The sight of a large man sitting in a kiddie pool near the road caused quite a stir in the community. Cars were slowing down to take a look. Kids on bicycles stopped to watch. I was baptizing one of the first converts at a church plant in a heavily French Catholic Louisiana city. I pronounced the baptismal formula over him. I dipped him under the water and then lifted him back to a seated position. There was excitement that day for friends and family but also for the neighbors that witnessed a public baptism.
The baptism of that man, one of more than one hundred new converts in the first year of the church's existence almost forty years ago, was a novelty for the community. Though it was no doubt a curious site for those who had never seen immersion baptism, it was a powerful, visual introduction to the significance and symbolism of this vital church ordinance.
Baptism is an important act of obedience for the follower of Jesus. Jesus was baptized to express His Sonship and launch his Messianic mission. Our baptism is an act of identification with Him, the One who saved us by His mercy and grace. Put another way, baptism is an outward expression of our inward experience of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
Living in what some pollsters and pundits call a post-denominational age, the need to know the Bible's teaching about baptism is heightened by those who seek to downplay the differences between various Christian groups. When people come to our churches from non-Baptist traditions, how should we receive them? Should we allow people from other denominations to become members without submitting to scriptural baptism? Though all believers are brothers and sisters in Christ, the Lord does not give us permission to ignore Scripture's teaching on baptism in the interest of Christian unity. Believer's baptism by immersion is a Baptist distinctive that we may be in peril of losing, so it is imperative that we turn to the New Testament to determine what it says about believer's baptism.
THE PROPER CANDIDATE
Jesus' Great Commission introduces the divine order for baptism (Matthew 28:19-20). After people become disciples (the main verb in verse 19), they are to be baptized and are then to be taught to grow in spiritual maturity. Saved people, and only saved people, are to be baptized. This practice confirms God's plan for a regenerate church membership.
Despite the fact that many Christian groups regard baptism as necessary for salvation, the Bible is clear that only a person who has already confessed his or her faith in Jesus Christ and been saved should be baptized.
The book of Acts provides many examples of baptism following immediately after an individual had experienced Christian conversion. In each instance, the qualifying requirement before baptism was administered mirrored that of the Great Commission—the candidate was first a genuine believer in Jesus Christ.
This order is seen in the very first recorded conversions in the book of Acts. The three thousand souls who were saved on the day of Pentecost received the Word of God, then they were baptized, then they were added to the church (Acts 2). Similarly, in Acts 8, Philip permitted the Ethiopian to be baptized after he confessed Jesus as the Son of God. Two chapters later, when Peter and his traveling companions saw that Cornelius had received the Holy Spirit just as they had, Peter instructed them to be baptized (Acts 10).
Only after the business woman Lydia believed was she baptized (Acts 16). The same holds true for the Philippian jailer (also in Acts 16) and the religious but lost disciples at Ephesus (Acts 19). In each instance, these believers came to a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ before being baptized. Neither infant baptism nor pre-conversion baptism is found anywhere in the New Testament.
Baptism is an act of obedience in the life of the Jesus follower. It does not save; but it does give the believer a clear conscience toward God. Baptism identifies the believer with Christ.
THE PROPER FORM
No other form of baptism demonstrates the Gospel as accurately and powerfully as immersion. The word baptize (transliterated from the Greek verb baptizo) means to "dip, plunge, or immerse." Neither sprinkling nor pouring is found within the sacred text of Scripture as an appropriate symbol for believer's baptism.
Scriptural baptism by immersion symbolizes death, burial, and resurrection. When a person is baptized, the candidate is immersed under the water to depict the death and burial of our Lord Jesus (Romans 6:3-5). Coming up out of the water, the candidate depicts the power of the resurrection. Jesus is alive, never to die again. Baptism proclaims the truth of this powerful Gospel story using a graphic illustration.
Baptism is also a picture of the believer's personal experience of faith, picturing the spiritual transformation that happens when a person receives Jesus as Lord and Savior. The person without Christ is physically alive, yet spiritually dead. Being lowered beneath the water represents the death and burial of the old self. Being raised portrays that through faith there is new life in Christ (Colossians 2:12-13). Water cannot effectuate the remission of sins; it merely conveys the message of the Gospel and the testimony of new life in Christ the new believer has received.
The Apostle Paul compared baptism to wearing a garment (Galatians 3:27). The new believer identifies with Christ through baptism like a soldier wears a uniform to declare which army he serves. By "putting on" Christ through baptism a believer is showing his or her willingness to enter into spiritual warfare as a soldier of the Cross. Immersion is the proper form for demonstrating this allegiance most clearly, the only mode of baptism that reflects full identification with the Gospel message.
THE PROPER ADMINSTRATOR
Jesus gave the command to baptize new believers to the church. The entire church, however, cannot actually perform the ordinance of baptism. Only a person can, one authorized by the church to baptize converts. It is interesting to note that Jesus did not baptize anyone. While John the Baptist received his directive to baptize directly from heaven, the disciples were commissioned by Jesus, administering baptism on his behalf (John 4:1-2).
Baptists for years have followed the pattern of Acts 10 by asking consent from other believers before proceeding with baptism. In that passage, Peter asked his travelling companions before he baptized Cornelius and the other Gentile converts, "Can anyone withhold water and prevent these people from being baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (Acts 10:47).
Following the resurrection of Jesus, the Apostles baptized those who received Christ by faith under the mandate given by Jesus in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), a mandate that still applies to the church. To this day, the administrator of baptism derives his authority to baptize from the commandment Jesus gave to the church.
THE PROPER AUTHORITY
I have already stated that the church has been given the authority to administer baptism. The Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M) affirms this position, stating in article VII that baptism is a church ordinance. This indicates that baptism is to be performed under the auspices of a New Testament church. With that in mind, it is important to understand what makes a church a New Testament church.
A New Testament church will bear certain characteristics. First, it teaches salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This position would understandably include a belief in the security of the believer, as Article V of the BF&M affirms. Other characteristics that describe a New Testament church are listed in Article VI of the BF&M. These include:
- The church's two ordinances are baptism and the Lord's Supper.
- The Word of God is its final rule of faith and practice.
- Each congregation is independent and autonomous under the Lordship of Christ.
- The church's recognized scriptural offices are pastors (bishops or elders, as an older version of the BF&M states) and deacons.
- Ultimately, the church will seek to extend the Gospel to the ends of the earth
If these are the marks of a New Testament church, as Baptists generally and Southern
Baptists specifically have affirmed across the years, then only churches that embrace these distinctives have the authority to administer scriptural baptism. Some churches with Baptist in their name do not bear these marks, while some that do not have Baptist in their name do. It is what a church believes and teaches that makes it a New Testament church, not the name on the sign out front.
The ordinance of baptism is a symbol of genuine conversion for those who have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is not a sacrament that provides saving efficacy to infants or unbelievers. When we practice scriptural baptism, it is a joyous celebration of our Lord's resurrection and the believer's new life in Christ. Only immersion of the new believer portrays this accurately. With the authority for baptism residing in the local New Testament church, only a proper administrator, a person authorized by the congregation itself, should perform baptism.
It was a momentous day many years ago in South Louisiana when an adult man was baptized as a believer. Due to his public expression of faith in Jesus Christ in a kiddie pool near a road in our community, a number of other precious people came to faith in Christ. So, make much of baptism. Do it right and do it well. God will honor the obedience of the new believer and the church.
Jim Richards is the executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and is a member of First Baptist Church in Keller, Texas.