“In obedience to our Lord’s command, I baptize you … .”
For four centuries, this baptismal formula has echoed across creek banks and through Baptist sanctuaries around the globe. It reflects a central reason most Baptists practice believer’s baptism by immersion. Just before he ascended, Jesus proclaimed the Great Commission, telling his followers: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you …” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Jesus commanded baptism for new believers. If you follow the sequence of his verbs, salvation—“make disciples”—comes first, then comes baptism. Since at least 1641, Baptists have immersed new believers, because the specific New Testament word, baptizein, means to dip or immerse.
Today, increasing numbers of Baptists are discussing whether Baptist churches should continue to require baptism by immersion for membership. The majority still advocates the ancient practice, but some affirm open membership, or accepting members from other Christian traditions without requiring them to have been baptized by immersion after conversion. The Standard and our New Voice Media partners are presenting an extensive examination of baptism, which is featured in this edition .
Ironically, while Baptists are the denomination most overtly linked to the practice of baptism, we also are numbered among the Christians who do not claim baptism has sacramental power. We do not believe it is necessary for salvation. So, we would do well to respond with a generous spirit toward others who believe differently about baptism, particularly those who reserve baptism for believers but practice a different mode—sprinkling or pouring. Since we value baptism highly, it should be a topic for Christian discussion. But since we do not believe it is required for salvation, we should not denigrate others’ interpretations.
Still, I would suggest Baptist churches continue to practice and promote believer’s baptism by immersion for three reasons, marked by a caveat:
• Reason #1—obedience. Jesus commanded the church to lead people to faith in him and then to baptize them. Careful biblical research suggests John baptized Jesus by immersion. So, we should follow his example and obey his command. Some churches that tilt toward open membership cite prospective members’ reticence to submit to immersion. This is understandable, yet troubling. Why must everything be convenient, comfortable and suitable to personal preference? The surest criterion for Christian joy is submission and obedience to Christ in all things. So, bowing to individual resistance to sacred practice—because it seems redundant or might feel embarrassing—undermines the call to obey Christ.
• Reason #2—identification. Believer’s baptism by immersion provides the perfect metaphor for identifying with the dead, buried and resurrected Christ and with generations of saints who have gone before. The opportunity to identify with Jesus and with Baptists around the world is a blessed privilege.
• Reason #3—hope. Believer’s baptism by immersion symbolizes faith in two vital hopes. First is that we, as new Christians, have died to our old, sinful selves and have been raised spiritually to walk in a new life. Second is that we place our eternal hope in the Resurrection. Christ defeated death, and so we live—both now and forevermore—in the promise of eternal life with God.
• Caveat—respect local-church autonomy. In addition to our 400-year affiliation with baptism, Baptists also have championed the right and responsibility of each congregation to search the Scriptures and come to its own conclusions. Respect for this principle should mark our discussion.
Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. Visit his FaithWorks Blog.