Pachabel's "Canon in D" 



Article of the Month

Stephen J. Wellum



Anyone who is familiar with the history of Christian thought knows that the question of baptism has raised and still does raise a lot of debates and disagreements, rooted not only in ecclesiastical tradition and theological systems,1 but also in the vagaries of church history.2 To think that a resolution of the baptismal debate is possible within the confines of this chapter is to expect the impossible. Instead, my goal in the following pages is much more modest; in fact, it is threefold.
     First, in keeping with the theme and purpose of this book, I want to highlight a baptismal crisis that I see in many evangelical churches today, namely a low baptismal consciousness3 among many Christians. Second, I want to contrast these present attitudes toward baptism with that of the New Testament by briefly reminding ourselves of the meaning and significance of Christian baptism. Finally, I want to give some concluding reflections regarding the urgent need to recover and embrace the importance of baptism for the life, health, and mission of the church.



As heirs of the Reformation, evangelicals of various traditions have viewed baptism as vitally important for the life, health, and practice of the church. No doubt, after this basic agreement, there is a lot of disagreement and debate regarding the mode and the proper subjects of baptism. However, with that admitted, evangelicals for the most part have viewed baptism as extremely significant—indeed, a beautiful, visible declaration of the Gospel, bound up with the mission of the church.4 The reason for this attitude is quite simple, yet one that must not be overlooked or ignored: baptism is one of the two ordinances or sacraments5 that the Lord of the church has instituted and ordained for the life and health of the church, until the end of the age; and as such, it is to be practiced in our day in obedience to the Lord.
     Of course, this divine institution of Christian baptism6 is found at the end of Matthew's Gospel, in what has been called "The Great Commission" (Matt. 28:18-20). Here we are presented with the risen Lord, who not only has all authority by virtue of who He is (John 1:1-4; Phil. 2:6; Heb. 1:3), but now has been given all authority from the Father by virtue of what He has done in His triumphant cross-work at Calvary. At this major turning point in redemptive history, Jesus the Christ, who inaugurated His Kingdom in His coming, has now won victory over all of his enemies, and as a result He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth as God's sovereign, mediatorial King. And it is now from this posture of authority that He commands and impels His followers forward, to go and make disciples of all the nations, a task that must be characterized by nothing less than instruction in and the proclamation of God's Word and baptism into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.7
     This Great Commission is significant for at least two reasons. First, as many have noted, baptism "in" (NIV) or better; "into" (eis) the name of the Triune God strongly suggests "a coming-into-relationship-with or a coming-under-the-Lordship-of."8 Thus, it would seem from our Lord's institution of baptism that it serves at least a twofold purpose: a Sign of initiation and entrance into Messiah's community, and a graphic declaration of faith and surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.9 This certainly implies, among other things, that from the perspective of the New Testament, we "can scarcely conceive of a disciple who is not baptized or is not instructed."10 Baptism, in other words, is not a "take it or leave it" issue for the church or a Christian disciple.
     Second, and underscoring what has already been stated, the authority of baptism rests on the command of the risen Lord. As Beasley-Murray reminds us, "Such a charge is too imperious to be ignored or modified. It behooves us to adhere to it and conform to it as God gives grace."11
     When we look at the book of Acts, it seems that the attitude and practice of the early church was just that—they obeyed the command of the risen Lord to His church. Thus, we read that on Pentecost all those who repented and believed were baptized, which numbered about 3,000 Jews (Acts 2:41). And as the church continued to proclaim the Gospel, we read that this same pattern continued. Consider the converts at Samaria (Acts 8:12-13), the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:36-39), Saul (Acts 9:17-18), the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:4748), the household of Lydia (Acts 16:1-15), the household of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:31-33), the household of Crispus and many other Corinthians (Acts 18:8), and the disciples at Ephesus (Acts 19:5).
     Now it is quite evident that when we compare this first-century situation to our own day, one must sadly conclude that, generally speaking, there is a low baptismal consciousness within the church today, no matter what side of the baptismal divide you find yourself on. David Wright, in a very candid article, laments this fact as he reflects upon the state of baptism in the evangelical church.
     On the one hand, Wright admits that those in his tradition (paedobaptist) can come forward to be admitted to the Lord's Table without even being aware whether they have been baptized or not.12 Even worse, he argues that the practice of indiscriminate infant baptism has done a terrible harm. In fact, that is one of the reasons why, he believes, so many treat baptism so lightly, since "where baptism is so easily given and received, with so little effect, it cannot—so many biblical Christians would reason — amount to very much."13 On the other hand, Wright points out that the believers' baptism tradition does not escape a low baptismal consciousness either. Either conversion eclipses baptism as "the moment constitutive of Christian identity" or one finds as a result of mass evangelism that people can become Christians without being related to any specific church—a concept Wright correctly points out "would have been almost incomprehensible to the church of most earlier centuries."14
     I think you can state the problem in even starker terms—terms that would have been unthinkable to New Testament Christianity: in today's evangelical church there are many who profess faith in and allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, but they have either not been baptized or they see no need to be baptized.
     Why is there such a low baptismal consciousness in the church, especially given our Lord's command and New Testament practice? No doubt there are many reasons that could be given, and it is very difficult to reduce the problem to one or two factors. However; I am convinced that a large part of our problem is due to the pervasive loss of the Gospel and sound theology in the church, which is ultimately rooted in our capitulation to a culture that is becoming increasingly pluralistic. What do I mean by this? Here I am following D. A. Carson's analysis in his important work, The Gagging of God.15 Carson rightly argues that the great battle we face at the end of the twentieth century is the battle for truth—a battle against what he calls "philosophical pluralism," i.e., the notion that a "particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong. The only absolute creed is the creed of pluralism."16
     Carson's analysis shows that philosophical pluralism has impacted not only society, but sadly, also the church.17 For example, in the religious realm it has brought about at least two debilitating effects: a growing biblical and theological illiteracy (and along with it an increasing denial of biblical authority), as well as an inclusivist attitude toward world religions.18  That is one of the reasons why the weekly exposition of Scripture has fallen on hard times, and with it the knowledge of God and His Word. In the area of culture, which has also impacted the church, a corollary of pluralism is that of secularization—a process, experts tell us, that does not necessarily lead to the abolition of God, but rather to His marginalization in all aspects of our lives. Thus, what is no longer central to us and what no longer drives us to our knees and out to the world is the glory of God and the Gospel. Theological issues that used to captivate us no longer do—so much so that one rarely hears preached the great watershed doctrines such as union with Christ, election, justification, and sanctification. In addition, pragmatism and individualism have brought about a generation of church consumers who remain indifferent to the local church and cavalier about their participation in it.19
     Given our present situation, is it any wonder that there is a low baptismal consciousness among us? Indeed, when the burning realities of the Gospel are far from us, when the glorious work of our Triune God to save us does not move us, when biblical authority does not captivate our minds and hearts and lead us to obedience, is it any wonder that baptism, along with many other things, fades in its importance and significance? For as we shall soon discover Christian baptism marks boundaries.20  It defines us, and it testifies to the Gospel. It speaks of a majestic Lord who has come to save us and our identification with Him and with His people, by sovereign grace. It speaks of a salvation and a Savior who is the only hope of the world, and it speaks of a believer who was once alienated and estranged from God but now, by grace through faith, has been brought nigh, and thus gladly acknowledges and confesses before the world that Jesus Christ is Lord.
     Is this the only reason for the low baptismal consciousness in our day? For me to answer yes, I think would be reductionistic. But I do think it is an important one, and something we must seriously address. With that in mind, let us now briefly contrast these present attitudes toward baptism with that of the New Testament.



There is certainly much that could be written regarding the meaning and significance of baptism; indeed, the literature on it is abundant. Moreover it is at this point that major differences between baptismal positions begin to surface, and thus what one writes on these matters is never neutral. However with that in mind, it is my goal briefly to unpack four propositions regarding baptism, which I believe are consistent and true to the biblical data as we find it in the New Testament and necessary to affirm, especially given the baptismal crisis of our day.
     First, baptism is one of the primary means God has given us to publicly declare our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Is this not part of what was going on at Pentecost in Peter's exhortation to the people who cried from their hearts, "What shall we do?" (Acts 2:37)? Peter had just demonstrated that the coming of the Spirit in power was nothing less than evidence that redemption had been accomplished, that Jesus is "both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36), and that the new age that the Old Testament longed for and anticipated (Joel 2:2 8ff; cf. Ezek. 36:25-27; Jer 31:29-34) had now finally arrived. Thus, Peter proclaimed that a response is necessary to these great, climactic, redemptive-historical events. And what should that response be? It is repentance and baptism, administered in the name of Jesus Christ, signifying a person's submission to Him as both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:38). Or as Beasley-Murray succinctly states it: "Baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus, whatever else it came to imply, was in the earliest time a baptism 'for the sake of' the Lord Jesus and therefore in submission to Him as Lord and King."21
     I think this basic point is important for us to remember in our day. In a time in which altar calls, confirmation, public rallies, and what not have taken the place of baptism in our confessing the Lordship of Jesus Christ, we need to be called back to the beauty and simplicity of this God-ordained rite. This "instrument of surrender"22 graphically and wonderfully portrays our submission to the Lord Jesus; that we were once separate from Christ, without hope and without God in the world, but now in Christ we have been brought near gladly acknowledging, by grace, Jesus as Lord. I think Beasley-Murray is right when he says, "Baptism is peculiarly appropriate to express such a meaning, especially when the Pauline depth of significance is added to it. No subsequent rite of the Church, such as confirmation, adequately replaces it. The loss of this element in baptism is grievous and it needs to be regained if baptism is to mean to the modern Church what it did to the earliest Church."23
     Second, and probably the most fundamental meaning of baptism, is that it signifies a believer's union with Christ, by grace through faith, and all the benefits that are entailed by that union. It is for this reason that throughout the New Testament, baptism is regarded as an outward sign that a believer has entered into the realities of the New Covenant that Jesus sealed with His own blood on the cross.24 J. I. Packer captures this point well when he writes:

Christian baptism . . . is a sign from God that signifies inward cleansing and remission of sins (Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 5:25-27), Spirit-wrought regeneration and new life (Titus 3:5), and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit as God's seal testifying and guaranteeing that one will be kept safe in Christ forever (1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 1:13-14). Baptism carries these meanings because first and fundamentally it signifies union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-7; Colossians 2:11-12); and this union with Christ is the source of every element in our salvation (1 John 5:11-12). Receiving the sign in faith assures the persons baptized that God's gift of new life in Christ is freely given to them.25

     In fact, so close is the association between baptism and New Covenant blessings in Christ that many have argued that in the New Testament baptism "functions as shorthand for the conversion experience as a whole."26 Evidence for this is quite apparent.
     For example, in Galatians 3:26-27 Paul says: "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ." The language of being "clothed" with Christ most certainly refers to the fact of our union with Him.27  But what is interesting about Paul's statement is how Paul can ascribe union with Christ both to faith (v.26) and to baptism (v.27). How can Paul do this? Does he have in mind an ex opere operato view of baptism? Of course, the answer is no. Paul is not referring to those who have been baptized but who have not repented or believed. That would go against the clear statement of verse 26. Rather he is referring to those who have been converted; all such have clothed themselves with Christ and have been united with Him through faith. Thus baptism, by metonymy, can stand for conversion and signify, as an outward sign, that a believer has entered into the realities of the New Covenant as a result of his union with Jesus Christ through faith.28
     We find something similar in Romans 6:1-4, where Paul sees the initiation rite of baptism as uniting the believer to Jesus Christ in His redemptive acts—His death, burial, and resurrection. No doubt, in this text Paul is not primarily giving a theological explanation of the nature of baptism, but is rather unpacking its meaning for life. Paul is deeply concerned to rebut the charge that the believer can remain in sin in order to underscore grace. Accordingly he uses the language of "realm transfer"29 to show how inconceivable this suggestion really is. We Christians, Paul affirms, have "died to sin" (v. 2b). We have been transferred from the realm of Adam (sin) to the realm of Christ (life, resurrection, grace); therefore, it is quite impossible for us to still live in sin; its power in us has been decisively broken due to our union with Christ in His death.
     Now it is quite legitimate to ask: when did this realm transfer take place, this death to sin? It is interesting that in verses 3-4 Paul connects death to sin with our baptism—when we were "baptized into Christ Jesus" we were "baptized into his death" (v.3). We have died to sin because we have become one with the Lord who died and rose for the conquest of sin and death. "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead we too may live a new life" (v.4). In this sense, then, baptism serves as the instrument by which we are united with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.30
     Once again, how are we to understand this? Does the very practice of the rite of baptism unite us to Christ automatically? Certainly that is not Paul's point. Rather, as in Galatians 3:26-27, baptism functions as shorthand for the whole conversion experience. Thus, Moo is right in concluding that "just as faith is always assumed to lead to baptism, so baptism always assumes faith for its validity. In verses 3-4, then, we can assume that baptism stands for the whole conversion-initiation experience, presupposing faith and the gift of the Spirit."31 In truth, if we understand Paul's argument, it is not baptism that is the primary focus at all; rather, it is the redemptive events themselves that Paul is stressing. Baptism is only introduced to demonstrate that we were united with Christ in His redemptive work, and now all the New Covenant blessings that our Lord has secured for us are ours by virtue of our relationship with Him. Beasley-Murray states it this way: "Through the faith expressed in baptism, what was done outside of us (extra nos) becomes effective faith within us. In Christ we are the reconciled children of God."32
         First Peter 3:21 is further evidence for the close relationship between baptism and New Covenant blessings in Christ. In fact, the relationship is so close that Peter can speak of "baptism that now saves you." What does Peter mean by this? It is quite evident that Peter is not presenting baptism as a magical rite. He immediately points out that it is not the outward, physical act of baptism that saves, but it serves as an appeal to God for a clear conscience. In other words, we are not saved as a result of an outward, physical act or because we promise to live an obedient life. We are saved when we call upon the Lord for a "good conscience." Yet, there is even more: "it [baptism] saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (v. 21b). Not even a request to God for a clean conscience actually provides the basis for our salvation. Peter is emphatic that salvation has ultimately been earned for us by Christ and Him alone. Thus, as Grudem correctly states:

All that baptism represents comes to us not on the merits of any response from us, but through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His resurrection marked his once-and-for-all exit from the realm of death and judgment on sin, and our union with him in his resurrection is the means by which God gives us new life.... Our rising out of the waters of baptism is a picture of our being raised with Christ; by being brought safely through "these waters of judgment" through Christ's resurrection we are indeed given a clear conscience by God.33

     Why is this second point important to stress? For at least this reason: in contrast with the attitudes and practice of many contemporary evangelicals, the New Testament is clear—we cannot stand aloof and indifferent to baptism. Not only is the practice of baptism mandated by our Lord, but the rite is closely linked with the Gospel itself. Hence, in baptism God beautifully testifies in an outward, visible way that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and by Christ alone. In fact, since baptism and conversion are so closely associated in Scripture, it is not enough to say that baptism is a mere symbol or a declarative act. Instead, in the words of Beasley-Murray, it is also a "divine-human event."34 
     Of course, one must be careful at this point not to move either in the direction of ex opere operato or of the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. The New Testament is clear: the benefits that come to us in baptism are bound up with faith. In other words, faith and baptism do not enjoy the same logical status of necessity. But with that said, it is significant that Scripture can link God's gracious giving of all the believer's benefits of being united to Christ to the context of water baptism. Surely, this New Testament teaching doesn't make baptism a trivial matter! That so many Christians can stand as loose to baptism as they do can only reflect the current crisis of the loss of sound biblical theology in the church. That is why it should not surprise us that in a day in which we are consumed with so many secondary issues rather than the Gospel itself, we also find ourselves in a baptismal crisis, for the Gospel and baptism go hand in hand. And thus when the Gospel is recovered in all of its beauty and depth, and people once again seek to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified, baptism will once again take its unique role as the initiating rite of the church.

     Third, baptism very graphically signifies a believer's entrance into the body of Christ, the church. Beasley-Murray bluntly states this reality when he writes: "Baptism to Christ is baptism to the Church; it cannot be otherwise, for the Church is soma Christou, the Body of Christ. "35 So, for example, in Galatians 3:27-28 Paul can immediately move from "putting on" Christ in baptism to the body of Christ in which we are all one. Or in Ephesians 4:22-25, Paul can use the baptismal imagery of "putting on" and "putting off" to speak of the kind of behavior we should have both as individuals and because "we are all members of one body" (v. 25), certainly a reference to the church. In this sense, baptism is similar to an "adoption certificate into the family of God."36 It is the defining mark of belonging, as well as a demarcation from the world (cf. Acts 2:40-41). Thus, in the act of baptism, not only does the Lord of the church appropriate to Himself the one who is baptized in His name and incorporate him into His body, but the person who is baptized also openly identifies with the Lord and His people.37
     Once again, this is something we need to recapture in our day. Not only do people stand loose to baptism, but also to the church. Indeed the two are intimately connected. Whether it is due to our rampant individualism or our lack of theological reflection (or both!), we live in a generation of Christians who remain loosely attached to the church. Little do we see ourselves as different from the world; little do we view baptism as a defining mark of belonging to God's people. However, when we look beyond our borders to the church in other countries and discover what it means for a Christian to be baptized, for example, in a Jewish or Muslim context, the significance of baptism becomes much clearer to us. As Green reminds us: "It is extremely costly, and often involves the expulsion of a newly-baptized person from home and country. Sometimes the family holds a funeral service, to show that the baptized person no longer belongs to them in any way. He is, to all intents and purposes, dead."38 Truly this aspect of baptism has much to say to us today, and if the truth be known, what needs to be recaptured more than anything else is the burning life and death realities of the Gospel, which baptism so beautifully signifies.

     Fourth, baptism is a tremendous promise and anticipation of the fact that all things will be one day consummated through Jesus Christ our Lord. Even though there are a lot of questions surrounding the baptism of John, one thing is clear: John's baptism was an eschatological ceremony, anticipating the coming of the Messiah, the Kingdom of God, and the whole New Covenant era. Christian baptism too is eschatological, but it distinguishes itself from John's baptism in the sense that what John anticipated and longed for has now arrived in Jesus Christ; the age of fulfillment has dawned.
     Thus, Christian baptism, as I have sought to argue, signifies nothing less than the fact that the believer has entered into the full realities of the New Covenant. Why? Because Christian baptism is bound up with our union with the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone has ushered in the long-awaited Kingdom and has literally inaugurated a "new creation." That is why Paul can joyfully say: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Cor. 5:17). However, it is also important to stress that Christian baptism not only looks back to the inauguration of the Kingdom and new creation in Jesus' first coming, but it also looks forward to the not yet—the consummation of all things. We still await the return of our Lord, and as such, we groan with all of creation as we await our full redemption as sons and daughters of the King (cf. Rom. 8:l8ff.).
     Truly, then, a Christian is one who is caught between the times. He looks back to the death and resurrection of Jesus by which the new age has come, and he looks forward in eager anticipation to the realities of the new heaven and the new earth. But in looking back, it is not as if he is a mere spectator. Rather, by baptism the believer participates in the event by which the Kingdom came. Likewise, looking forward is much more than a wishful longing for a place in the consummation. Rather, as Beasley-Murray so well puts it:

We have been united with the Christ who brought the Kingdom in His death and resurrection and shall complete it in his parousia, and we have received the Spirit who mediates the powers of the Kingdom and is the binding link between the two appearings. The forward look of baptism therefore, by reason of its participation in the event that inaugurated the Kingdom, is an anticipation with joyous confidence of the event that shall consummate it. It is a "strong encouragement" for those who have fled for refuge to "seize the hope set before us" (Hebrews 6:18).39

     Baptism, then, is an entry into the eschatological order of the new creation. This is what pervades the consciousness of the early church. Indeed, this is what pervades Peter's preaching at Pentecost. As he seeks to proclaim the meaning of the coming Holy Spirit, he does so by proclaiming that the new age has dawned. Jesus, who has died, is now alive. And as a result of His exaltation, He has poured out the promised Holy Spirit, the down payment of the powers of the age to come. And we participate in that age through baptism, by which we are united with Jesus Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption (Eph. 4:30).40
     No doubt, here is an element in the meaning of baptism that desperately needs to be recovered today. In a day when so many in the church seem to flounder without direction, when there seems to be little urgency in the task of gospel proclamation, when moral and theological compromise is on every hand, we need to be reminded of these great realities. In fact, in them we need to renew our hope and confidence because in them we need to see a fresh sight of our glorious Savior-King. In this regard Beasley-Murray's comments are wise:

Baptism means hope! . . . . Modern Christians would be strengthened by a fresh grasp of this aspect of the meaning of Christian baptism. For men still look for ground to hope and there is no secure basis for it but in Christ. When we know Him to be "our life" (Colossians 3:4) we need no other.41

     Certainly more could be said regarding the meaning and significance of baptism, but that, in a summary fashion, highlights much of the New Testament's teaching regarding it. While much of the biblical teaching above would meet with the agreement of many evangelicals across a wide spectrum of denominational affiliation, one basic point of division still remains. If, as the Scripture teaches, the sacrament is not effective apart from faith, on what grounds may infants who are not capable of faith be baptized? Of course, the debate and divide over this issue is vast, and I do not see a resolution in the near future, though open and candid discussion would help. Ultimately what is at dispute is not an isolated proof text, but whole theological structures. The main point of division centers on the relationship between the Old and New Covenants and the amount of continuity and discontinuity between them.
     Thus, for example, those who advocate a paedobaptist position admit that even though there is no explicit command in the New Testament to baptize infants, the practice is still legitimate due to the following:42 (1) There is an essential unity and continuity of the covenant of grace administered to Abraham, which came to fruition in the New Covenant. (2) Since infants were included in the Old Covenant through circumcision, which was an outward sign of entrance into the covenant community, and since circumcision has been replaced by baptism in the New Covenant, then believing parents are required to administer the New Covenant sign—baptism—to their children. (3) In the Old Covenant, it is quite evident that circumcision did not necessarily mean the child was one of the elect unto salvation; they still needed to exercise faith in order to know and experience God's salvation. But it did demonstrate that God had ordered the sign before faith was present. So in the New Covenant, baptism does not guarantee that children are the elect unto salvation either; they still need to exercise repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But as in the Old Covenant, it is legitimate to give the child the sign of the New Covenant prior to faith.43 (4) Further support for the practice of baptizing infants is found in the household baptisms reported in the New Testament.
     On the other side, those who advocate that baptism should only be administered to believers argue the following:44 (1) In Scripture, baptism is only effectual as an expression of faith, and hence the New Testament pattern—proclamation of the Gospel, believing acceptance of it, and then baptism. (2) No doubt there is a fundamental and underlying continuity between the Old and New Covenants, but there is a lot of discontinuity as well. For example, under the Old Covenant there is necessarily a distinction between the locus of the covenant community and the locus of the elect, with circumcision being the sign of the former. However, under the New Covenant this distinction has been removed. By definition, the people of the New Covenant have the law of God written on their hearts, they have experienced forgiveness of sins, and thus the locus of the New Covenant community and the locus of the elect become one. That suggests, among other things, that baptism as the sign of the New Covenant is only to be applied to those who are in the New Covenant, i.e., believers.45 (3) The examples of household baptisms are arguments from silence. In fact, when we look at the actual examples more closely, we see that in a number of them there are indications of saving faith on the part of all those baptized 46

Where do we go from here? Let me summarize with three concluding thoughts.



First, baptism is important, and as such, we need to be serious about it, again. For not only is it bound up with our Lord's instruction and command to the church, but it is part and parcel of gospel proclamation—a beautiful outward portrayal of the Gospel itself. We neglect it to our peril.

     Second, in all of our disagreements over baptism, we must never forget what unites us. Most of us are quite content to acknowledge that Christians should be baptized in obedience to God; that baptism is the sign of the great gospel realities of union with Christ and all the glorious benefits of New Covenant blessings; that baptism is related to our incorporation into the church; and that baptism, in contrast to the ex opere operato view of Roman Catholicism, has no magical power, but it is by grace alone, through faith alone, and by Christ alone that we are made right with God. No doubt, there are profound differences among us. I admit that paedo- and believer's baptism views cannot simultaneously be right. I would even argue that due to the significance of our differences we have the right to establish local congregations that emphasize one of the views to the exclusion of the other.
     However, with that said, we must never lose sight of what unites us. And what is that? The Gospel. Baptism, though it is important, is not the decisive issue of our day, or any day for that matter. And as such, even though we disagree on some very important points, we need to find our commonality in that to which baptism points—the glories of Jesus the Christ and the full realities of the Gospel of sovereign grace. That, more than anything, must captivate our thinking, our hearts, our churches, our very lives, or else all is for naught.

     Third, we need to recover once again the emphasis that baptism, as the initiating rite of the church, is one of God's means of grace that He has given to His people.47 What this implies, of course, is that in the practice of baptism there is the blessing of God. In our obedience to Christ and our public act of confessing Him, the Lord of the church pours His love and joy into our hearts. When baptism is practiced, as a sign of the believer's union with Christ, the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith and encourages us to press on. In our celebration of this sacrament in the presence of the body of Christ, the people of God are encouraged in their commitment to the Lord and to each other. Indeed, in the practice of baptism, the full eschatological realities of the Gospel are impressed upon our minds and hearts by the Spirit of God, so that we are challenged once again to view our lives from the perspective of eternity, and thus to live aright as those who have tasted the powers of the age to come. No doubt, even though baptism in and of itself does not bring us into a state of grace, it has been ordained by God as a proper means of grace that we ignore, distort, or downplay to the loss of our spiritual health, life, and mission.

  1. There are many points of disagreement between the two views of believer's baptism and paedobaptism, such as the status of households in Scripture (e.g., Acts 11:14; 16:15, 33; 18:8) and Jesus' blessing of the little children (Matt. 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17). But the heart of the disagreement between the two views is theological; i.e., the main dispute centers on the relationship between the Old and New Covenants and the amount of continuity and discontinuity between them. On this important issue and the arguments given by both sides see the following: Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941), pp. 622-643; Edmund Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), pp. 276-284; Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Children of Promise: The Case for Baptizing Infants (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979); Robert R. Booth, Children of Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995); John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol.2 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), pp. 1303-1359; Donald Bridge and David Phypers, The Water That Divides: The Baptism Debate (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1977), pp. 33-70; G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), pp. 334-344; Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978); Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Vol.3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1985), pp. 1089-1105; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), pp. 966-984.
  2. See Bridge and Phypers, The Water That Divides, pp. 73-150 for a helpful and concise summary of the historical data surrounding the baptism debate.
  3. The term "low baptismal consciousness" is taken from David F. Wright's article, "Recovering Baptism for a New Age of Mission," in Doing Theology for the People of God: Studies in Honor of J. L Packer, eds. Donald Lewis and Alister McGrath (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 54.
  4. Murray J. Harris, in his article "Baptism and the Lord's Supper," in In God's Community: The Church and Its Ministry, eds. David J. Ellis and W. Ward Gasque (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1978), p.14 nicely contrasts baptism with the proclamation of the Word of God as the Gospel presented to the eye-gate versus the Gospel proclaimed to the ear-gate. Thus Harris states:
  5. "The submersion of the Christian in water is an acted parable of the death and burial of Christ, while his emergence from the water graphically dramatizes Christ's rising from death and entrance into new life."
  6. Historically, evangelicals have differed over whether to apply the term sacrament to baptism and the Lord's Supper. Some evangelicals, especially Baptists, have refused to refer to baptism and the Lord's Supper as sacraments. Instead, they have preferred the word ordinances, primarily for two reasons: (1) Baptism and the Lord's Supper were ordained by our Lord (Matt. 28:18-20; 1 Cor. 11:24); (2) They have wanted to distinguish their view from Roman Catholicism, which has historically viewed baptism and the Lord's Supper as sacraments (along with confirmation, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and marriage), which in themselves actually convey grace to people without necessarily requiring faith from the persons participating in them. This is the notion behind the Latin phrase ex opere operato; that is, by virtue of the work done, grace is actually given, so that it can be said that the sacraments actually confer grace in an efficacious sense, without the need for faith in the recipients. On the other hand, other evangelicals, especially those in the Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed traditions, have been willing to speak of baptism and the Lord's Supper as sacraments, though still in contrast to the Roman Catholic view, in the sense that they are outward and visible signs of an inward grace. If one understands sacrament in the latter sense, it does not seem that any momentous point is at issue here. Since evangelicals clearly distinguish their view from the ex opere operato view of Roman Catholicism, it is legitimate to refer to baptism and the Lord's Supper as either sacraments or ordinances, and thus I will use the words interchangeably. On one specific Baptist objection to the use of the term sacrament see A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, Vol.3 (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1909), p.930. On the Roman Catholic use of the term sacrament see Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism, Vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1980), pp. 731-745 and Thomas Bokenkotter, Essential Catholicism (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1986), pp. 170-186. On the topic of sacraments in general see Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 2nd edition (Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 494-520.
  7. There is much discussion in the literature on the origin of Christian baptism and its relationship to Qumran, Jewish proselyte baptism, John's baptism, and the baptism of Jesus. It is certainly not the purpose of this chapter to wrestle with these issues, but they are important ones in ultimately coming to grips with the meaning and significance of Christian baptism. It seems safe to say that Christian baptism emerged out of the ministry of John the Baptist. John administered a one-time "repentance-baptism" for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4) in anticipation of Messiah's baptism of Spirit and fire (Matt. 3:11). Jesus submitted to John's baptism (Matt. 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11) to demonstrate His identification and solidarity with sinful humanity and the inauguration of His ministry as the Messiah. But once Jesus' cross-work was complete, the provisional nature of John's baptism reached its full and final significance in Christian baptism, bound up with the ushering in of the New Covenant age. Many have noted that due to the close connection between John's baptism and Christian baptism, one should expect to find the same stress upon personal repentance and faith in Christian baptism that we find in John. In fact, I would argue that attempts to circumvent this connection in order to find a justifiable reason to baptize those who lack personal repentance and faith put John and Jesus (and later the apostles) at odds with one another and disrupt the unique forerunner-Messiah relationship that exists between them in the New Testament. For more on these issues see D. S. Dockery, "Baptism," in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), pp. 55-58; Beasley-Murray, Baptism, pp. 1-92; Beasley-Murray, "Baptism," NIDNTT, ed. Cohn Brown, Vol.1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), pp. 143-150; George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 31-41; Harris, "Baptism and the Lord's Supper," pp. 16-17; Bridge and Phypers, The Water That Divides, pp. 15-32.
  8. On the grammatical construction of this verse and issues surrounding it, see D. A. Carson, Matthew, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Vol.8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), pp. 594-599; and Beasley-Murray, Baptism, pp. 77-92.
  9. Carson, Matthew, p.597. See also Beasley-Murray, Baptism, pp. 90-92; G. R. Beasley-Murray, "Baptism," in New Dictionary of Theology, eds. Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J. I. Packer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p.70.
  10. This is why Paul Jewett, in his article "Baptism (Baptist View)," in Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney, Vol. I (Grand Rapids, Ml: Zondervan, 1975), p. 466 defines Christian baptism as "that initiatory washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit which the risen Lord commissioned His apostles to administer to all His followers as a mark of their discipleship."
  11. Carson, Matthew, p. 597. Beasley-Murray makes the same point, though from the perspective of the apostle Paul, in his article "Baptism," in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p.60. Beasley-Murray rightly notes that Paul's argument in Rom 6:lff. would be groundless unless Paul assumes that he and all his readers have been baptized.
  12. Beasley-Murray, Baptism, p. 92. Also see the strong emphasis on the place of divine authority in the institution and continuing practice of baptism in Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 624; John Murray, Christian Baptism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1962), pp. 4-8.
  13. Wright, "Recovering Baptism for a New Age of Mission," p. 54.
  14. Ibid., p.55.
  15. Ibid.
  16. D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).
  17. Ibid., p. 19. Carson's observation is very similar to Francis Schaeffer's assessment that the vital and crucial issue facing the evangelical church at the end of the twentieth century is the battle over truth. See Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1984).
  18. One remembers the often quoted statement of Allan Bloom as he began his work The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p.25: "There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative."
  19. Inclusivism is the view that all who are saved are saved on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, but that conscious faith in Jesus Christ is not absolutely necessary. Some may be saved, even though they have never heard about Jesus, by responding to the knowledge that they have around them, i.e., responding to general revelation. Others may be saved by responding to Jesus after death, i.e., post-mortem salvation. Exclusivism, in contrast to inclusivism, argues that only those who place their faith in Jesus Christ are saved. Exclusivism has been the historic position of the church. Inclusivism, which has been popular in Roman Catholic circles, especially since Vatican II, has increasingly become popular in evangelical circles: e.g., Clark Pinnock and John Sanders. For more on these issues see Carson, The Gagging of God; Ronald Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994); John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation Into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992); Clark H. Pinnock, A Wideness in God's Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (Grand Rapids, Ml: Zondervan, 1992).
  20. For a more in-depth treatment of these issues, refer to Carson, The Gagging of God. Also see David F. Wells, No Place For Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993); Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Postmodern Times (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994); David S. Dockery, ed. The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1995); and, on a more popular level, the essays in John Armstrong, ed. The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996).
  21. See Wright, "Recovering Baptism for a New Age of Mission," pp. 56-57. In this regard Wright states the following: "We should not imagine, however, that as the church increasingly finds itself, in Europe at least, in a primary mission field, this recovery of baptism will be straightforward. For inclusiveness is a prominent element in the religious psyche of the ex-Christian West, and baptism always marks boundaries. It is the rite whereby persons are included in the family of Christ, but only by drawing lines between church and nonchurch, between Christian and non-Christian. A baptismal ministry which seeks to be faithful to the New Testament's presentation of baptism cannot fail to run athwart the inclusivist spirit of the age. In a number of ways the pre-Constantinian experience of the church becomes more and more pertinent at the end of the second millennium. Not least is this the case for baptism."
  22. Beasley-Murray, Baptism, p. 101. Murray Harris, "Baptism and the Lord's Supper," pp. 19-21 makes the same point when he emphasizes that "In baptism there is a transference of the rights of possession ('into the name, eis to onoma, Acts 8:16; 19:5).... As he submits to baptism in obedience to Christ's command, the believer gives outward evidence, by an oral and public confession, of his inward belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and his intent to show lifelong devotion and loyalty to his Master with whom he has died, been buried, and raised (Romans 6:1-11)." Also see F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), pp. 75-78; Richard N. Longenecker, Acts, The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), pp. 79-81; Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pp. 624-626.
  23. The term is taken from Beasley-Murray, Baptism, p. 102.
  24. Ibid.
  25. One of the important side-issues in the baptism debate is the proper mode of baptism. Even though the purpose of this chapter is not to deal with this issue, it is significant that those who argue for the believer's baptism position generally argue that immersion is the most adequate way to symbolize our union with Christ. On this see Jewett, "Baptism," p. 466; and Grudem, Systematic Theology, pp. 967-968. Of course, this is not the only factor in the discussion regarding the proper mode. Much discussion also centers around the word baptize and its meaning. On this see BAGD, pp. 131-132; Beasley-Murray, "Baptism," NIDNTT, pp. 144-146; cf. A. Oepke, "Baptize," TDNT, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Vol.1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), pp. 529-546. For a contrary view see Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pp. 629-631 and Murray, Christian Baptism, pp. 9-33.
  26. J. I. Packer, Concise Theology (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), p.212.
  27. Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI:
  28. Eerdmans, 1996), p. 355. Moo picks up the suggestion of James Dunn that the early church conceived of faith, the gift of the Spirit, and water baptism as components of one unified experience, what Dunn calls "conversion-initiation." This is an important observation, and it is crucial to maintain against the ex opere operato view of Roman Catholicism. It is not as if baptism effects regeneration, but it is assumed that faith leads to baptism, and baptism always assumes faith for its validity. Once again, this observation underscores the importance the New Testament places on baptism, without denying the priority of salvation by grace through faith. See James Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1970), pp. 139-146; Moo, Romans, p. 366; Beasley-Murray, "Baptism," NIDNTT, pp. 146-148.
  29. See Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), pp. 170-175; Beasley-Murray, Baptism, pp. 146-151; Clowney, The Church, p. 280.
  30. See Fung, Galatians, pp. 173-174. Beasley-Murray, "Baptism," Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, p. 62, states it this way: "The two statements in Galatians 3:26 and 27 are complementary: verse 26 declares that believers are God's children 'through faith,' and verse 27 associates entry into God's family upon union with Christ, and Christ sharing His sonship with the baptized. It is an example of Paul's linking faith and baptism in such a way that the theological understanding of faith that turns to the Lord for salvation, and of baptism wherein faith is declared, is one and the same." On this same point also see Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol.41 (Dallas: Word, 1990), pp. 154-156.
  31. Moo, Romans, p.354. Paul often speaks of two realms: that of sin and death, founded by Adam; and that of life and righteousness, founded by Christ. As Moo states, "All people belong in one of these realms or the other; and they are now in the one or the other because God has viewed them as participating in the founding acts of these realms: the sin of Adam and the 'obedience' of Christ. Since, in terms of salvation history, the realm of Christ has been instituted after that of Adam, we can also speak in temporal categories and call the realm of Adam the 'old age' or 'aeon' and that of Christ the 'new age' or 'aeon"' (Romans, pp. 351-352). In Romans 6 and elsewhere, Paul often speaks of believers as being "transferred" from the one realm to the other by virtue of being united to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Thus a Christian is one who has moved from the reign of sin and death to that of Christ-righteousness and life. As Moo, Romans, p.352, concludes: "By using this imagery of a transfer of realms, or 'dominions,' with its associations of power and rulership, Paul makes clear that the new status enjoyed by the believer (justification) brings with it a new influence and power that both has led and must lead to a new way of life (sanctification)." For a similar view see Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John R. de Witt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), pp. 44-181.
  32. Ibid., pp. 353-367. This still raises the question of the "time" of our burial with Christ. Was it at the time of His burial, or did it occur at the time of our conversion? Moo argues that the text does not allow us to focus on the cross or our own experience as the "time" of our being buried with Christ, but rather it is both. Thus, as Moo states: "We are dealing with a category that transcends time. Our dying, being buried, and being resurrected with Christ are experiences that transfer us from the old age to the new. But the transition from old age to new, while applied to individuals at their conversion, has been accomplished through the redemptive work of Christ on Good Friday and Easter. Paul's syn refers to a 'redemptive-historical' 'withness' whose locus is both the cross and resurrection and Christ—where the 'shift' in ages took place historically—and the conversion of every believer—when this 'shift' in ages becomes applicable to the individual" (Romans, pp. 364-365).
  33. Ibid.,p.366.
  34. Beasley-Murray, "Baptism," in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, p.62. Colossians 2:11-12 is another text that is parallel to Romans 6:1-4. On this text see P. T. O'Brien, Colossians and Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol.44 (Waco, ~D(: Word, 1982), pp. 114-121.
  35. Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, TNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), pp. 164-165.
  36. Beasley-Murray, "Baptism," NIDNTT, p.148.
  37. Beasley-Murray, Baptism, p.279. No doubt, in this context the question is often raised: "To which church does baptism give entry—to the local or universal church, to the visible or the invisible church?" Even though these questions are legitimate to ask, one wonders if this kind of question would have been conceivable to the New Testament. On this see the article by P. T. O'Brien, "The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity," in The Church in the Bible and the World, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), pp. 88-119; and D. A. Carson, "Evangelicals, Ecumenism and the Church," in Evangelical Affirmations, eds. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), pp. 347-385.
  38. Michael Green, Baptism: Its Purpose, Practice, and Power (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), p.51.
  39. See Beasley-Murray, Baptism, pp. 279-284.
  40. Green, Baptism, p.52.
  41. Beasley-Murray, Baptism, p. 292.
  42. For the close connection between baptism and the Holy Spirit, see Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit; Beasley-Murray, "Baptism," in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, pp. 63-64. Once again the connection between baptism and the Holy Spirit is bound up with conversion. As Beasley-Murray states, "Conversion is not only the result of human decision, but it is enabled by the Spirit. He is not only the fruit of conversion-baptism; he is the real baptizer, the agent who makes baptism what it was meant to be: entry upon life in Christ" (pp. 63-64).
  43. Beasley-Murray, Baptism, pp. 295-296.
  44. For more on these specific arguments, consult the works found in footnote 1. In addition, other helpful resources are: J. I. Packer, Concise Theology, pp. 212-216; R. C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), pp. 225-229; Geoffrey W. Bromiley, "Baptism," in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. G. W. Bromiley, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), pp. 410-415.
  45. There is some dispute over this within the paedobaptist community, especially over the notion of whether infant baptism leads to a kind of presumptive regeneration and the whole nature of the conditional covenant. For an interesting and important discussion of these issues, see David J. Engelsma's seven articles entitled, "A Candid Confession of the Character of a Conditional Covenant," in The Standard Bearer (January 1-April 1, 1997).
  46. This is the position that the author takes. Consult the resources in footnote 1 for more specific data regarding the specific arguments presented here for the believer's baptism view.
  47. See D. A. Carson, "Evangelicals, Ecumenism, and the Church," pp. 347-385 for the exegetical underpinnings of this argument. Much of the debate surrounds the nature of the New Covenant and its relationship to the Old. For a very helpful article that explores some of these same issues and turns the burden of proof onto the shoulders of the paedobaptist, see R. Fowler White, "The Last Adam and His Seed: An Exercise in Theological Preemption," Trinity Journal 6:1 (1985), pp. 60-73.
  48. On this see Grudem, Systematic Theology, pp. 976-978; Beasley-Murray, Baptism, pp. 312-320.
  49. For a helpful discussion of the means of grace, see Grudem, Systematic Theology, pp. 950-965.



I would like to thank Kirk Wellum, Greg Strand, and Jeff Nesbitt for their healthy discussion on this issue of baptism. Their conversations and written work have been a great help to me, even though they are not responsible for any errors that have been made in this essay.


Dr. Stephen J. Wellum (B.A., Roberts Wesleyan College; M.Div., Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is assistant professor of theology at Northwest Baptist Theological College and the Associated Theological Schools of Trinity Western University, Langley, B.C. Before teaching, he was a pastor in South Dakota.



This article appears as chapter 7 in the newly released The Compromised Church (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1998) pp. 149-170. Permission to publish this article has been obtained from the general editor, Dr. John Armstrong and the author Dr. Stephen J. Wellum and is copywrited © 1998 by John H. Armstrong.


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