What’s the big deal about baptism?
Have you ever wondered that? Maybe it seems strange to you that many churches even call themselves “Baptist.” We have plenty of other doctrines, so why single out this one?
Good question. Fortunately, part of the answer can be found in history. Starting with the New Testament, whenever a person put his trust in Jesus, he was baptized. As time went on, unfortunately, many Christians started to accept the idea of baptismal regeneration, which is the idea that baptism saves a person. Eventually this led to the practice of pedobaptism, which is the baptizing of babies. It only makes sense. If baptism saves, you want your baby saved, right?
Around the sixteenth century AD there was a group that stood against this unbiblical practice and claimed that baptism was for believers only. They were called Anabaptist (re-baptizers) by their enemies. While the Anabaptists are not necessarily direct predecessors of modern Baptists, they correctly understood that infant baptism was not real baptism. In fact, although they had been baptized as babies, they did not consider themselves re-baptized. If infant baptism was not real baptism, then their “second baptism” was actually their first!
The enemies of the Anabaptists came up with the perfect punishment for these “heretics.” Since the Anabaptists were so in love with water, drowning, or a “third baptism,” was chosen as the penalty for being re-baptized.
One of the most famous Anabaptist martyrs was Feliz Manz, who was condemned to death in 1527 by the reformer Ulrich Zwingli. Manz was taken to a river in Zurich and placed in a squatting position with his hands tied below his knees. A stick was inserted below his legs and above his arms to hobble him, and he was subsequently thrown into the river. As he drowned, his mother and brother stood by watching and shouting him words of encouragement. The last words of this brave martyr were, “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.”[i]
I have heard the estimate that the average life span after re-baptism in the sixteenth century was eighteen months. Would you be baptized if you knew you would be dead within a year and a half?
As for the Baptists (as we know them), baptism has always been a defining belief (surprised?). The first Baptist church was formed in 1609 by John Smyth, who had previously left the Anglican Church. Smith brought his Separatist church to Amsterdam to escape persecution from King James I, who was requiring membership in the Church of England. While there, Smyth came to realize (possibly from Mennonite influence) that baptism was for believers only. As a result, he disbanded his church, baptized himself and some others, then reorganized the church as a congregation of baptized believers.
It is obvious from history that baptism is a matter of great importance. Therefore, we would do well to ask a few questions about the practice. Questions like: “How should it be done?” “What does it mean?” “Why do we do it?” Let’s attempt to answer these questions, beginning with the first.
THE METHOD OF BAPTISM
How did folks in the New Testament baptize? We begin to answer this question by looking at the word “baptize” itself. It is taken from the Greek word baptizo and means “to immerse” or “submerge.” In other words, in a real baptism, the person gets all wet. I guess that is why when John baptized, he found a place with ample water.
Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized. (John 3:23 NKJV)
If we were to read the Bible without any preconceived notions, most likely we would understand that baptism consisted of immersing a person in water. Sprinkling does not even fit the definition.
You may also notice that baptism took place immediately. Later we will look at the Ethiopian eunuch. After listening to Philip share about Jesus, he asked if he could be baptized. Philip made sure he believed what he was being told about Jesus, they pulled off the side of the road, got out of the chariot, and waded out into the water to hold an impromptu baptismal service.
We will also consider Cornelius, a Roman centurion. After he and his family heard Peter speak about Jesus, they receive the Holy Ghost. This prompted Peter to ask, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). There was no required class, no catechism, no test to pass. Evidence of their salvation was enough.
So, we see that the method of baptism is twofold: it is done by immersion and it is carried out as soon as possible. However, why is the method so important? It is because of its meaning. A believer is immediately and totally immersed into the body of Christ at his salvation, and baptism is a symbol of that fact.
Articles in this series:
Baptism: It’s not an Option (The Method)
Baptism: It’s not an Option (The Meaning)
Baptism: It’s not an Option (The Mandate and Model)