What is Baptism?

“To be baptized is the first step of obedience as a Christian, implying a commitment to live a life of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus.”[1] While Christians from many denominations may agree with this statement, the answer to the question “what is baptism” finds much less unity. Some believe it is sprinkling, others pouring, but Baptists and other baptistic churches believe it is immersion.

Baptism is part of the Great Commission given to the New Testament Church (Matt 28:19). It is clearly a duty of local congregations to baptize (Matt 28:19, Acts 2:41) and of Christians to be baptized (Acts 2:38, 10:48). What “baptism” is, then, is of great significance to our Ecclesiology and to the Christian life in general.

The Christian life was never meant to be practiced alone. Converts are immediately (passively) added to the Body of Christ (Acts 12:13), and are supposed to (actively) identify themselves with a local assembly of that body (Acts 2:28). Any concept of regenerate believers roaming solo would have been completely foreign in the early Church. Alva J. McClain writes, “Had we asked the believers of the Apostolic period whether it was essential to join a church, they would not have known what we were talking about. Every believer became a member of a church. It was involved in the very profession he made in Christ.”[2]

One can see this from the very inception of the Church. Acts 2:41-42 gives a condensed view of the chronological progression: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They were saved (“those who received his word” was a “euphemistic expression for regeneration, repentance, and faith”[3]), baptized, “added” (church membership), and devoted themselves to doctrine, fellowship, communion, and prayer. Notice that this is an umbrella statement of all who were saved—it does not say “and some of those who were saved decided to stick around, get baptized, and some even joined the church.” All who were saved identified with the congregation through baptism, and continued on in fellowship and communion. Anything less would have been unthinkable.[4]

If, then, local church membership is a requirement for all believers, and baptism is its prerequisite, one should know exactly what “baptism” is, and how it is supposed to be administered. In other words, what is the “mode” of baptism. The “mode” matters because God does not give us empty doctrines or words to which we can attach or fill in our own meanings. Every doctrine—every word!—has an intentional meaning, and to misunderstand its meaning is potentially to disobey.

The English word “baptism” is simply a transliteration of the Greek word βαπτίζω (baptizo) which means “dip,” “submerge,” or “immerse.”[5] Rolland McCune states that this is a fact “recognized by all Greek lexicons.”[6] Thomas J. Nettles agrees, “That the word translated ‘baptize’ (Greek baptizo) literally means ‘immerse’ is a matter of little, if any, dispute.”[7] Even Gerald Bray (an Anglican) admits that it “means ‘dipping’ or ‘immersion,’” yet denies that immersion is the only valid mode.[8] Similarly, John Calvin writes, “it is evident that the term baptize means to immerse,” but does not believe it matters much what mode a church adopts; he continues, “Whether the person baptized is to be wholly immersed, and that whether once or thrice, or whether he is only to be sprinkled with water, is not of the least consequence.”[9] But to admit that the word “baptize” means “immerse” and then to continue speaking of sprinkling as “baptism” is disingenuous. The word is the mode. Once the word is defined, the only questions one could have about “mode” would concern, “such things as whether it should be in a tank, a stream, or a lake and, probably by extension to today, whether the candidate should lean back, sit on a chair or get on his knees.”[10] To speak of “immersion by sprinkling,” or “immersion by pouring” is nonsense.

In Baptism: Three Views, Bruce Ware points out that “When washing or sprinkling are in view, the more common words used are louo, nipto or rhaino.”[11] Even if we grant that βαπτίζω had other, lesser-used meanings, no reason can be found for why the writers of scripture (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and the writer of Hebrews) would consistently use βαπτίζω (or derivatives) when better words existed to express their intended meaning (if, in fact, sprinkling was in view).

It seems that if the translators of the early English Bibles would have simply translated the word βαπτίζω, instead of transliterating it, the challenges to baptism today would be far fewer. In spite of the unanimity of lexicons regarding βαπτίζω, and the existence of other, more appropriate words for sprinkling, many still are not convinced. Richard L. Pratt Jr. says that, “scholars continue to debate the precise meaning of [the word] baptism because the evidence is not entirely clear.”[12] It is difficult to imagine what type of evidence he is looking for, or how he can accept any of Scripture’s teachings with such an unappeasable requirement for clarity. Nevertheless, there are further, non-grammatical, evidences for immersion.

Another line of evidence that clearly points to baptism by immersion has to do with the attending circumstances in the various baptism accounts in the New Testament. One example comes from John 3:23, which reads, “John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized.” What was the reason they were baptizing in this particular location? Because the “water was plentiful there.” Baptists and Paedobaptists alike should be able to recognize that “plentiful” water is not needed for sprinkling water on foreheads.[13] A similar argument can be made from the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. “And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (8:36). Grudem comments, “Apparently neither of them thought that sprinkling or pouring a handful of water from the container of drinking water that would have been carried in the chariot was enough to constitute baptism …baptism by immersion is the only satisfactory explanation of this narrative.”[14]

It is helpful to return again to the grammar used in the New Testament when describing baptism. Not only does it consistently use the word βαπτίζω meaning “immerse,” it also consistently uses prepositions that point strongly towards baptism by immersion. Mark 1:5 reads, “And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” Just four verses later Mark says, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Here, the propositions translated “in” are the Greek words έν (en vs. 5) and εἰς (eis vs. 6). While some legitamatly point out that έν (vs. 5) can sometimes mean “with,”[15] εἰς is more direct; It literally means “into,” or “in.” (In either case, both verses are good evidence for immersion). To say that someone “baptized with the river Jordan” would be awkward to say the least.

Gustave Dore's "The Baptism of Jesus"

Gustave Dore’s “The Baptism of Jesus”

If one continues reading in Mark’s Gospel he will find another evidence just one verse later. Mark 1:10 reads, “And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him.” That is ἀναβαίνω (anabainō “up”) and ἐκ (ek “out”). The only way one could remove immersion from this passage would be to have Jesus standing in the river when He was sprinkled (as many classic paintings do). But if this were the case than the Holy Spirit did not descend on Jesus until after he waded to the edge of the river, and climbed “up out of the water” onto the shore! If this were the case than the Spirit’s descent was not directly related to Christ’s baptism, but to his exiting of the river. What is the significance in that? Clearly, the prepositions used in conjunction with the baptism accounts point clearly to the fact that baptism in the New Testament was by immersion.

While various aspects of salvation can be pictured by baptism (e.g. “washing away of sins” Ac 22:16),[16] the most basic and central picture is that of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection for our sins.[17] The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is explicitly linked with Spirit baptism in Romans 6:4, Gal 3:27, and Col 2:12 (compare I Cor 12:13). Water baptism corresponds to Spirit baptism in that it is an earthy symbol of a heavenly reality. McCune writes, “Spirit baptism places one into the body of Christ (I Cor 12:13); water baptism places one into the membership of the local church. Spirit baptism places one into the organism; water baptism admits one into the organization.”[18] Immersion, then, makes the most sense of this symbolism, in that the participant is “buried” and “raised” in the baptismal waters. Even Michael Horton (who holds to Presbyterian ecclesiology) admits this, writing, “Immersion does seem more suggestive of being buried and raised with Christ…”[19]

The evidence from Scripture is that baptism is exactly what the word means: immersion. Not only is this confirmed grammatically, but finds further confirmation in the circumstances surrounding New Testament baptism accounts, the prepositions used in describing those accounts, and the symbolism that is involved in the ordinance.

[1] Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Regular Baptist Books, 2012), 60–61.

[2] Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3: The Doctrines of Salvation, the Church, and Last Things (Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010), 225.

[3] Ibid., 227.

[4] Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order, 61.

[5] David F. Wright, ed., Baptism: Three Views (IVP Academic, 2009), 21.

[6] McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3, 271.

[7] John H. Armstrong and Paul E. Engle, Understanding Four Views on Baptism (Zondervan, 2007), 26.

[8] Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Crossway, 2012), 634.

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Revised (Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2007), 868.

[10] McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3, 271.

[11] Wright, Baptism, 21.

[12] Armstrong and Engle, Understanding Four Views on Baptism, 42.

[13] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan, 1994), 968.

[14] Ibid.

[15] McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3, 272.

[16] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 969.

[17] McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3, 272–273; Grudem, Systematic Theology, 968.

[18] McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3, 278.

[19] Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Zondervan, 2011), 792.

Why Study Church History?

In the span of time since Jesus Christ foretold the Church’s inception to a small group of Jewish followers (Matt 16:18), to our era of the megachurch, much has transpired. The Church was formally inaugurated at Pentecost shortly after the ascension of Christ (Acts 2) when He baptized the believers into the Holy Spirit. Very little time passed before the ecclesiastical pattern shifted from a close-knit body of God-centered, Bible-believing Christians meeting in each other’s homes, to an increasingly tradition-centered, group of religious people meeting out of duty. Eventually, the church’s doctrines (whether biblical or not) where nothing more than good-luck charms, and leaders could be defined as power-hungry rather than spirit-filled. With a few exceptions it was downhill from the death of the Apostolic Fathers until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

The student of Church history must nail down in his mind why these things are important, and what he aims to gain from understanding these events if he is going to take away anything of lasting significance. Why study Church history? To answer this question we must form a biblical purpose and philosophy of learning. Why do we study anything? At the risk of being over-simplistic we must step back and ask, “why do we exist?” The biblical answer to that is clearly “for the glory of God” (Is 43:7), and every thing we pursue should be towards that joy-filled end. The Scriptures say that the glory of God should be the aim of everything we do on this earth, down to the most trifling acts like drinking a cup of coffee in the morning (“whatever” I Cor 10:31). God is glorified in the world (made to look glorious or great) when the things we “eat and drink” (I Cor 10:31) and “everything” (Phil 3:8) is considered inferior to Christ! Like Paul, we should seek to honor Him by finding our supreme joy and satisfaction in Him alone (Phil 1:20-23).

Jesus told the Scribes that the preeminent law was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Some have taken the phrase “with all your mind” as a proof-text for all intellectual pursuits, but this fails to see the command as a whole. In a 2009 talk, Dr. Don Carson wisely refocuses our attention to Jesus’ main point by saying, “We cannot forget that Mark 12… [does] not tell us to exercise heart, and soul, and mind, and strength in order simply to understand God better. The commandment is to love Him.”[1] What then does it mean to ‘love God with our mind.’ A thought-provoking answer comes from John Piper in his recent book, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. He writes, “Loving God with all our mind means wholly engaging our thinking to do all it can to awaken and express the heartfelt fullness of treasuring God above all things.”[2] One begins to see now how the things we study (whether Church history or any other subject) can serve life’s ultimate end of glorifying God. In other words, when we come to class, or crack open a book, our aim should not be “I need to pay attention so that I will pass this class and get a degree,” or, “I need to listen up so that I will know a lot of doctrine to impress by friends and pastor,” but, “What can this subject teach me about the nature and character of my God? How can the truth I learn today awaken, or increase Godward affections in me, and therefore glorify God?” Also, “How can I use what I am learning today to impact others with the Joy of the Lord, and therefore glorify Him?”

These questions (coupled with their answers) form a compelling reason to study Church history. Furthermore, the study of history provides us with examples of what particular ideas or actions result in. Ideas have consequences. What happens to Christianity when the Bible is placed on the shelf? The student of history can learn valuable lessons from the past.

The answer to the question, “How can Church history awaken, or increase Godward affections in me, and therefore glorify God?” may seem like a difficult one initially, but there are ways in which this is accomplished. One is found in God’s mercy and Grace so evident in the history of the Church. Part of what makes up God’s glory is his grace (Ex 33:18-19), and His glory is what draws us to love Him. God created the world, and man rejected Him and declared himself king, but God (in His grace) prepared a plan (Gen 3:15) to reconcile man to Himself once more. Thousands of hard years went by, the Jews awaiting this promised redeemer. When the time was fulfilled God the Son invaded our world to redeem us. He was hated and mocked. Ultimately He was killed. Soon he resurrected, proving the Father’s acceptance of Christ’s atonement (Romans 4:25). Even after all of God’s demonstrated grace, mankind did not forsake its ways. Man continued in his God-hating, sinful direction. God’s mercy and grace persisted.

The apostles quickly spread the good news of reconciliation around much of the known-world, and Christian leaders sprang up in various places. Within one generation men were already deviating from God’s written revelation. A clergy-laity division was forming, elements of monarchial church leadership were rising, and Gospel-adjustments were being made by the Apostolic Fathers. In this the depravity of man shows up undeniably. God was walking the face of the earth just a few years prior and man was already screwing things up. Wherever we see man’s depravity we also see God’s grace. A God of any less grace would send fire down on the earth in the face of such continual rebellion.

With the rise of the Roman Catholic Church in the following centuries one can see just how far man drifted from the doctrine of Christ. In the midst of this God raised up pockets of Gospel-believing Christians in various places. The grace of God is evident in the history of the Church. Wherever we see God’s grace we should be reminded of His unfathomable grace towards us, and be drawn to worship.

Besides seeing God’s grace in 1500 years of error, we can learn from the mistakes that the men before us made (and avoid making them ourselves). The Bible gives us propositional truth statements as to what is right, and church history gives us grave examples of what happens when we ignore them. The nearly two thousand years of history since Pentecost has provided no shortage of examples for us—both in successes and failures. Unfortunately, mostly the latter. For one, we can see the problems that arise when one’s theology and practice are not grounded in Scripture. The Church was not a pure, regenerate Church after the pattern of the New Testament, but became a mere cultural commodity. A Church which was once the gathering of those who had been saved by Jesus, Son of God, became a church who denied that Jesus was the Son of God.  The defining characteristic and central doctrine of Christianity—salvation by grace alone—had been tossed only a couple hundred years after Christ, and was replaced by a works-driven system. Baptism as a sign of salvation became baptism as the means to salvation. Virtually all of the glorious doctrines of the New Testament had been replaced by demonic misrepresentations—in the name of God. Edmund Burke is famous for saying, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” We can learn from the mistakes of those who went before us, and therefore glorify God.

Every student of Church history should first know why he is studying anything to begin with. Once he realizes that all should be done for the glory of God, he must discover how his particular subject at hand can accomplish that goal. For the Church history student in particular we can begin to see the nature and character of God displayed by his fingerprints in history. His grace is evident, and for this Christians should worship Him. Secondly, one can learn from past mistakes and successes in the history of the Church. One can lean the particular consequences of certain ideas, and Lord-willing not walk the same path.

[1] The Pastor As A Scholar – Don Carson (Carl F. Henry Center, Deerfield, IL, 2009), http://vimeo.com/5833376.

[2] John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Crossway Books, 2010), 85.

Excellent Documentary “Divided” – Watch Free until September

Watch this excellent and thought-provoking documentary about Church and youth ministry. The film can be watched for free until September.

*Edit: Jon Bolin pointed his readers to a highly critical (and helpful) review of the film (and movement) by Tim Challies. The topic of Age-Integration vs. Age-Segregation is one that is deserving of more study, and probably more reflection from each side.

It seems to me that Age-Integration (and the ideas behind it, e.g. family discipleship) is something that Age-Segregated churches could learn from, yet we do not need to go so far as to say that segregating by age or understanding-level is antibiblical. Just because something (Age-Segregation) allegedly came from ‘pagans’ doesn’t mean it is altogether wrong. That position fails to recognize God’s common grace on all of mankind.