Identification with the Gospel: Believer’s Baptism by Immersion

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[Editor's Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on August 12, 2008.]

This is the fourth article in a series that explores the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. I have previously argued that the foundational conviction of Baptist Christians is a commitment to regenerate church membership. Baptists believe that a local church is a voluntary community of individuals who have embraced the gospel and covenanted to walk together in pursuit of common gospel ends. Though most Baptists embrace the concept of the universal church, we argue that the New Testament emphasizes the local body of Christ as the primary theater in which the gospel plays out.

Closely related to our commitment to a believer’s church is our most visible theological distinctive, believer’s baptism by immersion. Like Protestants in general, most Baptists argue for two ordinances (or sacraments): baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptists believe that believer’s baptism by immersion visually depicts the gospel, is the public, personal owning of the gospel, and identifies a believer with the community created by the gospel in both its local and universal manifestation. Baptism is the gospel portrayed in the life of a person who has embraced Christ as Lord and Savior and is the gospel proclaimed to the church of Christ and the watching world.

New Testament Baptism

Baptists desire to align our baptismal convictions with the New Testament, so we do not believe that every practice that is called “baptism” is necessarily a biblical baptism. Although nearly every Christian group claims to practice baptism, there are four elements of a New Testament baptism:

  1. The proper subject of baptism is a believer, who is the only type of person who has responded in faith to the gospel
  2. The proper mode of baptism is immersion in the name of the Triune God, which is the only mode recorded in Scripture, a literal translation of the Greek word baptizo, and the clearest picture of the gospel
  3. The proper meaning of baptism is a symbolic depiction of gospel realities such as the death and burial of the old self, the resurrection unto new spiritual life, the washing away of sin, union with Christ, and public identification with the gospel community both local and universal
  4. The proper administrator of baptism is the community of the gospel, normally a local church, except in missionary contexts, where baptisms are often administered in the hope of constituting a local church

Defending New Testament Baptism

Because believers alone are the proper subjects of baptism, any non-Christian who has been baptized, including an infant or other young child who is unable to understand and embrace the gospel, has not received a New Testament baptism. Furthermore, to baptize a non-Christian of any kind for any reason actually undermines the very gospel that baptism is supposed to represent. This claim sometimes offends our pedobaptist (infant-baptizing) friends, but believer’s baptism preserves regenerate church membership from the threat of pre-Christian membership in a way that infant baptism cannot do because of the very nature of that practice. When a church’s methodology departs from biblical theology, we must lovingly, but prophetically, call our non-Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ back to New Testament practice.

Because immersion is the only proper mode of baptism, Christians who have been sprinkled or poured with water have not received a New Testament baptism. This includes Christians who have been sprinkled or poured after they have come to faith in Christ. When this scenario occurs, the timing may be right, but the mode is wrong. As mention above, the word baptism literally means to immerse or dip. According to Romans 6:3-5, immersion visually depicts the gospel by identifying us with Christ’s atoning death and victorious resurrection. Furthermore, full immersion is also the practice that is recorded for us in the New Testament. Baptists simply want to do what the word baptism says and be consistent with the examples we have of apostolic baptism.

Because a visual depiction of the gospel is the only proper meaning of baptism, Christians who have been baptized with a different understanding of baptism in mind have not received New Testament baptism. The most common incorrect meaning of baptism is found among groups that believe in some form of baptismal regeneration or believe that baptism is a necessary step in one’s salvation. Although many Baptists believe that baptism is a means of sanctifying grace in the life of a believer, most Baptists have historically denied the ordinance is a means of saving grace. We reject a sacerdotal understanding of baptism wherein the grace of baptism contributes to salvation. Any group that embraces such a view, even if it immerses converts, practices a form of baptism that is as alien to the New Testament understanding of baptism as sprinkling infants or immersing an unrepentant sinner.

Because a local church is normally the only proper administrator of baptism, Christians who have been baptized without any reference to a church have not received New Testament baptism. This most often occurs when a Christian is immersed by a parachurch group, a random individual (often the person who has just led the new believer to Christ), or when a believer decides to immerse himself. Every baptism recorded for us in the New Testament occurs through the ministry of a local church or, as with the case of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, in a missionary context intended to result in the birth of a new church. Baptism is a Christian ordinance that is administered in connection with local churches. To say it another way, baptism is a church ordinance that should not be severed from the community of the gospel.

In sum, we might say that a New Testament baptism is a one-time event and only occurs when a genuine believer is immersed, after his conversion, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as a symbolic embracing of the gospel, for the purpose of public identification with Christ and his church. There is much more we could say about baptism, and Baptists sometimes disagree among ourselves about some of the finer nuances of the ordinance, but this article should serve as a sufficient introductory understanding of what most Baptists believe about the ordinance. My next article will briefly discuss my understanding of the relationship between baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and how that relationship is related to the gospel.

The Church Planter’s Library (4): Global and Cultural Context

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[Editor's Note: This summer we are posting some old but good pieces from BtT. This post originally appeared on July 13, 2009.]

A good missiologist (whether North American or International) is first and foremost a theologian, but also a student of other disciplines such as world religions, cultural anthropology, history, current affairs, and anything else he can get his hands on in order to understand his context. By studying world religions, the missiologist learns to understand the core beliefs and religious practices of those to whom he will minister. From cultural anthropology, he learns to pay careful attention to the people group he is working with. He seeks to understand their beliefs, feelings, and values, as well as their patterns of behavior and material culture. From history and current affairs, he gains an understanding of the international and regional context within which he ministers.

With this in mind, this post will provide (1) a few selected introductory texts treating world religions, cultural anthropology, and contextualization, (2) a few significant books to help understand the global context, and (3) a list of select history and current affairs books for most major geographic regions of the world, including the United States.

Religious and Cultural Context

Two of the best introductions to world religions are Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths and James Lewis and William Travis, Religious Traditions of the World. Each of these books includes brief introductory sketches of the major world religious traditions.

For those interested in some basic reading about contextualization, I recommend David Hesselgrave and Edwin Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models as well as David Clark’s “Theology in Cultural Context” (Chapter Three of his To Know and Love God). For a beginner’s treatment in intercultural studies, Paul Hiebert’s Anthropological Insights for Missionaries is as good as any.

Global Studies

Here are three significant books dealing with major issues in global studies. I do not recommend them because I agree with everything they say, but because they are particularly helpful at raising significant questions and attempting to answer those same questions.

1. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington argues that the 21st century will see increasingly deep-seated conflict between the world’s civilizations and the West will increasingly be at a disadvantage. The civilizational clashes of the 21st century will be mammoth; at the center of these clashes are religion and culture.

2. Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat 3.0. Friedman argues that we live in an almost-flat world. Since the turn of the century, a series of political, economic and technological factors have converged to produce a tidal wave of change in global culture, which will only fully begin to be seen in the next few years.

3. Fareed Zakariah. The Post-American World. Of the commentary on America’s decline, there seems to be no end. The Post-American World is Fareed Zakariah’s contribution to the subject. He chimes in with a more cheery voice than most, focusing more on the “rise of the rest” than the “decline of the West” and arguing that America’s future need not be so gloomy as some predict.

4. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity are excellent treatises on global Christianity.

North Africa & The Middle East

1. Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam. Bernard Lewis is the reigning king of Middle Eastern studies. In this slim little volume, he provides the reader with a concise, level-headed, and very reasonable overview of the crisis within Islam. He gives a brief history of the rise and development of Islam, the Crusades, and of the conflict between Islam, Christianity, and modern western culture.

2. Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History. In this book, Lewis describes the Arabs and their place in the course of human history. He focuses on their identity, achievements, and relations with the non-Arab world.

3. Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival. Nasr provides an excellent exposition of the Sunni-Shia divide within Islam, analyzing its history as well as its contemporary socio-cultural and political manifestations across the Muslim world.

4. For books on Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, see the Central Asia section below.

Central Asia

1. Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game. Hopkirk’s book is the single best history of Central Asia. It is 524 pages long, however, and one must be committed in order to make it through the book.

2. Robert Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary. Journalist Robert Kaplan provides a fascinating and depressing account of his travels in Central Asia (as well as parts of Europe and the Middle East), weaving together history, current affairs, and personal narratives.

3. Central Asian countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are the beneficiaries of an avalanche of new novels, travelogues, and histories. Here are a few that I recommend. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Hooman Majd is a lively interpretation of Iran. Ghost Wars by Steve Coll is a lively but lengthy history of Afghanistan in the late 20th century. The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini are masterful novels depicting life in Pakistan. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid is a novel about a young Pakistani man living in the United States, wrestling with 9/11 and its aftermath.

South Asia

1. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight. Collins and Lapierre provide a fast-paced and intimate account of India’s 1947 break from British rule and her subsequent partitioning into the two autonomous nations of India and Pakistan. The authors focus on India’s last British viceroy Lord Mountbatten, India’s spiritual leader Ghandi, Muslim leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and Hindu statesman Jawaharlal Nehru.

2. Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods. Journalist Edward Luce provides an accurate, narrative structured, and humorous account of the rise of modern India.

East Asia

1. Philip Pan, Out of Mao’s Shadow. Pan gives us the “no holds barred” narrative of recent Chinese history, and in particular China’s attempt to balance its version of capitalism with its unique brand of authoritarianism. He does so by focusing on 11 profiles of China’s dissidents: a young entrepreneur’s open defiance of the police by attending the funeral of Chinese dissident Zhao Ziyang, a doctor arrested for blowing the whistle on the government’s handling of the SARS epidemic, a filmmaker’s documentary about a Mao-era dissidents who wrote a prison manifesto in her own blood, and others.

2. John Pomfret, Chinese Lessons. This book is a lively, witty, and intimate portrait of five Chinese nationals who the author met in 1981 during Deng Xiaoping’s cautious reopening of China to the West and China’s rise as a police state flirting with capitalism. The author, John Pomfret, was an American exchange student at Nanjing University in the 1980s, and afterwards served two stints as a journalist in China. The author has a wickedly keen sense of humor.

Sub-Saharan Africa

1. Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence is a very long, but eminently readable account of the recent history of Africa. Meredith is unsurpassed in the breadth and depth of his knowledge of the continent.

2. David Lamb, The Africans. Though slightly outdated (published in 1990), this travelogue by David Lamb is still relevant as it probes the tumultuous decades of mid-to-late 20th century Africa. Lamb’s historical footwork is interwoven with interviews and narratives gleaned from his years as a reporter on the continent.

3. Also helpful are the many travelogues and current affairs texts that deal with life in particular African contexts. One of the most significant is Martin Meredith, Mugabe. Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe. This book, not for the faint of heart, is an account of Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence, the (culturally Christian) Mugabe’s rise to power, and his metamorphosis from responsible revolutionary into brutal dictator willing to slaughter his own people, including friends and associates. This book allows Westerners a peek into the life of millions of Africans who live under dictatorship.

Pacific Rim

1. Mary Somers Heidhues, Southeast Asia: A Concise History. Heidhues’ book is aptly named. It is a concise history of Southeast Asia. It is not a particularly exciting read, but it is helpful as an accurate and relatively easy to read account of Southeast Asian history.

2. I am unaware of any good current affairs texts or travelogues for Southeast Asia / Pacific Rim. I invite our readership to provide suggestions in the comment box.

Europe

1. Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence. Barzun’s provides an interpretive history of the past 500 years of Western Cultural Life. It is a masterfully encyclopedic, provocative, witty, and accessible history, although it is a bit long (877 pp.).

2. Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent. Jenkins provides a fairly balanced assessment of Europe’s religious condition, focusing on Islam and Christianity.

3. Central and Eastern Europe differ quite a bit from Western Europe. One of my favorite books related to the former Soviet Union is Owen Matthews, Stalin’s Children, a historical autobiography taking the reader back through three generations of life in the USSR.

The Americas

*Note: I am unable to provide good recommendations for North and South America, with the exception of the USA (below). I invite our readership to provide suggestions in the comment box.

The United States of America

1. Norman Cantor, The American Century. Cantor provides a readable and provocative overview of European and American influence on 20th century global culture. This book could just as easily fit under the “Europe” or “Global Studies” sections above.

2. Robert Remini, A Short History of the United States. Here is the best one-stop history of the United States of America.

3. Tom Wolfe, Hooking Up and I Am Charlotte Simmons. Tom Wolfe is a gimlet-eyed observer of the American cultural scene. Of his many books, I recommend these two. Hooking Up is a witty and perceptive collection of essays published in 2000, exposing “the lurid carnival actually taking place in the mightiest country on earth in the year 2000.” I Am Charlotte Simmons is the 2004 novel that follows up the essays.

What new books (since 2009) can you add to the list? 

The Community of the Gospel: Regenerate Church Membership

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[Editor's Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on July 22, 2008.]

This is the third post in a series dedicated to the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. My previous post argued that Baptists should primarily embrace a Protestant Christian identity that is nuanced by a cluster of ecclesiological distinctives that have historically been associated with the Baptist tradition. Beginning with this post, the rest of the series will address those historic Baptist distinctives.

The foundational theological distinctive among Baptist Christians is a commitment to a regenerate church membership. My colleague John Hammett goes so far as to call regenerate church membership “the Baptist mark of the church.”[1] Proponents of this position argue that a local church’s membership is to be comprised only of individuals who have been born again and placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

Why Regenerate Church Membership?

It is worth asking why Baptists consider regenerate church membership to be such an important doctrine. There are at least two reasons. First, as Protestants, Baptists adhere to the Scripture principle and believe that biblical doctrine and practice trumps all religious traditions, creedal documents, and private theological opinions. This means that Baptists believe in a regenerate church membership because we honestly believe this practice is both taught and modeled in the New Testament.

But there is a second reason for our commitment to regenerate church membership. Simply put, Baptists believe that a church that practices regenerate membership is more consistent with the gospel than a church that grants any form of membership to non-Christians. Baptists believe that the local church is the community of the gospel, and as such it ought to be comprised of individual “gospel people” who have voluntarily covenanted together as a local expression of the body of Christ.

Alternatives to Regenerate Church Membership

There are several alternatives to regenerate church membership. It is worth briefly discussing two of these alternatives: pre-Christian and non-Christian membership.

A form of pre-Christian membership is practiced in many pedobaptist churches whenever an infant is sprinkled and declared to be baptized or christened. Whether the child is considered a “covenant child,” a child of the Roman Catholic Church, or the pedobaptism is considered the first step in the child’s (presumptive) regeneration, the result is the same: a membership-like status has been conferred on an individual who has not confessed personal faith in Christ.

To be fair, most pedobaptist groups employ some type of confirmation or other spiritual right-of-passage before an individual can become a full member of the church. But by “baptizing” infants and making a distinction between the spiritual status (or at least the spiritual potential) of the children of Christians versus the children of non-Christians, a quasi-membership status has been granted to an individual based upon something other than that person’s faith in Christ.

Many mainline churches practice an openly non-Christian membership. In some congregations, faith in Christ is not a prerequisite to church membership. Many liberal churches do not even affirm the concept of a personal faith in Christ, instead opting for vague concepts like following their interpretation of Christ’s ethical teachings. Some even totally jettison traditional Christianity and opt for some form of soteriological pluralism. Non-Christian membership is generally not practiced among evangelical congregations.

Baptist reject both pre-Christian and non-Christian membership. We do so because these practices both fail to reflect the New Testament pattern and undermine–and sometimes sever–the relationship between the gospel and the church. Only those who claim to embrace the gospel are to be included in the community of the gospel.

Preserving Regenerate Church Membership

Although some other Christian groups affirm a regenerate church membership in principle, Baptists argue that baptistic Christians most consistently adhere to regenerate church membership. Though we may fail at times, we honestly try to “practice what we preach” when it comes to this ecclesiological distinctive. We do this through at least three practices, two of which are discussed below (the other is discussed in the next post).

The first practice is the adoption of local church covenants. Historian Charles Deweese defines a church covenant as “a series of written pledges based on the Bible which church members voluntarily make to God and to one another regarding their basic moral and spiritual commitments and the practice of their faith.”[2]

Baptists churches have been adopting church covenants since our inception in the 17th century, having imported the practice from our English Separatist forefathers. Among Southern Baptists, most churches drafted their own covenants until the latter half of the 19th century. In the years after the Civil War, many churches simply adopted the covenant that was included in J. Newton Brown’s Church Manual of 1853 and reprinted in J. M. Pendleton’s Church Manual of 1866.

Comparatively few Southern Baptist churches placed great value on church covenants for most of the 20th century. Most churches included a covenant in their legal documents; often the Brown/Pendleton covenant. Some churches, especially newer churches, did not even bother adopting a covenant. Fortunately, in recent years many churches have reemphasized the “owning” of a church covenant as a precondition of membership and an aid in promoting meaningful church membership.

The second practice, which often accompanies the adoption of local church covenants, is the exercise of redemptive church discipline. Church discipline has received a great deal of attention in recent years among both pastors and scholars. In 2008, the SBC adopted a much-discussed Resolution on Regenerate Church Membership and Church Member Restoration at the annual meeting in Indianapolis.

According to Theron Price, church discipline is intended to help preserve three principal concerns of a local church: [3]

  1. The purity of her doctrine, which is threatened by heresy
  2. The holiness of her members, which is threatened by sin
  3. The unity of her fellowship, which is threatened by schism

Church discipline is not intended to be punitive, but rather is meant to be redemptive. To say it another way, church discipline is intended to be a means of grace in bringing about conviction and repentance in the life of the offender. This is true of both Christians and non-Christians. Church discipline helps to convict and correct genuine believers who are promoting doctrinal error, engaging in ongoing, unrepentant sin, or undermining the unity of the church. Church discipline also helps to remove potentially unregenerate people from church membership by excommunicating incorrigible individuals, thus providing one important safeguard against non-Christian membership.

Historically, church discipline was greatly valued by Baptists; one only needs to read local church minutes or associational minutes from the 18th and 19th centuries to see that church discipline was a priority. Like church covenants, church discipline was largely ignored during the 20th century but has been reemphasized among many Southern Baptist churches over the course of the last generation.

Conclusion

Baptists believe that New Testament churches were covenanted communities of individuals who had embraced the gospel. And we believe our own churches should be as well. As the Baptist mark of the church, regenerate church membership is the central Baptist distinctive. The other historic Baptist distinctives only function correctly and consistently when churches are comprised of genuine believers. When this is not the case, the other distinctives are misunderstood, corrupted, or ignored. Many of our own contemporary problems in local churches can likely be traced to a failure to seriously maintain a regenerate church membership while practicing, at least in theory, other Baptist distinctives.

————

Notes:

[1] John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Kregel, 2005), 81.

[2] Charles W. Deweese, Baptist Church Covenants (Broadman, 1990), viii.

[3] Theron D. Price, “Discipline in the Church,” in What is the Church? A Symposium of Baptist Thought, ed. Duke K. McCall (Broadman, 1958), 164.