The form, subject, effect and meaning of baptism have been a topic of deep theological wrestling since the early centuries of the Christian faith. One can look at the Pelagian and Manichean controversies, and the work of Augustine, to further explore this early conversation. The Didache, a second century Christian document that outlines various church practices, describes both believers baptism by immersion as well as other forms. This document indicates that the church sought to determine a ‘preferred’ practice of baptism, while admitting the validity of others. This too, is what we seek as Disciples. While not attempting an exhaustive theology of baptism here, I do want to identify some founding principles and offer some thoughts for consideration as we continue to walk by faith.
Baptism has been a focal concern for the Campbell/Stone movement from its beginning. Three of the four early reformers were Presbyterians (Thomas and son Alexander Campbell, and Barton Stone) by training and practice, the fourth (Walter Scott) a Baptist. The Campbells and Stone all separately developed their ideas regarding believers baptism being the normative form in the New Testament. For Alexander, the matter was brought to the fore when his first daughter Jane was born in 1812, when he determined not to have her baptized, as would have been the normal Presbyterian practice. Rather, he sought out a Baptist preacher who baptized father and son, their wives, and three other members of the Brush Run Church. Over time Alexander Campbell resolved that belivers baptism by immersion was the preferred form, but that it was not something over which to break fellowship with other Christians. The others agreed. (see Toulouse, Joined in Discipleship).
As Disciples, our interest in Christian unity compels us to consider seriously the practices of other Christian congregations. Our humility compels us to acknowledge that our best and most prayerful study and reflection may not lead us to the final, ultimate, and exclusive truth on this or any other matter. Our longing to be faithful followers of Jesus compels us to seek to understand the scriptures, guided by the Holy Spirit in conversation with the teaching of the church, reason and experience. Our trust in the bonds of Christian love compels us to share our understanding in this faith and humility with the expectation that others will do the same, that through this sharing the Body of Christ will be built up and the work of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven furthered, to God’s glory.
We want to begin with scripture, but in order to do so we have to acknowledge our own inherent biases. Each of us has a background history with baptism, either by its presence or absence, its practice or neglect, and perhaps particular teachings about it. Each one of us needs to examine those things carefully and then set them aside for a moment, not to be rejected or neglected, but as though tuning out one voice in order to attend to another. If you grew up in a Christian tradition, what was the teaching and practice there regarding baptism? Was it primarily of infants by sprinkling, or of believers by immersion? What measure of teaching accompanied it, either for the baptized or their family or both, and did it precede of follow? How was confession/profession of faith associated with baptism? What was the teaching regarding the receipt of the Holy Spirit by the believer? Finally, were these practices explained in the light of particular New Testament passages, or more generally by means of statements of the congregation or tradition. Examples of the latter might be selections from a baptism statement, or a catechism. Consideration of these influences will likely impact how one hears and reflects upon the passages found in the New Testament.
These passages are of several general types. The first are those stories which relate the work of John the Baptist, and in particular the event of Jesus receiving baptism from John (Mark 1; Matthew 3; Luke 3; John 1). The next is a reference to Jesus’ disciples practicing baptism (John 3). At the scene of his ascension, Jesus is seen giving instruction to his apostles that they are to baptize (Matthew 28). Luke relates several stories of the practice of baptism in the early years of the church (Acts 2; 8; 11; 16; 18; 19; 22). And finally, the epistles, particularly of Paul, discuss baptism from a variety of perspectives (Romans 6; 1 Corinthians 1, 12, 15; Colossians 2; Galatians 3; Ephesians 4; 1 Peter 3)
In the first set, we come to understand what is reinforced by later teaching by both Jesus and Paul, that the baptism of John is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, and is an act of preparation for the coming kingdom of God which John foretold and which the incarnation and work of Jesus (ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Holy Spirit) ushered in. John finds it odd that Jesus would come for baptism, thinking their roles reversed and that he, John, needs to be baptized by Jesus. The Lord insists, stating simply, “Let it be so now, for it is proper to fulfill all righteousness” (MT 3:15). This does beg an interesting question that is never answered in scripture, namely why exactly Jesus would receive John’s baptism which is expressly described as “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (MK 1:4). It is the much later writer of Hebrews who will suggest to us that Jesus was sinless (HB 4:15) so perhaps such a notion was not understood during Jesus’ own lifetime. I have elsewhere suggested that, because repentance means to turn from one way of life to another, in this broader sense Jesus did need to repent, turning from the life of a carpenter and family man to this new life taking on the full weight and meaning of being the Messiah – and perhaps given this change it was important to him to have an experience like baptism that marked the transition. It has also been suggested as necessary because Jesus picked up the mantle of the ministry of John – John being like Elijah who must precede the Messiah (MK 9:11-13) and that John would decrease as Jesus increased (JN 3:30) and therefore must begin his ministry as an outgrowth of John’s to establish the line of continuity, which may be what Jesus meant by “fulfill all righteousness”.
In John 3-4 we do get a reference to Jesus, or more precisely the disciples of Jesus, practicing baptism of followers in parallel with John’s own continuing practice. I find it interesting to note that this is the only reference to said practice by Jesus’ disciples before the ascension. Baptism seems not to have been an important feature of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Similarly, Paul will note that he only rarely and sparingly practiced baptism as a part of his evangelistic ministry (1 Cor 1:14-18). One might ask in both instances why baptism would not be a primary feature, particularly given the great weight it receives in later centuries of Christian faith and practice. When Jesus gives his final speech in Matthew’s gospel, he does instruct that the apostles (as representing the work of the church and the ministry of all believers? Cf JN 17:20) “…make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you…” This is the one place in all of scripture that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are identified in the same verse, and the only time that the “baptismal formula” (i.e. words used at baptism) is found in this form. We will note other forms from Acts and Paul’s writings.
In Luke’s account of the work of the Holy Spirit in the birth of the church (as the book of the Acts of the Apostles has often been described) we get several different teachings on baptism. Peter instructs the Jews in Jerusalem to respond to the gospel message “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (ACTS 2) Here the formula is “in the name of Jesus Christ” in contrast to the instruction given by Jesus in Matthew 28. Again, the baptism is described as connected to repentance and the forgiveness of sins, as the baptism of John, with the addition that it will be accompanied by the receiving of the Holy Spirit into the life of the new believer. In Acts 8 we see Phillip preaching the gospel and baptizing new believers, but the receipt of the Holy Spirit only follows some time later, with the visit from Peter and John who came down from Jerusalem to Samaria where Phillip was, laid hands on the newly baptized believers, and prayed that they might receive the Holy Spirit, which they then did. In this instance we see new belief followed by baptism as one event – repentance is perhaps understood but not mentioned here, nor is forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit comes only with a separate act by other apostles.
Our next encounter with new faith in Jesus comes as Peter is taken to preach to the Roman centurion Cornelius, who is described as “a god-fearer” which is a term for gentiles who revere, worship and seek to serve the God of the Jews. The story unfolds in Acts 10, and is retold by Peter in Acts 11. Acts 10: 44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. I want to focus on the timing of events here. While Peter is preaching, these gentiles spontaneously receive the gift of the Holy Spirit “as at the beginning” and in response Peter concludes that it is not his place to withhold baptism from those who have already received the gift of God – the Holy Spirit. The formula “in the name of Jesus Christ” is the same, but the order is reversed – here the Holy Spirit is given before baptism, even before any public acknowledgment of belief, faith, or repentance. Again, these may be implied or understood as necessarily present in heart and mind if not outwardly testified by the gentiles. But the fact that there is no public profession mentioned prior to the giving of the Holy Spirit is noteworthy.
When we enter into the teaching ministry of Paul, we encounter a different kind of writing. In the Gospels and Acts we are hearing second hand accounts of events that are written down several decades after they happened – these books are believed to have been written sometime between 60-90 AD. With the epistles of Paul, we have the interactions of a teaching evangelist with the churches he planted and nurtured in their infancy and continued to encourage throughout his ministry. Paul acknowledges that he is addressing specific issues, controversies, and concerns in these congregations, and his writing about baptism is in the context of these ongoing conversations. This reality invites us to recognize that, having only part of the conversation, we may not know all that Paul had in mind as he was writing. Some things may be implied, suggested or understood by his audience that are lost to us. This does not prevent us from gaining understanding from his letters, but it might discourage us from being overly dogmatic in what we do conclude.
Paul introduces to the teaching on baptism a correlation to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (RM 6:4, cf COL 2:12) Paul’s concern seems to be, particularly in Romans 5-7, to outline the difference between life without the law, life with the law, and life under grace through faith in Christ. Paul does not spend much time discussing repentance, but perhaps this is his way of exploring the same idea – turning from one way of living to another way by considering ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God” (RM6:11) because we have been “baptized into his death” (6:3) and “The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” (6:10)
Paul understood baptism as a way of representing our life in Christ and the effect of Christ’s life upon us. This life includes freeing us from sin and from trying to live by the law. It also joins us not only with the risen Christ, but with His Body, the Church (EPH4). Likewise, Paul connects baptism with the Holy Spirit and with the church when he says, “12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor 12) He does not describe the form of baptism, nor offer particular words by which he had or we should baptize. His concern is with what baptism represents for the life of the believer.
In this regard, we need to also look at Colossians 2:11-12, where Paul connects baptism to circumcision: “…you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision…you were buried with him in baptism“. These parallel statements link the two practices as having similar meaning and effect. They are gifts from God which mark one as belonging to the believing community, a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people (GEN17). Paul is also clear that what matters is the state of one’s heart toward God, not the physical act of circumcision (RM2; 1COR7; GAL5). This idea is also found in Deuteronomy 30 and Jeremiah 4:4. Does it seem reasonable then to suppose the same might be true of baptism – God is more concerned with the state of our heart in humble faith than with the particulars of any ritual, as important as it may otherwise be.
Perhaps of greatest import is whether baptism is necessary for salvation. To Nicodemus, “Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (JN3:5) In Mark 16 we read: “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved” (MK16:16). These two verses are the primary justification for linking baptism to salvation. The experience of Cornelius might suggest that he and his family were already saved before baptism. Could we envision and unsaved person receiving the Holy Spirit and extolling God? Perhaps the best argument for salvation being possible without baptism is the scene from Luke 23:43 where Jesus tells the thief on the cross “you will be with me in paradise.” Here Jesus responds in the grace and mercy of God to the simple plea, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
What does all of this say about us as Disciples? Over the 200+ years of our history we have embraced a variety of understandings of baptism, from exclusively practicing and accepting baptism by immersion of believers, to our current practice which emphasizes the same, but receives all who claim their own baptism, whether as an infant or a professing believer, and whether by full immersion, pouring or sprinkling. Our normal formula is “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, though the New Testament clearly suggests that there is room for variety in belief and practice here. While Disciples generally would not argue that baptism in itself is necessary for salvation, as illustrated above, it is seen as an act of obedience to Jesus, a way of following his example, and a way of sharing in the normative practices of the Christian community. So the question could be asked, “Why would you resist that which Jesus himself received and taught, and which his church has practiced for 2000 years?” In past times churches have taught that baptism was necessary for salvation, and that the exact form and formula were required to make it effective. Because we want to emphasize the primacy of God’s mercy and grace for salvation, and resting on the variety of different baptisms apparently practiced and taught in the first century by the apostles, we affirm that baptism is an important expression and affirmation of the salvation experience on the part of the believer and the church. We seek to be faithful to the New Testament and to our history by our own practice of believers baptism by immersion, representing our baptism into Christ and into His church. Humility prevents us from claiming that this is the only way that God’s grace may be known in baptism, and compels us to maintain fellowship with those who practice differently.