What is True Baptism?

When were you baptized?

Doesn’t that seem like a simple question?

And yet, in my pastoral experience, baptism is the second most complicated and emotionally charged experience I get to work through with new church members.

Fundamental but Potentially Perplexing

Baptism is one of the core identifying marks of a Christian. Jesus Christ gave His disciples (i.e. Christians) two ordinances (or sacraments) – baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or communion). These two signs serve as the Christ-instituted distinguishing marks of Christian discipleship (Matthew 26:26-29, 28:18-20; Luke 22:14-20).

But, who should be baptized? Some say only adult Christians. Some say professing believers at any age. Some say adult Christians and their infant children.

Where should someone be baptized? Many people have been baptized in a church baptistry, a formal place within a church building designated for performing baptisms. Many others have been baptized outdoors, in lakes, ponds, rivers, oceans, and even swimming pools. Still others were baptized in some creative way, using a livestock trough or another repurposed container.

Who should perform the baptism? Throughout history, most Christians were baptized by an officially recognized minister. Recently, it has become more common for non-commissioned Christians to perform baptisms, though this is still far from the norm.

Should anyone ever get “re-baptized”? Many Evangelicals – especially in the fading Bible-belt of southern America – testify to having been baptized multiple times. It is quite common for me (I pastor a rural church in East Texas) to hear someone describe their experiences of having been “baptized” once as a youngster and again at some later point in life, often as part of something they call “rededication.”

As I said, baptism can become a complicated matter when you’re talking with someone about their own experience and trying to square that with the teaching from Scripture. So, I won’t try to answer every possible question about baptism here. Instead, I’d like to offer what I think are four indispensable elements of biblical baptism.

Some Useful Information

The reader will be helped by checking to see if all four of these elements were present at their own experience of baptism. If so, then I believe it was probably a true, biblical, Christ-honoring baptism. If one or more of these elements are/were missing, then I advise the reader to bring the matter to the attention of his/her pastor(s) or elder(s). He/They will be very happy to talk and think through this with you.

Whether you believe your baptism was true or not, you would probably do well to write out a brief assessment of your baptism experience, confirming that each element was present, or noting what was missing. Such a thoughtful exercise would likely benefit the reader greatly.

The reader will also be helped by knowing that various churches and denominations disagree about how to best answer the question: What is true baptism? I am a Baptist with strong ecclesiological convictions, which are largely built upon what I believe the Bible teaches about baptism and the Lord’s Supper. That said, I sincerely believe my description below is in submission to Scripture, which is the ultimate authority and arbiter of truth.

Let’s first look at the Bible’s teaching on baptism, and then I’ll base my four indispensable elements on what we learn from Scripture.

A Biblical Foundation

When Jesus commissioned His followers (i.e. Christians) to be His witnesses, from the time He ascended to the Father’s side until He returned at last, Jesus told them what to do. He told them to preach the message of the gospel and to make disciples of those who responded with faith and repentance. Those new disciples were to be baptized and catechized (they were to learn the teachings of Christ) by those who were already among the group. And Jesus’ disciples did what Jesus told them.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we read Jesus’ commissioning charge. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [or peoples], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20).

Luke recorded a similar commission from Jesus, which must have been given soon after the other. At the beginning of Acts, Luke tells us what Jesus said right before He ascended to the right hand of the Father. Jesus said, “you will recieve power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Just then, Jesus was “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).

Then, the disciples waited. They waited for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit and for that moment when they would begin carrying out the mission Jesus had left for them. And the day of Pentecost came soon after.

The Apostle Peter stood out as the disciples’ representative when he preached the gospel to those gathered in Jerusalem on that day when the Holy Spirit came, giving the disciples boldness and power to bear witness to Christ.

Many heard Peter’s message, and some believed. Some in the crowd responded by saying, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). They were asking, “What must we do to become Christ’s disciples, beneficiaries of God’s grace in Christ?”

Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Repentance and belief are two sides of the same biblical coin (as demonstrated by verse 41, cited below), and Peter called sinners to respond with humility and hope in order to be saved from their sin and the due penalty thereof.

But Peter also exhorted them to “be baptized… in the name of Jesus Christ.” This was clearly the outward and public display of repentance and belief, which are less immediately observable.

We are told, “those who received [Peter’s] word [i.e. those who believed] were baptized, and there were added [to the small existing group of disciples] that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). And all the disciples, both the old and the new, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts. 2:42).

Thus the disciples activity and teaching demonstrate the apostolic and biblical understanding of what Jesus commissioned His disciples to do. The combination of these passage construct for us a solid foundation, upon which we may build a definition of true (i.e. biblical) baptism.

Four Indispensable Elements of Baptism

I am calling these elements of baptism indispensable because I believe that the removal of any of them will almost certainly indicate a redefinition of baptism, which would be a loss of biblical baptism. In other words, if one or more elements are missing in your “baptism” experience, it is very likely that whatever you did experience was not true baptism.

One, true baptism occurs after a person has been converted.

The biblical command to be baptized is only for those who are professing faith in Jesus Christ. Both in Jesus’ commission and in Peter’s exhortation, only “disciples” or “repenting and believing” ones are to be baptized. Such a one may turn out to be a false confessor later on in life, but strong efforts should be made to ensure that baptism is being offered only to those who at least appear to be believing the gospel and turning from sin.

My Presbyterian brethren and others may argue that the baptism command is also “for [the] children” of believers, since children are mentioned in the passage I cited above (Acts 2:39). However, the reader will note that it is “the promise” of salvation through Christ and not the command to “be baptized” that is extended to “your children” and also to “all who are far off” (Acts 2:39).

If anyone was “baptized” before they were converted, then such a “baptism” was not true.

Only a post-conversion baptism can be a true baptism.

Two, true baptism is performed in the name of Jesus Christ, who is the apex of God’s revelation and the focal point of the gospel.

The biblical observance of baptism necessarily associates the one being baptized (the baptizee) with Jesus Christ. This is not merely a verbal formula, contra the views of some in the Church of Christ, but a much fuller identification with the God of the Bible and the person by whom God offers salvation to sinners like us.

In Jesus’ commission, He says new disciples are to be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). And Peter exhorts his hearers to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). The teaching of Scripture on the whole is that baptism is inextricably connected with the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) and the gospel of salvation through the work of Jesus Christ.

If someone was “baptized” in association with any non-Christian religion, any false gospel, or any message or group that denies an essential doctrine of historic Christianity, then such a “baptism” was not true.

Only a baptism associated with the biblical gospel, the biblical God, and the biblical Savior can be a true baptism.

Three, true baptism is experienced as a conscious act (both on the part of the one being baptized and on the part of those observing) of publicly confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

The biblical command to be baptized is necessarily connected with a conscious, public profession of faith and a conscious, public affirmation of that profession. Those who are being baptized are consciously and publicly making their belief in Christ known to watching world. And those who are observing and celebrating baptism are consciously and publicly affirming that the one being baptized is (so far as they can tell) one of them.

This element of true baptism leans into the reality that baptism cannot be observed alone. No one can (biblically) baptize him or herself. Baptism is something you do and something you have done to you, similtaneously. Furthermore, both the baptizee and the baptizer (as well as other observing Christians) must be conscious participants.

Biblically and historically, the normal context for true baptism is the local church. Only in recent years has this normative practice been neglected. The readiest way to demonstrate this is by the fact that most Evangelical churches still today have some new church members join by the act of baptism. In many churches, this is a holdover practice from a time now past, without much (if any) teaching or intentionality. New converts joining a church’s membership by being baptized was the common practice of most Evangelical churches.

If someone was “baptized” in hopes that he or she would eventually become a Christian, or if someone was “baptized” when he or she did not understand the basic meaning of baptism (as a public profession of Christian faith and discipleship), then such a “baptism” is not likely true.

Only a conscious Christian can be baptized as a public affirmation from at least one other conscious Christian.

Four, true baptism is performed by the use of water; normally a good bit of it.

The word βαπτιζω or baptidzō (translated “I baptize”), which serves as the root of all other New Testament words related to the act of baptism, carries with it the concept of cleansing, immersing, and washing. Furthermore, the descriptions we have of baptisms in the Bible (particularly the baptisms of Jesus and of the Ethiopian official) seem to indicate full immersion.

In addition to these initial points, the biblical imagery of being associated in or by baptism with Christ’s death and burial is only portrayed by submerging someone under water and then drawing them back out again (Romans 6:1-4). The imagery fails to be depicted by merely pouring water over a person or only partially dipping him or her into some water.

I believe baptism should be carried out by fully immersing the baptizee, but I am not arguing here that immersion itself is an indispensable element of true baptism, because I can easily imagine some circumstances when larger quantities of water may be inaccessible. In such a situation, I believe a true baptism may still occur, but it would be disordered.

If someone was “baptized” without water at all, then such a “baptism” is likely not true. If someone was baptized by some other method than full immersion, then it’s worth asking more questions.

The question of what constitutes a true baptism is probably not a great concern among most churchgoers, but it should be. Baptism is one of the clearest commands Jesus ever gave His disciples, and every Christian should eagerly want to obey their Savior and King.

I hope this article will be useful for the reader to assess his or her own experience. I strongly advise the reader to bring specific questions about personal experience to his or her pastor(s) or elder(s). The local church is designed by Christ to be the community in which we work through such things.

I also hope that many will experience true baptism, not simply to check off a ceremonial checkbox, but as a conscious act of obedience to Christ, in whom sinners become heirs of all the blessings of God.

“Going Public” by Bobby Jamieson

Jamieson’s writing style and authorial posture make this book an enjoyable read for anyone interested in studying a biblical argument for the historic Baptist view of believer’s baptism and the relationship of Christian baptism to church membership.

I found this book to be a likable, direct argument for believer’s baptism as the theological and public signal of someone becoming a Christian. Jamieson’s repeated obeisance to Paedobaptist comrades throughout the book makes him hard to disregard as a rabid sectarian of sorts. He simply and amiably asserts the biblical explanation and defense for believer’s baptism. He then works through the logical implications of this doctrine is such as way so as to present believer’s baptism as essential to the structure of church membership.

Quoting Robert Stein, Jamieson describes “faith going public” by pointing to five “integrally related components” of conversion. “Repentance, faith, and confession by the individual, regeneration… and baptism by representatives of the Christian community.”[1] This last phrase carries quite a bit of freight, but this is the basic idea Jamieson explicates throughout the book.

Baptism is integrally related to conversion (necessarily post-dating punctiliar conversion and serving as the public oath-sign), it is the affirmation of Christian representatives, and it is normally carried out in the context of formal Christian communities (i.e. local churches). Jamieson’s book attempts (I think successfully so) to unpack this freight and examine the substance of it.

Baptism, Jamieson argues, is the initiating oath-sign of the New Covenant. It is the formal and public commitment of the new believer to associate him or herself with Christ and Christ’s people. Baptism is also the passport of the kingdom of Christ on earth. It is the affirmation of the new believer by those Christians who are already part of Christ’s visible kingdom on earth.

Jamieson also argues that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the effective signs of what and who a local church is, thereby making church membership structurally visible. All of this collectively forms the basis for arguing the logical implication that baptism (i.e. believer’s baptism) is necessary for church membership. Anyone who neglects this necessary ordinance (even for reasons of conscience and/or conviction) cannot avoid the charge of inconsistency and, ultimately, theological error.

Honestly, I found this book to be a refreshing articulation of what I have been trying to practice among my own church family. It is hard for me to interact very critically with it. I thought Jamieson did a good job of laying out his case, and I believe he also stayed within the boundaries of Scripture and suitable deductions from the diligent and faithful study of it.

I also thought that Jamieson’s book would be quite accessible to the unstudied Christian. I think most Christians would be able to understand the overall argument of this book, and I think the bite-sized chapters and sections would not be too difficult to swallow and digest.

If I might make one negative comment about this book, it would be related to the compliment I gave it above. While the chapters and sections were arranged in a simple and easy-to-follow fashion, I think there was a little too much redundant content. Each chapter began by “putting his cards on the table” with lengthy introductions that essentially presented the chapter’s content in brief. Jamieson offered the reader an option to omit an entire chapter so as to avoid too much repetition, but I wonder if this doesn’t merely make my point that the re-packaged content could have simply been omitted in the final publication.

Overall, I think this book was great. I unreservedly commend it to the reading list of every Christian and curious non-Christian. This book will help the reader better understand the biblical importance of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership.

[1]Jamieson, 38.

Christian, Be Baptized!

“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:37-38).

What is biblical baptism? This question has been answered with great similarity since the time of the early Christian Church. And yet, there have also been distinctive ways in which some have given an answer. While the mode or method of baptism does not have to separate Christian brothers and sisters, it is still a very important subject of consideration.

First, we know that Jesus Christ commands all His disciples (or followers) to be baptized (Matt. 28:19). Second, we know that the Apostles taught and commanded the same (Acts 2:38). Third, we know that a Christian becomes a Christian by a miraculous act of God, whereby God imparts new life (or spiritual life) to the previously darkened sinner (Eph. 2:4; Jn. 3:3). Fourth, we know that new life in Christ is demonstrated by a pattern of obedience to Christ (James 2:14-26).

Therefore, we know that every believer ought to be baptized as a sign and beginning of new life in Christ.

The Christian is one who has been joined to Christ and joined those who have been united to Christ before him/her. In believer’s baptism, all Christians testify to their common faith, their spiritual unity, and their purposeful commitment to follow Christ together.

May God create new life abundantly in our day, and may many come to glorify God because of the distinctive way in which Christians live to honor God and others above themsleves.

What is the Baptism in the Holy Spirit?

All Bible-loving Christians must believe in something commonly referred to as baptism in the Holy Spirit,[1] but there are differences in various definitions and expectations of it. Charismatic Christians sometimes presume that non-Charismatic Christians do not believe in a Holy Spirit baptism, but this is not necessarily justified. I shall seek to explain the biblical meaning of baptism in the Holy Spirit, and I shall argue for the expected and universal experience of this baptism among Christians. I shall also consider and answer some common objections to my argument. Since this is not merely an academic essay, but a work of applied theology, I will begin with a little personal background.

As I was growing up, I experienced times of significant discomfort in church services. My strange feelings arose as a response to some odd sights and sounds. I remember my mother’s body bizarrely shaking, while she shrieked an incomprehensible and chaotic repetition. The image of a church leader spontaneously running across the stage or around the room is easily recalled in my mind. Various members of the congregation would each contribute to a cacophony of noises, which might be described as groaning, wailing, yelling and sometimes laughing. These were common among my childhood and teen experiences with Christianity.

Local churches who experience these kinds of things, and/or many similar experiences, are often called Charismatic. The term “charismata” means divine gifting or empowering, and the Christians who compose these Charismatic congregations affirm the present and ongoing expectation of a certain kind of divine gifts. A major expectation among Charismatic Christians is that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is a distinct and subsequent event to Christian conversion. We will seek to understand what biblical relationship there is between Holy Spirit baptism and Christian conversion, so let us turn to the Scriptures.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit

Seven verses in the New Testament speak about someone being baptized in or by the Holy Spirit. Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33 all record similar recitations of John the Baptizer’s words concerning Jesus and baptism in the Holy Spirit. John said, “I have baptized you with water; but he [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mk. 1:8). Two more passages are found in the book of Acts. In Acts 1:5, Jesus reminds His followers about John’s prediction, and He tells them to expect to be baptized in the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.” In Acts 11:16, Peter refers back to Jesus’ words in Acts 1:5, and he marvels at the reality that Gentiles have also received the same baptism as the Jewish believers did on the day of Pentecost (as recorded in Acts 2:1-4). All six of these passages refer to the occurrence of baptism, but – this is important – none of them explain what it is.

The seventh passage in the New Testament that mentions the baptism in the Holy Spirit is 1 Corinthians 12:13. The Apostle Paul says, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (RSV). Here, the apostle Paul is talking about what makes all Christians part of the “one body,” namely union with Christ and with one another. He says that the defining moment, the transition from unbelief to belief, is that instant when the Christian is baptized by the Holy Spirit.

This transition is what Christians commonly refer to as conversion or (more theologically termed) regeneration. Allison says, “the conclusion to be drawn from these passages is that one of the aspects of God’s work of saving sinful human beings is Jesus Christ’s baptism of new converts with the Holy Spirit, by which they are incorporated into his body, the church” (Allison, 8). It seems clear from these biblical texts that Allison’s conclusion is accurate; baptism in the Holy Spirit occurs in the life of every Christian as a synchronized event with their conversion.

Some Objections Considered

Many who hold the Charismatic or Pentecostal position will object to such a conclusion, however. They claim that the passage from 1 Corinthians 12 is different from the other six, because the baptizing agent is different in this passage. One might argue that the Holy Spirit is the one doing the baptizing in 1 Corinthians, while Jesus is the one doing the baptizing in the other six verses. However, Grudem refers to this objection when he says,

“although the distinction seems to make sense from some English translations, it really cannot be supported by an examination of the Greek text, for there the expression is almost identical to the expressions we have seen in the other six versus” (Grudem, 1604).

Grudem also points out the translators’ possible goal of avoiding a confusing repetition in 1 Corinthians 12:13. For example, the ESV records, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…” The baptism is in one Spirit and also into one body, but both of these together can elicit the question, “Is it a baptism in the Spirit, or into the body?” The only biblical answer is, “Yes… it is both.”

Another objection that is often cited is that of the subsequent occurrence of baptism in the Holy Spirit from the conversion of New Testament believers. There is a record of Christians who were baptized in the Holy Spirit after they believed the Gospel and trusted in Christ. On this basis, it is argued, the Holy Spirit baptism and Christian conversion are explicitly separate events. On the front end, this objection is quite warranted; but we must inevitably ask a big question about what is assumed in this objection: Are these chronologically delayed Holy Spirit baptisms normative or unique? First, let us look at the recorded events themselves.

Jewish believers, who were already Christians, gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. They believed in Christ as Lord and Savior, but they were not baptized in the Holy Spirit until the day of Pentecost, which was clearly after they had first believed (Acts 2:1-4). Furthermore, there are two other occurrences (later in Acts) where believers receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit after they have already believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Acts 8:14-17, we learn that Peter and John encountered some Samarian (half-Jew) Christians who had been “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (they had been water baptized as a sign of repentance and faith), but the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen on any of them” (Acts 8:16). After Peter and John “laid their hands on them,” the Samarian believers “received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17).

A very similar description is given in Acts 19:1-7. However, in this case, we meet believers who are not even half-Jews; they are Ephesian Gentiles. Paul learns the same about these Christians as Peter and John learned about the Samarian ones. They had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, but they had not yet experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Paul, like Peter and John, laid his hands upon these believers, and they “began speaking in tongues” as the “Holy Spirit came on them” (Acts 19:6).

A simple explanation can be offered for these delayed experiences, and I will use a three-premised syllogism to build it out.

First, Peter told his hearers that the baptism in the Holy Spirit, which occurred at Pentecost, was the fulfillment of the prophecy Joel wrote many years before. Through the prophet Joel, God promised to “pour out [His] Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17), as opposed to only sending the Holy Spirit to select individuals and for certain tasks throughout the Old Testament. Grudem says, “the day of Pentecost was the point of transition between the Old Covenant work and the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the New Covenant work in the ministry of the Holy Spirit” (Grudem, 1612). Pentecost, then, was that predicted outpouring, and it was a unique event in human history.

Second, the New Covenant in Christ Jesus brought the realization of that spiritual union that was promised, and it also brought about a highlighted ethnic expansion. The promise of God’s blessing was always for the offspring of Abraham and extending to the whole world (Gen. 12:1-3), but it was only after the coming of Christ this offspring blessing was emphasized as a spiritual lineage or heritage. The Apostle Paul says, for example, “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring” (Gal. 3:29). This was a fact in the Old Testament as well (Gen. 12:2-3), but its prominence is greater in New Testament.

Third, we see a progressive ethnic expansion of God baptizing believers in the Holy Spirit as a testimony of His blessing upon all peoples. Notice that all of the believers who were baptized in the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 were Jewish (Acts 2:1-4, cf. Acts 11:17-18). In Acts 8:14-17, Samarians (half-Jews) were baptized in the Holy Spirit. In Acts 10:1-48, we read of a God-fearing Gentile (an Italian centurion) and his family who received the Gospel, and “the Holy Spirit fell” upon them (Acts 10:44). Finally, in Acts 19:1-7, we read about Ephesian Gentiles who had believed the Gospel and experience water baptism, but when the Apostle Paul “laid hands on them” they too were baptized in the Holy Spirit. These demonstrate an intentional expansion, both on God’s working in human history and Luke’s record of these events.

Therefore, we are to understand that the application Peter made on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) is carried over to the subsequent experiences (Acts 8, 10, 19) of the same unique fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. Peter tells us, I believe, that these occurrences are collectively that of which the prophet Joel spoke. God promised to pour out His Spirit upon all peoples, and that is exactly what He progressively did. Let me be clear; I do not merely tolerate these experiences of baptism in the Holy Spirit subsequent to Christian conversion during the time period of the early church. I celebrate these emphatic and unique baptisms in the Holy Spirit, for these are God’s own witness of His fulfilled promise of blessing to all peoples through Christ Jesus.

Conclusion

Far from believing that the baptism in the Holy Spirit has somehow stopped, I believe that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is essential to every Christian. The Holy Spirit baptism is not reserved for only a select few Christians or some elite spiritual group, but this baptism is the defining mark of every believer. God miraculously brings sinners into union with Christ by baptizing them in the Holy Spirit, and this life-giving event happens the very moment the Christian – every Christian – believes.

 

[1]I understand an interchangeable use of the terms “in” and “with,” as they relate to Holy Spirit baptism, so I use “in” throughout this essay. For a more thorough examination, see Grudem’s Systematic Theology, especially chapter 39.

 

Bibliography

Gregg R. Allison, “Baptism with and Filling of the Holy Spirit,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, vol. 16, no. 4 (Winter 2012).

Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.