Thinking Deeper About Baptism

For those of you who missed yesterday’s sermon, we discussed the two signs of circumcision and baptism from Colossians 2:11-12.

In the sermon I talked about how tempted we are as 21st Christians to ignore the sign of baptism in particular. We do this by ignoring the importance of baptism, thinking that because baptism doesn’t save it must not be all that important. We do this by ignoring the instructions for baptism, it should be for believers, by immersion, and into the church. And we do this when we ignore the intent of baptism, it is the local church affirming the believer’s profession of faith (much like the U.S. Government affirms your citizenship when they give you a passport).

In our Sunday evening service we had a vibrant Q&A discussion about baptism. A number of questions were asked about certain types of baptism (e.g., baptism in the Jordan River, baptism on the mission field, baptism outside of the church, etc.). I did my best to answer these wonderful questions last night, but as I reflected on my answers later last night and this morning I remembered something that would have been helpful to share.

Many theologians ask two key questions when dealing with specific baptism questions: was it a true or false baptism? and was it a regular or irregular baptism? Let me explain:

True or False Baptism

What constitutes a true baptism? First, the baptized individual must be a genuine believer (Acts 2:41). Baptism is a public profession of faith, so if the individual being baptized is not a true believer he or she has not been truly baptized. Second, the baptism must be by immersion. Again, many other denominational traditions would disagree with us, but this is central to what we believe as baptists. The word baptism means to dunk or plunge into water. Third, the baptism must be Trinitarian. Jesus clearly commands us to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20). Now, things can get a little sticky here. We could insist that when the individual was baptized the baptizer said “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” as he was plunging the baptizee into the water. But I don’t think Jesus’ point was a verbal formula that we repeat like an incantation. I think His point was genuine baptisms are administered by those with genuine belief in the nature of God. Or, to put it another way, in order for a baptism to be true, it must be a baptism by a true church.

Our Mormon friends, for example, agree with us that baptism is for believers and by immersion. But because of their heretical views about the Trinity and the nature of Christ (among other things), we would reject them as a true church. Therefore, someone coming for membership at PBC who had been baptized into the Mormon church would need to be truly baptized at PBC since his baptism was a false baptism.

In sum, true baptisms are for believers, by immersion and in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Any baptism that falls outside these bounds should be considered a false baptism. Individuals pursuing membership at PBC (or sister baptist churches, if they’re thinking clearly about baptism) should be denied membership until they are truly baptized.

Regular or Irregular Baptism

To complicate matters a bit further, distinguishing between true and false baptism is not enough. It’s also helpful to distinguish between regular and irregular baptism. Here we’re thinking primarily about where an individual was baptized. A regular baptism is a baptism into a local church. With the exception of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, this is the clear pattern of the New Testament. Everywhere else we see baptism we see it either explicitly or implicitly into a local church. So a regular baptism would be a baptism that occurred with your local church. The point is not whether you were baptized in a church building, but were you baptized with the people who make up a local church.

What then is an irregular baptism? In our day there’s a host of examples:

      • A husband and wife being baptized together in the Jordan River

      • A new convert on the mission field being baptized in a pond by the missionary who led him to Jesus

      • A young man being baptized in a church he has no intention of joining

      • A soldier being baptized by her chaplain while deployed overseas

      • A believing child being baptized in a swimming pool with family and a few friends

Notice that none of these baptisms fit the regular pattern for baptism in the New Testament of being baptized into a church. That is not to say, necesssarily, that these are false baptisms. In order to determine that, we need to put it all together using the above two categories as a grid.

Putting it All Together

Using the grid above, we end up with four types of baptism. A true regular baptism is a believer’s baptism by immersion in a true church. This accounts for probably more than 90% of the baptisms I’ve seen in my ministry.

But there’s also true irregular baptism. Here the individual was truly baptized as a believer by immersion, but perhaps she was baptized at home with her family, or in the Jordan River with her husband. Although we wouldn’t encourage that type of irregular baptism, we wouldn’t reject it either.

Then there’s false regular baptism. We can think of lots of examples here. Johnny was baptized in a Baptist church before he truly believed the gospel. Sally was baptized by sprinkling as an infant in her parents’ Presbyterian church. Billy was baptized by a church that denies the Trinity. Each of these baptisms are false baptisms, but for different reasons.

Finally there’s false irregular baptism. These baptisms neither fit the requirements for Trinitarian baptism by immersion for believers nor the general pattern of baptism into a local church.

Why It All Matters

I know a lot of this may seem like splitting hairs, but let me encourage you that thinking deeply matters for at least three reasons.

1) I hope to encourage you.

If you’re wrestling with your own baptism after something we discussed on Sunday morning or evening, I hope you’ll find something in hear helpful. Just because you were baptized in an irregular manner does not necessarily mean your baptism wasn’t a true baptism. We’re you baptized by immersion as a believer in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit? Than you have been truly baptized.

2) I hope to educate you.

The truth is, some of us have never thought this deeply about baptism. Even after over a decade in ministry, the depth of my convictions on these issues has only come recently. Thinking deeply about baptism is, ironically, just not something many Baptists do. That’s unfortunate, and a significant departure from our Baptist forebears. We are Baptists after all, so we should not be unashamed to think clearly and biblically about baptism.

3) I hope to equip you.

Many of you will have conversations with one another about baptism that I will never be privy to. Many of you have friends and family that are trusting in false baptisms. Perhaps you have a relationship with a new believer who’s thinking about baptism. I hope that there’s something you’ve gleaned from this discussion that will help you to help somebody else.

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