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AN ACT OF OBEDIENCE
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Based on Rom. 6:1-10
Baptism and the Lord's Supper are two of the simplest things we do as Christians. But the fact is, these two simple acts of obedience to Christ have created a great deal of controversy in the Christian world. Every aspect of baptism is a major issue on which Christians differ.
THE TIMING OF IT: Should it be when people are infants, or when they are old enough to be believers and able to make their own choice?
THE METHOD OF IT: Should it be by sprinkling, by pouring, or by immersion?
THE MEANING OF IT: Is it a sacrament by which grace is imparted, or is it a symbol of our obedience to Christ?
THE NECESSITY OF IT: Is it essential for salvation, or is it just a
basic step of obedience? Is it essential for church membership, or can one be a member of the church and not be baptized?
Beside all of these issues there is the more subjective issue as to what one is suppose to feel when they are baptized. The author of How To Live Like A King's Kid shared this testimony of his baptism: "So I went to his little Baptist Church with him. And when the pastor invited anyone who wanted to, to come forward and make a public confession of faith-a confession with his mouth that he had faith in Jesus in his heart-I went forward and did it. They scheduled a baptismal service for me right away, and I dutifully got wet all over, being immersed in the dunk tank. I didn't mind too much. The Bible said New Testament Christians were baptized by being immersed-that's what the word baptizo means-and if New Testament Christians did it, that was good enough for me. Besides, I read that Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan, and so baptism seemed a good thing for me if I was going to follow Him. When I came up out of the water, I was disappointed. I didn't feel anything but wet. I thought I had done something pretty terrific, humbling myself in the little old country Baptist Church like that. And I waited for a ball of fire to hit, but nothing happened, not then. Ed said the feelings would come later."
He went on to say that they did come later, but he was expecting his baptism to be like that of Jesus when the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove, and God spoke from heaven about how pleased He was with His Son. His expectations were too high, for baptism is an act of obedience to Christ, and its value does not depend on how it makes you feel. It should make you feel good to obey your Lord who commanded that all who follow Him be baptized. But He did not promise it would be an experience of ecstasy. In fact, in many parts of the world being baptized is a very scary experience, for it can mean rejection by your family and society. Many obey Christ in fear and trembling, for the consequences of their obedience can be suffering and even death.
Trying to keep up with the changes in churches on this issue is almost impossible. Many churches that practiced only infant baptism are now baptizing by the believer's baptism, and many are doing so by immersion. Some even baptize infants by immersion. John Westerhoff tells of the infant baptism in a Catholic Church. The father came down the isle with a coffin that he had made, and the mother was carrying a pail of water. The godparents carried the baby. The coffin was placed on the alter while the priest filled it with water. He took the child and held its nose and pushed it under the water saying, "You are drowned in the name of God the Father, the God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit." The congregation then stood and sang joyful Easter songs. The priest said over the head of the child, "You are now resurrected so you might love and serve the Lord."
So now you have even babies being immersed with the same symbolism that Baptists have stressed for centuries. Many Catholic churches now recognize that for centuries Catholics baptized in large baptismal pools, and now they are going back to that original method. Christians everywhere that recognizing that baptism is symbolic of the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul in Rom. 6 makes it clear that we are buried with Christ in baptism, and that we are also symbolically raised from the dead with Christ. The only adequate way to convey this is by immersion. You cannot be buried in a cup or a baptismal fount. You need a large enough body of water to immerse the whole person to convey the idea of burial and resurrection. That is why the New Testament always portrays the quantity of water involved in baptism.
In John 3:23 we read that John the Baptist was baptizing in Aenon because there was much water there. He needed a lot of water because he had to immerse people in it and not merely sprinkle them. In Acts 8:36 we read that Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch were going through the desert and they came to a body of water. The Eunuch who had just received Jesus as his Savior said, "Look, here is water, why shouldn't I be baptized?" Until enough water was available the possibility of baptism was not considered. This man was not heading across a desert without any water. If it was only a matter of sprinkling some water on his head, or of pouring some out of a jug on his head, there was nothing to hinder him from being baptized before they came to this body of water. This new convert knew that he needed to be immersed, and only an adequate water supply could lead to a meaningful baptism. The point is, not any amount of water can give witness to the death and resurrection of Christ. It takes enough to bury a person in.
Now we have to be honest with the historical reason for Christian departing from immersion and going to sprinkling. As the church spread not everybody lived near a river or a lake, and it was a great inconvenience to find a body of water for immersion. Some churches in desert places had no access to a large body of water. They began to argue that even though immersion was the New Testament mode that it is no where stated that it has to be in this mode for all times and places. Added to this there was the problem of the sick and aged who could not travel to the river even if there was one not far away. Even in Baptist churches there are cases of the sick and aged who are taken into membership without immersion. They fall into the same category as the thief on the cross who entered heaven with Jesus even though he could not obey Jesus and be baptized.
The inconvenience of immersion led the Catholic Church to change, and by the 5th century sprinkling was almost universal. When the Protestant Reformation came in the 1500's all the great leaders struggled with this issue. They all agreed that immersion was the New Testament mode, and that believer's baptism was the New Testament practice. But after a thousand years of the tradition of sprinkling it was hard to go back and so Lutherans, Presbyterians and later the Methodists all stuck with infant baptism. There were many practical reasons for not changing back to the New Testament method, and we should not be too critical of the great Protestant leaders, for they went through agony over this issue. Had we been in the shoes of Martin Luther we may have done the same thing, and had we been in the Arabian Baptist Church of 4911 No Water Drive, Sand Dune, Arabia, we may have chosen to sprinkle rather than immerse.
We do not have the limitations that many have had, and so we have no reason not to follow the New Testament pattern of believer's baptism by immersion. There are not persons in the New Testament who were baptized before they were believers. We read in Acts 2:41, "They that gladly received His Word were baptized." In Acts 8:12 we read, "When they believed...they were
baptized." In Acts 18:8 we read, "Chrispus believed...and many of the Corinthians having believed, and were baptized." This does not mean one has to be an adult to be baptized. Many children are believers. I was baptized at age 9, and I remember that as a deacon I voted for a 4-year-old girl to be baptized. She knew her theology as well as any adult. She loved Jesus and understood she was being a witness by her baptism to the death and resurrection of her Savior. Age is not the issue. It is belief.
Baptists have been critical of those who baptize children so young, but there is no basis for it. Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven." I cannot imagine any child who loves Jesus, and who desires to be baptized in obedience to Him, being to young. If a child knows what it is to obey Jesus, I would not want to be the one who says to them that they are too young to obey Jesus. The New Testament makes it clear that whole families were baptized together, and there is no reason to assume that this did not include small children. You have the family of Lydia and the Philippian jailor as examples. The important thing to focus on is the focus of Paul, which is the death and resurrection of Christ. Baptism is our witness to the fact that we identify with the two great acts that made Jesus the Savior of the world.
The cross and the resurrection are the foundation of God's plan of salvation. Baptism is our witness to the world that we are a part of that plan. We are Christians and followers of Christ, and we are committed to Him as Lord and Savior. We are not to pretend that we are superior to others who may baptize in some other way. We only say that the New Testament way best conveys the meaning of baptism. It is the way that gives the most intense witness. Let's say we are going to dramatize the experience of John being caught up into heaven. At one point we are going to bear witness to his vision to the glory of God on His throne. Some on the planning committee suggest that we use a flashlight behind a sheet to convey the glory of God. Others say we should hook up 3 or 4 floodlights. The first group says this last idea involves too much work, and the flashlight is so easy and convenient. But the others persist because they say that you cannot witness to the glory of God's unapproachable light with a flashlight. Even the floodlights cannot begin to convey the glory of God, but the flashlight will convey nothing but the weakness of His glory. It is better to have no witness at all than one that is so pathetically weak.
This is the same issue with baptism. Baptists feel that just as a flashlight bears little witness to the glory of God, so other modes of baptism bear little witness to the death and resurrection of Christ. Immersion was the New Testament method because it does illustrate the experience of death and resurrection. The body is put under the water to be buried with Christ, and it is brought up again like one being resurrected from the grave. It is the only adequate way to symbolize the death and resurrection of Christ. Those baptized by some other mode are not any less Christian, but their witness conveys less meaning. Many of the greatest Christians in history have not been immersed, and they are no less great Christians for it.
John Calvin, the great reformer, wrote in his Institutes, "But whether the person baptized be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, or whether water be only poured or sprinkled upon him, is of no importance; churches ought to be left at liberty in this respect, to act according to the difference of countries. The very word baptize, however, signifies to immerse; and it is certain that immersion was the practice of the ancient church." This is a view that has been held by millions. Even Baptist libraries all over the world are filled with the books of those believers who were not immersed. Baptists do not persist in defending immersion because they feel it is essential to
salvation. It is because they feel it is essential to adequately convey the death and resurrection of Christ as its meaning.
There are many good arguments for not bothering with immersion. It is so inconvenient and more time consuming, and it far messier. But no one can escape the fact that it is the only way to convey the picture of burial and resurrection. Since that is the point of it all, Baptists say we have to put up with the inconvenience in order to give an adequate witness. It doesn't make Baptists superior, but it does make their witness superior as to what Jesus did for us in His death and resurrection. The purpose of baptism is to point to Him and to indicate our commitment to Him. It is an act of obedience by which we thank Him for what He has done for us in His death and resurrection.
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