"What Christianity most needs in her opposition to every form of falsehood and unbelief, is holy living."
- Theodor Christlieb, 19th-century German theologian
Question: First, what does Baptism actually accomplish? Second, is there only one proper way to do it? Third, who is eligible to be baptized?
- In the Baptist tradition, our answer to the first question is that baptism is not efficacious to accomplish anything in and of itself. It is a symbol of our conversion to faith in Christ. However, we would say that it is set apart as a special rite which God can use in powerful ways in each person’s life if it is approached in the right way. But this is due to the work of God and the cooperation of the baptisand, not by any power inherent in the baptism itself.
- We believe that the most appropriate way to perform baptism is to do it as it was done in the New Testament: apparently by full immersion and the invocation of either the name of Jesus or of the whole Trinity. However, since we believe that it is a symbol, then this isn’t necessarily the only proper way to do it—exceptions can be made when necessary.
- Following the example of the New Testament and the theological principle that a necessary part of faith in Christ is the capacity to make a decision to follow Him, we believe that only those old enough to make an informed decision for themselves are eligible to be baptized.
- It is worth noting that in all three of the above answers, we in the Baptist tradition hold a minority opinion—most other denominations throughout history have practiced baptism differently, and it’s worth considering why.
Baptism in the New Testament
- Baptism was considered obligatory for Christians, it was a once-for-all ritual, and was to be done as soon after conversion as possible.
- Although baptism is given a theological meaning in the New Testament, it is not clear whether it is considered efficacious in and of itself.
- The only clear record we have is of the baptism of adults; however, there remains the possibility of the baptism of children/infants because of the practice of baptizing whole “households.”
Baptism in the Early Church
- The earliest traditions show a preference for baptism by immersion in running water and the following of the NT invocations, but no sign as to whether baptism was understood sacramentally or symbolically, nor whether children were eligible.
- Within the first two hundred years, though, it is clear that the early church did begin to understand baptism sacramentally—that is, as actually being an efficacious means of grace—and practiced the regular baptizing of infants. These two trends continued throughout the medieval church until the Reformation.
Baptism in the Reformation of the 1500s
- The only dissenters from this pattern were the Anabaptists, who followed a very literal interpretation of the New Testament. Since infant baptism isn’t shown in the New Testament, they didn’t practice it. Later, in the 1600s, the Baptists followed the Anabaptist interpretation.
Sacrament or Symbol?
- The sacramental interpretation of baptism is that God actually uses this rite to bring a person to salvation. Conversion from the old life to the new is actually accomplished in baptism; the person dies spiritually to the old life and is raised again with Christ to new life. Individual faith is not enough on its own to save a person, because salvation is more than just a matter of “me and God”—rather, salvation and relationship with God is found by being a member of the Body of Christ, attached to the vital spiritual power of Christ in the church. And since baptism is the rite of entrance into church membership, it must be the way of salvation.
- The opposing viewpoint (held by Baptists) is that salvation and relationship with God is available to anyone, anywhere. It certainly is experienced by being part of the church, but we believe that we are made a part of the spiritual, worldwide Body of Christ at the moment of belief, not at baptism. Baptism is a symbol and a sign of that conversion, a completion of our intellectual assent to the Gospel by practicing a bodily assent as well. It reminds us of the truth of our spiritual death and of our new life in Christ, but it does not accomplish these things itself. The New Testament seems to be clear that it is belief in Christ that saves us.
Immersion or Sprinkling?
- Many denominations practice baptism by sprinkling or pouring as their first choice. This is usually for practical purposes; it is far simpler than immersion. It also adds in the biblical imagery of an anointing. However, the NT evidence seems clear here: immersion was the preference of the apostles and the early church, and it fits better with the theological symbolism of death and resurrection.
Adult baptism or infant baptism?
- Most denominations that practice infant baptism see it as the Christian fulfillment of the Jewish rite of circumcision. In the Old Testament, circumcision was the rite by which infants were committed to God and welcomed as a full member of the people of God. As such, infant baptism is also the rite in which children are welcomed into God’s family. Usually, the child will have to make a reaffirmation of their faith when they are older, as part of the rite of “confirmation.” In essence, this parallels Baptist practice of offering “baby dedications” for infants and then baptism for teens and adults. In both practices, there is a ritual for welcoming children into the church, and another in which teens or adult converts can affirm their faith in Christ.
"Weekly church services are the main venue for our main responsibility as human beings. In our role as God's royal priesthood, we serve as worship leaders for all of creation, representing the chorus of nature's praise before the Father. We serve as intercessors, bringing the needs of the world before him. And we serve at the forefront of the eternal, angelic symphony of worship beyond all space and time. If we abscond these high and glorious duties, no one else may do them for us. There are no other creatures in all the universe endowed with the same grand vocation." (p. 112)