Wesley Adcock once asked, “What is God going to do with all these Holiness people who have not obeyed the scriptural command to be baptized?” The same could be asked of many other denominations.
While speaking at a large interdenominational group of Christians, I asked how many of them had been saved over two years but had not yet been baptized. The great number of raised hands makes me wonder if pastors have forgotten that baptizing converts in the Triune name of God is a requirement of the Great Commission.
I’m afraid that Rob Staples’ lament over the “near-silence from the Wesleyan/holiness pulpit regarding baptism”1 is valid.
I once met a person who expressed the opinion that baptism can be “a slippery slope to hell.” Of course, if a person trusts in anything besides the finished work of Jesus for his salvation, the object of his trust becomes “a slippery slope to hell.” However, the fear of a lifeless liturgy should not cause people to adopt a casual attitude toward baptism. Granted, to have the husk of Christianity without the heart-changing kernel is to substitute liturgical rites for eternal realities, and Paul warns us about people who have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof (2 Tim. 3:5).
In his sermon “The Means of Grace,” John Wesley gives practical ways to differentiate between the proper use and possible abuse of what he calls “the means of grace.”
Obedience to any Biblical practice, if trusted in as the grounds of one’s salvation, can become a “slippery slope to hell.” This includes such fundamental Christian practices as prayer, Bible reading, receiving the Lord’s Supper and water baptism. Trust in any external practice as the meritorious ground of salvation, Wesley asserts, is to God an abomination and “a stink in His nostrils.”2
On the other hand, water baptism was central to the early church. Thomas Oden reports that “the earliest summaries of Christian teaching were lectures to prepare people for baptism.”3 These included the early creedal confessions, such as the Apostle’s Creed.
The Scriptural Mandate for Christian Water Baptism
After His death and resurrection, Jesus made a special appointment to meet His disciples in Galilee. There He told them,
All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. (Mat. 28:19, 20)
This climactic paragraph in Matthew’s Gospel proclaims our Lord’s mandate for Christian water baptism. Since Jesus’ command is universal in its scope, this commission remains a requirement today. The Lord of the church requires all her members, if physically possible, to experience water baptism. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mk. 16:16).
There is a definite sequence to the Great Commission:
- First, God’s children are to go make disciples of all nations.
- Second, Jesus tells His followers to baptize those whom they disciple in the Triune name of God.
- Third, the new disciples are to be taught to obey all of Christ’s teachings.
In Acts, Luke tells us that the early church baptized all Christian converts in water. Peter required it of the three thousand converts on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38, 41). Philip required it of his Samaritan converts (Acts 8:12, 16), and later baptized an Ethiopian official that he led to the Lord in the desert (Act 8:36-38).
Upon his conversion, Paul was baptized (Acts 9:18; 22:16). Peter baptized Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:47, 48). During his missionary travels, Paul baptized Lydia (Acts 16:14, 15), the Philippian jailer and household (Acts 16:33), Crispus and Gaius at Corinth (Acts 18:8), and the Ephesian believers (Acts 19:3-6).
Luke’s frequent description of baptism in the book of Acts as being “in the name of Jesus” is commonly misunderstood. It is not a contradiction of Jesus’ command to use the Trinitarian formula. When John the Baptist baptized people, they were baptized in John’s name. In other words, they became disciples of John the Baptist.
To be baptized “in Jesus’ name” refers to becoming Christ’s disciple.
In the same way, to be baptized “in Jesus’ name” refers to becoming Christ’s disciple, not to a pronouncement of “in Jesus’ name” during baptism.
Thus, new converts were baptized in Jesus’ name in the sense that they were declaring their allegiance and loyalty to Him. In the actual process of water baptism, however, the early church pronounced the Trinitarian formula as the believers were baptized.
Commenting on the fact that our Lord commanded His followers to baptize new converts “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” and to teach them “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” Oden says, “In this way, Jesus forever linked two crucial actions: baptizing and teaching.”
In subsequent periods of Christian history they have remained intimately interwoven. Implicitly included in the instructions for baptism is the charge to teach its significance. This is why the Christian study of God has been so often organized into the three divisions of Father, Son, and Spirit, for Christian teaching is baptismal teaching, and Christian baptism has required some clarification of itself as faith in the Triune God.
The Symbolic Meaning of Christian Water Baptism
Paul tells us that baptism symbolizes a believer’s identity and union with Christ (Rom. 6:3-4). In baptism, the believer declares his renunciation of his old way of living which was dominated by the world, the flesh (Col. 2:11-12), and the devil (Eph. 2:1-3). He renounces all previous faiths and declares his faith in Christ alone as the sufficient sacrifice for his sin.
Baptism is symbolic not only of separation from the old life, but also inclusion within the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Romans 6 teaches us that when we were baptized in Christ we died with Christ to sin; we were buried with Christ to sin; we were raised with Christ to walk in newness of life, a life free from bondage to sin; and we were given hope of future resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5).
Baptism symbolizes a believer’s identity and union with Christ.
Thus going beneath the baptismal waters visibly symbolizes the fact that we have forever turned our back on our life of sin and have embraced Christ and His cross. Rising from the baptismal waters symbolizes our spiritual resurrection to newness of life in Christ.
Surely this is what Peter meant when he compared Noah’s flood to Christian baptism (1 Pet. 3:20, 21). The water of baptism, like the water of the Flood, is symbolic of the end of the old life. “The old life must die, just as the old world had to die, if a new life and a new world are to be born.”4
Christian water baptism also speaks of our entrance into the church and into the family of God. The church fathers spoke of a two-fold gate into the church: faith, the invisible gate, and water baptism, the visible gate. “Water baptism produced outer authentication of one’s faith in Christ, even as the coming of the Holy Spirit provided inner authentication. A Spirit-less Christian or an unbaptized Christian were equally incongruous in New Testament times.”5
The Hebrew writer classifies water baptism as one of the essential foundational “principles of the doctrine of Christ” (Heb. 6:1-2). Repentance of sin and faith in Christ must precede water baptism. Baptism is to be administered only after one has demonstrated true repentance. This was true of John the Baptist’s ministry (Lk. 3:8), as well as Paul’s ministry.
In fact, Paul deals a death-blow to the idea that conversion occurs in the act of water baptism (baptismal regeneration) when he says to the Corinthian church, “I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius…. For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor. 1:14, 17).
If salvation occurred during the rite of water baptism, Paul would be saying, “I’m glad I led none of you to the Lord, but Crispus and Gaius.”
Further, he would be saying, “For Christ sent me not to convert people, but to preach the gospel.” Instead, Paul makes a clear-cut differentiation between water baptism and the gospel itself. Let no one misunderstand: Water baptism is not the means whereby one secures forgiveness of sins. Christ forgave the thief on the cross and joined him in paradise that very day even though the thief was not baptized (Lk. 23:43).
Yet, for those who are able, submission to water baptism is the obedient response of a believer to the command of his Savior. It serves as a visible sign of regeneration (Tit. 3:5) as well as of the believer’s submission to the Lordship of Christ.
The Specific Mode of Christian Water Baptism
The early church recognized and practiced three modes: immersion, pouring, and sprinkling. Of these three, the preferred mode was immersion.
The imagery evoked by Paul when he speaks of being “buried” with Christ in baptism into His death (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12), and his statement that all the people of Israel were “baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10:2), a picture of a mystic cloud covering the people, strongly lends itself to the idea of immersion.
The earliest non-biblical account of the mode of baptizing occurs in the Didache (the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), dating possibly as early as 125-150 AD. It says,
Now concerning Baptism, thus baptize ye: having first uttered all these things, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, in living water. But if thou hast not living water, baptize in other water; and if thou canst not in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, pour water upon the head thrice in the name of the Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost.6
This seems to say that immersion was the recommended practice, but that the mode of pouring (affusion) was also valid and could be used if necessary.
Sprinkling (aspersion) seems to have been reserved for the sick as well as for infirm persons too weak to submit to immersion or pouring. Sprinkling did not gain widespread use in the church until the 13th century.7
Have You Been Baptized?
As the Hebrew writer indicates, the doctrine of baptism forms a foundational principle of the Christian faith—one which ought to be in place in every believer’s life so that he may go on “unto perfection” (Heb. 6:1-2).
Submission to water baptism is the obedient response of a believer to the command of his Savior.
Paul places it among the cardinal elements of the gospel around which all believers should unite. “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all…” (Eph. 4:4-6).
The early church understood the phrase, “one baptism” to be a reference to Christian water baptism. Have you been baptized?
Perhaps you were not previously aware of the Biblical requirement; however, now that you have learned of this truth, you should walk in its light. It may be that many years have passed since you first trusted Christ as your Savior.
You may even be an unbaptized Christian leader. Your obedience to this command of our Lord will provide the proper example for others to follow.
To those who are making disciples, are you baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as Christ commanded?
- Staples, Outward Sign and Inward Grace, 119.
- Wesley, Works, I, 381.
- Oden, The Living God, p. 13.
- Jansen, The Meaning of Baptism, 67, as quoted by Staples, 126.
- Richard Howard, Newness of Life, 122.
- International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, I, 388.
- ISBE, I, 389-90.
- Article revised from an article published in God’s Revivalist.