LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Like most believers who have been baptized following a profession of faith, I have a distinct recollection of my baptism. I was baptized in a small stream on a cattle ranch in Wyoming.
At nine years of age my theological understanding of baptism was simple. Nonetheless, the experience of publicly professing Christ is vivid in my memory.
What is it about this event that makes it one of the most memorable experiences in the life of the believer? What does it mean? What actually takes place in a person’s life at his or her baptism? Followers of Christ have pondered questions like these for generations.
One clear truism regarding baptism is that virtually all Christian churches or groups since the time of Christ have practiced this ritual. Southern Baptists from the very onset have joined the tradition of many other Christian groups by practicing and teaching about baptism.
In our recent revision of the Baptist Faith and Message, not one word pertaining to the ordinance of baptism was altered. We have enjoyed a high level of agreement for several reasons.
To begin with, we are in strong agreement regarding the importance of baptism. The most substantive source regarding the significance of baptism comes from Jesus himself — “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:20).
Even if this were the only instruction regarding baptism, it would be more than adequate for our faithful practice of this rite. However, the Apostle Paul provides the church with much additional insight into the importance and meaning of baptism.
For instance, Romans 6:3-4 states: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Based on this and other passages, Southern Baptist scholars have strongly held that baptism is a public expression of an inward reality of having been unified with Christ. His death represents our death to self, and his resurrection represents our having been raised new creatures who are no longer under the curse and enslavement of sin (Colossians 2:12). In other words, we have viewed baptism as an act of obedience (which is why we refer to it as an ordinance) and as a symbolic event (which is why we have rejected the term sacrament).
The Southern Baptist understanding of baptism stands in conflict with the official doctrine of traditional Roman Catholicism and even some Protestant groups who teach that in the act of baptism there is the impartation of grace ex opere operato, without preexisting faith. This belief that grace is imparted to the subject of baptism is why it is called a sacrament.
As Southern Baptists we have historically rejected any notion of sacramental grace in baptism as this idea runs counter to the clear doctrine of salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.
Southern Baptists also believe that the proper subjects of baptism are those who have previously entered into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
The idea of “faith” or “belief” presupposes sufficient cognitive ability and maturation so as to reject any possibility of infants being appropriate candidates for baptism. This has historically been true of all Baptists.
For instance, The Schleitheim Confession of AD 1527 states: “Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death, so that they may be resurrected with Him, and to all those who with this significance request it [baptism] of us and demand it for themselves. This excludes all infant baptism… .”
In support of this position, one only has to look at various baptism narratives in the Book of Acts where the contexts clearly demonstrate that believers were baptized following a response of faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:41; 8:12; 10:44-48; 16:14-15, 32-33).
Southern Baptists have also had a long history of practicing baptism by immersion. Baptist scholars point to the meaning of the Greek word for baptism, which properly interpreted means to “dip” or “plunge.” Additional evidence can be found from baptism narratives such as the baptism of Christ where the biblical text says, “He came up out of the water” (Mark 1:10). The most convincing teaching is that of Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12, where the symbolism of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ clearly points to submersion and emersion.
It would seem evident that even those who believe that baptism represents “purification from sin” would have to admit that any mode other than immersion does not do justice to the symbolism described here by the Apostle Paul.
What a privilege it is for any person to stand in the waters of baptism and proclaim with the angels that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” I am proud that Southern Baptists have taken the command of Christ seriously, “… baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Waggoner is the dean of the School of Leadership and Church Ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
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Full text of Article 7: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
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.
The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.
Matthew 3:13-17; 26:26-30; 28:19-20; Mark 1:9-11; 14:22-26; Luke 3:21-22; 22:19-20; John 3:23; Acts 2:41-42; 8:35-39; 16:30-33; 20:7; Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 10:16,21; 11:23-29; Colossians 2:12.
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