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 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.

The Church Planter’s Library (3): International Church Planting

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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 10, 2009.]

The apostle Paul was at once the early church’s best theologian, most perceptive observer of culture, and most active evangelist. As an embodiment of these traits, he provides for us an example of the qualities demanded of an international church planter. He must be both theologically and culturally savvy. He must be a theoretician and a practitioner. He sometimes is asked to be both a church planter and a one-man seminary.

Precisely because of these expectations, the international church planter must think deeply and widely about a host of issues. The little booklist that I am presenting is woefully inadequate, but hopefully it will provide the prospective church planter with a good start.

Ecclesiology

After having put in the hard (and fruitful) work of studying Old Testament, New Testament, theology, church history, etc., which provide the matrix within which we can think about church planting, the first order of business is to study ecclesiology and the classic texts on church planting. As I did in the previous post, I recommend John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches and Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church as basic texts on the doctrine of the church.

Classic Church Planting Texts

Also as I mentioned in the previous post, I recommend John L. Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches and Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of The Church. In addition, however, I would add Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?, a classic text in theology of church planting.

Theology of Mission

John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad is the single best place for an aspiring church planter to start reading theology of mission. It is a theological, missiological, and motivational masterpiece. For a more in-depth treatment, see J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions and George Peters, A Biblical Theology of Missions. These two books are classics of 20th century theology of missions and ought to be read side by side. Finally, David Hesselgrave’s Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today is an exemplary theological and missiological treatment of major issues in missions today.

Contemporary Texts on Church Planting

After having beefed up on ecclesiology and church planting classics, you are ready to move to make a more sound theological and missiological assessment of contemporary trends in international church planting. Because of the scope of this installment, I will limit myself to a few of the most influential contemporary texts. I want to go ahead and put my cards on the table here. There are very few good books on international church planting (maybe only 2 or 3). You will notice, when reading even some of the books below, that much of what is written in this discipline is severely lacking in theological depth and breadth and for that reason is deficient missiologically also.

1. Stuart Murray, Church Planting: Laying Foundations. Murray’s book provides a theological foundation and historical framework for understanding the task of church planting.

2. David Hesselgrave, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally. Hesselgrave builds a biblical-theological case for church planting and delineates what he calls the “Pauline Cycle” of church planting.

3. Tom Steffen, Passing the Baton, rev. ed. Steffen divides the task of church planting into five stages and focuses on the “phase-out” stage, arguing that the church planter must make clear plans to “pass the baton” to national leaders or else he will endanger the health of the church.

4. David Garrison, Church Planting Movements. This book offers a definition of “church planting movement,” examples of global CPMs, and instruction on how to prepare for a church planting movement. Garrison’s book is a descriptive text about what he has observed in various global CPMs; it is not a biblical-theological treatment of church planting.

5. George Patterson and Richard Scoggins, The Church Multiplication Guide. Patterson and Scoggins teach the necessity of discipleship for healthy church reproduction. They center their discipleship methods on seven commands of Christ, and instruct church planters to teach and embody obedience to those commands. (Note: This book has one of the tackiest covers and most unhelpful page layouts of any book that I have ever encountered. But don’t let this deter you. Patterson planted churches for over twenty years and has plenty to offer.)

6. Daniel Sinclair, A Vision of the Possible. Sinclair’s is a treatise on pioneer church planting in teams. He treats many of the same issues as Garrison (such as leadership, discipleship, CPMs, theological education, etc.), but from a different perspective.

7. Wolfgang Simson, Houses that Change the World. Simson’s book is one of the most widely-read books in the field. He has a fiery pen and wields that pen in order to promote house church planting. Although his argument is an exercise in overstatement that paints the worst possible picture of non-house churches and the best possible picture of house churches, it is helpful for stimulating one’s thought and demonstrating that house churches are not “second-rate.”

A Final Comment

As with the previous installment, I have only mentioned a few of the books that will be helpful for aspiring church planters. (I have not mentioned books in cross-cultural communication, world religions, contextualization, etc.) Further, I have provided little or no critique of each. For that reason, I would like to invite our readership to comment on books that I have not included that you think are particularly helpful, or even to comment on or critique the books that I have included.

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