“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Matt 28:19, 20
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. The Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, however, is for evangelical Christians who believe in salvation by grace through faith and yet are found in many separate groups. 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.
Many sincere Christians get a little upset when such a controversial subject as baptism is broached; however, except for those who reject water baptism, this will not be a divisive or polemical article, but rather (we trust) a unifying and edifying one.
II. The Christian Consensus
For nearly two thousand years almost all who profess to be followers of Christ have sought to obey His command quoted at the head of this article. Through the centuries various groups have worked out differing traditions as to when, who, why, and how candidates are to be baptized.
Nevertheless there is a very broad consensus: People have universally made contact with water in a rite signifying that they are Christians or that they are meant to be brought up in the Christian faith.
III. The Current Exceptions
Perhaps the handful of exceptions to the practice of water baptism constitutes an example of what is popularly called “the exception that proves the rule.”
Three groups in contemporary Christendom, one harking back to the seventeenth century, and two from the nineteenth, have chosen not to believe in or practice water baptism at all. Two of these, the Society of Friends (popularly called “Quakers”) and the Salvation Army, have been very active in valuable social work. The third group, generally identified as a ultra-dispensationalists” (though obviously not their own chosen designation) rests on such subtle “dividing” of the Scriptures as to attract chiefly those of an intellectual bent to their circle of fellowship.
The Society of Friends has generally taught that outward rites are not necessary to the spiritually advanced. This includes the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The vast majority of people, however, strongly disagree. Aside from our Lord’s command, most professing believers feel the need for tangible, observable helps to express their faith.
The Quaker teaching sprang from an over-reaction to the ritualistic formalism of the “Establishment” (Church of England) in the 1600’s. George Fox and his followers felt that they were more advanced spiritually than their Protestant and Roman Catholic neighbors, and so did not need “the sacraments.”1
The Salvation Army
This great evangelistic movement, patterned after a military organization, has done great charitable work and won many converts. Early Salvationists did practice the ordinances of water baptism and communion but because they were accused of becoming another denomination and also because they reacted to the extreme denominational divisions of the nineteenth century, General William Booth decided in 1882 that the practice of the ordinances should be discontinued.2 Doubtless many Salvationists were and are already baptized, or get baptized elsewhere. It is hard for people not to feel that omitting Christ’s “standing orders” to baptize in water is an act of insubordination to the Commander-in-Chief.
You will never see a sign reading “First Ultra-Dispensationalist Church.” Those in this movement believe that they are more advanced than traditional dispensationalists and that there is nothing “ultra” about them. Those who look with disfavor on dispensational theology often lump dispensationalists and ultra-dispensationalists together, but they are really quite different in outlook.3
Ultra-dispensationalists believe that the Christian Church started after Pentecost, and that the earliest Church was a Jewish Church.4 Hence they consider baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or at least the former, to be “carnal” ordinances fit only for the Jewish phase of Christianity.5 In 1 Cor 1:13-17 Paul tells a little about his own practice regarding baptism. Preaching the Gospel, not baptizing, was his primary mission (v 17). The important thing to note here is that Paul, the number-one “hero” of the ultra-dispensationalist movement, did baptize Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas, and saw to it that it was done for the others.6
Regarding the Lord’s Supper, the phrase “till He comes” (1 Cor 11:26) would seem to answer the question sufficiently for most. Regarding baptism, where in Scripture has the command to baptize ever been rescinded?
IV. Baptism and Grace
Quite early in Christian history the idea grew up that baptism was necessary for salvation. Also the notion appeared that baptism washed away original sin and (for older candidates) any sins committed before baptism.
While Grace Evangelical Society’s constituency may disagree as to the exact meaning of water baptism, this is a mild disagreement compared to the issue of whether or not water baptism is necessary for salvation!
Members of the Society, along with evangelicals generally, will strongly affirm that although commanded by Christ, and hence important, water baptism confers no saving grace.
None of us would ever suggest that any Friend, Salvationist, or ultra-dispensationalist who truly received Christ by faith will be eternally lost.
We do believe, however, that they will regret not having been baptized when they stand before the Judgement Seat of Christ.
If baptism doesn’t save; if it is a major cause of division in Christendom as to mode, meaning, and proper subjects of the rite; and if it isn’t absolutely necessary to the Christian life, of what great importance is it?
V. The Meaning of Baptism
The precise significance of baptism is still much debated. Many still teach baptismal regeneration, that is, that the person being baptized—usually an infant in circles holding that view—is actually “born again and grafted into the Body of Christ. Others, while not holding baptismal regeneration as such, believe it is part of salvation, and without it one will be damned.7
As to mode, those who pour or sprinkle generally see baptism as a picture of the Holy Spirit coming on the believer at salvation. Those practicing immersion usually see the rite as a picture of the believer’s death, burial, and resurrection with Christ.
The general meaning of baptism is widely, and we believe correctly, held to be identification with Christ and His people.
In 1 Cor 10:2 we read that the children of Israel were “baptized into Moses…in the sea.” What does this mean? Were they immersed in the Red Sea? Certainly not. Did it pour on them as they passed through? No. Were they at least sprinkled by the sea? Not even that. By going through the sea on dry land they were identified with their deliverer, Moses, who, under God, “saved” them from Pharaoh and the armies of Egypt.
That baptism means identification with Christ and the Christian faith is not as clearly seen in those Western countries which have a very large part of the population baptized in infancy. But it is in the so-called non-Christian world that the general meaning of baptism shines through most clearly. Robert K. DeVries, in his dissertation on NT baptism, writes:
Among educated Hindus, Moslems and Jews, total defection or apostasy from their respective faiths to Christianity comes only when the Christian convert submits to baptism. It is a mark of absolute identification with the Christian faith. Would to God this were true throughout the world.8
VI. The Importance of Baptism
Water baptism is important for obedience and as a testimony.
“To obey is better than sacrifice,” said the Prophet Samuel (1 Sam 15:22). Our Lord’s command before His crucifixion was to remember Him in the breaking of bread. His command right before His ascension was to baptize disciples in all nations “in the [triune] name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This alone should be enough to convince the ordinary Christian to get baptized. Once you have left this planet it will be too late to observe either ordinance. The time is now.
As a Witness
As we have noted, in Muslim countries, and many other lands outside of professing Christendom, such as Israel, a person is not considered to be really a Christian until he or she is baptized with water. One can study the faith, attend services and other social functions, and yet not be considered a Christian.
While attending an inter-denominational Christmas service at St. George’s (Anglican) Church in Jerusalem some years ago, I was told by my host that the pleasant, middle-aged couple sitting in front of us was Jewish. They obviously were enjoying the lovely music, the biblical readings, and the spirit of joy. There are many such people, attracted to various aspects of Christianity (often the cultural byproducts—art, music, and architecture) yet unwilling to take a difficult stand in a non-, un-, or often anti-Christian environment.
Only if that couple received water baptism would they be likely to receive hostile attention from the Israeli community. The same holds true in many cultures. The world, at least, recognizes Christ’s badge as being water baptism. Unfortunately for sincere and practicing believers in many communions, untold millions of nominal Christians have received the badge—whether by immersion, sprinkling, or pouring, whether in infancy, childhood, or adulthood—without ever having personally received the Savior. Others have believed but are still not great advertisements for the faith. Many would say that these people are not really saved. They are judging by performance. Fortunately, God sees the heart and He knows those who belong to Him through faith in His Son.
In spite of all the controversy and differing viewpoints on various aspects of baptism, we of the Grace Evangelical Society firmly believe in water baptism as significant and important.
Why? Because Christ has commanded it, because it is the badge of a Christian in the eyes of the world, and because it is a privilege to obey our Lord’s command. Since one of the basic meanings of baptism is identification, we as true believers want to be identified as part of His universal Body, not only by the unbelieving world, but also by Christians of every sort in every tribe and nation.
We believe in baptism. It is one of only two rites instituted by our Lord in the Gospels, practiced by the Apostles in the Book of Acts, and explained in the Epistles of the NT. It should be practiced by the whole body of Christ. Unbiblical ritualism, divisive sectarianism, or overly-subtle distinctions should not keep anyone from obeying Christ’s beautiful ordinance of water baptism. DeVries writes:
The rise of ecumenicity with its fuzzy distinctives and subtle sacramentalism demands that this doctrine be clearly understood lest its observance deteriorate to a mere liturgical rite bereft of personal spiritual significance.9
It is commanded by Christ. It is the seal and hallmark that should identify a follower of Christ. Finally it is our privilege to obey gladly. As Ironside has well said:
To the lover of the Lord Jesus Christ there can be nothing legal about baptism. It is simply the glad expression of a grateful heart recognizing its identity with Christ…. Many of us look back to the moment when we were thus baptized as one of the most precious experiences we have ever known.10
1The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper have no place in Quaker Meetings. All life being considered a religious sacrament, occasional ceremonies were thought to obscure the need for continual spiritual striving, and just as a special oath was dispensed with by speaking the truth at all times, in the same way special sacraments were considered unnecessary. Sidney Lucas, The Quaker Story (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers 1949), 52.
2The Toronto War Cry for August, 1959, lists eight reasons why the Salvation Army abandoned the ordinances: “In discarding the use of sacraments the Army Founder was led to do so for the following reasons: 1. There was no uniformity of practice. 2. There was great argument and conflict between religious denominations. 3. The bitterness engendered was harmful to the interests of the kingdom. 4. A large proportion of Church members gave no outward sign of an inward change, although they placed great importance upon the observance of the sacraments. 5. There was no scriptural warrant for the way the sacraments were observed. 6. They were not necessary to salvation or spiritual progress. 7. Some forms were positively harmful to the Army type of converts. 8. Salvation by the blood of the Lamb and regeneration by the Holy Spirit were the essentials. The only baptism enjoined in the New Testament was the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Quoted by Alfred Gibbs, Christian Baptism (Kansas City, KS: Walterick Publishers, 1966), 109. Regarding the last point, it certainly is not true that only Spirit baptism is enjoined in the NT, as the Great Commission shows.
3All Christians who don’t practice animal sacrifice are to that extent “dispensational.” Those who reject dispensationalism as a theological system often think that mainstream, traditional dispensationalists are “ultra.” The discussion of ultra-dispensationalist rejection of one or both of the ordinances should highlight a main difference. In all fairness, however, it should be pointed out that ultra-dispensationalists accept the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.
4Ultra-dispensationalists all reject water baptism, but the more moderate ones accept the Lord’s Supper. A typical “moderate” view would be O’Hair’s: “Most ‘grace’ preachers claim that we are working under the ‘great commission’ of Matthew 28:19 and 20 and that we are to baptize with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, after believers are made members of the Body of Christ by Holy Spirit baptism. But they do not know what for. Many defend their practice because ‘it is too late to change.’ But not one of the dozen or more water baptism theories can be proved by the Bible rightly divided. They cannot prove their practice by the Bible, except by corrupting some Scriptures and wholly ignoring other Scriptures” J. C. O’Hair, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ [Chicago: J. C. O’Hair, n.d.], 228).
One must take strong exception to O’Hair’s last statement. It is not only uncharitable; it is false. The more extreme view can be represented by Welch: “The preaching of the Baptist had been, ‘I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He that cometh after Me is mightier than I…. He shall baptize you with the holy spirit [sic] and fire’ (Matt. iii. 11). During the Gospels we find water baptism and the promise of baptism in spirit [sic]. During the Acts we find water baptism and the baptism in spirit [Sic] together. During the present period we find no water baptism, but the baptism in Spirit [sic] only” (Charles H. Welch, Dispensational Truths [London: Frederick P. Brininger, 1912], 226).
5The notion that the Church to which we belong didn’t start till after Pentecost (ultra-dispensationalists have several proposed starting points) and that the Church in Acts was “Jewish” and hence went in for “carnal” rites is ably refuted in the recently reprinted H. A. Ironside booklet, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, Fourth Edition, 1989).
6Not only does this passage sit poorly with ultra-dispensationalist doctrine, but it also conflicts with baptismal regeneration. If water baptism were an essential part of the Gospel of salvation, would Paul have written, “Christ did not send me to baptize”?
7See Lanny Thomas Tanton’s article on Acts 2:38 in this issue of JOTGES.
8Robert K. DeVries, “The New Testament Doctrine of Ritual Baptism” (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1969), 181.