Christian Baptism

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Puritan Board Graduate
Christian Baptism
(Credit for the John 6 illustration near the end of this post goes to Larry Hughes, as far as I know)

It is a common teaching among Protestants that Christian baptism is intended for "disciples" only. I would agree.

However, What constitutes one as being a disciple? Who is included in this covenant sign? What does it signify?

All of these such questions must be soundly answered and adressed before we can make a concrete and responisble assertion as to exactly who should be baptized.

Obviously, I cannot answer all of these questions fully and completely in one post, or even in ten posts, and perhaps not even in a hundred posts. This is a complicated issue to discuss that, isn't really (in its very essence) about baptism but about the unity of the covenant between God and His people. But, I will squeeze the argument down for the sake of space and simplicity for this post and only discuss the nature of who is commanded to be baptized (disciples), what it means to be one, and what baptism signifies, as taught in all of Scripture as a whole.

There are at least 97 verses in the New Testament concerning baptism directly. Because of the fact that many of them are referring to John the Baptist's baptism, and not Christian baptism, not all of them necessarily apply to this discussion. However, the verses referring to Christian baptism should be taken into consideration before any conclusions are made, as we interpret Scripture by Scripture alone, and not individual verses in isolation or out of context.

I will begin with the last question first. What does Christian baptism signify?

The New Testament is clear on the nature of baptism and its intention. Baptism is compared to circumcision of the Old Covenant and the covenant made with Abraham in Colossians 2:

11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Thus, it is only fitting to conclude that baptism replaces circumcision of the older covenant expressions with Abraham and Moses. We further see in this passage that baptism signifies the "putting off the body of the flesh" identifying us with Christ and His Church for whom He died. Additionally, we can see that through baptism we can be "raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God", emphasizing the fact that baptism is not an action or expression on OUR behalf, but on the behalf of God. Only those who are baptized and God's elect will receive such spiritual benefits of the New Covenant, as the power and authority does not rest in man's actions or works in circumcision or baptism (1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6; 6:15), but in God alone who regenerates the hearts of men with His Spirit (Tit 3:5).

It is a great misfortune that baptism has become some sort of personal, individualistic "rite of passage" where, in a sense, we are declaring our baptism to be something we have done, showing what we have obtained or gained - when it is clear by Paul here that it is a symbol of the powerful working of God, not man, and apart from God's grace, baptism is meaningless and of no effect. We are justified by faith alone.

The late Dr. Greg Bahnsen points out that, "Circumcision symbolized a cutting back and removal of that sinful nature." The physical act of circumcision of an infant or adult into the covenant community guaranteed nothing, but that they had entered into covenant with God. Just like in the New Testament, circumcision was figuratively used to refer to circumcision of both the lips (Exo 6:12,30) and, most importantly, the heart (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; Ezek 44:9). Only through true God-given faith and endurance would they be saved and spiritually benefit from the grace given to us by God in circumcision. In the same way, this applies to New Covenant Church members (Acts 7:51; Rom 2:29). Bahsen also states, "The ancient external rite was literally applied to the male genital organ as an indication that everyone comes into this world at birth as sinfully unclean and unacceptable in God’s sight. There can be no 'natural' hope for man’s salvation. He must rely solely on the supernatural, gracious work of God in his behalf."

As Bahnsen stated, baptism points to our need for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), our filthiness before God, and our need for His saving grace (Acts 22:16; 1 Jn 1:19). Baptism requires of us to walk in a "newness of life" (Rom 6:4). Baptism, like circumcision, shows man that righteousness and justification before God comes not from external rituals and signs of the covenant, but through the grace of God alone and the faith He gives to His chosen people (Rom 4:11).

Finally, baptism is a testimony of individuals that they believe in God's promise of salvation (Acts 2:38-44). It is not the belief that you are saved, but that you will be saved by God. Abraham was justified by his faith in the promise, not in belief that he was already saved or considered righteous before God. The Philippian jailer who encountered Paul was baptized on the condition of believing in the promise that the Lord would save him (Acts 16:30-34), the same faith of Abraham and all of the faithful throughout the Old Testament and New (Psa 119:81; 1 Thess 5:8).

To conclude the answer to this question, I will again quote Dr. Bahnsen on the nature of baptism as New Covenant circumcision: "We must note well that the signs of the covenant, whether circumcision or baptism, – being God’s signs and ordained by Him – are God’s testimony to God’s gracious work of salvation. They declare the objective truth that justification comes only by faith in God’s promise. Circumcision and baptism are not an individual’s personal, subjective testimony to having saving faith for himself. God Himself commanded that circumcision be applied to those whom He perfectly well knew would not have saving faith in Him (eg. Ishmael in Gen 17:18-27).

Likewise, in plenty of instances hypocrites who are not true believers have been baptized (cf. Heb 6:2-6; eg. Simon Magus in Acts 8:13, 20-23). Even in such cases the covenantal sign was not invalidated; its divine testimony remained true – objectively declaring by circumcision or baptism that defiled sinners (Ishmael, Simon Magus) need God’s gracious cleansing, that justification can come only by faith in His promise."

Next, Who is to be included in the covenant sign of baptism?

There are many clear passages on this in the New Testament.

The most obvious is the 'Great Commission' where Christ commands that all those we instruct or teach are to be baptized as disciples (Matt 28:18-20). Acts refers to this as those who "receive His word" (Acts 2:41) and are added to the Church through baptism. Whether or not the people at Pentecost were saved is not the issue. If we profess to believe in Christ and His gospel, we are to be baptized and considered part of the Church. God alone judges the hearts of men and Christ alone will separate the "wheat" from the "tares" in His kingdom at His visible parousia.

Similar to circumcision (Gen 17:10; Exo 12:48), baptism is a sign of being in covenantal union with God (I Cor. 12:13; Rom. 6:3,5). Just as the circumcised Jews were in the very presence of God within their congregation (Ex. 26:22; 29:42-43), so are we as members of the New Covenant through baptism into the covenant community (Heb. 12:22-24). Without circumcision, no one was allowed to be considered part of God's covenant community or able to participate in the activities of the covenant community, such as passover (which the Lord's Supper now replaces in the New Covenant).

However, we must keep in mind that being in covenantal union with God brings with it the promise of either blessings or curses, in both the Old (eg, Deut 27-28; Josh 8:34) and New (eg, Jn 15:6; 1 Cor 11:27-32; Rom 9:3,6; 11:22; Heb 6:4-8; 10:26-31) Covenants, and does not guarantee salvation. Salvation is for those who persevere (Jas 1:25), which we know is God's work (Phil 1:6; 2:12) and according to His electing grace. Not everyone who professes Christ as Lord is truly saved (Matt. 7:21-23).

So then, baptism does not bring about one's personal guarantee of salvation, as if they earned it through an external ritual or work, but through keeping the covenant with God that they have entered into through baptism (which, of course, is the work of God in His elect alone).

Baptism was also shown to be done by "households" in the New Testament (Acts 16:14-15; 1 Cor 1:16), as a continuation of the practice of circumcising "Abraham and his seed" (part of the same covenant of grace in Christ's blood that the New Covenant is the fullest expression of) and throughout the rest of the Old Testament (Gen 17:7-14). The same promise made to Abraham was that in which "many nations" would be blessed (Gen 17:4-6; 12:3). This, of course is referring to the inclusion of the gentiles into the covenant of grace as expressed in the New Covenant (Exo 12:48-49; Rom 11:11; cf. Gal 3:7).

Again, we will let Dr. Bahnsen's words be used here, "Since baptism is the New Covenant equivalent of circumcision, and since circumcision taught that the children of believers are included under God’s covenant, and since our covenant-keeping God does not change His principles (Psa 89:34; Matt 4:4; 5:18; Rom 15:4; Jas 1:17), we would fully expect that baptism should be applied – as was circumcision – to believers and their seed or households. This theological inference is inescapable. Further, it is precisely what we find taught in the New Covenant scriptures themselves."

Peter, at Pentecost, knows exactly how his message would be received in a company of exclusively Jewish people. Having themselves much zeal and awareness of the promises of the Abrahamic covenant (Jn 8:33,39), Peter chooses his words carefully when he states that the promise of salvation in Christ Jesus is for "you and your children" (believers and their "seed") and "all who are far off" (the gentiles and their children) in his sermon to the gathered Jewish multitude (Acts 2:39).

In many of Paul's letters, in areas of spiritual advice to fellow Christian brethren, Paul addresses every single traditional member of a hellenistic "household". In Hellenistic (greek) culture, a "household" referred to the master or man of the house, his wife, their children, their servants, and the children of the servants. So, it is quite compelling that we find in Ephesians 5-6 spiritual instructions made to "Husbands and Wives", "Children and Parents", and "Slaves and Masters". In fact, throughout the New Testament epistles, there are spiritual commands given to all of the traditional members of a Hellenistic household, who were baptized into the covenant community on the faith of the "head" of the household (with no mention of any profession or belief on their behalf). We read of instructions to husbands and wives (1 Cor 14:35; Eph 5:22-28; Col 3:18-19; Tit 2:4-5; 1 Pet 3:1,5,7), children (Eph 6:1; Col 3:20), and slaves/masters (1 Cor 12:13; Eph 6:5; Col 3:22; 4:1; 1 Tim 6:1; Tit 2:9; ). It is quite clear that all of these people, being baptized along with the head of the household, were in covenant with God as they required spiritual directives from the apostles Peter and Paul.

Furthermore, notice the words of Jesus in the gospel of Luke, chapter 18:

15 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.

According to Christ, even infants belong in the kingdom of God; that is, within the covenant community of the visible Church here on earth.

Paul also teaches us that, just like in the Abrahamic covenant, in the New Covenant, the children of believers are considered "holy"; that is, set apart from the world by being part of the Church (1 Cor 7:14). As Bahnsen puts it, "Thus when Lydia became a believer, not only was she herself baptized, but “also her household” (Acts 16:14-15) – as was the “household of Stephannas” (I Cor. 1:16)."

Finally, we will look at What constitutes one as being a disciple?

It is often purported by many that, to be a disciple, one must be saved. However, it is extremely difficult to find any Scriptural justification for such a claim. Being a disciple of Christ simply means you are identifying with His message or following Him in some way. However, as we will see below, being a disciple does not make one necessarily elect or saved. There are many disciples who fall away from the faith and are exposed to be apostate.

A most convenient passage on the nature of disciples is found in the gospel according to John, chapter 6. I will mark the word "discples" and all the words associating with them in one color, and their actions in another color.

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” 70 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” 71 He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.

It is clear from this passage that even disciples of Christ are not necessarily saved or believers in Him, apart from God's gracious choice and power. Many people can be enticed by Christianity for a season, but will eventually be shown as not only never having produced fruit but also never having truly been regenerated by the Holy Spirit.

I hope that through this look at the nature of baptism and who it is meant for, as put forth in the unity of Holy Scripture, we can grow in our knowledge of the Lord and His eternal, unchanging, covenantal purposes to save His people for His glory. To Him be the glory forevermore. Grace and peace.


Larry Hughes

Puritan Board Sophomore
It is a great misfortune that baptism has become some sort of personal, individualistic "rite of passage" where, in a sense, we are declaring our baptism to be something we have done, showing what we have obtained or gained - when it is clear by Paul here that it is a symbol of the powerful working of God, not man, and apart from God's grace, baptism is meaningless and of no effect. We are justified by faith alone.

This is a tragic good point. With all my heart I mean that. Because baptism has become, with much strain and struggle personally, to myself a sign issued by the Word of God that points to Christ. When I think of baptism I no longer think of "my baptism" possessive as if it is mine but rather God's possessive gracious promise to save me as a believer in Christ alone. I do not rest in this baptism in and of itself as a merit or magical thing given to me, but in that it is if you will God's promise physically manifested to me condescending to my times of weakness.

To put it another way (and I don't mean it in a demeaning way - just trying to bring out the principle): If I write myself a check for a million dollars, good luck in getting the cash. But if Bill Gates wrote me a check for a million dollars, I'd be a fool not to believe it and cash it. The check is not the money but it does represent the money. My check would be worthless but his would be of value. I realize the shortcomings with analogies but...

If asked, "What does your baptism mean to you." I would not reply, "It is my profession of faith." I would reply, "Christ crucified and risen for me - my sin Bearer and my righteousness, instant relief for my sins and peace with God Most High." This is what it means to me and that IS my actual profession of faith not my saying, "my profession of faith".

In an odd way it reminds me of a separate but similar issue in conveying something to someone. CS Lewis once said concerning writing that a good writer will tell you that a woman is beautiful, but a great writer will make the reader say, "Wow, that woman WAS indeed beautiful."


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