Often held as a rite of passage and entrance into the Christian church, baptism is much more than just symbolic ritual. Baptism was commanded by Jesus Christ in the Great Commission recounted in the book of Matthew. Even though we are simplistically called to be obedient by being baptized the Christian church has long debated the aspects of this ordinance. Denominations are divided on the basic meaning, types and modes of baptism even two thousand years after the founding of the Christian church.
Just as the other ordinance, the Lord’s Supper, congregations find themselves at odd with tradition, biblical interpretation and even individual understanding. However, the simple message of this awe inspiring act can be explained out of the misinformed child that views this act as being “baptarded”. Not understanding the pronunciation or the event he explains, “that you are held under the water until Jesus gets into your heart! ” Even this child understands that it is obedience to Jesus Christ that forms the foundation that we will study. Meaning and Purpose of Baptism
To understand the purpose and meaning of baptism we must first understand the foundation in scripture where we find the practice. Before the act of Christian baptism is introduced in Acts we see the example of John the Baptist. John’s baptism was an act of repentance of sin and in preparation of the coming Messiah. (Norman, 2005, pg 131) Christian baptism shows the same attributes of repentance and acceptance of Christ’s message; however, it was not complete without the death, burial and resurrection of Christ later. Even the symbolism of Christ’s sacrifice is seen in the act of baptism.
At the end of His earthly ministry Christ commanded his disciples to baptize, along with discipleship in order that the new church be established. (Holy Bible, Matthew 28) Baptism in the New Testament constitutes three broad concepts to understand. A new believer is united with Christ, he is united with Christ’s church and there is the sealing of a covenant with God. Each stand alone yet they are intertwined with each other in meaning. To be united with Christ a new believer has put faith into the resurrection and second coming of Christ as a promise.
Baptism is performed in Christ’s name and under his authority. This ordinance is a public declaration of the believer’s intention to become a follow of Jesus Christ and His teachings. The believer is also united with His church through baptism. As stated in 1 Corinthians 12:12 believers become part of the body who is subject to its head, Jesus Christ. By this act of submission the believer is publically stating that they will stand with the church and that this represents their decision of salvation. In the book of Acts, every salvation decision is immediately followed by baptism.
Lastly, the believer is sealing the covenant between believer and God through the act of baptism. This seal was to symbolize a believer renouncing his allegiance to Satan and the ways of the world and uniting with God and church He has established. (Norman, 2005, pg 133-135) As an aside, the meaning is much more importance that the details of the act, it has become a point of contention to debate the administration of this ordinance. The Roman Catholic Church hold to the stance that only the priests of the church shall represent the grace conveyed by God.
Martin Luther and other Reformers believed in the priesthood of the believers however they did hold to the fact that not everyone could speak or administer or else there would be chaos. Most churches hold to the Luther thought process today. There is no theological reason yet it does hold the church to an orderly process of worship. (Hammett, 2005, pg 260) Infant versus Believers’ Baptism One the most contested issues in the New Testament church regarding baptism is the practice of infant baptism as compared to believers’ baptism.
Infant baptism is the Christian religious practice of baptizing infants or young children. In theological discussions, the practice is sometimes referred to as paedobaptism or pedobaptism from the Greek pais meaning “child. ” The practice is sometimes contrasted with what is called “believer’s baptism”, or credobaptism, from the Latin word credo meaning “I believe,” which is the religious practice of baptizing only individuals who personally confess faith in Jesus, therefore excluding underage children.
It is also called christening. Most Christians practice infant baptism. They include the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, Armenian Apostolic Church, Assyrian Church of the East, the Anglican Communion, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, some Church of the Nazarene, the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Canada, the United Church of Christ (UCC), and the Continental Reformed.
Groups within the Protestant tradition that reject infant baptism include most Baptists, Apostolic Christians, all Old Time Missionary Baptists, Disciples of Christ, most Pentecostals, Mennonites, Amish, Community of Christ, Plymouth Brethren, Seventh-day Adventists, most non-denominational churches, and other Arminian denominations. Infant baptism is also excluded by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Wikipedia, Baptism, 2010) The influence of Augustine is seen in the debate of infant baptism.
Hammett recounts, “Around 400, he gave the classic justification for infant baptism, as that which washes away the stain of original sin. Moreover, Augustine taught that infants who die without receiving infant baptism are forever barred from heaven. Thereafter, infant baptism became the norm. ” (Hammett, 2005, pg 269) Three arguments are often used in support of infant baptism. The early church used the idea of household baptisms mentioned in the book of Acts to support that entire families were baptized for the acceptance of faith by the parents of the household.
Other historians point to the Gospel encounter of children being brought to Jesus for blessing and for Him to pray over the children. The last support can be found in the need of an act of covenant being established as it once was in the Old Testament. In the time of Abraham young boys were circumcised as a sign of the convent. In the New Testament infant baptism was used as that sign. (Hammett, 2005 pg 269-270). Each of these were steeped further in tradition than biblical basis. The New Testament points more specifically to believers’ baptism rather than infant baptism.
As stated earlier, baptism is a symbolic act of obedience representing a choice of salvation through Jesus Christ. It is unreasonable to think that an infant would be able to make such a choice by itself. The parallel of Abraham’s covenant is also misapplied. Hammett points out, “As circumcision was applied to Abraham’s physical seed under the old covenant, so baptism is to be applied to Abraham’s spiritual seed under the new covenant. But the spiritual seed of Abraham are thus of faith, which means that believers should be baptized, which, they would argue, excludes infants. (Hammett, 2005, pg 270) Baptism is not needed to complete salvation. MacArthur writes, “If water baptism were necessary for salvation, we would expect to find it stressed whenever the gospel is presented in Scripture. That is not the case, however. Peter mentioned baptism in his sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). However, in his sermon from Solomon’s portico in the Temple (Acts 3:12-26), Peter makes no reference to baptism, but links forgiveness of sin to repentance (3:19). If baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sin, why didn’t Peter say so in Acts 3?
Paul never made immersion any part of his gospel presentations. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Paul gives a concise summary of the gospel message he preached. There is no mention of baptism. In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul states that “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel,” thus clearly differentiating the gospel from baptism. ” (MacArthur, gty. org, 2010) Believers’ baptism, though has no salvation qualities, does show a believer’s obedience to Christ and his call for Christians to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Throughout the book of Acts we see believers who are immediately baptized in response to this call to obedience. If you fast forward to the 21st century we are seeing more and more believers waiting to follow up their professions of faith with baptism. The next generation has to be reminded of the importance and foundation of the practice. Churches have even begun to host baptism emphasis Sundays such as Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Pastor Steven Furtick writes on his website, “Over the past two weeks we’ve seen over 1000 people baptized through our spontaneous baptism series, Awakening.
It has been the most deeply meaningful event I’ve experienced in my short time as a pastor. ” (Furtick, stevenfurtick. com, 2010) As compared to infant baptism, believers’ baptism is rooted firmly in the Scripture with Christ even commanding that we baptize and disciple in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Modes of Baptism Perhaps one issue that exists today to cause controversy is one that should be determined by looking back at the example of Christ.
It is recorded in the Gospels that Christ went down into the river of Jordan with John the Baptizer and He, Himself was baptized to fulfill all that was good. Today there are three modes of baptism commonly practiced. Aspersion is the sprinkling of water over the head. The second is that of affusion where water is poured over the head and wets the skin as well. Contemporary uses of this mode is not seen directly in conflict with the third of immersion. Affusion is seen, by some, as a substitute for those who are unable to participate in full immersion.
Affusion and aspersion tend to be practiced by Christian denominations that also practice infant baptism. This may be due to the practical difficulties of totally immersing an infant underwater. However, Eastern Orthodox and some Roman Catholics practice infant immersion. (Wikipedia, Affusion, 2010) The third which is most widely accepted is immersion. Immersion is seen literally in the baptism of Jesus Christ as well as others in the New Testament who were seen “coming up out of the water”. Holy Bible, Mark 1:10) Immersion is thought to be the graphical or bodily representation of what Christ did through salvation. We see the death, burial and resurrection acted out through the process of immersion baptism. Hammett writes of the modes controversy by saying, “Today, while Baptist continue to defend immersion as the mode that best suits the meaning of the word baptizo and the meaning of baptism as identification with Christ (in his death, burial, and resurrection) it is not an intense topic of debate. (Hammett, 2005, pg 274) Conclusion
John MacArthur notes, “When Jesus said, “Go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them,” when He said that He gave a command to the church to baptize, clearly that is the great commission. When the Holy Spirit said, “Repent and be baptized,” Acts 2:38, He gave a command to the individual believer to be baptized. Christ commands the church to baptize, the Holy Spirit commands the individual believer to be baptized. And when all 3,000 who believed on the day of Pentecost were immediately baptized, they set the example for the church.
So we are under the commanding words of Christ as a church to baptize. We are under the commanding word of the Holy Spirit as individuals to be baptized. And we follow in the line of the pattern and example established on the day the church was born when every believer was immediately baptized. ” (MacArthur, gty. com, 2010) As Christians it should be very clear that no matter the decision points in which we may be bound in our doctrine struggle we are commanded very clearly to take part in the ordinance of baptism by Christ Himself.