Reasons for baptism

  • Question from DH, USA

    I was wondering if you could explain the Biblical grounds for water baptism and why it is required for membership in many churches today? John’s water baptism is distinguished from the baptism of Jesus which was a baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts chapter 1, verse 5). As I understand it, that occurs at the moment of conversion. So why do we still practice a water baptism?

    Full baptism ‘by immersion’ is practiced in many protestant churches that have their roots in non-conformist teaching (i.e. historically they differentiated themselves from established state churches). In seeking to rediscover the Biblical practice of baptism, for a variety of theological reasons covered later, these churches began to teach that true baptism was undergone voluntarily and involved complete immersion in water. The model this is based on is Jesus’ own baptism as recorded in the gospels, which implies full immersion. For example, afterwards Jesus “came up out of the water” (Mark chapter 1, verse 10), using the Greek words ek’ tou udatos, which can only be translated as ‘out of the water’. This implies he was under the surface of the Jordan River during his baptism.

    Jesus subsequently commanded that believers be baptised as part of the Great Commission (Matthew chapter 28, verses 18-20), although it is not clear from the gospel accounts whether he insisted that his companions during his earthly ministry were all baptised. It is likely that some of his disciples had been baptised by John the Baptist prior to meeting and following Jesus.

    There are a number of theories why Christian tradition changed to infant baptism. Because of the link made by Jesus between belief and baptism, the act of getting baptised was often regarded as a necessary part of being saved. The high infant mortality rate meant that believer’s children might die without being baptised, and thus saved, so it may be that infant baptism developed as common practice to ensure dead ‘innocents’ were washed clean of original sin and therefore would enter Heaven. During the Reformation the principle Reformers refused to abandon the practice of infant baptism, with Huldrych Zwingli, among others, arguing that baptism was the new, and superior, circumcision that marked God’s covenant with his new people, the Christian Church. Zwingli saw baptism as superior to circumcision because it included girls as well as boys, and it was painless. Luther and Calvin regarded infant baptism as marking children out as part of the covenant people. Having your children baptised became a statement of belonging and was linked to family loyalty to the governing powers – an important aspect of life in the threatened Reforming states that had broken with the temporal power of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope.

    However, during the Reformation, many Christian sects sprang up that rejected infant baptism and argued for full ‘believer’s baptism’. Labeled ana-baptists (‘re-baptisers’), these groups were persecuted by both Catholic and Protestant authorities, sometimes with due cause. Many of these groups contained radical elements, which believed in the imminent apocalyptic end of the world and advocated anarchy or different moral codes. However, despite their persecution, these groups provided the blueprint for the emerging non-conformist practice of baptism, both in Europe and the USA.

    The theological reasons behind baptism by immersion are quite varied. They range from the idea that in baptism, the participant symbolically enacts death and resurrection, by going beneath the water and emerging a ‘new creation’. In Colossians chapter two, verse 12, Paul tells the Christians in Colossae that they “were buried with [Jesus] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him” (see also Romans chapter 6, verses 1-11).

    There is still a strong sense that through baptism, Christians fulfil Jesus’ commandment in the Great Commission, with baptism almost ‘sealing the deal’, acting as a definite sign of the inward acceptance of Christ as saviour. Baptism as a public act is seen as a crucial means of identifying oneself as a believer in Christ.

    Within the denominations that still practice infant baptism, the idea that baptism symbolically washes away sin is still held, and this is sometimes found in traditions relating to baptism by immersion. In Acts chapter 22, verse 16, Paul relates how after his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus he was instructed by Ananias to “be baptised and wash your sins away”. There is some debate whether this cleansing from sin actually happens at baptism, or, alternatively, if baptism merely represents symbolically the internal purification of the believer. Certainly in the current Roman Catholic view, baptism of infants causes their regeneration at that point, cleansing them of original sin. It is essential to bear in mind that in regard to sacramental rites like baptism, Roman Catholic theology holds that the sacraments work regardless of the faith of those involved. So it is quite possible for infants to be regenerated, even though they could not possibly have an understanding of what the rite of baptism means.

    However, the current standard protestant view is that baptism is not a necessary part of salvation, but it is a necessary part of being obedient to Jesus Christ’s commandments.

    The distinction between ‘water baptism’ and the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ is another matter. In fact, the New Testament seems to indicate that the two are distinct and it is possible to have one without the other, as it were. In Acts chapter 8, verses 11-17, the believers in Samaria are baptised in water, and then are subsequently baptised in the Holy Spirit when the apostles Peter and John arrive. There is a definite distinction between the two events, as seen in the story of Simon Magus (‘Simon the Sorcerer’ in some translations). Simon Magus had himself been baptised (verse 13), but when he saw the effects of baptism in the holy Spirit offered the apostles money for their kind of power (verses 18-19).

    Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a divisive issue among protestant Christians, especially over the use of ‘gifts of the Spirit’ (for example, speaking in tongues). There are several views on this, broadly split into two camps: those who believe that the external evidences of Spiritual gifts have ceased (the ‘cessationist’ viewpoint); and those who hold that the gifts can still be used today to enhance the proclamation of the gospel and the believer’s own understanding of God’s purposes. Opinion is divided over when and how the Holy Spirit enters the believer. Generally the consensus is that at the moment of confession of faith, the Holy Spirit enters the new convert. There are still some groups who hold that it is only with water baptism that the Holy Spirit enters the believer. Within Pentecostal or charismatic churches, there is sometimes the argument that the Spirit does not enter the believer until the evidence (Spiritual gifts) is seen. More often these churches teach that the believer receives the Spirit at conversion, but later (or at the same time) also experiences the Spiritual gifts. This is sometimes referred to as ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’, but unlike water baptism, it is not considered a one-off occurrence.

    There are problems with all these viewpoints. The cessationist view seems to be based more on personal preference for traditional, orderly worship styles, then Biblical grounds, although there are some Biblical ‘proof-texts’ used for arguing that Spiritual gifts ceased after the apostolic era. The link between water baptism and indwelling of the Spirit can be directly disproved from the passage in Acts cited above. The view, sometimes held in charismatic church streams, that Spiritual gifts are the sole evidence of the Holy Spirit is not necessarily Biblical, and charismatics have been rightly accused of promoting a two-tier Christianity, differentiating between ‘Spirit-filled’ Christians and those who are not. The use of spiritual gifts is also often open to criticism and ‘direct revelation’ of the ‘true meaning’ of the Bible, or authority given to ‘prophecies’ received, has led some churches into the margins of orthodox Christian belief.

    Baptism in the Holy Spirit, however it happens, and whatever the results are, is generally accepted to happen at conversion. However, water baptism remains one of the ways in which Christians can publicly state their commitment to Jesus Christ, by fulfilling one of his final commandments made while he was on earth.

    Thanks for your question, DH.

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