Though baptism is commonly practiced by all Christian churches, the meaning of baptism can differ significantly from one local church to the next. Gregg Allison summarizes the historic Christian conviction when he writes, “Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the ‘visible elements that are sufficient and necessary for the existence of a true church.’” In other words, without baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there is no church. These are the twin signs of the New Covenant, which the Lord Jesus Christ instituted, giving them to His disciples. Protestants called the right administration of these two ordinances the second mark of a true church, the first being the right preaching of the gospel.
Among various Protestant traditions, Baptists have historically distinguished themselves by arguing for a distinctive view of baptism, and in this way earned their moniker. Specifically, Baptists have emphasized the necessity of a conscious profession of faith, calling their view believer’s baptism, whereas other Protestants have put more weight on God’s objective covenantal promises. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, both differing fundamentally from Protestants, emphasize a sacramental and even sacerdotal function of baptism, uniting the one baptized with the universal church.
This essay, following the historic Baptist position, will argue that 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. We will explain this thesis by articulating the meaning of baptism. With this as our focus, we will maintain a particular concentration on the biblical institution of the ordinance.
Jesus’s profound words in Matthew 28:18-20 will serve as a centerpiece for our discussion on baptism. In Matthew’s Gospel this passage is the climax of Jesus’s teaching on the church, and baptism is a key feature. Following the thesis of this essay, we will argue in three parts that baptism means (1) this person is now a Christian, (2) these Christians affirmthis one, and (3) this Christian is now united with these. And, finally, we will offer some practical answers to the questions of baptism’s proper subjects and context.
This Person is Now a Christian
The first biblical command to baptize New Covenant believers and the basic substance for any doctrine of Christian baptism is found in Jesus’s Great Commission at the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel. After Jesus’s resurrection from the dead and before He ascended to the seat of highest authority in the cosmos, Jesus commissioned His disciples to be His remaining witnesses on earth. There is much more to learn from Matthew 28:18-20, but this passage must be our starting point for any discussion of baptism, and we must understand the passage itself as well as how it relates to others.
Evangelical paedobaptists and credobaptists both agree with this starting point. Paedobaptists are those who believe Christian baptism is for believers and their children or “converts” and “their families.” Credobaptists are those who believe Christian baptism is only for new disciples or believers who consciously mean to profess their belief in Jesus Christ. Though they disagree about the subjects of baptism, both paedobaptists and credobaptist agree that Jesus’s Great Commission statement is the place to begin a discussion about baptism. John Dagg (a nineteenth-century credobaptist) and John Sartelle (a twentieth-century paedobaptist), like many others from each camp, both begin their arguments on the meaning of baptism with this same passage.
For clarity, Matthew 28:18-20 says,
“Jesus came and said to [His disciples], ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, 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.’”
Christians have long understood that this passage forms the mandate and informs the method of Christian activity in the world until Christ returns. In every generation, those who are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ are to give themselves to the task of helping others become and live as Christ’s disciples. Jesus commissioned His people to proliferate, not by the point of the sword or political strategy, but by preaching the gospel and calling sinners to repent (i.e., turn from sin)  and believe (i.e., trust in Jesus as Savior and submit to Him as Lord). Those sinners who do repent and believe are to be baptized in the name of the Triune God, brought into fellowship with other believers, and taught to think and act as followers of Christ. This transition, which is the center of our study, from unbeliever to believer or non-Christian to Christian is called conversion.
Robert Stein notes five components of conversion. He writes, “In the experience of becoming a Christian, five integrally related components took place at the same time, usually on the same day: repentance, faith [or belief], confession [or professing belief in Christ], receiving the Holy Spirit, and baptism.” Bobby Jamieson agrees with Stein, but he emphasizes that Baptists view a logical and even a chronological progression, such that one is technically a Christian (i.e., a repenting, believing, and regenerated person) before he or she is biblically baptized. With their Protestant brethren, Baptists believe that justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. However, to Stein’s and Jamieson’s point, we must not overstate this theological reality to the detriment of the visible manifestation of conversion, which speaks of more (though not less) than justification.
Repentance, belief, and regeneration are not visible in themselves, but baptism is. In fact, baptism is thevisible display of conversion. Moreover, Jamieson says, “as a matter of systematic-theological description, it is appropriate to identify regeneration as a discrete moment which should precede baptism… Yet for all these necessary refinements we need to make sure we can still speak like the Bible speaks.” In other words, we must perceive conversion as a unified compilation of specific actions, of which baptism is one. Indeed, baptism is the visible action which announces and even pledges entrance into the benefits and obligations of the New Covenant. In baptism, the one being baptized is pledging himself to Christ and Christ is pledging Himself as well.
This feature of baptism, which centers on the idea that baptism is the New Covenant oath-sign, is significant in Jamison’s book on the subject. His argument is worth citing at some length here. To begin with, he describes the biblical pattern of “ratifying” a covenant through the use of a “symbolic action,” and he also highlights its “constituting” function. In Genesis 15, for example, the animal-cutting ceremony was a symbolic action which ratified God’s covenantal promises to Abraham. Similarly, circumcision was a covenant-ratifying sign of the Abrahamic covenant, and Jamieson argues that it not only signaled God’s pledge but also Abraham’s (and his descendants’) agreement to keep the terms. He calls the symbolic action, which ratifies and constitutes, an “oath-sign,” wherein “the covenant’s sanctions [were] placed… on those thereby consecrated to the Lord.”
But, as Jamieson notes, “this raises the question… is [baptism] an oath?” He answers, yes. And this is where his argument centers on the passage of greatest interest to us. Jamieson says, “to be baptized into the name of the Trine God is to be initiated into covenantal identification with him.” This is is exactly what Matthew 28:19 calls for, and it is in keeping with Dagg’s older language and argument. Dagg writes, “The place which baptism holds in the commission, indicates its use. The apostles were sent to make disciples, and to teach them to observe all the Saviour’s [sic] commands; but an intermediate act is enjoined, [namely] the act of baptizing them.” Therefore, Dagg says, “This ceremony [i.e., baptism] was manifestly designed to be the initiation into the prescribed service; and every disciple… meets this duty at the entrance of his course.” In other words, baptism is the way New Testament believers declare themselves Christian.
The New Testament teaching on this is point is clear. Baptism is an “appeal to God for a clear conscience;” it publicly calls upon God to grant what He has promised in Christ. Baptism is “into Christ,” and those who are baptized “have put on Christ” Baptism unites the believer to the “death” of Christ, even mysteriously “burying” the believer “with Him,” and also unites the believer to a “resurrection like” Christ’s. Thus, repentance and faith are surely the first responses of the new believer when he or she hears and understands the gospel (at least in a logical and theological sense), but baptism is the initial visible response, whereby the believer is signaled to have converted from the “domain of darkness and transferred… to the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son.” Baptism is the way a new believer makes a public confession of faith in the Lord [i.e., King] Jesus Christ.
One final remark in this section will also lead us into the next. This covenantal identification in baptism is a pledge or oath from both directions – from the one baptized and from heaven itself. From the one baptized, the pledge or oath is to publicly commit oneself to Jesus Christ as Lord. It is a promise to “obey all that [Christ] commands” as His disciple. From heaven, the pledge or oath is a formal and public answer to the request implicit in calling upon Christ as Savior. But how does the new disciple know that his or her plea for acceptance has been answered in the affirmative? Who actually makes the heavenly declaration, “This person is indeed a Christian”? The answer is the church.
These Christians Affirm This One
Baptism is the way new disciples become public or visible Christians, and baptism is also the way existing disciples affirm new ones. In fact, it is manifestly obvious that this second feature necessarily corresponds to the prior claim. The previous section dealt with the idea that baptism is the visible sign of conversion, but one cannot baptize himself. An existing Christian (usually an assembly of them) is a necessary and responsible participant in this Christ-instituted act.
In this section we must further consider baptism as part of the overall process of conversion in order to better understand the necessary role of existing Christians. In fact, building on the previous claim, we must continue with a necessary correlation. In making judgments about who is and who is not a Christian, existing Christians speak for Jesus in the authorized administration of the ordinances. But this requires an explanation which must reach further back into Matthew’s Gospel before we proceed.
Some theologians have observed that Matthew 28:18-20 is not only a foundational text for understanding baptism, but also a climactic one. Jonathan Leeman has argued that Jesus’s Great Commission is the zenith of the major theme in Matthew’s Gospel – the authorization of kingdom representatives to speak with the authority of King Jesus in the world. Leeman, as John Cotton did before him, especially sees this theme hitting significant points along the way in Matthew 16:13-20 and 18:15-20.
There is no room for a full exposition here, but Leeman argues that these two passages together speak positively and negatively, describing Jesus’s authorization for His disciples (specifically an assembly of them “gathered in [His] name”) to make judgments regarding the “what” and the “who” of Christ’s kingdom in the world. In Matthew 16, Jesus’s disciples are authorized to speak positively, binding right confessors within the boundaries of Christ’s kingdom. In Matthew 18, they are authorized to speak negatively, loosing those who do not live in keeping with a right confession from the kingdom boundaries. Leeman says, “Jesus means to build his church not on persons or truths, but on persons (who) confessing the right truths (what) – on confessors.”
So then, when he finally arrives at Matthew 28:18-20, Leeman understands that Christ is announcing that He does indeed possess all authority in heaven and on earth, and that His disciples are now to speak with His cosmic authority, which Christ has authorized them to do (in Matthew 16 and 18). Particularly, they are to exercise their “jurisdictional and legal, revelatory and interpretive speech” in the use of the ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Speaking particularly of baptism, Leeman says, “To baptize someone ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19) is to make a truth claim about a person’s union with Christ and citizenship in Christ’s kingdom.”This is the heavenly pledge, speaking in the name and with the authority of Jesus Christ, which corresponds with the believer’s pledge in baptism.
Baptism, then, according to Matthew 28:18-20 (full of pregnant meaning from Matthew 16:13-20 and 18:15-20), is the way a new disciple becomes a public or visible Christian, but only in so far as this one is affirmed by these existing Christians. Baptism is the initiatory oath-sign whereby individual believers become partakers in the visible kingdom of Jesus Christ, but only if the existing New Covenant community (i.e., the local church) authoritatively provides the heavenly affirmation through baptism. And, of course, this is exactly the way we see the earliest disciples practice baptism as they began to preach the gospel and bring new converts into churches (or forming them as such) throughout the book of Acts.
From the hub of Matthew 28:18-20, these other baptism passages jut out as spokes of the doctrinal wheel. In Acts 2, Peter was the first disciple to bear public witness to Jesus Christ by preaching the gospel on the day of Pentecost. When some in the crowd responded by asking, “What shall we do?”, Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.” And “those who received his word were baptized,” and there “were added” to the existing New Covenant community “about three thousand souls.”
In our next section we will consider further the direct link between baptism and church membership, but presently we can already see some consistent application of the authorization, the mandate, and the method described above. Peter preached the gospel, called for unbelievers to repent and believe, and urged those who believed to be baptized. The invisible realities (regeneration, repentance, and belief) were immediately visualized in the act of baptism, which gave a clear historical record of thousands of confessing converts in a single day.
It must be acknowledged that in Acts 2 there is no explicit mention of baptizing the existing disciples in order toaffirm them as new converts. A strong argument could be made, however, that such an affirmation is the necessary implication of baptism since Jesus’s commissioning statement (in Matthew 28) and His previous teaching and authorization (in Matthew 16 and 18) ought to be assumed even when such features are not explicit. This is not an argument from silence, but an argument of consistency; Jesus taught previously that this is what baptism is. But as the gospel expands, and as more people are converted, the text does become explicit in describing how the earliest disciples understood their responsibility and authorization to judge and affirm (by baptism) only those whom they believed were included among the New Covenant community.
In Acts 8 the responsibility of authorization is implied by the apostolic visit to Samaria from Jerusalem. After persecution intensified in Jerusalem, Philip traveled into Samaria, and he preached the “good news about the kingdom of God in the name of Jesus Christ.” There were some who “paid attention” to Philip’s teaching, and they “believed” Philip’s message, thus, “they were baptized.” In Samaria, Philip was the only existing disciple at first, so he alone was 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.” This appears to reinforce the biblical understanding that Christian affirmation was an essential aspect of baptism, since the Christians in Jerusalem seem to have acted on their responsibility to investigate and participate in what is going on in Samaria.
In Acts 10, the responsibility on the part of existing Christians to make judgments about who is in and who is out of the New Covenant by way of baptism becomes obvious. The Apostle Peter received special revelation from God that the gospel promises were not only for Jews but also Gentiles. By divine appointment, Peter preached the gospel to a gathered group of Gentiles whom God regenerated, as evidenced by their “speaking in tongues and extolling God.”Peter’s next words are telling. He asked, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” What are we to make of this question if not that Peter and his believing companions were acting on their perceived responsibility to judge the who and the what of the kingdom of Christ by either granting or withholding baptism? The clearest and most obvious understanding is that they were pronouncing their divinely-authorized judgment. These Christians (in this case Peter and those with him) were publicly affirming this one as a partaker in the visible kingdom of Jesus Christ by baptizing him (in this case Cornelius and those of his household).
In summary, we have demonstrated in the first section that biblical baptism is the initiatory oath-sign whereby individual believers become partakers in the visible kingdom of Jesus Christ. We have demonstrated in this second section that both an individual confessor and an existing Christian (at least one) are necessary and responsible participants in this Christ-instituted act. In the next section, we will argue that Christ’s authorization to judge who is in and who is out of Christ’s visible kingdom is normally the prerogative of the local church. Indeed, baptism not only visibly unites new believers to Christ, but it also unites new believers with a visible assembly of existing ones.
This Christian is United with These
In our day, the assumptions of individualism and some sort of personal autonomy are pervasive. One is much more likely to think of their conversion as a personal and private act, rather than a communal one in any way dependent upon others. However, an overemphasis on the personal requirements of repentance, faith, and regeneration does violence to the biblical notion of conversion. Indeed, the invisible components of conversion are essential for one’s inclusion in the kingdom of Christ, but we live during the age when such a kingdom has not yet been fully displayed. In our age, the kingdom of Christ takes visible shape in the form of local churches, gathered in Christ’s name, marked off by the ordinances which the Lord Jesus authorized as the signs of covenantal citizenship. And, by definition, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper can only be practiced in community.
Drawing together the various strands of teaching we have already considered, we must return to the hub of our wheel. In Christ’s commission, His ordaining or decreeing instruction for baptism, He commanded existing disciples to baptize new ones in the name of the Triune God. This command sets atop Christ’s teaching that the door in and out of His visible kingdom is operated by those who “gather” in His “name.” The ones who make the good confession concerning Christ, as Peter did, are “bound” within the “kingdom of heaven.” Those who live in keeping with the good confession remain visibly within the New Covenant community, the “brotherhood” of Christ’s kingdom or church. But those who do not repent of sin and continue in belief are to be treated as “a Gentile and a tax collector.” This is old covenant language which means that the unrepentant sinner is to be considered outside of or “loosed” from the covenant community. All of this is not to say that local churches are authorized by Christ to make the decisive statement on one’s inclusion or exclusion from the New Covenant itself, but it is to say that Christ has authorized local churches to make the only sort of judgment that can be observed before that final day when Christ shall render His ultimate verdict.
The direction we are headed now requires us to make a distinction between the invisible and visible kingdom of Christ, the universal Church and the local church. The kingdom of Jesus Christ shall one day become visible in the eschaton, the glorious age to come when God Himself will make all things new in Christ. We see this displayed in the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” singing the song of salvation. Near the end of the book of Revelation, the Apostle John saw “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down our of heaven from God,” and the “holy city” is the kingdom of Christ in which God will “dwell with” His people. That eschatological kingdom of Christ – the assembly of all those who persevere in faith – is sure to come, but it is not yet visible. What is visible now is the kingdom of Christ that shows up in the form of local churches, and baptism is the observable act which demonstrates who is numbered among Christ’s kingdom-citizens.
Stanton Norman has written, “Christian baptism is… only… [for] those persons whose allegiance belongs exclusively to Jesus Christ.” In other words, those people who pledge allegiance to Christ above all else are baptized as an official pronouncement of their citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. Others have drawn upon the idea of an “embassy” to describe the local church on this conceptual basis. And, since baptism is the way Christians initially affirm new believers, it serves as a sort of passport for citizens of Christ’s kingdom on earth. But without physical boundaries or geographical lines on a map, Christ’s kingdom is more like a foreign nation existing in the form of scattered outposts among the kingdoms or nations of this world.
Local churches act as embassies of Christ’s kingdom when they proclaim the message of their King, call present inhabitants of this world to pledge allegiance to Christ (i.e., repent and believe), and authoritatively declare a new citizenship (by baptism) to those who exhibit the fruit of regeneration. Baptism, then, is tantamount to membership in the visible kingdom of Christ; it is the door of church membership. Shawn Wright observes, “baptism is the entrance marker of a converted person into the membership and accountability of a local church.” From the nineteenth century, Edward Hiscox wrote, “[baptism] stands at the door [of church membership], and admission [into the church] is only on its reception.” Indeed, Jonathan Watson shows the relationship between baptism and ecclesiology when he writes, “A local church administers baptism to persons as a means of making them disciples… Thus, the doctrine of the church – its fellowship and obedient mission in the world – is bound up with this rite as well.”
Rustin Umstattd, a contemporary Baptist theologian, agrees with this point as far as it goes. He writes, “The baptism in the Great Commission was both a profession of faith by the one coming to Christ and recognition by the church that he was being accepted into Christ.” But in the same article, in which he advocates against delaying baptism, Umstattd seems to overemphasize the profession to the detriment of the recognition. He says, “delayed baptism, for evidentiary purposes, causes the church to abandon (de facto, if not de jure) the concept of credobaptism, in favor of what one might call ‘certo-baptism,’ this latter idea being defined as the baptism of someone whose bona fides have been underwritten officially by a local church.” However, one’s bona fides is precisely what a church is recognizing and underwriting by baptizing a new believer. The one desirous of baptism may indeed be regenerate and believing, but the church is responsible to make a judgment regarding this very question.
It is important to note here that Baptists make no claim of infallibility with regard to a local church’s decision to baptize a confessor into membership in Christ’s visible kingdom. Wright says, “When a church receives a person as a member, they are saying, ‘As far as we can tell, you are one of us. You have been born again. You are a pilgrim along with us on your way to heaven’” (emphasis added). Donald Ackland makes it clear that Baptists today “can lay no claim to a full measure of apostolic discernment;” therefore, he says, “we should exercise every care in determining that those who seek the privilege of church membership possess the basic spiritual qualifications.” Thus, baptism and church membership do not confer salvation, nor is baptism an affirmation that cannot err. And yet, Baptist churches do mean to include only regenerate confessors, those who presently pledge allegiance to Christ and demonstrate the sort of behavior that accompanies repentance and faith.
In summary, we have attempted to show that baptism is the way new disciples become visible Christians, inherently joined with other visible Christians. It is not the only or even the “legitimizing” feature of conversion, but baptism the biblical way Christians make a public profession of faith and become partakers, along with other partakers, in the visible kingdom of Jesus Christ. We have also argued that there is a necessary correlation between a public profession of faith and a public affirmation of that profession. Simply put, existing disciples must affirm new ones by way of baptism; no one baptizes himself, and baptism is intrinsically an affirmative judgment. And, finally, we have labored to explain the biblical, logical, and historical connection baptism has with church membership. Baptism is the initial way new disciples unite with others, and this normally occurs in the context of the local church.
Subjects and Context of Baptism
Having defined baptism, we should confront a common assumption that appears to pervade modern Christianity in America. Some church leaders and Christian authors do not seem to think there is any such thing as a disordered baptism, even less a false one. All is fair game, and each believer should feel personal freedom in answering the questions of who should be baptized and how. Some emphasize an interest in maximizing the number of baptisms while avoiding altogether questions about propriety or fidelity to Scripture’s teaching on the subject.
Kelly Bean, in her book How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church, describes what she calls “alternative forms of Christian community.” She calls them “non-goers,” those people, like her, who call themselves “Christian” and even “faithful,” but who also purposefully avoid membership with any local church. She argues that this group is growing in number, and she thinks this is just part of the inevitable change that must always happen. When she finally does address the subject of the ordinances or sacraments, she says these can be easily adapted to various forms of uncommitted and untethered faith-communities. She says, “Sometimes non-goers will assemble with other non-goers in a small community to share in the sacraments of communion or baptism… Most non-goers understand themselves to be part of the priesthood of all believers and accept responsibility and authority for administration of the sacraments.”Bean is representative of a large number of professing Christians who feel perfectly free to practice the ordinances in any way that seems right to them.
It is not just untethered Christians who feel this freedom. Some church leaders seem to believe the increased number of baptisms justifies any loss of biblical warrant for their practices. Elevation Church produced a “How-To Guide” for “Spontaneous Baptisms,” which called for other churches to follow the method and pattern they used.They recorded between 13% and 18% of their audience followed in baptism at the “Spontaneous Baptism event” in 2008, and between 9% and 16% in 2011. “Volunteers played a vital role,” they said, and they called for “15 people [to] sit in the worship experience and be the first ones to move when Pastor gives the call.” Other volunteers are to be arranged in the hallways to “create an atmosphere of Celebration.” The key throughout the “How-To Guide” is speed and efficiency, a “smooth interaction” and avoiding any “slow down” in “traffic flow.” Those being baptized are encouraged to “tweet… that they are being baptized today,” and volunteers are “looking for 1 or 2 great stories” from among the people in their “group” awaiting baptism. And yet, there seems to be little time for any sort of pastoral inquiry. There is no information in the guide to call for screening some out of the throngs wanting to be baptized, and church membership is not mentioned either. It is not clear that these baptisms are connected in any way to membership at Elevation Church.
Professing Christians seeking alternative forms of community and church leaders calling for spontaneous baptisms both seem to be heading in the exact opposite direction of the meaning of baptism urged in this essay and exemplified in history. Shawn Wright provides a voice of reason when he says, “those who are to be baptized should be presented to the fellowship for its approval before the baptism. One of the responsibilities of a fellowship is to receive its members… It is therefore the congregation’s responsibility to hear the testimony of the one to be baptized so that they might then receive him into their membership in a meaningful way.” Yes, this is the sort of practice in keeping with the meaning of baptism articulated above. The matter we are concerned with here is orderly baptism, as opposed to disordered baptism.
Who, then, should be baptized?
Only those people with a credible profession of faith should be recommended for baptism. A proper confessor is one who has heard and understood the gospel of Jesus Christ, who has understood the basic requirements of ongoing repentance and faith, and demonstrates at least some evidence of spiritual life. Because baptism is an affirmation that this one is a Christian, those Christians affirming such a thing must take some care to know – as best as they are able – if the one to be baptized is actually born again. Such a practice will usually necessitate some passage of time, since the Christians affirming a new believer will need to know something about the person to be baptized. Is she repenting of sin? Is he showing love for Christ and love for other Christians? Does she seem willing to pursue holiness alongside the Christians among this local church? All of these questions and more will need time to answer. Baptism is more than a profession of faith, though not less, and those Christians responsible for affirming such a profession must love potential converts enough to help them assess whether they possess saving faith.
When should a professing believer be baptized?
Since baptism is a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and since baptism is to be observed in the name of Jesus or in the name of the triune God, it is most appropriate to closely join the practice of baptism with the preaching or proclaiming of the gospel message. Furthermore, because baptism unites a new believer with existing ones, it would be most appropriate to baptize a new believer among the gathering of a local church. Since churches regularly gather on the Lord’s Day, baptism would be best observed in the context of a formal church liturgy. Having gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the congregation has heard the gospel proclaimed, they have sung songs affirming the gospel, they have prayed prayers to the triune God, and they should now see the initiatory oath-sign of the gospel promises and requirements.
How should a professing believer be baptized?
There is consensus among scholars today that the New Testament practice was baptism by immersion. Moreover, the action of immersing a person in water clearly visualizes the ideas baptism is meant to convey – death of the old self with Christ, cleansing of sin, rising to live a new life in a new way. Thus, professing believers ought to be baptized in the name of the triune God by fully immersing them in water. There may be rare occasions when sufficient water is not available or other complicating factors that make full immersion highly difficult for a particular person, such as bodily ailments that should not be exposed to water. Immersion is the proper or orderly form of baptism, but it is not of the essence of the ordinance. However, every effort should be made to practice full immersion. Similarly, it is not essential for a pastor or elder to perform the baptism, but it is appropriate for such a one to do so, since a pastor or elder is publicly recognized as one who faithfully preaches and teachers the gospel among a particular congregation.
Baptists have historically believed that baptism is not essential for salvation, but they have never believed that baptism was a dispensable feature of Christian conversion. Indeed, Baptists are Baptists precisely because of their high view and applied practice of baptism. Baptists have sometimes spoken more harshly than necessary against those whom they believed practiced a kind of baptism that is not baptism (i.e., paedobaptism), but this is not the aim here. This essay has attempted to avoid belittling those who disagree, but instead to present a positive case for the consistent practice of believer’s baptism. The goal has been to argue for and explain the biblical meaning and practice of baptism, which, along with regeneration, repentance, and faith, is inseparable from Christian conversion. This ordinance is the initiatory oath-sign whereby the individual believer makes a public profession of faith and existing believers publicly affirm the one being baptized as a partaker in the visible kingdom of Jesus Christ, united with the Savior and also with His people in the world. Stein summarizes it by saying that during the earliest days of Christianity baptism was how the “individual receive[d] Christ,” it was “administered by the church,” and it was “through this experience [that] he or she [became] part of the body of believers.”
Baptism, then, is the subjective display and application of God’s objective promises in the New Covenant. As such, believer’s baptism, as defined in this essay, is vitally important to every Christian and every local church because it best “preserves the pure witness of the gospel.” May God grant that every true church will be a bold witness of the gospel of Christ, and may He also grant that we all seek to adorn the doctrine of the gospel with consistent practices in our churches.
 Gregg R. Allison, The Church: An Introduction, Short Studies in Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021). 107.
 Bannerman argues, “there belongs to [baptism] the… character of a seal, confirming and attesting a federal transaction between God and the believer.” And “if Baptism be the seal of a federal transaction between the party baptized and Christ; if this be the main and characteristic feature of the ordinance… it would appear as if there were no small difficulty in the way of admitting to the participation of it those who, by reason of nonage, can be no parties to the engagement in virtue of their own act or will… the primary and ruling consideration in the controversy must be the express Divine appointment on the subject.” James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church, Franklin Classics, vol. 2, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Murray and Gibbs, 1868). 49, 67.
 Hans Kung, representing a modern Roman Catholic view, says, “Baptism is… not only a condition but also a guarantee of being made a part of the [universal] Church.” Hans Küng, The Church, trans. Ray Ockenden and Ockenden, Rosaleen, Twelfth (New York, NY: Continuum, 2001). 210. And Miroslav Volf summarizes John D. Zizioulas’s teaching on this point, representing a leading Eastern Orthodox view, saying, “baptism makes the human being into a ‘catholic entity’; not only is that person incorporated into the church [i.e., “baptized… into a network of relationships”], he is also himself made into the church.” Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, Sacra Doctrina (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998). 90.
 Bannerman argues, “The principle of representation found under the Old Testament is the very principle introduced by the Apostle [in 1 Corinthians 7:14] to explain the position and character of children in the case where no more than one parent is a believer and member of the Church… The Holiness of the one parent that is a member of the Christian Church, communicates relative holiness to the infant, so that the child also is fitted to be a member of the Church, and to be baptized.” James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church, Franklin Classics, vol. 2, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Murray and Gibbs, 1868). 90.
 John P Sartelle, Infant Baptism: What Christian Parents Should Know (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1985). 8.
 John L. Dagg, Manual of Theology: A Treatise on Church Order, Second (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2012). 13. John P Sartelle, Infant Baptism: What Christian Parents Should Know (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1985). 6.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016). Unless noted otherwise, all Scripture references are from the same.
 Acts 2:38, 3:19, 17:30, 26:20; Rom. 2:4; 2 Cor. 7:10; 2 Peter 3:9 (and many more).
 Acts 2:44, 4:4, 8:12, 10:43, 11:21, 13:48, 16:31; Rom. 1:16, 3:22, 10:9 (and many more).
 Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006). 52.
 Bobby Jamieson, Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015). 40.
 Of course, repentance, belief, and regeneration are all evident in the life of a believer. This seems to be one of the main points of Galatians 5. But these are not immediately or objectively observed.
 Jamieson, 40.
 Ibid, 64.
 Ibid, 64.
 Ibid, 64.
 Jamieson, 69.
 Dagg, 71.
 1 Peter 3:21.
 Galatians 3:27.
 Romans 6:3-5.
 Colossians 1:13
 Matthew 28:20.
 Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism (Nasville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016). 74-109.
 John Cotton, The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: And Power Thereof, According to the Word of God, ed. P. Joseph (Copppell, TX: Independent, 2021). Cotton does not explicitly connect Matthew 28 with chapters 16 and 18, but Cotton argues much as Leeman does regarding the “keys of the kingdom.” The “keys” refer to the authority of the local church to speak on Christ’s behalf in the matters of true Christian doctrine and true Christian converts. Cotton is a paedobaptist Congregationalist, and Leeman is a credobaptist congregationalist, but they both see a good bit of the same substance in Matthew 16 and 18.
 Matthew 16:13-20 speaks positively, demonstrating by Peter’s example what a good confession and a good confessor is. Peter received Jesus’s own blessing and affirmation, and then Jesus authorized all future judgments to “bind” or include right confessors with right confessions within the New Covenant community (i.e., the earthly kingdom of Christ).
 Matthew 18:15-20 speaks negatively, demonstrating what the church is authorized to do with an unnamed “brother” who “sins” without repentance. Jesus authorized all future judgments that would expel or “loose” any unrepentant sinner from the New Covenant community (i.e., the earthly kingdom of Christ).
 Matthew 18:20.
 Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members. 75.
 Ibid, 81.
 Ibid, 81.
 Acts 2:37-38.
 Acts 2:41.
 Acts 8:12.
 Acts 8:11-12.
 Acts 8:14.
 Acts 10:46.
 Acts 10:47.
 Matthew 18:20.
 Matthew 16:19.
 Matthew 18:15.
 Matthew 18:17.
 Matthew 18:18.
 Revelation 20:11-15, 21:7-8.
 Revelation 7:9-10.
 Revelation 21:1-2.
 Revelation 21:3; see also the expanded description in verses 9-21 of a “city” with a “great wall” which likely matches the distance of the entire Hellenistic empire in the first century.
 See the repeated use of the word “conquer” throughout Revelation (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21, etc.), meaning “persevere” or “keep” faith in Christ (Rev. 2:26), and the specific promise in Revelation 21:7, “The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”
 R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005). 134.
 Jamieson, 88. and Jonathan Leeman, “The Church: Universal and Local,” TGC: U.S. Edition (blog), accessed July 2, 2022, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-church-universal-and-local/.
 Norman does not seem to know of any “Christian group” that does not “perceive baptism as the initiatory rite into church membership.” R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005). 134. There are known historical exceptions, however, including the Quakers and the Salvation Army, each holding idiosyncratic views on baptism. It may also be noteworthy that the modern development of non-denominational churches (which are often disconnected from historic Christian doctrine), the recent practice of spontaneous baptisms, and the increase of ecclesiastically isolated para-church ministries (which sometimes take it upon themselves to practice a strange and untethered form of the ordinances) have all begun to dissociate baptism and church membership (in practice, if not in theological argumentation).
 Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, eds., Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015). 124.
 Edward T. Hiscox, The New Directory for Baptist Churches (Coppell, TX: SolidChristianBooks.com, 2022). 83.
 Jonathan Watson, “The Ongoing ‘Use’ of Baptism: A Hole in the Baptist (Systematic) Baptistry?,” Southwestern Journal of Theology61, Fall 2018, 9-10.
 Rustin Umstattd, “Credo v. Certo Baptism: How Delaying Baptism May Change Its Meaning from Profession of Faith to Evidence of Sanctification,” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry, Spring 2018, 6.
 Ibid, 4.
 Robert Matz avoids this responsibility of the congregation entirely in his argument concerning the cognitive abilities of children. His focus is on the understanding of the child, but he does not address a congregation’s responsibility to observe apparent evidence of regeneration. He says, “cognitive developmental studies do not provide justification for restricting baptism from children… Children who can independently reason about faith, repentance, the Christian gospel and conversion and who can explain how such concepts apply to themselves personally should be affirmed as converts and baptized.” Robert Matz, “The Cognitive Abilities of Children and Southern Baptist Baptismal Restrictions,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 61, no. 1 (Fall 2018): 43–61. 60-61.
 See Klopfer’s emphasis on the intrinsically social nature of baptism. Specifically, she says, “The idea that baptism, like salvation, is personal needs careful clarification and reflection in order to be helpful to Baptists of the twenty-first century. Personal here does not mean private of privatized, words that are often used interchangeably. Personal is not the individual conscience or isolated ego, demanding that it be baptized as a rugged individualist in defiance of all family, church, and societal traditions.” Sheila Klopfer, “From Personal Salvation to Personal Baptism: The Shaping Influence of Evangelical Theology on Baptism,” Baptist History and Heritage, Summer/Fall 2010, 76.
 Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, eds., Baptist Foundations. 126.
 Donald F. Ackland, Joy in Church Membership (Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1955). 14.
 This is, in fact, a Baptist distinctive known as regenerate church membership. Historically, this conviction not only affects the way Baptists have practiced baptism, but also the way they have practiced the Lord’s Supper and church discipline.
 Robert Stein observed “that it is the gift of the Spirit that legitimizes the experience of baptism, not vice versa.” Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006). 45.
 The terms disordered and false each qualify the term baptism. A disordered baptism is true Christian baptism, but it has occurred in such a way so as to distance itself more or less from accurately communicating the meaning of baptism outlined in this essay. A false baptism in one or more ways neglects or denies in its practice the essential features of Christian baptism.
 Kelly Bean, How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2014). 10.
 Bean, 166.
 “Spontaneous Baptisms How-To Guide” (Elevation Church, August 2011).
 Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, eds., Baptist Foundations. 125-126.
 Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:10; James 2:14-17.
 Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006). 81.
 Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006). 63.
 Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006). 3.
Ackland, Donald F. Joy in Church Membership. Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1955.
Allison, Gregg R. The Church: An Introduction. Short Studies in Systematic Theology. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021.
Bannerman, James. The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church. Franklin Classics. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Murray and Gibbs, 1868.
———. The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church. Franklin Classics. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Murray and Gibbs, 1868.
Bean, Kelly. How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.
Cotton, John. The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: And Power Thereof, According to the Word of God. Edited by P. Joseph. Copppell, TX: Independent, 2021.
Dagg, John L. Manual of Theology: A Treatise on Church Order. Second. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2012.
Dever, Mark, and Jonathan Leeman, eds. Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015.
Duesing, Jason G. “The Church.” In Historical Theology For the Church, 231–74. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2021.
Hiscox, Edward T. The New Directory for Baptist Churches. Coppell, TX: Independent, 2022.
Jamieson, Bobby. Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015.
Keach, Benjamin. The Glory of a True Church. Kindle. Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 2018.
Klopfer, Sheila. “From Personal Salvation to Personal Baptism: The Shaping Influence of Evangelical Theology on Baptism.” Baptist History and Heritage, no. Summer/Fall 2010: 65–79.
Leeman, Jonathan. Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism. Nasville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016.
———. “The Church: Universal and Local.” TGC: U.S. Edition (blog). Accessed July 2, 2022. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-church-universal-and-local/.
Matz, Robert. “The Cognitive Abilities of Children and Southern Baptist Baptismal Restrictions.” Southwestern Journal of Theology, Fall 2018: 43–61.
Norman, R. Stanton. The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.
Sartelle, John P. Infant Baptism: What Christian Parents Should Know. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1985.
Schreiner, Thomas R., and Matthew R. Crawford. The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ Until He Comes. NAC Studies in Bible & Theology. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010.
Schreiner, Thomas R., and Shawn D. Wright, eds. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. NAC Studies in Bible & Theology. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2006.
“Spontaneous Baptisms How-To Guide.” Elevation Church, August 2011.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.
Umstattd, Rustin. “Credo v. Certo Baptism: How Delaying Baptism May Change Its Meaning from Profession of Faith to Evidence of Sanctification.” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry, Spring 2018: 3–14.
Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Sacra Doctrina. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Watson, Jonathan. “The Ongoing ‘Use’ of Baptism: A Hole in the Baptist (Systematic) Baptistry?” Southwestern Journal of Theology, Fall 2018: 3–27.
Witherow, Thomas. I Will Build My Church: Selected Writings on Church Polity, Baptism, and the Sabbath. Edited by Jonathan Gibson. Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2021.