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First Thoughts

Why Do Baptists Baptize? (Part 1)

Christ has given to his church two ordinances to be continually practiced by his people in the church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In some cases, these ordinances have become traditions, rites, and ceremonial practices that we might have forgotten the reason why we do them.

In this first post, I will share three positive reasons to answer the question, why do Baptists baptize? For these three reasons, I want to discuss how baptism should be done, who should get baptized, and what baptism is. These will address the mode, subjects, and meaning of baptism for Baptists.

1. Because Baptism Means Immersion

This first reason gets at the mode of baptism; that is how we baptize. Why do we baptize the way that we baptize?

In the Gospels, we can look at the baptisms performed by John the Baptist to see how baptism was done. John’s baptism accurately demonstrates the mode of baptism. It might have had a different meaning and significance (more on that in the next post), but it still looked the same. So, we can look to these examples of baptism to describe how baptism should be done.

In Mark 1:5, the people “were being baptized by him in the Jordan River.” The baptism was not next to the Jordan River, alongside the Jordan River, or with water from the Jordan River; no, they went into the water to be baptized. And then a few verses later, after Jesus was baptized, “he came up out of the water” (Mark 1:10). He had to go into the water to get baptized, and then when he was done, he came up out of the water. Jesus had to be fully immersed in the water to get baptized. We baptize by immersion because baptism means immersion. That’s why Baptists do not sprinkle water on someone’s head or pour water over them, but the disciple goes into the water to be fully immersed in order to be baptized.

Or consider John 3:23, which reads that “John was also baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there.” He did not go where there was a little pool of water to get a cup full of water. He went where there was much water because they had to go into the water in order to be fully immersed. Also, in Acts 8:36-39, when the Ethiopian Eunuch comes to saving faith and wants to be baptized, why did they have to wait until they came upon some water? Why not just take the cup of water in the chariot and sprinkle him or pour it over him and call it baptism? Because baptism means immersion, that is why “they both went down into the water” (v. 38), and both again “came up out of the water” (v. 39) after they were done baptizing. They had to wait until they found enough water to be immersed.

In addition to these examples in the Gospels and Acts, we also have the reality that baptism symbolizes immersion. Colossians 2:12 reads, “Having been buried with [Christ] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” The reason we immerse people in baptism is that it maintains the symbolism of what baptism represents. It shows our unity with Jesus in his death, burial, and resurrection. We go down into the water, just like Jesus went down into the grave in his death. And we come up out of the water, just like Jesus came up out of the grave in his resurrection. This symbolism is what we are attempting to represent when we display the gospel in baptism.

Some Christians who also practice believers’ baptism by immersion also practice the mode of baptism a little differently. Some baptize face forward into the water or just sit down into the water. But the reason we lay someone backwards in baptism is because it pictures burial, which is how someone is laid in the grave. Other groups triple dunk during baptism because of the three persons of the Trinity. But the Great Commission instructs us to baptize in the name (singular) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are three persons but one God. That is why we just dip disciples one time in the water.

Baptists baptize the way we do for good reasons. Baptism by immersion follows the example in the New Testament, and it also displays the rich symbolism of the gospel by picturing our union with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

2. Because Baptism is the Sign of the New Covenant

This second reason gets at the subject of baptism; that is who we baptize. Why do we baptize only believers and not also their infants? Why do other Christians baptize their babies and Baptists do not?

Different Christian groups baptize their babies for various reasons, but one of the most common reasons (at least among Presbyterians) has to do with how you understand the Old and New Covenants. In the Old Testament, all the male children brought into the Old Covenant in Israel were circumcised. This rite showed that they were members of Israel; they were members of that covenant community. Circumcision was the visible sign that they were members of Old Covenant Israel. Many Christians who baptize their babies think they are doing the same thing in the New Covenant. They believe it works the same way now as it did in the Old Covenant. They believe you become a member of the church, instead of Israel, by performing this ceremony on babies. In the Old Covenant, this rite was circumcision on just males, and in the New Covenant, this rite is baptism by sprinkling or pouring water over boys and girls. The physical rite had to be updated to include both sexes. They believe that baptism has replaced circumcision, but it functions the same way as an entry rite into membership in the covenant community. In the Old Covenant, that was membership in the nation of Israel, and in the New Covenant, that is membership into the church.

The problem with this understanding of baptism (besides the fact that babies do not profess faith before they join the church) is that this is not how the New Covenant works. The Old Covenant and the New Covenant do not work the same way. The church is not the same as the nation of Israel.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the pivotal passage that contrasts the Old and New Covenants. This prophesied New Covenant is “not like the [Old] Covenant” because the Old Covenant can be broken (v. 32). The Old Covenant was given through Moses, but the New Covenant is from Jesus. The Old Covenant was written on tablets of stone, which were easily broken (consider how fast the Golden Calf incident happened after the giving of the law in Exodus 32). But the New Covenant will be written on the hearts of God’s people, and he will put his law within them so that it cannot be lost or broken (v. 33). Lastly, in the New Covenant, everyone will “know the Lord,” meaning they will all be believers because God “will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (v. 34).

In the Old Covenant, the babies did not have to profess faith to join the covenant community. They were circumcised at eight days old. And then they grow up and are commanded to obey the Lord and offer sacrifices, but in many cases, they do not even believe in God! They have not professed saving faith. They are in the nation of Israel, they are members of the Old Covenant, but they are not actually saved. So, the nation of Israel was filled with members who were not true believers (Hebrews 3:16-19). In the Old Covenant, they had to tell their neighbor to “know the Lord,” but not in the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:34). In the New Covenant, everyone knows the Lord because you can’t even enter into the New Covenant until you profess faith in Christ…which babies can’t do!

Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant, which works differently than circumcision as the sign of the Old Covenant. Only those who profess saving faith in Jesus and receive the promised forgiveness he offers in the New Covenant should receive the sign of the New Covenant. That’s why Baptists only baptize professing believers, not infants.

3. Because Baptism is the Public Profession of Faith

This third and final reason for why Baptists baptize gets to the meaning of baptism. What is baptism? Baptists baptize because baptism is the public profession of faith.

After the Apostle Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost, the people asked how they should respond to the gospel message. Peter tells them that they should “repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Baptism was not commanded to do as a work to earn salvation, but as how they should publicly profess their faith in Christ. Baptism is a symbol, a picture of the gospel. It symbolizes Christ’s work and our cleansing through uniting us to his death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4). In baptism, we are confessing that we have embraced this gospel message and want to be publicly identified with Christ and his people.

Why Do We Do the Things That We Do?

We must not forget why we are Baptists and why we baptize. We don’t just baptize out of tradition. We aren’t confused to think that it saves us. No, baptism hasn’t lost its meaning. We baptize believers only and by immersion because it is what Christ commanded his disciples to do. It’s the sign that we are members of the New Covenant, and it’s how we profess our faith in Jesus Christ. I pray that the church would see the baptism waters flowing often because that would mean that God is saving more people here in Jacksonville and bringing them to our church. Let’s rejoice together with every new profession of faith in baptism and remember why we do it.

In the next post, we will explore three reasons that are not the reasons that Baptists baptize.

Richard Lucas (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Pastor of Teaching and He is the co-editor of Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture.

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