Treating baptism by immersion with dignity
April 19, 2005
Among the many differences between Baptists and other Christians is the way we baptize. While many of us immersed in Baptist culture become unaware of this difference, it is quite obvious to those who observe baptism by immersion for the first time. In fact, the question is often stated in a rather negative way when the visitor asks, “Why do you make people get dunked in order to join your church?” Furthermore, when people who were baptized as children inquire about church membership, they sometimes balk at the notion of adult baptism. Again, a common statement is something to this effect: “What? I’ve already been baptized. I think my parent’s baptism of me was good enough.” In fact, I have encountered these exact objections on evangelistic visits.
The reasons we baptize by immersion are really very simple.
First, we affirm that Jesus desires all people to have a personal relationship with him. The New Testament is clear that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). Jesus accomplished everything necessary for the forgiveness of sins via his death on the cross, his burial, and his resurrection (I Cor. 15:3-4). God desires to save people and we are encouraged to “call on the name of the Lord” that we might be saved (Romans 10:13). The overwhelming weight of New Testament evidence points towards salvation as involving an act of personal will, not someone else’s will.
Second, we see in the New Testament a pattern of belief followed by baptism. For example, in Acts 16:31, Paul exhorts the Philippian jailer to “believe.” He is then subsequently baptized (Acts 16:33). Thus, Baptists affirm “believer’s baptism.”
Third, the method of baptism in the New Testament is immersion. The Greek word baptizo means primarily “to immerse.” Furthermore, immersion was the method John the Baptist used to baptize Jesus (Mark 1:10). When we submit to baptism by immersion, we are following the example and command of Jesus Christ.
Finally, baptism by immersion best communicates the intended message of baptism. Romans 6:3-5 makes a comparison between the mode of baptism and the message of new life because of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism is a picture of our new life in Christ and symbolizes our faith in the crucified, buried and risen Lord. Only immersion communicates this message in its fullness.
Infant baptism is not the baptism described in the New Testament. Though Baptists do not baptize our children, we affirm that young children who die at a tragically early age are indeed in Heaven. We affirm David’s statement of faith after the death of his own child, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23). Jesus himself expressed great love for children (Mark 10:13-16). The reality of heaven and God’s love for children is a great encouragement for parents.
Unfortunately, Baptists ourselves have added to the confusion about baptism. Too often, baptism is an awkward addition to an already full worship service. Furthermore, many pastors rush through the act of baptism with no explanation of its meaning beforehand or time for celebration afterwards. In our time-conscious churches, baptism is viewed as a bothersome extension of a service, keeping members from “getting out on time.” No wonder non-Baptists derisively refer to baptism as mere “dunking”!
Instead of these haphazard worship service appendages, why not incorporate Baptism into the service? For example, while preaching a sermon on salvation, why not have a new convert share his or her testimony and then let a staff member or deacon baptize them as a living illustration of following Christ? What a wonderful sermon illustration! Also, every pastor should remind the entire congregation of the meaning of baptism prior to introducing the baptismal candidates. Another way to emphasize the dignity of baptism is to celebrate baptism at an outdoor service. The church I attend does this in the summer and it is a wonderful experience. At the end of the service (and after the candidates are in dry clothes!) the church can present the new members with a Bible to commemorate the event.
Believer’s baptism by immersion is a public declaration of one’s faith in Jesus Christ. It is an ordinance commanded by Jesus Christ. We can help communicate the importance of following Christ in this step of obedience when we treat baptism with dignity as a vital aspect of the worship service. (Dr. Alan Branch is vice president for student development and assistant professor of Christian ethics at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City.)