place the sign of the covenant on our children any longer, and we don’t have that anywhere, thus we’re still to do it.

Second, the paedo view says that evidence of infants being baptized is that we have multiple examples of household baptisms throughout the books of Acts. The credo view responds and says of course there were household baptisms, but no one can be sure of the presence of infants in those situations, it just doesn’t say.

Third, the credo view objects to paedobaptism because they believe the New Covenant to be different then the Old Covenant with Abraham. Sure it may have its roots in the Abrahamic covenant but the paedo view is too similar to or not different enough from the Abrahamic covenant. The paedo view responds by saying it is similar for sure, because it’s a matter of promise and fulfillment. Rather than just having the sign of the covenant be on one nation, now the sign of the New Covenant is put on any believer from any nation.

Fourth, the credo view says along with Galatians 4:21-31 that the true children of the covenant are spiritual children (children who believe by faith) and not children of the flesh (offspring). Thus we’re only to put the covenant sign on the spiritual children, not the children of our flesh. The paedo view responds by saying sure – the true children of God are indeed those who share the faith of Abraham, and who by faith are saved and enter into the promises of God. But even Ishmael received the sign of the Abrahamic covenant even though he didn’t believe, so we should also place the sign of the covenant on our children when we believe like Acts 2:39 seems to indicate.

Now, I ought to make something clear here. Unlike the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, some Methodist, and some Lutheran denominations who believe the infant to be saved or promised salvation one day, the reformed paedo view denies that and says there is nothing salvific about paedobaptism at all. It’s merely a sign and seal of the covenant, it doesn’t bring one into that covenant. The credo view says they’re all equally wrong because we shouldn’t be doing anything with our children in regards to baptism, let alone baby dedications.

John Bunyan’s Plea

Baptism is very important, and we should come to terms with our convictions about it. But there have been a few throughout Church history who were not willing to let differences in regard to baptism separate likeminded believers. For example, pastor and author of Pilgrim’s Progress John Bunyan (though firmly holding his own view on baptism) welcomed those who differed from him into membership within in his congregation. I think his inclusion is commendable. Let me end this post with his own words, “May the time soon arrive when water shall not quench love, but when all the churches militant shall form one army, with one object – that is extending the Redeemer’s kingdom.”

Learning something from an Old Dead Guy

For many of us in Reformed Christians circles this is a very important year, as it marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the wall of the Castle church at Wittenberg. This one single event sent into motion a tidal way of change that left the western world scrambling to find out what the true meaning of being a Christian is about. Over the next century men and women would rise up and take a stand for the truth of the Gospel and the proclamation of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The reformation began at Wittenberg, but for most of us it had its fullness shaped in Switzerland.

Now when I talk about the importance of Switzerland many immediate go to John Calvin, and while he is an important part of the reformation he was not the first in Switzerland to begin the journey, that title belongs to a man named Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli was one of the first preachers of the reformation to institute strictly exegetical biblical preaching based on the practice of John Chrysostom the great early church father. He not only viewed the Scriptures as supremely authoritative; he found it to be the only source of true faith and worship. Zwingli was a man driven by the truth of Scripture (as he saw it) and finding his purpose and ministry goals summarized in the Scriptures and not in some external reality. For many this may have made him an extremist. He removed art and music from worship spaces feeling that only the word of God should be seen and adored in the church, all else would simply lead to idolatry. He focused the attention of the early reformation to think about the reasons for communion and baptism according to the scriptures and not according to traditions handed down.

This is all well and good but why do I bring up Zwingli today and why does all this matter? Well first Zwingli shows us that even men that have since been forgetton or overshadowed by history still speak through the history of those who were influenced by them. The vast majority of the writings and systematic teachings of John Calvin found in the Institutes will arise from the teachings of Zwingli and his protégé Bollinger. The modern reformed churches emphasis on exegetical preaching can be traced back to his reformed movement in Switzerland. For while Luther was busy being a professor of theology Zwingli was working as a pastor in Zurich.

We owe a great debt to the man for his contributions to how we think about preaching as he pointed us back to the Scriptures and the church fathers as examples of preaching the word, not our own opinions or feel good messages. Maybe you have at times felt like your ministry was just spinning its wheels, you are teaching the gospel, you are following the Scriptures but the results or long term effect is not what you imagined.  Zwingli’s legacy points to the fact that it is okay to be forgotten as long as the message remains and is supreme.

The other thing that is so important to remember about this early reformer in our modern context is that while great in some theological ways, he was not perfect. Among all the reformers Zwingli is probably one of the most problematic for most, and this was due, oddly enough to what also his his best characteristic, his encouragement of his people to read the Scriptures and see the truth for themselves. In opening the Bible to the people he saw that they came to a “radical” view when it came to baptism and other aspects of the faith. Out of this bastion of freedom and authority in scripture Zwingli openly sided with the state to persecute and kill those who did not agree with his view of the Bible, especially in regards to baptism. Many Anabaptists were drowned in the local rivers for their stance on baptism. He like Luther was firmly committed to his interpretation of the Bible and the ordinance that to think or speak other than the way he did was to be accursed by God. This was the main reason why these two men could never reconcile during their lifetimes; this division was too great and their dislike for the concessions of the other too much. Each man was unwavering and hostile to the other almost as much as they were against the Catholic Church.

The break between Luther and Zwingli has been one that makes perfect sense in their time and place and yet 500 years later I still find puzzling. Of course we today live in a very pluralistic society with many different faiths and Christian denominations, while in the 16th century West there was the church and the schismatic sects of the reformation. Today the church is made up of varying points of views on things such as Communion and Baptism, but these things don’t divide our fellowship and love for one another, rather they should encourage us to dive deeper into the Scriptures to know why we believe what we believe and where it is rooted in the text. I am the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church while the other men on this blog range in their affiliations holding a variety of views on these very subjects. But rather than cutting each other off we grow from one another’s perspectives on the text. There are battles to be fought, but some of the battles need to be discussed with love, humility and the understanding that we may have missed the mark on something. One of the great marks of the church is the love for one another.

This is the last lesson I learned from Zwingli. We can have all the right theology but if we have no love for the family of God and the souls of the lost sometimes we end up dead on a battlefield…..that wasn’t needed to be fought.

Also today marks the anniversary of the council of Trent the affirmation that we as protestants are an anathema, so yes there are still battles to be won: through prayer and the proclamation of the gospel. 

A Pastor’s Plea for Unity Among Diversity in Regards to Baptism

Great article from Bill Kynes over at Gospel Coalition:

Editors’ note: Last year The Gospel Coalition asked pastors and theologians why they changed their mind on baptism. While this argument from Bill Kynes does not defend a changed view, it sheds light on the spectrum of belief and practice related to baptism in evangelical churches. Previously in this series:

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Bill Kynes:

The local church in which I serve as pastor practices the baptism of believers, so we might be considered “Baptists.” But we also receive as members believers who have been baptized as infants. For that reason, you might call us “baptists with a small ‘b.'” How do we justify such a hybrid position in the spectrum of church practice? Let me explain, beginning with our understanding of the gospel.

The gospel of Jesus Christ involves three dimensions: First, the gospel has an objective dimension—it involves something outside of us. The gospel is first of all an objective declaration of what God has done in Jesus Christ. It is the good news that God sent in his Son into the world, he lived a sinless life, he died for our sins, he rose from the grave, and he will come again in glory. In love he came to conquer sin and death and to redeem us for himself.

Second, the gospel has a subjective dimension—it involves something in us. The gospel involves a (Spirit-empowered) subjective response to that good news. A person must personally entrust himself to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord as he commits to follow him in faith as a disciple.

But the gospel also has a social dimension—it involves something among us. The gospel creates a new community, united in Christ by the Spirit. A person joined to Christ is also joined to other believers into a new family, the body of Christ. Consequently, a third aspect of the gospel involves a recognition and affirmation of a person’s faith by the church.

All three of these aspects of the gospel are displayed in a visible and tangible way in the baptism of a believer. Objectively, baptism is a declaration of the action of God in the gospel. When a person goes into the water, we see a picture of Christ’s death for us as he died for our sins and was put into the grave. And when a person is raised up out of the water, we see Jesus risen from the grave to new life—that person is washed clean of his sins by Christ and is now given new life in the Spirit.

Subjectively, in baptism believers make a personal profession of faith. They say “Yes” to this gospel truth in their own life. They confess that Christ died for them and that in him they have new life. And they pledge by God’s grace to follow him in faith.

No one baptizes him- or herself. You must “be baptized”—and that is done through the church. So baptism has a social dimension—in baptism the church affirms the faith of the one who is baptized and welcomes that person publicly as a fellow member of Christ’s visible body in the world, expressed in an ongoing manner through participation in the Lord’s Supper.

I am a baptist, because I believe that the New Testament is best understood to unite all three of these aspects of the gospel in the one act of baptism—the objective declaration of the gospel, the subjective response to it, and the social aspect of the church publicly recognizing and affirming that response of faith and welcoming that person as a fellow believer into the visible body of Christ.

Common Grasp

So if I hold to this theology of believers’ baptism, then why am I not a Baptist (with a capital “B”)? Why would we as a church accept the baptism of a believer who was baptized as a infant as a valid baptism for the purpose of church membership? I offer three reasons.

Humility. I recognize that paedobaptism has been the practice of the overwhelming majority of Christians throughout most of church history. This includes the practice of the Protestant Reformers to which I owe a great theological and spiritual debt. I humbly recognize that I could be wrong about paedobaptism (and the conclusion that the great majority of Christians through history were never really baptized), and for this reason I am hesitant to insist upon my position on baptism as a grounds of church fellowship.

Charity. Even if the baptist position is correct, I still want to receive my paedobaptist brothers and sisters as fellow believers based upon our common understanding of the gospel. Evangelical paedobaptists recognize the three aspects of the gospel I have outlined, but in their practice of baptism they separate them in time. They baptize the infant children of Christian believers—objectively declaring the gospel to them before they can understand it. They do this with the prayer that their subjective and personal response of faith will come at some point in their life (whether it occurs at a clearly recognized moment in time or not). And then later, at some public act of confirmation, the social aspect of that personal faith is recognized as, upon their profession of faith, that person is received as a communicant member of the church. Our unity in the gospel outweighs our differences in the practice of baptism in relation to the timing of those three aspects of the gospel. Charity in the gospel calls me not make those differences a barrier to church fellowship.

Theology. Baptism presents a visible and objective declaration of the gospel, and its validity as such is not nullified by the absence of the proper subjective response of faith. In those cases in which that subjective response is not present at the time of baptism, it remains a valid baptism, though not an effective and completed one. This is similar to the preaching of the gospel. Its validity is not nullified by a failure of the hearers to repent and believe. But when they do, that preaching achieves its appointed end.

On this ground, I can accept the paedobaptism of someone who has come to faith as a valid baptism, though only their subsequent response of faith and the recognition by the church of the reality of that faith complete that baptism and make it effective. However, since I am convinced that baptism properly ordered according to God’s design embodies in one act the objective promise of God in the gospel, the (Spirit-inspired) subjective response of faith, and the social recognition of that faith by the church, I practice the baptism of professing believers. Furthermore, I will “re-baptize” those previously baptized as infants who so request it, though I believe this is a matter of personal conscience of the believer and is not required.

That’s how I operate as a “baptist with a small ‘b.'” I recognize that this understanding has its own problems as we seek to work it out in the life of our church, but I offer it as a way of allowing our common grasp of the gospel to overcome our historical and theological differences with regard to baptism that prevent us from welcoming one another in the fellowship of the church. I long for our “Gospel Coalition” to be realized in the context of the local church so that we might live out that statement made famous by Richard Baxter: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity,” and that we might better embody that more recent rallying cry: “Together for the gospel!”

Bill Kynes is senior pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Annandale, Virginia, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition.

Baptism, the Visible Preached Word

It has been rightly taught that the sacraments (Lord’s Supper and Baptism) are to the eyes what the audible preached Word is to the ears. Meaning that as our ears hear the preaching of the Word from the pulpit, so too our eyes see the preaching of the gospel in baptism. This has two massive implications:

1) There are no individual baptisms: Too often we baptize a believer when they come to faith and say, “Ah, isn’t that cute.”  or “This is such a good day for them.”This implies  that baptism is only for      the one being baptized, no one else. Knowing that baptism preaches to our eyes, we know that this it is for more people than the one being baptized. Upon seeing someone go into the waters of baptism, we see a dramatized version of what is looks like to die, get buried, and rise with Christ in baptism, and we think “I remember when I did that, what a great memory! I died, was buried, and was raised with Him too!” And upon thinking that, we are assured anew that we are in Christ and that He died for us so that we could live in Him!  We have just been preached to! But not in an audible Word, but in a visible Word from God!

2) Baptism as a covenant curse: When someone hears the preached word from the pulpit and disregard’s it as foolishness,  not hearing God’s Word with faith, what will happen to that person?  If they continue in their unbelief, they will be sent to hell upon death. Now, if we say that baptism is a visible preaching of the gospel, why would the ignoring of it be any different than the audible Word? If you disregard your baptism, and go back to the world to seek after sin, and continue in that sin, you will go to hell. But more, because the sign of the  covenant has been placed upon you, you will incur a stricter judgment and it becomes, not a covenant blessing to you, but a covenant curse for you.

Baptism is, if you see it,  a visbile dramatization of the gospel, and if you ignore your own, you get the curse of the covenant. Baptism is not a trivial thing, nothing in the Bible is.