Monday, July 7, 2014

How Southern Baptists understand the rich meaning of believer's baptism

Colossians 2:11-12 " and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead."

Whenever we begin to approach the ordinance (or what some call the sacrament) of water baptism, much discussion and debate can ensue between different church groups and denominations. Many people do not realize the richness of meaning that lies within the practice of water baptism. To understand this, we first of all have to see the variety of ways in which the term "baptism" was used in the New Testament to speak of a variety of events, including of course our target discussion of the rich meaning of water baptism.

Several different types of baptism in the New Testament
Whenever we survey the New Testament, we discover nearly 100 passages of scripture mentioning or discussing baptisms of one sort or another. Hebrews 6:2 for example speaks of what is called the "doctrine of baptisms" as pertaining to the many types of ceremonial washings that existed in the Judaism of that day. Jesus speaks of having to undergo a "baptism" in Mark 10:38-39, indicating the suffering He would endure on the cross. We see reference to what is called the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" from the lips of John the Baptist in Matthew 3:11; Peter in Acts 10:37 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:13.
The Apostle Paul once again uses the term "baptism" to describe the journey of Moses and the children of Israel across the Red Sea in 1 Corinthians 10:1-3. There is even of course the very hotly debated text of 1 Corinthians 15:29 which uses the difficult to interpret phrase "baptized for the dead".

Unfolding the rich meaning of the New Testament ordinance of water baptism
For our purposes in this post, we are interested in the rite of water baptism as commanded by Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20 and practiced by the early church in Acts and the Epistles. We could had included John the Baptist's practice of baptizing people, including Jesus Himself, however for the sake of space we will focus only those texts that deal directly with the church itself and Jesus' giving of the ordinance to the church to perform on new converts.  Of those nearly 100 passages referenced above, we can narrow our focus to those references that speak specifically of the water baptism that is to be performed by generation after generation of Christ's church.

1. 22 New Testament passages speak of the act of water baptism, whether it was being performed in the early church or was included in the instructions of an apostle or an associate of an apostle.

2. 8 New Testament passages serve to unfold the meaning and richness of this very important practice of Christ's church.

Due to the significance of these texts in numerous ongoing discussions over the meaning of baptism, I will simply list them, and offer a very brief comment on each:

a. Matthew 28:18-20
Baptism is a command of the Lord Jesus Christ, and points to the meaning of discipleship and the Great Commission. This command of Jesus also includes the notion that baptism is meant for those who have by grace through faith believed on Jesus Christ and thus are disciples. This is why baptism, at least in Baptist circles, is called "believer's baptism".

b. Acts 19:5
Baptism includes the idea of having associated oneself with Jesus Christ, hence the phrase: "baptized in the name of Jesus".

c. Romans 6:3-4
Baptism speaks of having identified oneself with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. The word "baptism" itself comes from a verb and corresponding noun that unless otherwise prohibited by context, speaks of immersion or dipping of the candidate into the water to bring them back up. This text is one we can point out in understanding the proper mode of baptism.

d. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13
The baptism here refers to the Holy Spirit connecting the new believer to Jesus Christ. Thus this event, which occurs at salvation, is signified, pictured and illustrated by water baptism.

e. Galatians 3:27
Water baptism also communicates the idea of someone who has been "clothed" with Christ - His life, character and nature.

f. Ephesians 4:5
The Spirit's baptism of the new convert into Christ at conversion and water baptism following conversion have a logical relationship to one another as a sign (water baptism) signifying an already existing reality in the life of the new convert (The Spirit's baptism or "installing" of the believing sinner into Christ at salvation). In experience and scripture they are two distinct events in terms of sequence. Hence when the church is practicing water baptism, it is an act that signifies a prior genuine act of God in bringing the person to saving faith. Thus people do not get water baptized to get saved, rather they get water baptized because they have been born again. 

g. Colossians 2:12
Baptism communicates that the person being baptized has turned their back on the world and former way of life as a result of God's prior working of saving faith in their life through the Gospel. Circumcision was a rite in the Old Testament that pictured a saint's identification with God's Covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and New Testament Baptism signifies the New Testament saint's tie of faith with Jesus Christ. Some well meaning and Godly people attempt to build the practice of infant baptism from texts such as these, however we do not see one example of infant baptism being practiced by the church nor apostles in the New Testament.

h. 1 Peter 3:21
Baptism is not something done to get saved, but rather something one does because they were saved. It is the pledging to God of a good conscience and a public profession of one's prior faith to a group of witnesses.

How Southern Baptists understand the act, meaning and mode of Jesus' ordinance of water Baptism
It is so important to derive our understanding of any doctrine or practice from the scriptures - which constitutes our final authority of faith and practice. In looking at the Southern Baptist's understanding of water baptism, one can compare the following statement in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 to the above scriptures:
"Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper."

Closing thoughts
When I look at doctrinal statements like the BFM 2000 or any other denomination, it must be remembered that they function to summarize and capture the main points of the Bible's overall detailed and rich contents. After all the words of men in doctrinal statements, no matter how weighty, are ever to be judged by the words of God in the Bible. To whit, the BFM 2000 appears consistent with the Biblical evidence for communicating the rich meaning of water baptism as so given by Jesus to His church. As always, the final court of appeal is the scripture, being that it is where we turn to in understanding how we ought to believe, act and worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Truly then we can say that Baptism in the New Testament is rich in meaning. It pictures and communicates the richness of the Gospel, the scriptures, the Christian life and Christ Himself.