Baptism: True and False, Ordered and Disordered

With various denominations and churches practicing different forms of baptism, how can we express disagreement and charity at the same time? Must we refuse to make any judgments about what is true baptism? Or must we isolate ourselves from anyone who disagrees with us on the subject? For my part, I want to hold my convictions about what I believe the Bible teaches regarding baptism, and I also want to be charitable toward those who disagree. This brief essay is an attempt to do both.

Elements and Forms

It is important that we begin a discussion on the practice of baptism by clarifying those features or elements of baptism that are indispensable and those that are orderly. Indispensable elements are of the nature or central to the biblical meaning of baptism. These are the elements touched and affected by what baptism is. To lose or modify the elements is to lose baptism altogether. The forms of baptism, however, are those features that may more or less closely align with the biblical mandate and method.

To lose or modify a given form may affect the propriety of baptism but does not necessarily nullify the act altogether. For example, one might be truly baptized at a summer youth camp or during a Sunday church gathering, though one of these is inappropriate and disordered, but a baptism observed among a gathering of Mormons or Roman Catholics is not baptism at all.

A true baptism is one that is observed or performed in keeping with the essential nature of its meaning, and any other practice one might call baptism is simply false or pseudo-baptism. True or biblical baptism is the initiatory oath-sign whereby individual believers become partakers in the visible kingdom of Jesus Christ, existing Christians affirm new Christians, and Christians initially unite with one another (for a more robust argument and explanation of this definition, see the essay HERE). Our definition of the meaning of baptism, must set our limitations for what we may refer to as baptism. Any baptism that does not include these elements is, by definition, a pseudo-baptism.

Let us briefly specify and consider the explicit and implicit elements contained in our definition of baptism.

First, true baptism is a conscious act on the part of the one being baptized; he or she must believe the gospel and intend to publicly confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Baptism is the public pledge or oath of the one being baptized, committing him or her to believe and obey Christ. Such an oath requires awareness on the part of the part of the one being baptized. Furthermore, the biblical observance of baptism necessarily associates the one being baptized with Jesus Christ, and the consistent biblical command is that those who believe in the person and work of Christ are to profess that belief publicly in baptism. Indeed, the biblical components of conversion cited above – repentance, faith, confession, receiving the Holy Spirit, and baptism – necessitate conscious intent and action by the one being baptized.

Second, true baptism is explicitly connected to the preaching of the gospel, the name of Jesus Christ, and the pronouncement of Christ’s kingdom. That is, baptism must be in the name of Jesus Christ. This is not merely a verbal formula, but a much fuller identification with the God of the Bible and the person through whom God offers salvation to sinners. In Jesus’s commission, He says new believers or disciples are to be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”[1] and the Apostle Peter exhorted his hearers to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ.”[2] But we are not to assume that Peter misunderstood Jesus’s instructions, nor may we impose some wooden linguistic conflict between Peter’s action and Jesus commission. Rather, the two are harmonious; Jesus is the only Savior offered to sinners by the triune God of Scripture. There is no other god than the one who reveals Himself as Father, Son, and Spirit; and there is no other savior than the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.

The teaching of Scripture on the whole is that baptism is inextricably connected with believing in the triune God and the gospel of salvation through the work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the specific language spoken during one’s baptism – “in the name of Jesus” or “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” – is far less important than the message associated with that baptism. If the baptism is explicitly associated with the biblical gospel, of which Jesus Christ is the sum and substance, and the triune God of Scripture, then it may well be a true baptism.

Third, true baptism is observed as a conscious affirmation by at least one existing Christian, uniting the one being baptized with the visible kingdom of Christ. The biblical pattern shows that assemblies of Christians are the normal context for this affirmation, but we will consider this further below. For now, we want to address the regular, but unfounded, assumption that there is no biblical pattern or that the pattern is not clear enough to produce any binding requirements. We might turn to the hub passage for discovering the meaning of baptism (Matthew 28:18-20), and we might argue that Jesus requires at least one existing disciple to affirm any new disciple by baptism. But we may just as easily demonstrate that the earliest disciples understood this requirement and practiced it consistently.

The first recorded New Covenant baptisms happened at the end of Acts 2. Altogether there were about one-hundred and twenty “brothers” or disciples of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem, awaiting the arrival of the Holy Spirit.[3] Peter acted as the spokesman, and he called all the Jews in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost to “repent and be baptized… in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.”[4] Those who “received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”[5] There is an implicit affirmation of these new converts (in the act of baptizing them) on the part of Peter and the rest of the existing disciples. And while a “church” is not explicitly mentioned there, those believers who were baptized were counted as being “added that day” to the existing community of believers.

In Acts 8 the pattern continues. Philip traveled into Samaria, and he preached the “good news about the kingdom of God in the name of Jesus Christ.”[6] There were some who “paid attention” to Philip’s teaching, and they “believed” Philip’s message, thus, “they were baptized.”[7] In Samaria, Philip is the only existing disciple at first, so he alone is the one who affirmed these new Samarian converts by baptism. It is significant, however, that “when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John.”[8] This appears to reinforce the biblical understanding that Christian affirmation was an essential aspect of baptism, since the Christians in Jerusalem seem to act on their responsibility to investigate and participate in what is going on in Samaria.

Though the transitional period recorded in Acts, embracing the New Covenant while leaving the old behind, provides us with strange occurrences, like the Samaritans’ delay in “receiving the Holy Spirit,” the record nonetheless repeatedly displays the elemental nature of baptism.[9] Consider Saul of Tarsus in Acts 9. Saul, later known as the Apostle Paul, came to believe that Jesus was the Christ, and he was baptized by Ananias as a public affirmation of their mutual “brotherhood” in the covenantal kingdom of Christ.[10] Paul consciously professed faith in Christ, this occurred in the context of his understanding of the biblical gospel, and Ananias affirmed Paul’s profession. Consider Cornelius and his “relatives and close friends” in Acts 10.[11] They believed the message Peter preached, as evidenced by their having “received the Holy Spirit,” and they were “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” on the command of Peter.[12] Cornelius and the rest consciously professed faith in Christ, this occurred in the context of their understanding of the biblical gospel, and Peter (along with the “believers from among the circumcised who had come with” him) affirmed their professions.[13]

As we continue reading through the book of Acts, we discover the same pattern again and again. Lydia and those of her household believed the gospel as Paul preached it, they all consciously professed faith in Christ by baptism, which was affirmed by Paul and his companions.[14] The Philippian jailer and his family heard Paul preach “the word of the Lord,” they “believed in God,” and were “baptized at once” in a conscious profession of their new belief, which was affirmed by Paul and Silas.[15] Crispus and his “entire household,” as well as “many of the Corinthians,” heard Paul preach the gospel and believed it. They were baptized in a public and conscious profession of their faith, and Paul (and probably Silas and Timothy too) affirmed them in baptism.[16]

In summary, true baptism is a conscious and public profession of faith, it is explicitly connected to the preaching of the gospel, and it is observed as a conscious affirmation by at least one existing Christian which displays unity among new believers and old ones within the visible kingdom of Christ. If any one of these elements is absent, then the rite may be religious, and it may even be called baptism, but it is not.

The Mormon ceremony is not baptism since they proclaim a gospel contrary to the biblical one. The Roman Catholic rite is not baptism for the same reason, and also because they remove the necessity of conscious belief. And while Baptists are so very glad for evangelical Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Anglicans, these paedobaptists are not actually observing baptism when they sprinkle or pour water over the heads of the infant children of believers. Such ones are not able to understand the gospel, nor are they capable of any conscious profession of faith in Christ.

Ordered and Disordered

During the Protestant Reformation, theologians and church leaders hammered out two essential marks of a true church – (1) the right preaching of the gospel and (2) the right administration of the ordinances or sacraments.[17] In the generations that followed, these marks of a true church were clarified and solidified as the starting point for a biblical doctrine of the church.

However, there was also a growing desire among many Protestants to recognize differences of practice within the stream of true churches. For example, Benjamin Keach was a Baptist who argued that the essence of a church is its members, therefore a “church” is “a congregation of godly Christians who, being first baptized upon the profession of faith… do ordinarily meet together in one place for the public service and worship of God, among whom the Word of God and sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s institution.”[18]

So a church could still be a church without pastors or elders, but Keach considered such a church “disorderly” or “not acting according to the rule of the gospel, having something lacking.”[19] Observing this historic language and category distinction, we should note a significant difference between a church that is false and one that is disordered. So too, we must recognize a difference between a baptism that is false (i.e., not baptism at all) and one that is disordered.

In the Bible-belt of the Americanized Christian subculture, it is quite common for individuals and churches to sense a freedom to practice baptism in pragmatic and even expressive ways. It is not unusual to see baptisms during “children’s church” (an age-segregated gathering of children in a separate part of the building from the adults), youth camps (week-long summer activities where teens from multiple churches come together with a strong evangelistic emphasis), and in isolation (a father baptizing a professing child or a pastor baptizing a professing believer apart from any gathering of the church).

There is no question that such baptisms are novel; one can hardly imagine what the Apostle Paul or Martin Luther might say if either of these men were to see a group of children being baptized in a portable swimming pool on a beach-themed stage during children’s church. But, pastorally and ecclesiologically, we must decide not merely whether this baptism is unusual, but whether it is baptism at all. The category distinction between true-and-false and ordered-and-disordered is helpful to us here.

Any baptism that includes the elements of biblical baptism can be considered “true” baptism, though it may be disordered either by circumstance or imagination. However, any baptism that excludes one or more elements of biblical baptism cannot be considered “true” baptism, even if it is performed in a more orderly fashion. Thus, an infant baptism observed with the highest care in a Presbyterian church gathering on a Sunday morning is a false baptism because the one being baptized is not participating as a conscious confessor of Christ. Whatever the intentions, what is experienced here is not baptism.

On the other hand, a young adult may be truly baptized by only one other Christian who has already publicly professed faith in Christ through baptism, even if that young adult is being baptized in a natural pool on the side of a road after having just heard and believed the gospel. In this second case, the person is a conscious believer in Christ and is pursuing baptism as a public profession, and there is also at least one existing Christian present to affirm the new believer’s profession by baptism. This is a disordered baptism, but it is a true one.

This brief essay argues for a perspective and practice of baptism that can equip a local church with the pastoral posture of simultaneous conviction and charity. If baptism means anything, then some of those experiences which are called “baptism” are not actually baptisms. However, an odd or strange or novel baptism may still be true. Each church will have to decide for themselves what they will accept as baptism. May the Lord help us all to be faithful (obey Christ’s commands) and gracious (deal with one another charitably as we aim toward faithfulness).


[1] Matthew 28:19.

[2] Acts 2:38.

[3] Acts 1:12, 15; cf. “they were all together in one place” Acts 2:1.

[4] Acts 2:38.

[5] Acts 2:41.

[6] Acts 8:12.

[7] Acts 8:11-12.

[8] Acts 8:14.

[9] Acts 8:14-17.

[10] Acts 9:1-19.

[11] Acts 10:24,

[12] Acts 10:44-48.

[13] Acts 10:45.

[14] Acts 16:14-15.

[15] Acts 16:30-34.

[16] Acts 18:5-8.

[17] Sometimes one would argue for a third mark, church discipline, but those who maintained the limit of two would usually understand that church discipline was a subcategory of the second mark. If baptism and the Lord’s Supper are being administered aright, then church discipline will surely be a faithful practice as well.

[18] Benjamin Keach, The Glory of a True Church, Kindle (Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 2018). 1.1.

[19] Keach, 1.3.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Keach, Benjamin. The Glory of a True Church. Kindle. Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 2018.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.

Author: marcminter

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

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