The Water That Divides: Baptism and Baptists

By: Larry R. Oats[1]

In an article called “We Believe In: Water Baptism,” Arthur Farstad identifies a problem in the broad evangelical world:

If one were writing an article on baptism for a Baptist publication – or a Church of Christ, Presbyterian, or Roman Catholic one – the task would not be too difficult. Each group has well-defined positions on all aspects of this doctrine. . . . Our readership holds differing views not only on the mode but also the meaning of baptism, and perhaps most important of all, the proper candidates for water baptism. Difficult as it may be, in this article we propose to examine the consensus of nearly all Christians on water baptism.[2]

His article concluded that most evangelicals agree on only three elements: water baptism confers no saving grace, baptism in some way identifies believers with Christ, and baptism is important for obedience and as a testimony to the world of the believer’s identification with Christ.[3]

In similar fashion, J. I. Packer states,

One of the church’s unhappy divisions concerns the subject of baptism. Nobody defends baptizing all infants as such, but most denominations baptize the children of the baptized. Baptists, however, see this as either non-baptism (because infants cannot make the required confession of faith) or as irregular baptism (because, they say, it is not clearly apostolic, nor pastorally wise). Some hold that by not actually commanding infant baptism God in Scripture forbids it; all urge that to postpone baptism till faith is conscious is always in practice best. (Note that when I speak of “Baptists” here, I am referring to a whole range of Christians—members of Baptist and baptistic denominations, along with some charismatics, independents, and other evangelicals—for whom believer-baptism is the standard practice.)

On the other side, some have deduced from covenant theology that God commands the baptism of believers’ babies after all. Many more maintain that this practice, though fixed by the church, has better theological, historical, and pastoral warrant than the alternative has, and so should be thought of as “most agreeable with the institution of Christ.”[4]

Baptism divides Baptists (and baptistic churches using Packer’s definition in the quote above) from almost all other denominations. In the current culture, baptism is fre­quently denigrated – the mode is unimpor­tant, the recipient can be almost anyone, and the meaning is uncertain. The purpose of this article is to look briefly at various historical views on baptism, examine what Scripture says on the subject, and then analyze the significance of baptism for Baptists.

A Brief History of Baptism

The first reference to baptism by means other than immersion is found in the Didache (written about 120 to 150). Baptism by pouring was viewed as an acceptable alter­na­tive only when it was not possible for the candidate to be immersed.

And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living [flowing] water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.[5]

The Didache allowed pouring, but the first documented case of pouring instead of immersing came a hundred years later (in about 250). The significance of this event was the effect that pouring instead of immersion had on the spiritual qualifications of the recipient. It involved a man by the name of Novatus or Novatian, who lived in Rome. Novatus was believed to be at the point of death and so was poured on in his sickbed. Baptism was viewed as the means of washing away original sin; therefore, numerous individuals waited as long as possible before being baptized so that they could wash away as much sin as possible. However, this case was unusual in that Novatus was too ill to be immersed, was therefore poured upon, but then recovered from his illness. Had he died, no one apparently would have been concerned, but he was now a healthy individual who had not been immersed. Eusebius of Caesarea described the incident and used it to argue why Novatus was not eligible for church office; it was not deemed “lawful that one baptized in his sick bed by aspersion, as he was, should be promoted to any order of the clergy.”[6]

Cyprian of Carthage (3rd century) wrote concerning the baptism of heretics. The developing Roman Catholic Church argued that salvation was found only in the “true Church.” Therefore, baptism by heretics was not valid, since they had no ability to confer salvation. Only the one “true Church” had the authority to baptize. Cyprian had to explain to Magnus, the recipient of his letter, concerning

those who obtain God’s grace in sickness and weakness, whether they are to be accounted legitimate Christians, for that they are not to be washed, but sprinkled, with the saving water. . . . In the sacraments of salvation, when necessity compels, and God bestows His mercy, the divine methods confer the whole benefit on believers; nor ought it to trouble any one that sick people seem to be sprinkled or affused, when they obtain the Lord’s grace.[7]

Apparently Magnus assumed that only baptism by immersion was acceptable, and Cyprian needed to correct that “error” in his thinking.

Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem in the fourth century, stated:

For thou goest down into the water . . . to be swal­lowed up by the terrible dragon. Having gone down dead in sins, thou comest up quickened in righteous­ness . . . so thou by going down into the water, and being in a manner buried in the waters, as He was in the rock, art raised again walking in newness of life.[8]

As late as the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225 to 1274 and was one of the most prominent Catholic theologians, stated, “[I]t is safer to baptize by immersion, because this is the more ordinary fashion, yet Baptism can be conferred by sprinkling or also by pouring, according to Ezekiel 36:25: ‘I will pour upon you clean water.’”[9]

Another change concerned the recipients of baptism. In the New Testament and until the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, baptism was reserved for believers. As baptism began to take on a salvific quality, combined with the high rate of infant mortality, the rite came to include infants. Since baptism was believed to save, it was logical to baptize infants to ensure their salvation during the years prior to being able to exercise personal faith. There also developed in the rising Roman Catholic Church a system of instruction before non-Christian adults could be baptized. This fostered the idea that people could be educated into salvation. Conversion by means of the work of the Holy Spirit was no longer necessary. Therefore, in addition to the baptism of unregenerate infants came the baptism of unregenerate adults. This was the dominant position until the Reformation. It was not, however, the only position. Prior to the Reformation there were many Bible believers who rejected Catholic theology, frequently paying a great price to do so.

Numerous groups stood against Catholicism through­out much of its history. A significant group was the Waldenses. The Dean of Notre Dame in Arras, in the 14th century, declared that one-third of Christendom sometimes attended Waldensian meetings and were Waldensian at heart.[10] The various non-Catholic groups were not homo­genous, but the more biblical of them had significant similarities: they condemned the worldliness of the Roman church, they rejected its priesthood, they denied the validity of the sacraments, and they tried to live in biblical simplicity. A significant issue for these groups was baptism. If the church was corrupt, would not its baptism also be corrupt? If the priesthood was to be rejected, then should not baptism by such a priest also be rejected? If the sacraments did not save, then what was the purpose of baptism? If baptism was a response to personal commitment, then of what value was infant baptism?

Similar to the Waldenses in Western Europe were the Paulicians in the East. The Paulicians were the enemy of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. In 1828 a colony of Paulicians moved into Armenia and brought with them an ancient manual of doctrine, which they claimed dated back a thousand years. It was translated into English as The Key of Truth. The three keys were repentance, baptism and holy communion. “These three He gave to the adults and not to catechumens who have not repented or are unbelieving.”[11]

In the Reformation the Reformers developed numerous theological distinc­tions from Catholicism. Baptism was not one of them. In spite of the preaching of the gospel and the destruction of the framework of medieval Christianity, the Reformers failed to replace Catholic baptism with a biblical model.

Luther believed that what justifies the recipient is not the baptism, but faith in the promises which God makes in association with baptism. Infants, incapable of believing, are assisted by the faith of those who bring them to baptism and by the prayers of the witnesses. His baptismal services included exorcism, the sign of the cross, the use of salt, and the immersion of the child in water. In a sermon on baptism in 1518, he stated:

First baptism is called in Greek baptismos, in Latin mersio, that is, when we dip anything wholly in water, that it is completely covered over. And although in many provinces it is no longer the custom (in other provinces it was the custom) to thrust the children into the font and to dip them; but they only pour water with the hands out of the font; nevertheless, it should be thus, and would be right, that after speaking aloud the word (baptize) the child or any one who is to be baptized, be completely sank down into the water, and dipt again and drawn out, for without doubt in the German tongue the word (taufe) comes from the word tief (deep), that a man sinks deep into the water, what he dips. That also the signification of baptism demands, for it signifies that the old man and sinful birth from the flesh and blood shall be completely drowned through the grace of God. Therefore, a man should sufficiently perform the signification and a right perfect sign. The sign rests, in this, that a man plunge a person in water in the name of the Father, etc., but does not leave him therein but lifts him out again; therefore it is called being lifted out of the font or depths. And so must all of both of these things be the sign; the dipping and the lifting out. Thirdly, the signification is a saving death of the sins and of the resurrection of the grace of God. The baptism is a bath of the new birth. Also a drowning of the sins in the baptism.[12]

Elsewhere Luther declared:

For this reason I would have the candidates for baptism completely immersed in the water, as the word says and as the sacrament signifies. Not that I deem this necessary, but it were well to give to so perfect and complete a thing a perfect and complete sign; thus it was also doubtless instituted by Christ. The sinner does not so much need to be washed as he needs to die . . . and to be conformed to the death and resurrection of Christ, with Whom, through baptism, he dies and rises again. . . . [I]t is far more forceful to say that baptism signifies our utter dying and rising to eternal life, than to say that it signifies merely our being washed clean from sins.[13]

Luther argued for immersion, and he argued that infants should be baptized because they do indeed exercise faith. He based this on his belief that faith is a gift of God and has no relationship to the act of believing by the individual. “Right faith is a thing wrought by the Holy Ghost in us, which changeth us and turneth us into a new nature. How then can we insist that we know exactly when faith is granted? . . . We hopefully assume the child to be a believer and thus regenerate. The baptism then strengthens the seed of faith.”[14] He believed that the helplessness of the child symbolized how the grace of God alone saves a man. Melancthon, Luther’s successor and the theologian of Lutheranism, was concerned that the elimination of infant baptism would remove the church-state relationship, set people free from the established religion, and interfere with the Reformers’ view of Christendom.

Zwingli, the Zurich, Switzerland reformer, was more biblical, although politics got in the way of truth. He declared, “Nothing grieves me more than that at present I must baptize children, for I know it ought not to be done. . . . But if I were to stop the practice of Infant Baptism, I would lose my office.”[15] When several of his followers began to practice believer’s baptism, Zwingli and the city council of Zurich fined, imprisoned and eventually executed those who dared to practice believer’s baptism.

John Calvin was a second generation reformer.[16] Calvin saw the weakness of Luther’s assumption that a true church was produced only by preaching and the sacra­ments. His connection with the Anabaptists[17] undoubtedly affected his adoption of spiritual discipline as a third charac­teristic of the church. He rejected Luther’s view of infant faith, but also rejected the Anabaptists’ view of adult baptism. He was concerned that the Anabaptist view required a discontinuity between the Old Testament and New Testament. He argued that the old and new covenants are alike in foundation, meaning and purpose, differing only in the external ordinances. Since circumcision was administered to infants, so baptism can and should also be administered in the same way. He also argued that restricting baptism only to believers displaced grace from its essential position.[18]

Calvin recognized that New Testament baptism was by immersion. In his discussion of the geographical locale for the baptism of Jesus by John, he concluded:

Now geographers tell us, that these two towns, Enon and Salim, were not far from the confluence of the river Jordan and the brook Jabbok; and they add that Scythopolis was near them. From these words, we may infer that John and Christ administered baptism by plunging the whole body beneath the water.[19]

He was not, however, committed to using immersion, believing (amazingly like the Roman Catholics) that the churches have the authority to make a change in mode when it suits them.

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: churches should be at liberty to adopt either, according to the diversity of climates, although it is evident that the term baptize means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive Church.[20]

Under Catholicism, pedobaptism stood for “truth” and adult baptism for evangelical “heresy.” Under Lutheranism, pedobaptism symbolized state Christianity, while adult baptism symbolized voluntary Christianity. With Calvin, pedobaptism came to represent a predestinarian view of salvation, while adult baptism accompanied an emphasis on human responsibility.

Standing in opposition to both Catholicism and the Reformers during the Reformation were the Anabaptists, the “re-baptizers.” They condemned Catholicism as anti-Scriptural and the Reformation as an incomplete return to the truth of Scripture. They rejected pedobaptism and baptized only adults upon a confession of their faith in Christ; the Catholics and Reformers viewed this as “rebaptism,” but the Anabaptists protested that this was the only true baptism.[21]

Theologically, these Anabaptists of the Reformation era, like the earlier Waldenses, Paulicians and others, viewed baptism as an act of obedience by an adult believer. For them, it became an eloquent way of rejecting Christian sacramentalism and all it stood for. When persecution became a way of life for the Anabaptists, baptism took on an additional meaning; it became a demonstration of the believer’s willingness to “die to self,” which at that time was viewed as literal death. Conrad Grebel wrote, “He that is baptized has been planted into the death of Christ. True Christians are sheep among wolves, ready for the slaughter. They must be baptized into anguish and affliction, tribulation, persecution, suffering and death.”[22]

For the next three hundred years, little changed with respect to baptism in Catholicism and Protestantism. During this time, however, the modern Baptists began,[23] and the truth of believers’ baptism became more prevalent.

Biblical Examination of Baptism

There are only eleven instances of church-related baptisms recorded in the New Testament.[24] There are eight references to baptism in Paul’s writings[25] and one reference in Peter.[26]

The Mode of Baptism

Baptism is by definition an immersion. “The practice of baptism in the New Testament was carried out in one way: the person being baptized was immersed or put completely under the water and then brought back up again.”[27] The English word is not a translation, but a transliteration. The Greek word baptizo means “to immerse” or “to dip.”[28] “Despite assertions to the contrary, it seems that baptizô, both in Jewish and Christian contexts, normally meant ‘immerse’, and that even when it became a technical term for baptism the thought of immersion remains.”[29] Greek is a rich language, with a broad vocabulary. There are Greek words which mean other than immersion. louo and its related forms mean “to wash” or “to bathe.” nipto means “to wash the extremities,” as in the washing of hands or of feet. rhantizo means “to sprinkle.” keo means “to pour.” The Greek language was fully capable of indicating which “mode” of baptism the church was to practice.

In addition, the Biblical examples of baptism fit immersion better than sprinkling or pouring. In Mark 1:10, when John baptized Jesus, the text declares that they went into the Jordan and Jesus anebe “came up” apo “out of” the Jordan. Some commentators will argue that the text here does not give any indication of the mode of baptism. The question, however, is why the special language to declare that Jesus both came up and came out of the Jordan. “Inasmuch as the word ‘baptize’ means to immerse, the expression ‘coming up out of the water’ almost certainly refers to from beneath the water rather than upon the bank.”[30] John the Baptist did not need a river of water if his intent was only to sprinkle or pour upon his disciples. Similar language is found in Acts 8:36-39, where Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch stopped where there was water and also went into and up out of the water. The Ethiopian was traveling through the desert; certainly he would have had a sufficient supply of water to get home. Sprinkling or pouring a small amount on his head would not have jeopardized his supply.

The Joint Committees on Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion of the Anglican Church recognized that baptism is by immersion. “It is clear that the recipients of Baptism were normally adults and not infants; and it must be admitted that there is no conclusive evidence in the New Testament for the Baptism of infants.”[31]

The Greek Orthodox Church still immerses; Greeks under­stand that baptizo means “to immerse.” “The Service of Holy Baptism” of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America states:

The Baptizing

When he has anointed the whole body, the Priest baptizes him (her), holding him (her) erect, and looking towards the East, says:

The servant of God (Name) is baptized in the Name of the Father, Amen. And of the Son, Amen. And of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

At each invocation the Priest immerses him (her) and raises him (her) up again. After the baptizing, the Priest places the child in a linen sheet held by the Godparent.[32]

The Purpose of Baptism

New Testament Baptism had its origins with John the Baptist.[33] John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the remission of sin, a baptism that was the visible, outward expression of an inward change in attitude toward God, one’s sinfulness and need of repentance, and, this writer would suggest, toward the Jerusalem-based, unbiblical Judaism of the day (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 13:24).[34] A Jew who was baptized by John identified himself with a return to a genuine Judaism which saw mankind in need of a Savior. Jesus’ disciples baptized, in keeping with John’s baptism (John 3:22; 4:1, 2), long before Pentecost. John 1:31 also links John’s baptism to the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah. It is unlikely that the Jews of John’s day saw his baptism or the baptism by Jesus’ disciples to be a picture of the death, burial and resurrection; that linkage was to come later. Instead, John’s baptism was prompted by repentance, a return to the truth of the Old Testament, and identification of the one baptized with the Messiah concerning whom John preached.

The Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20 and Mark 16:15-16) records the commandment of Jesus for his disciples to baptize believers. The order of his commandment is first to evangelize the lost, then to baptize those who believe, and finally to teach them the things Jesus had taught his disciples and would teach them through the Holy Spirit. There is an implied connection with John’s baptism, since salvation (which involves repentance) precedes the baptism and since the only baptism the disciples were familiar with up to this point in time was the baptism of repentance. This is one purpose for baptism. “For baptism is among Jesus’ commands. He sent his followers to disciple all nations, baptizing them in the triune name (Matthew 28:19). So a church that did not require baptism, and an unbaptized Christian who did not ask for it would be something of a contradiction in terms. The root reason for the practice of baptizing is to please Jesus Christ our Lord.”[35] There is no hint at the baptism of the unrepentant.

This commandment was first obeyed on the day of Pentecost, when some 3000 people were saved and baptized. Peter urged the people to be baptized for essentially the same reason for John’s baptism. Acts 2:38 records Peter’s call for the Jews who heard his message to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins, language essentially identical to John’s baptism. Acts 2:41, however, demonstrates a change in the concept of baptism from John’s baptism of repentance to a church-related baptism. This is the first reference to a connection between baptism and church membership, in keeping with the Great Com-mis­sion – the people were saved, then baptized, and then came under the teaching of the disciples in the church in Jerusalem. This is New Testament baptism.

The next baptism recorded in Scripture was that done by Philip in Samaria (Acts 8:12). The only information gathered here on baptism is that believers were baptized by Philip, in keeping with the Great Commission. Then Philip went down to the desert and baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, after having preached the gospel to him. There was no church and no indication of any related church membership, although Phillip was acting as an agent of the Jerusalem church. Therefore, some have suggested that he baptized him into the membership of the church; this may have been the case, but the text does not tell us this. History does, however, speak of a later vibrant church in Ethiopia, perhaps as a result of this man’s testimony. This event could be used to be warrant the baptism of new converts in a new community where a church does not yet exist, as is the case frequently in a new church plant or on the mission field. This unusual case, however, should not be viewed as the norm, for everywhere else in the New Testament baptism is clearly related to a specific church.

The next baptism, recorded in Acts 9:18, is that of Paul, after his conversion on the Damascus Road (see also Acts 22:16). Immediately after his conversion and baptism, Paul is found with the believers in Damascus, engaged in Great Commission work himself.

In Acts 10:48 the first Gentiles, Cornelius and others, were baptized, but little is said about the baptism itself. Acts 16:15 records the baptism of Lydia and her household. Acts 16:33 speaks of the baptism of the Philippian jailor. In each of these cases, the one who brought the message of salvation spent time with the new converts; they were starting the process of the third element of the Great Commission – teaching them the truth of Jesus Christ. In the case of Lydia and the jailor, it is clear that a church began in the city of their salvation and baptism.

Acts 18:8 records the baptism of a number of believers in Corinth, and in 1 Corinthians 1:13-17 Paul gives testimony of baptizing several of the early converts in Corinth. Paul makes it clear in the context that baptism does not save; he came to evangelize, not to baptize. Nevertheless, the context indicates that the Great Commis­sion order was followed – evangelization, followed by bap­tism, followed by the planting of a church where teaching occurred.

Acts 19:5 presents a difficult case, and space does not permit a thorough discussion. This writer concludes that several men who were followers of John the Baptist (but apparently had no idea what John’s message truly was and so may have actually been followers of a follower of John) were baptized in the name of Jesus. The usual order of regeneration, then baptism, is evident.

These passages demonstrate that the norm for the New Testament is the baptism of adult believers upon repentance and a confession of their faith in Christ,[36] and usually in connection with a local church that either already existed or was being begun by a missionary.

Baptism in Covenant Theology

Since the Reformers, especially Calvin, argued for the connection of the New Testament church to Old Testament Israel, they tied baptism to circumcision. The covenant position is that baptism is the “sign and seal” of the union between the individual and Christ.[37] Covenant theologians historically have taken two approaches to this concept. One is that of “presumptive regeneration.” Those who take this approach presume that the infant is already regenerated and proceed as if he is; these children are regarded as regenerate until they demon­strate that they are not. The second, more common, approach is that infants are baptized predicated on the all-encompassing promises of God in the covenant. The fact of the regeneration or non-regeneration of the infant makes no difference.[38]

Since there is only a single covenant of grace, in the covenant view, and since children were considered to be in the covenant in the Old Testament, and since God commanded that an external sign be given not just to the believing adults, but also to their children, “it is incumbent upon all God’s people to continue to put a sign of the covenant upon themselves and their children until God says otherwise. . . . [Since] baptism is identical in meaning with circumcision, it must be concluded that baptism should be used instead of circumcision.”[39]

Reymond ties baptism to circumcision, using a shortened reading of Col 2:11-12. “The relation between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism may be seen . . . ‘in him you were also circumcised . . . , having been buried with him in baptism.’ Clearly, for Paul the spiritual import of the New Testament sacrament of baptism—the outward sign and seal of the Spirit’s inner baptismal work—is tantamount to that of Old Testament circumcision.”[40] There are Baptists who would con­cur. Paul King Jewett, a Reformed Baptist, agrees that “the only conclusion we can reach is that the two signs, as outward rites, symbolize the same inner reality in Paul’s thinking. Thus circumcision may fairly be said to be the Old Testament counterpart of Christian baptism. . . . In this sense baptism, to quote the Heidelberg Catechism, ‘occupies the place of circumcision in the New Testament.’”[41] Reymond’s conclusion is that baptism and cir­cum­cision are “essentially the same . . . a covenantal sign of the Spirit’s act of cleansing from sin’s defilement.”[42]

The emphasis on baptism is that it is a sign of the cleansing of sin. “Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament. . . . The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water. . . . Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person. . . . Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.”[43] The back­ground for baptism is found in the Old Testament ritual washings (Lev 8:5-6; 14:8-9; 15) and their symbolic applications (Ps 51:1-2; 7-10; Ezek 36:25-26).

The reference of baptism to cleansing (Ezek 36:25-26; John 3:5; 1 Cor 6:11; and Titus 3:5) plus the connection of baptism to circumcision in Col 2:11-12 demonstrates that “baptism signifies more specifically the cleansing or purification from sin’s defilement and guilt.”[44] Reymond’s discussion of Romans 6 completely ignores the symbolism of immersion, emphasizing instead the relational character of baptism and the symbolism of union with Christ.[45]

As to the mode, many covenant theologians argue against immersion as the only mode or even the primary mode. Reymond argues that baptizo does not necessarily mean “immerse.” The reference to “much water” in John 3:23 only means that there was sufficient drinking water for the masses that came to John the Baptist. The references to going down into water and coming up out of water (Matt 3:16; Mark 1:9, 10; Acts 8:36-39) are inconclusive. The act of baptism “was a separate act that followed upon the going down into and preceded the coming up out of the water. . . . Clearly these acts in no way constituted any part of the baptismal act itself.” He believes that the Ethiopian eunuch may have been reading Isaiah 53:7-8 (“So will [my Servant] sprinkle many nations”) and that this made him think of baptism. The household baptisms of Saul, the Philippian jailor, and Cornelius could not have been immersions. He argues from Hebrews 9:10 and 21 that baptism and sprinkling are identical. Romans 6 relates baptism not just to Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, but also to his crucifixion (as does Col 2:11-12). Therefore, immersion cannot be argued as justifiable. Instead baptism simply symbolizes the union of the believer with Christ. Reymond’s conclusion is that “there is not a single recorded instance of a baptism in the entire New Testament where immersion followed by emersion is the mode of baptism. The Baptist practice of baptism by immersion is simply based upon faulty exegesis of Scripture.”[46]

Berkhof argues that “the mode is quite immaterial. . . . Jesus did not prescribe a certain mode of baptism. . . . It is not likely that the multitudes that flocked to John the Baptist, nor the three thousand converts of the day of Pentecost were baptized by immersion.”[47]

Reymond argues that infants should be baptized for three reasons. First, there is “no direct command ‘Baptize only those who themselves make a personal profession of faith.’” Second, the New Testament instances of baptism based upon a credible profession of faith cannot be made normative. Third, Biblical principles have the force of commands “by good and necessary inference,” which ultimately means that “the sacramental continuity between the testaments is so strong that not to baptize children of believers would require some explicit word of repeal.”[48] His continuity between the testaments has forced him to develop an “inference” which requires him to identify circumcision with baptism. Believing parents are “to regard their children as . . . bonafide members of both the covenant of grace and the church of God.”[49] He then concludes that the “Reformed paedobaptist position is, of course, based upon the unity of the covenant of grace and the oneness of the people of God in all ages.”[50]

Feenstra adds that the silence of the New Testament on the baptism of infants is a “thunderous affirmation that infant baptism was so taken for granted that no explicit mention of it was necessary.”[51] This is a dangerous hermeneutic, for based on this all kinds of activity could be argued.

Berkhof acknowledges, “There is no explicit command in Scripture to baptize children; nor is there a single instance in which we are plainly told that children were baptized. But this does not necessarily make infant baptism un-Biblical.”[52] He then develops arguments similar to those already noted. In his discussion of the relationship between baptism and circumcision, Berkhof, convinced of the direct connection, argues, “The exclusion of New Testament children [from baptism] would require an equivocal statement to that effect.”[53]

Reymond explains that the reason only male infants were circumcised in the Old Testament, but both male and female infants are baptized in the New Testament is that God recognized and adapted himself to patriarchal culture of the Old Testament.[54] This seems to be grasping at straws; the creation of the nation of Israel would seem to indicate that instead of bowing to the heathen culture of the day, God instead was creating a unique culture for his people.

The various arguments favoring the sprinkling of infants are not convincing. Reymond’s “good and necessary inference” seems to be merely exegesis driven by a specific theology. This writer agrees with Wayne Ward, when he concludes that the attempt to tie baptism to circumcision “is a frantic effort to preserve a baptismal practice that arose later in church history by reading into it a meaning nowhere found in the New Testament.”[55]

Significance of Baptism

The called are gathered into communities of believers – local churches. In fact, historically most Baptists have argued that the only manifestation of the church in the world is the local church, this gathered community of believers (however they have viewed the universal church). Nevertheless, to be part of the gathered church, the believer must be baptized. Baptists hold numerous beliefs which are related to these basic concepts.

First, the authority of baptism is Christ. Our Lord com­manded his disciples to baptize; no one has a right to alter his commandment. He did not tell believers to be baptized in the Jordan, or to be baptized in a river, or to be baptized inside a church building, but he did say, be baptized; therefore, Baptists do not insist on the Jordan, or a river, or any other particular circumstance, but they do insist on baptizing.[56]

Baptist ecclesiology is based on the authority of the New Testament. Baptists generally accept baptism only from those institutions they consider to be truly baptistic, not because Baptists are necessarily opposed to these institutions, but because they have no choice but to accept the authority of Scripture. Denominational names are not conclusive; a church need not have “Baptist” in the name to be Baptist, and, conversely, not every church with the name “Baptist” is truly a Baptist church. Likewise, succes­sionism is not necessary; a direct historical connection back to Jerusalem is not required for a church to be genuinely New Testament. In addition, the decision concerning what constitutes a church cannot be delegated to a convention or association. A true church is, in and of itself, responsible to the authority of Christ and the Scriptures.

Second, Baptists have historically insisted on immer­sion, primarily because the form is tied to the meaning. Much of Christendom has changed the form of baptism to pouring or sprinkling, even though most scholars agree that baptism in the New Testament was by immersion. A change in the form causes the loss of its power as a witness to the death and resurrection of Christ. Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12 use immersion to picture the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and of the believer. The Scriptures speak of being baptized into Christ’s death, being buried with him by baptism, and being planted in the likeness of his death and resurrection. Based on Romans 6, Erickson argues, “There is a strong connection between baptism and our being united with Christ in his death and resurrection.”[57] Sprinkling and pouring do not illustrate this truth in any sense. Many interpreters view Paul as referring to Spirit baptism, but whether the reference is Spirit baptism or water baptism, Paul is using the concept of immersion as a symbol for the Christian’s initial conversion experience.

The question is not what is the most appropriate manner of performing the rite of baptism, but what is the act to be performed. When someone attempts to alter the act, Baptists object. It is not merely a change in the mode of baptism to which we object. A change in the mode, we contend, is a change in the act. Sprinkling is not simply a change in the mode of baptism. Sprinkling simply is not baptism; pouring is not baptism. Immersion, and immer­sion alone, is baptism. Without immersion, the symbolism is not merely defective; the symbolism is nonexistent.

Third, Baptists insist on the baptism of believers. Baptists reject infant baptism. There is no direct evidence of infant baptism in the New Testament. There is significant evidence that only believers were baptized. Every one bap­tized in the New Testament was able to express his or her faith in Christ and willfully choose his own baptism.

Fourth, any discussions about baptism must focus on meaning. Baptism is a public declaration of the believer’s connection to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the New Testament baptism followed salvation almost immediately (see Acts 2:38-41; 8:12; 9:17-18; 16:30-33). Some see it as the “confession with the mouth” which, when preceded by “belief in the heart,” announces salvation (Rom 10:9).[58] Baptism “into” the name of Jesus Christ is best described as a declaration of identification with the Savior.

Historically, baptism was the way believers announced their conversion to Christianity in a variety of denomina­tions. A question was raised in the Philadelphia Association in 1763 as to whether it was the duty of the pastor or the duty of the church “to examine the candidates, and to judge of their qualifications for Baptism.”[59] The question was not whether a person should be examined; it was only a question of whose responsibility was it. David Benedict, referring to Daniel Marshall, stated, “He became acquainted with a Baptist church, belonging to the Philadelphia Association; and as the result of a close, impartial examination of [his] faith and order, he [was] baptized by immersion, in the forty-eighth year of his life.”[60] Adoniram Judson spoke of examining and baptizing converts in Burma.[61] Benedict, in his biography of John Gano, pastor of the First Baptist Church of New York City and later Army Chaplain under George Washington, stated that one of Gano’s first duties as an ordained minister was to “examine candidates for baptism, who related what God did for their souls.”[62]

It was during the growth of the revivalist movement in the latter half of the 19th century that the public declaration by means of baptism was replaced with the altar call. Under this new approach, a person would proclaim his salvation by walking the aisle and having the pastor or evangelist announce that the person had become a believer. Baptism was optional for some of these evangelists. In many Baptist churches, baptism was pushed back until after a time of training and education.

Fifth, Baptists argue that baptism is the means of entry into a New Testament church; therefore, Baptists demand it as a precondition for membership. A few Baptists (particu­larly British Baptists) practice “open membership.”[63] Members are accepted upon their confession of faith, but baptism is an issue of personal conviction. Most Baptists, however, practice “closed membership.” Members are only accepted upon a confession of faith and baptism by immersion after salvation. Anything else imperils the very testimony that Baptist churches have historically held.

Baptism was designed and instituted as an initial rite. It is the first duty required of believers after repentance and faith, and is Christ’s own appointed mode of professing allegiance to him before the world. It is in its nature an initiatory badge of discipleship, required to be administered and received before admission to the church. The very first record of the progress of the gospel under the labors of the apostles, shows the order of church building in those days.[64]


Baptism is truly the “Water that Divides.” Baptists historically have held to the immersion of believers, upon their confession of faith, as the initiatory rite of obedience to Christ and, with rare exception, entrance into the membership of the local church. This is not merely a denominational difference. Baptists hold to their belief because it is based upon the authority of Christ and Scripture, because of the significance of the act, because of the biblical necessity of baptism only for believers, because it symbolically connects the believer to Christ, and because of its relationship to the local church. Some believe baptism creates an “unhappy division” in Christendom. Baptists argue, instead, that it creates a joyful obedience to Christ and to his commandments.

[churchpack_divider style=”solid” margin_top=”20px” margin_bottom=”20px”][1] Dr. Larry R. Oats is the Dean and Professor of Systematic Theology at Maranatha Baptist Seminary.

[2] Arthur L. Farstad, “We Believe In: Water Baptism,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 3 (Spring 1990): 3.

[3] Farstad, 7-9.

[4] J. I. Packer, Growing in Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1996), 131.

[5] Didache, 7.

[6] Eusebius Pamphilus, The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, Bishop of Caesarea, in Palestine, 6.43.

[7] Cyprian, Epistle 75: To Magnus, on Baptizing the Novatians, and Those Who Obtain Grace on a Sick-Bed, 12.

[8] Cyril of Jerusalem, First Catechetical Lecture, 3.12.

[9] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 3. 7.

[10] Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Paternoster Press, 1964), 173. The Waldenses themselves claimed to be direct descendants of the Apostles. See also Donald Bridge and David Phypers, The Water That Divides (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 1998), 69.

[11] H. Wheeler Robinson, Baptist Principles (London: Carey Kingsgate, 1935), 59.

[12] Martin Luther, “The Holy Sacrament of Baptism,” Works of Martin Luther, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis: Concor­dia, 1960), 35: 29.

[13] Martin Luther, “The Babylonian Captivity,” Works of Martin Luther, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis: Concor­dia, 1960), 36: 23.

[14] Martin Luther, “The Holy Sacrament of Baptism,” Works of Martin Luther, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis: Concor­dia, 1960), 30: 448.

[15] Verduin, The Reformers, 198-99.

[16] He was only eight years old when Luther posted his theses.

[17] He married the widow of an Anabaptist preacher. While he condemned them as “frenzied spirits” and “furious madmen,” he paid them the compliment of carefully defending his system against every one of their arguments. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.16.1.

[18] Calvin, Institutes, 4.16.

[19] John Calvin, Commentaries, John 3:22. See also Institutes, 4.15.19.

[20] Calvin, Institutes, 4.15.19.

[21] Bridge and Phypers, 77.

[22] Verduin, 260.

[23] While there were those who held to baptistic beliefs since the first church, the modern Baptist movement began after the Reformation, when churches began to use the name “Baptist.”

[24] Acts 2:37-41; 8:12-17; 8:35-38; 9:18 (and 22:16); 10:44-48; 16:13-15; 16:30-34; 18:8; 19:1-7; 1 Cor 1:14 and 1:16. Certainly more baptisms took place than were recorded. 1 Cor 1:14-16 demonstrates the normality of the baptism of believers in each church.

[25] Gal 3:27; 1 Cor 1:13-17 (six references); 10:2; 12:13; 15:29 (twice); Rom 6:3-4; Eph 4:5; and Col 2:12. Some may argue that these few references would indicate the lack of importance Paul placed on baptism. Paul, however, places baptism in high esteem in Rom 6 and Eph 4. While it may be debated specifically as to which baptism Paul is referring, his readers would certainly have had immersion in water as a backdrop to each of these discussions.

[26] 1 Pet 3:21.

[27] Wayne Grudem, Making Sense of the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 143.

[28] See Alexander Carson, Baptism in its Mode and Subjects (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1860) for a thorough defense of baptism by immersion.

[29] G. R. Beasley-Murray, “Baptize,” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 1: 144.

[30] James A. Brooks, Mark, The New American Commen­tary 23 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1991), 42-43.

[31] Anglican Church Joint Committees on Baptism, Confirma­tion, and Holy Communion, Baptism and Confirmation Today (London: SCM, 1955), 34.


[33] Although there is evidence that the Jews used immersion for ritual cleansing of proselyte Jews, there is no discussion in Scripture concerning that act.

[34] Luke 7:30 indicates that the Jewish religious elite refused to be baptized by John, therefore rejecting the counsel or will of God for them.

[35] Packer, 96.

[36] Not one example of the baptism of someone other than a person old enough to confess their faith can be found in any of these events. Grudem, Making Sense, 146.

[37] L. Berkhof, Manual of Reformed Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1933), 311-12, 320.

[38] Berkhof, 321-22.

[39] Y. Feenstra, “Baptism (Reformed View),” in Readings in Christian Theology, ed. Millard J. Erickson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 3: 373.

[40] Ibid., 929.

[41] Paul King Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 89.

[42] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 930.

[43] Reymond, 923.

[44] Reymond, 926.

[45] Reymond, 929.

[46] Reymond, 935.

[47] Berkhof, 316-17.

[48] Reymond, 936.

[49] Reymond, 937.

[50] Reymond, 937.

[51] Feenstra, 374.

[52] Berkhof, 319.

[53] Berkhof, 320.

[54] Berkhof, 320.

[55] Wayne E. Ward, “The Conflict over Baptism,” Christianity Today 11 (April 1967): 11.

[56] John A. Broadus, Immersion Essential to Christian Baptism (Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1880; 2003), 5-6. This writer understands that baptize in the Great Commis­sion is a participle, but it is used in an imperatival construction.

[57] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 1109.

[58] Bridge and Phypers, 153.

[59] David Spencer, Early Baptists of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: William Syckelmoore, 1877), 90.

[60] David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomina­tion in America (Boston: Lincoln and Edmands, 1813), 2: 352.

[61] J. Clement, Memoir of Adoniram Judson: Being a Sketch of His Life and Missionary Labors (Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1853), 214.

[62] Benedict, 2: 305.

[63] A common argument is that a closed approach to membership puts Baptists in danger of becoming a sect. Bridge and Phypers, 152.

[64] H. L. Gear, The Relation of Baptism to the Lord’s Supper (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1880), 23.