The Great Commission: Make disciples of the nations and douse them with water.
Why, in an era where God’s people worship “in spirit and in truth,” would Jesus require such an ritualistic practice?
Perhaps a better question would be, why does our understanding the Christian faith make one of Jesus’ clear teachings difficult to understand?
I believe that the Protestant Reformation was a good thing (or at least a huge step in the right direction). I also believe that the need to reform has not stopped. In reaction to Roman Catholic sacramentalism, Protestants have emphasized that a person’s relationship with God is measured by the person’s heart, which is the biblical way to describe a person’s inner being, mind, and emotions. No one can read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and miss this truth. One thing that Rome seems to have understood, however, is that God often uses tangible means to minister to his people. There are many reasons why I think that this reality has particular relevance for baptism, even for Protestants.
The Aseity of God and Baptism
First of all, an outright rejection of the importance of the external realities of the faith seems not to take seriously the aseity of God, a theological term for his unchangeable and self-derived nature. We do learn from the book of Hebrew that the ceremonial practices in the Old Testament were but a shadow of what was to come in Christ. But to say that God does not take ceremonies seriously is to devalue the real redemptive work that God was doing throughout all of Israel’s history before Christ. It seems perhaps possible that there is something about external observance that matters to God. Therefore, it seems consistent that a doctrine like baptism was fit into God’s continual redemptive work.
The Visible Church and Baptism
A crucial point of distinction between baptists and presbyterians is their different views of the visible church. Christians throughout the centuries have acknowledged there is a difference between the church that finite humans can observe (the visible church) and those who are actually regenerate (the invisible church). A baptist distinctive is that they feel responsible for a completely pure visible church. In other words, baptists generally believe that the visible church should accurately represent the invisible church. If baptism then is a sign of the a person’s faith, only those who seem to belong to the invisible church should be baptized (I will deal with this further in a later post). Presbyterianism generally believes that the God calls us to stewardship over the visible church in particular. There are many reasons why I think this is a more biblical view.
Although I haven’t done the statistical work on this, my general observation has been that the New Testament epistles seem to be addressed to what we would consider the visible church. The most strong evidence for this seems to be in the various warning passages in the New Testament (Mat. 7:21-23; 1 Cor. 10:1-12; 11:19; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; Heb. 6:4-8; 10:29; 2 Pet. 2:1-22; Rev. 1:4-3:22). These are passages in which people who seem to be currently considered members of the church, are warned that they could be cut off from Christ and his church.
There seem to be a few ways to interpret these various passages. A purely Wesleyan reading may view these passages as addressing the potential loss of one’s salvation. The new testament, however, seems equally ademant about a person eternal security (see esp. Eph. 1:1-2:10; Rom. 8:28-30). Therefore, an interpretation of the warning passages needs to be compatible with passages about eternal security.
Many Reformed Baptists view these passages as hypothetical. In other words, no one who is truly saved would actually fall into the fate described in these passages. On the other hand, those who are cut off as these passages describe were never actually saved (1 Jn. 2:19). As I have heard Thomas Schreiner put it, the warning passages are always effective for the elect.
I agree with this latter view soteriologically (as it pertains to a persons salvation), but think that it still falls short of taking seriously the fate that these passages warn. I would hold to a third view, that these passages are a warning to those who may be cut off from the visible church. The traditional word for this is excommunication. This would refer to a person who is baptized (belonging to the visible church), but who is tentatively banned from fellowship with the church because of an unrepentant sin. Such a situation seems to take place in the church of Corinth (1 Cor. 5:5) and is consistent with Jesus teachings on dealing with sin amongst Christians (Mat. 18:15-20). Therefore, like the Reformed baptist view, I believe that this person would be one who was never saved, but that they were broken off from the a covenant from which they had previously benefited.
On this side of the coming of Christ, the church is an imperfect example of what it is meant to be. Yet, we are called to be stewards over what is before us. God did not call those in leadership over the church to govern invisible realities, but a tangible church. One of the ways that the visible church is distinguished is through the practice of baptism.
In the example of new converts to the faith, they are to be baptized upon a confession of faith, so long as that confession seems to be one of biblical understanding and consistency with the kind of outward behavior as is biblically mandated. As Charle’s Hodges has pointed out, “The common Protestant doctrine is that nothing authorizes us to refuse a man admission to the Church, which would not justify his exclusion if already a member of it” (Systematic Theology, XX.9.Common Protestant Theory).
Children of believers are to be much like children of Abraham. One did not wait to see whether a boy’s faith in YHWH was genuine before circumcision. Rather, they were considered a member of the covenant unless they acted contrary to God’s law (Sproul, “In Jesus Name, Amen”).