Riding the Elephant—Toward a Fuller Doctrine and Practice of Water Baptism (Part 4 of 3)

riding elephantI’ve never ridden an elephant. At least not that I remember. But I’ve seen people ride elephants. And I’ve even considered riding an elephant. To be honest, I’d be a little scared. In case you didn’t notice, elephants are huge. If an elephant fell on me, sat on me, or stepped on me, I’d be irreversibly squished. And I swear I’ve seen an elephant rip a tree right out of the ground with its nose. Just think what it might do to my scrawny neck. And those tusks are like two sabers just waiting to impale me. Riding an elephant may be just a little too exotic for me.

However, my knowledge of elephants is purely theoretical and objective. Unlike the six blind men of Indostan (see Part 1 of this series), I’m actually able to draw a complete picture of an elephant—you know, the essential parts that make an elephant what it is: big, grey, floppy ears, sharp tusks, massive torso, tree-like legs and flat feet, a long, powerful trunk. When it comes to abstract “elephantness,” I’ve had that covered since I was a kid. But I’m not sure I actually touched one. Or fed one. I know I haven’t climbed one or ridden one.

In the first three parts of this series exploring a fuller doctrine and practice of water baptism, I argued that many of our churches have reduced the sacred rite to one or two things, when baptism was actually intended to be and accomplish many things at once. To return again to the series’ “mascot,” each teacher or tradition has focused variously on the elephant’s tail, ear, side, leg, trunk, or tusk while simultaneously neglecting (or sometimes even rejecting) other parts of the whole. In this series of essays I explored six facets of the doctrine and practice of baptism as reflected in the New Testament and read in light of the early church’s actual beliefs and practices. Through this study I tried to describe the rite of water baptism in its fullness. To remind us, the six facets of Christian baptism I explored were:

Part 1 (The Confessional Nature of Baptism)

1) Baptism as public confession of the Trinitarian faith

2) Baptism as personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection

Part 2 (The Practical Nature of Baptism)

3) Baptism as repentance from a life of sin

4) Baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life

Part 3 (The Community Nature of Baptism)

5) Baptism as a rite of initiation into the covenant community

6) Baptism as a mark of official community forgiveness

In this fourth part of a three-part series (!), I’d like to move from the theoretical to the practical, from the objective to the subjective, from the descriptive to the prescriptive . . . okay, from studying the elephant to riding the elephant.

1. Responding to baptism as public confession of the Trinitarian faith

In light of the fact that baptism was meant to be a confession of personal faith in the Trinitarian creation and redemption narrative, we ought never to baptize anybody who has not received basic training in our Trinitarian confession. This means we must actually introduce the new believer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s works of creation, revelation, and redemption, telling the Christian story of Who God is, what He has done . . . and what He has accomplished for us. This can be done in several venues: a pre-baptismal class . . . a church’s catechesis . . . during the normal educational program of the church . . . or in one-on-one discipleship. However, the essential elements of the Triune faith should be fully intact prior to baptism or we will be treating the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as a mere formula devoid of meaning for the one being baptized.

This also means that at the baptism itself, we need to rethink what we say and do. The fact is, the earliest accounts we have that describe how baptism was actually conducted in the early church suggest that the most common practice (if not the universal practice) was a threefold immersion. That is, believers were “thrice dipped.” Each immersion was conducted in response to the believer’s Trinitarian confession. We might even have a suggestion of this threefold immersion and its association with the three Persons of the Godhead in Hebrews 6:2, where the author urges his readers to grow up and move on from the basic “instruction about washings.” The obscure Greek text simply says, “instruction (didache) of baptisms.” If, in fact, the early church was engaged in rudimentary Trinitarian instruction prior to baptism, and the climax of this instruction was the threefold Trinitarian confession and threefold immersion, then the phrase “instruction of baptisms” would fit perfectly well as a reference to the teaching (didache) that accompanied the meaning of the threefold immersion. In any case, the fact that Christ instructed us to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit demands that we take seriously the Trinitarian confession associated with baptism. Never let a new believer hear about the Triune God for the first time as he or she is being plunged into the waters. That’s not responsible Trinitarian baptism.

When I baptize a believer, I always ask three questions related to the Trinitarian creation and redemption narrative: “Do you believe in God the Father, Maker of all things, who loves you and chose you to be His child? . . . Do you believe in God the Son, both God and Man, born of a Virgin, who suffered and died for your sin, and who rose again to save you? . . . Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, who lives in you and gives you new life? . . . Because of your confession of faith in the one true God, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

What do you do in either preparation for—or during the act of—baptism to maintain water baptism as a public confession of the Trinitarian faith?

2) Responding to baptism as personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection

Because baptism is a visible and tangible personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection, this aspect should also be emphasized. Some traditions, in fact, utter words something like this at the moment of immersion: “Buried with him in the likeness of His death, risen with Him to walk in newness of life.” Such a statement emphasizes for all that what a person is doing in baptism is fully associating with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Not just abstractly . . . but personally.

This baptismal re-enactment of the saving work of Christ is an excellent opportunity to reiterate the core redemptive events of the gospel as summed up in 1 Corinthians 15, the things which are “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3): “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). The person conducting baptism should probably point out the visible confessional nature of the act, reminding both the one being baptized as well as any observers (whether believers or unbelievers) that baptism confesses that God the Son became truly human, bore our sins on the cross, died in our place, and rose again from the dead to secure our own future resurrection.

No baptism should forego this opportunity to proclaim the gospel through both word and rite. If time permits, it would be a great addition to a baptismal ceremony for the baptismal candidate to relay his or her conversion story—how the believer came to understand and embrace the person and work of Christ for him or her. What a powerful way to preach the gospel in a manner others will comprehend!

What do you do in the practice of baptism to point to its confessional nature as a believer’s personal association with the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?

3) Responding to baptism as repentance from a life of sin

Many of the very first recipients of baptism had been raised in the synagogue or had committed to living as a righteous Gentile according to the beliefs and morals of the Old Testament revelation (Acts 1–9). For such people, only a few major points of doctrine regarding Jesus Christ needed to be preached and believed: His fulfillment as the promised Messiah, His atoning death and resurrection, and His status as Lord, Savior, and coming Judge and King. No real instruction concerning the righteous lifestyle of God’s covenant people needed to be taught to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles because they were already living according to those standards.

However, as the church broke new ground and the mission to the Gentiles took root, the men and women who were converting to Christ didn’t have this fertile background in the basic biblical theology and ethics. They needed instruction concerning monotheism, a biblical worldview, a divinely-revealed morality, and what it meant to live in God’s covenant community. This is why we see a period of pre-baptismal instruction develop by the middle of the first century to bring the large number of Gentile converts up to speed. Though unbelieving sinners could believe the gospel and be saved from the guilt and penalty of their sins, it was expected of such genuine believers that they commit to a life of repentance and holiness—the life of a disciple of Jesus. This required some instruction in what was acceptable and unacceptable, right and wrong, moral and immoral, righteous and wicked. To repent of a lifestyle of sin through baptism, the sinner needed to know what it was they were leaving behind.

Today different candidates for baptism have different backgrounds. Like the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, many raised in the church or in a highly church-influenced culture already have a basic understanding of a biblical worldview and biblical morality. They may not necessarily believe it or live by it, but they often have some familiarity with it. For such people, perhaps a shorter period of pre-baptismal instruction is necessary. However, in our increasingly post-Christian world, we can no longer assume that our believers in Jesus have a well-developed Christian view of God, the world, of truth, of righteousness, and of sin. The time has come for us to reconsider an intentional program of pre-baptismal instruction that covers not only basic Christian orthodoxy but also Christian orthopraxy—not only essential doctrines, but basic morality. Baptismal candidates should know that in baptism they are forsaking a lifestyle of sinfulness. To forsake this sin, they must know what actual practices are being abandoned.

If professed believers aren’t willing to forsake their sexual immorality, adultery, criminal behavior, thievery, sinful occupations, or other lifestyles that are unacceptable by biblical norms, we shouldn’t administer the rite of baptism. A baptism of repentance cannot be received by those who aren’t repentant. If a believer is not ready to wash away his or her sinful lifestyle or to turn his or her back on the pleasures of this world, that believer is not ready to begin a life of discipleship and repentance that follows baptism.

What do you do in the practice of baptism to emphasize its function as a mark of repentance from sins and a sinful lifestyle that was once embraced by the new believer?

4) Responding to baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life

A believer submitting to baptism is not simply turning from a life of sin. He or she is also committing to live a life devoted to discipleship. First Peter 3:21 describes baptism as “a pledge to God from a good conscience” (see discussion in Part 2 of this series). A pledge to what? Living the life of a disciple, obeying whatsoever Christ has commanded, walking by the Spirit . . . the kind of lifestyle expected of a child of God empowered by His Spirit and motivated by His love for God and others.

It isn’t necessary to “front-end-load” baptism with a detailed, point-by-point list of everything mature believers are expected to do. Growing as a disciple means we continue, throughout our lives, to learn at the feet of Jesus, to come to terms with what His teachings demand in various situations, and to overcome our sinful reluctance to embrace His teachings and live by them consistently. However, some basic instructions concerning Christ’s most elementary teachings should be included in a time of pre-baptismal instruction.

Does the baptismal candidate know that Christians are not to engage in pre-marital sex, pornography, and drunkenness? Does he know that cheating on taxes, cheating on his wife, and cheating on an exam are not the fruits of a Spirit-filled life? Does she understand that life in the Spirit means loving our brothers and sisters in Christ as we love ourselves, looking out for the interests of others, and submitting to the leaders God has placed in our lives? Do the new believers know that the Christian worldview is incompatible with certain cultural, political, moral, spiritual, and philosophical norms that most people in this world think are perfectly healthy? Do they realize that they have responsibilities for supporting their local church through prayer, ministry involvement, financial giving, and healthy relationships?

In short, new believers should know something about what it is they are committing to before they commit to it. Nobody would sign a contract, agreement, or covenant without first becoming familiar with its contents. Neither should we rush people to baptism who have had no instruction regarding what kind of life they are pledging to live through this rite of repentance and commitment.

What do you do in the practice of baptism to introduce believers to the God-ordained (Eph. 2:10), Spirit-empowered (Gal. 5:16), Christ-like (1 Pet. 2:21), sanctified life to which they are pledging?

5) Responding to baptism as a rite of initiation into the covenant community

In many Protestant churches, baptism is clearly viewed as a mark of initiation into the new covenant community, the church. This is especially the case in the Covenant Reformed tradition, in which the water of baptism is extended not only to new converts of Christianity but also to the infants of church members. That tradition strongly emphasizes the rite of baptism as the mark of the individual’s initiation into a covenant community. Yes, the function of baptism as a personal confession of faith in the Triune God and personal association with Christ’s saving death and resurrection are often pushed to the background. And yes, an infant can’t repent from sin and pledge to live a holy life. However, the practice of infant baptism does stress an entirely legitimate aspect of baptism that is often neglected in churches that practice only believer’s baptism: the rite of initiation into the covenanted church community.

I’m sure it has become quite obvious that I’m an advocate of believer’s baptism. Not only do I see this as the clearest and most defensible apostolic practice in the New Testament, but I also see it as the earliest practice of the church from the first to the second centuries. Furthermore, in the practice of believer’s baptism, it is much easier to maintain a fuller doctrine and practice of the sacred rite in all of its facets: personal Trinitarian and christological confession, repentance from sin and commitment to holiness, and covenant initiation and reception of community “forgiveness.” However, when infant baptism is coupled with and completed by catechesis and confirmation, it does accomplish all of these things over a longer period of time. In some ways, the end result of this process more fully covers all elements of baptism than some practices of believer’s baptism that emphasize personal faith in Jesus to the exclusion of repentance, a call to discipleship, Trinitarian instruction, and community initiation and forgiveness. Yes, my description of a multi-faceted ideal baptismal practice is different from those who cover the same territory through a longer process of baptism, catechesis, and confirmation. However, it would be quite inconsistent for me to let the practitioners of believer’s baptism get away with emphasizing only the personal association with Christ without ever officially addressing the other aspects. In short, until we who prefer believer’s baptism remove the log in our own eye, we’d better refrain from pointing out the mote in our brothers’.

Probably the worst infraction among we who practice believer’s baptism is a failure to embrace baptism as the mark of initiation into the covenant community, the church. We have already pointed out in Part 3 of this series that a person is not to be baptized into “Christianity” in general, nor into some merely spiritual and invisible reality. Christ didn’t start a philosophy or worldview. He founded a church and a community. So a new believer is to be baptized by and into a visible, physical manifestation of the “church universal,” that is, into the local church. As such, baptism should be closely associated with initial church membership. There should be no members of a local church who have not been baptized. Nor should there be baptized believers who are not united as members to a local church. The only exception to this is in the case of converts in a church-planting situation where no local church yet exists. But even in that case the believers ought to be baptized with a view toward eventually establishing them as a new local church.

Those traditions, like mine, that practice believer’s baptism, need to take seriously the connection between the rite of baptism and initiation into the covenanted community of church members. If the new member was not already baptized in a previous church, he or she must be held to this biblical mark of discipleship. If a new believer wants to take steps toward church membership, he or she must be baptized as an initiation into the local church and thereby also into the church universal. And if a new believer wants to be baptized, this should be done only in connection with admission into local church membership or—in the case of mission situations—at least as a “member” of a proto-church community in an embryonic state that is working toward the establishment of a local church.

What can you do in your own ministry context and capacity to strengthen baptism as a mark of a new believer’s initiation into the new covenant community?

6) Responding to baptism as a mark of official community forgiveness

The local church must reassert her God-given disciplinary authority to “bind and loose,” “forgive and unforgive” in relation to its responsibility to maintain the holiness of the community. Only then will baptism be restored to its proper place as the point at which the church officially reckons a new disciple as “a member in good standing.” A believer is fully accountable to the leadership and membership of the local church only when he or she has confessed his or her faith in the Triune God and the death and resurrection of Christ, has repented from a lifestyle of sin and committed to a lifestyle of sanctification, and has been initiated as a member of the new covenant community—that is, when he or she has been baptized.

A weak concept of baptism as the rite of initiation and official community “forgiveness” will result in a church’s inability to properly avail its biblical authority and responsibility to exercise discipline in a congregation. The opposite is also true. When a church places a low priority on its responsibility to exercise proper biblical accountability and discipline, baptism will never be appropriately regarded as the moment when a believer is admitted as a member in good standing, free from the guilt of temporal sin against his or her brothers and sisters in the covenant community, and therefore invited to participate in the full life of the church, including the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Church leaders must think hard and long about the concept of church discipline. They must return to an understanding that believers within a covenanted community are to first and foremost hold one another accountable (Luke 17:3; 1 Thess. 5:11; Heb. 10:24), confessing their sins to one another (Jas. 5:16), confronting one another (Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1), and forgiving one another (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). Yes, church member, you are your brother’s and sister’s keeper! However, if this mutual accountability fails to turn a wayward brother or sister from his or her destructive sin, disciplinary intervention by leadership and eventually the whole church will be necessary (Matt. 18:15–20; 1 Thess. 5:11). Yet the church only has disciplinary authority over those who have been officially admitted as covenanted members—those who have agreed by a pledge to live a godly life. The church has no authority to exercise this discipline over those who are still outside the community (1 Cor. 5:9–13). Baptism, the rite of initiation, act of repentance, pledge of godliness, and sign of community forgiveness, is therefore the biblical “watershed” that marks a believer as either “in” or “out” of the church family.

In order to maintain the sanctifying function of church discipline in the community, members should be aware of the biblical standards to which they will be held and the biblical process by which discipline will be administered. It won’t make the disciplinary process any easier or less controversial when it must happen. However, we must make it clear to all members of our congregation that with baptism comes repentance from sin and a commitment to sanctification. Baptism is therefore also the community’s official extension of temporal “forgiveness”—not before God unto eternal life, but in the sense of the church officially recognizing the baptized believer as a member in good standing. When baptism functions this way, the church will come to understand her biblical right and responsibility to “bind and loose” in the name and authority of Jesus Christ for the sake of the purity of His body. A statement in every local church’s constitution or by-laws will help make this clear. But actually teaching this to new and existing members and leaders will make it work.

What can you do to reestablish the local church’s official God-given authority to maintain discipline in the church, correcting and rebuking those members who had pledged to live one way and instead live another?

Conclusion: Your Turn to Ride

A public confession of the Trinitarian faith . . . personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection . . . repentance from a life of sin . . . a pledge to live a sanctified life . . . a rite of initiation into the covenant community . . . and a mark of official community forgiveness. A biblically, historically, and theologically faithful practice of water baptism doesn’t emphasize only one of these things. It strives to embrace all of them.

I know that some denominations and traditions, governed by strict and unalterable confessions or constitutions, have institutionalized a doctrine and practice of baptism that emphasizes only one or two of these aspects. However, many churches and less stringent denominations or traditions have freedom to revisit and reform their practices of the sacraments. I challenge leaders and teachers in such churches to use your freedom not as an opportunity to do what’s right in your own eyes . . . or to do what’s typical or convenient . . . or to simply retain a less-than-robust doctrine and practice because that’s the way you’ve always done it. Instead, why not commit to exploring ways of implementing a fuller doctrine and practice of water baptism?

Let’s make a deal. If you will commit to patiently nudge your church in the direction of a more biblically, historically, and theologically informed practice of baptism, I promise to ride an elephant the next chance I get.

I might even post pictures.


[NOTE: This essay is intentionally numbered “Part 4 of 3.” Here’s why: By the time I decided to add a fourth part to the series, the first two parts had already been posted. Going back and changing the titles to anticipate four parts instead of three would have broken links to the pages.]